Wily Socrates and the Witless Theorist, Episode # 2
[WE ARE READING PLATO’S WITTY LITTLE DIALOGUE ION, to help us freshly describe what all the arts & sciences hold in common, along with their distinctive strengths, & without succumbing to name-calling. We are fighting for truth, justice, & the American way — by asking the Greeks to mediate between the PoMos and the Geeks. Please join us! (Richard Dawkins and Terry Eagleton need not apply. You’ve had your chance.)]
For today, I’ll just issue this snippet from Plato’s wonderful dialogue named Ion. This is Socrates’ first major speech, along with my own three-part schematic for the description that Socrates gives of the techne (the “art”) of the literary critic / theorist – if there is such an art, that is….
Socrates I have often envied the profession (techne) of a rhapsode, Ion; for it is a part of your art (techne) to wear fine clothes and to look as beautiful as you can, while at the same time you are obliged to be continually in the company of many good poets, and especially of Homer, who is the best and most divine of them, and to understand his mind (dianoia, “thoughts”), and not merely learn his words by rote; all this is a thing greatly to be envied. I am sure that no man can become a good rhapsode who does not understand the meaning of the poet (“what the poet says/means”). For the rhapsode ought to interpret the mind of the poet to his hearers, but how can he interpret him well unless he knows what he means? All this is much to be envied, I repeat.
Ion Very true, Socrates; interpretation has certainly been the most laborious part of my techne: and I believe myself able to speak about Homer better than any man; and that neither Metrodorus or Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor anyone else who ever was, had as good ideas about Homer as I have, or as many.
We can clearly see that Socrates and Ion agree that “interpretation” is a “part” of the ike of the rhapsodes.
Rhapsod-ike is the Greek term for Ion’s art – or epiipoet-ike, “the ike of epic poetry.” And of this highly esteemed art, “interpretation . . . to his hearers is “the most laborious part” of his techne, according to Ion. And well it should be! This is the most sophisticated and comprehensive level of thinking about and knowing a given passage. This is when Ion “educates” his audience. This is why I am calling this level # 3 in my schematic, where Ion explains “to his hearers” what the passage is all about.
Earlier in Socrates’ speech, we see “learning the words by rote,” and this mental activity is contrasted with the higher analytical level of “understanding the poet’s thoughts.” (Benjamin Jowett’s translation has “mind,” but the Greek word there is dianaoia. Nous is the Greek word for mind, and dia-noia literally means what goes through the mind in the plural, so “thoughts” is a good translation.
This is how I pick out of Socrates’ speech the three levels of mental activity carried out by the rhapsode, when the rhapsode has mastered his techne, according to Socrates.
Stage One – memorize the language of a passage. This is akin to simply “dressing” our minds in the “fine clothes” and “beautiful appearance” of Homer’s ornate and polished words.
Stage Two – act out the passage by discerning the formal structure of thought in the language – or lying behind the language. After the rhapsode “learns the words by rote,” then he analyzes the speech or passage for its “thoughts,” in order to perform it effectively. Note well: there is always this ambiguity of “in” and/or “behind,” in classical Greek philosophy. The Formal Reality is somehow both immanent in the tangible physical materials that manifest it, and beyond them (transcendent). I think this is an inevitable feature of Greek “ontology,” if you will. Mathematicians and physicists today sense much the same paradox, too, when they work for a long time with the beautiful and powerful mathematics of their fields. No wonder there are many self-declared Platonists among them, who are persuaded that all possible mathematical universes must exist somewhere, or at least that the mathematical Order (in and behind the world) must be more Ultimately Real than the shifting material physical world itself. As we know, for Plato the thought-structure is always more Really Real than the “flux” of temporal “actualities.” The physical manifestations are always shifting and passing away – they are confined to temporal manifestation – but the Form-al realities remain and endure…. This is mythically imaged at times in the dialogues as the famous Platonic Heaven of the Forms. I say more below about the particular formal structure of thought in the epic speech hereafter.
Stage Three — interpret the noble thoughts of the poet to the audience. After performing a passage, apparently, rhapsodes served as educators by giving lessons to the audience from out of the epic poet’s wisdom, as shown in the passage just performed. The Homeric “Bible” had become a source of glorious history for the Greeks, and of course it contained many moving examples of good and bad behavior. Rhapsodes could move and entertain the crowd, as we’ll see, while inculcating popular notions of the prized Achaean values of valor, strategy, and “speaking and doing well.” It’s in connection with this third level, called interpretation in this particular sense, that Ion confides that no man in all of Greece has ever “had as good ideas about Homer as I have, or as many.” When Ion produced these “ideas,” they appear to have swayed the crowds and to have won many lucrative prizes for this rhapsode.
You might be wondering why I keep insisting on distinguishing Stages Two and Three, as separate mental activities, when in the speech, they may seem to be rather “run together.” You’ll see later on that I have some very good additional formal reasons for doing this. But for now,
keep in mind that Socrates is not thinking about the arts of “acting” or “directing” that Rick brought up, as we think of them, which were not formalized as arts in Plato’s day, as they are in ours. No, Stage Two – analyzing the thoughts of the speech so as to perform it well – suggests to any educated Greek-on-the-Street in Plato’s day the techne or art of rhetoric!
Rhetor-ike was taught, of course, by the dreaded Sophists, but it would also be taught by Aristotle in his school a few decades after this dialogue was written. Furthermore, keep in mind that Plato himself must be an expert in rhetoric – or else he could not have written this brilliant dialogue and others like it, with their brilliant structures of persuasive thought and arguments, and their marvelous suiting of the speeches to the characters who utter them!
The art of rhetorike is the techne that finds (“in-vents”) the “best available means” of making an argument or an effect on the hearer. To accomplish this goal (telos), the rhetor puts together a structure of thought and furnishes it with the embellishments of figurative language: the “figures of speech.” It isn’t inherently a bad techne, but the Sophists (or so Plato tells us) used their art “to make the worse appear the better cause” (Milton, PL).
So Ion does the following mental tasks as parts of his art. He 1) memorizes the speech and then 2) goes to work on analyzing the speech rhetorically and practicing its rhetorical delivery in order to perform it. (Yes, this surely would have much in common with the art an actor practices today, but it would have been thought of as rhetorical analysis and rhetorical performance among the Greeks.)
And this explains why talking about the speech “to the hearers” after the performance (i.e. # 3) needs to be carefully distinguished from (# 2) the rhetorical thinking Ion does in order to be a performer (and in itself, Ion’s thinking in # 2 is closely akin to the rhetorical thinking that Homer did to invent the speech and suit it to its speaker in the first place). Is that clear? (I’m pretty happy with it!)
In terms of level # 3, as we read on we’ll see more of what Ion probably talked about when he moved on to interpretation. And we’ll see that Socrates proposes a better, more “philosophical” way to do interpret the passages than Ion is able to do, because he is not trained and equipped to do so. This will be to take the contents of a passage (chariot racing? preparing a meal? throwing a javelin?) and calling in an expert in those technes to talk about the subject-matter! Are you yourself, Ion, an expert in all of these arts?
So this will be the argument we will be hearing, on a first reading of the dialogue, when we are attending to what the words are ostensibly saying in their plainest, most immediate sense. This is a crucial first reading, because in it we will be able to observe the theory of the techne (regardless of whether the techne happens to be an art or a science) that undergirded the new vision of the liberal arts and sciences, the vision that came to life in the schools of Plato and Aristotle in the decades following this dialogue in the 4th century BCE. The theory we will be learning from Socrates as he schools Ion will continue as the theory of education (and the theory of knowing) in the West for 2000 years.
Then, with the rise of science in the 17th century (and the infamous Cartesian paradigm!), a new theory of knowing will begin to emerge, that of scientific rationalism as it was understood and practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries in the West. Over in part 4 of my lit theory course (under Pages) we are discussing whether the 20th century modified or qualified the paradigm for scientific knowing in any significant way, with Relativity and QM. (Scientists are holding the line, so far, that the “paradigm change” is mostly in the imaginations of humanists and philosophers who don’t understand the scientific theories very well. I am trying to say that the 20th century was a critique of modern scientific rationalism in every field – not a demolishing of science or of rationality but a more sophisticated and rigorous grasp of limitations that might further the arts and sciences by making them more humble to relation to one another…. To me, this is the essence of postmodernism, as least as I know it from the Continent in poststructuralism and phenomenology.)
In the next “Wily Socrates” post, we’ll see Socrates introducing the first two distinctive features that (for Plato) distinguish a genuine art-or-science from a merely sham profession of knowledge and expertise. Does the exposition so far make sense to you? Any comments or questions?
(And all you humanists and lit theorists and former students of mine out there! Why are you letting me dangle like this, all by myself, “turning, turning in the wind” like an abandoned Richard Nixon, while science-guys throw darts at me? Just kidding…. You don’t know the science well enough to help me out? Well, for heavens sake. We’ve given you enough links to brush up on QM and we’ve got really articulate science-guys here to answer your questions. Don’t be timid about speaking up, and QM is fascinating. Start here.)