Are you ready for the next installment of Plato’s Ion? (Hey, “prison gal,” you’re a poet too, and I look forward to hearing from you here!)
In this new section, Socrates will continue to instruct the prize-winning “interpreter of literature” named Ion about what formal features will always be observable in the case of a genuine ike: that is, in the case of a formal Greek techne or episteme, an “art” or a “science”. [By the way, these words are pronounced “TEK-nay” and “e-pi-STAY-may,” by the way]
Rick has pointed out “a deep ambiguity” in how I am treating Socrates’ argument. I would “prefer” (!) to say the deep ambiguity lies in the way Socrates is treating the poetic art here. With most of the other arts – let’s notice that they are technes that DO NOT INCLUDE LANGUAGE in the structure of their formal kinds-of-things. Instead, most ikes use language dialectically and by way of exposition and communication, as a straightforward means of working out the elegant formalities of their kinds of things. The Greeks had a technical word for this: diegesis. It means speaking in one’s own person (as we usually do) in an expository fashion about a subject matter (kind of thing).
How do we know this? Because Plato employs the distinction between diegesis and mimetic speaking in the Republic! And because Plato’s best student Aristotle uses this same Platonic linguistic distinction (and on two different formal levels of structure) as part of one of the greatest analyses of the formal kind of thing called a “poiesis” that has every been theorized. (This is Aristotle’s Poetics, which is just lecture notes annotated by students! What if we had his polished work on the subject. Imagine! But the brilliance of his formal thinking is visible there in the notes, just as it is visible in Saussure’s students’ lecture notes that were posthumously published by his students as The Course in General Linguistics.)
Socrates seems to assume that poets use language in the same “diegetical” way that carpenters or doctors or mathematicians use language, as a means to convey formal features of their arts and apply the ike in specific instances. A doctor knows the principles of wholesome foods and an arithmetician knows the principles of counting (as we saw last time), and therefore, each possesses the formal “power” or skill to know when someone is “speaking well” or “speaking poorly” about the kind-of-thing the ike treats. (That formal white lightning that is marked by the discipline as the formal “kindness” of that kind of thing guides their thinking about the kind of thing.)
But an epic poet does not employ language only to speak discursively (or through diegetical exposition) of kinds-of-things that are by rights the subject matters of other arts. No, the epic poet crafts speeches for his characters and when he recites them, he is speaking not in his own voice but mimetically, as though he were Odysseus or the goddess Athena. Furthermore, we and Aristotle would add, the poet is using the same language in order to build a new kind-of-thing, a “poiesis,” that is made out of the special, literary structures of language the poet is fashioning at all times?
Again, how do we know this? Plato lays this out for us in the Republic! And in Book 10, he has Socrates issue an invitation to anyone who can make a case for letting the mimetic poets back into the ideal polis, after he regretfully concluded they must be banished. In fact, Socrates says he would be so happy to consider such a defense that he would accept it even if it were not written in poetical verse, but merely in prose! (This is so funny!)
Well, as we’ll see, a couple decades later Aristotle writes the lecture notes that are his treatise called the Poetics, using Plato’s technical own points that an epic poet speaks sometimes diegetically (in his own voice) and sometimes mimetically (in the voices of his characters). Hence epic poetry employs the mixed mode of language-use: diegesis AND mimesis. The dramatist, on the other hand, uses the mimetic mode exclusively and never speaks in his own voice at all. Aristotle’s treatise is called “peri poietike,” concerning the ike of poesis, and it starts right off confidently and rigorously elucidating the formal structure of the poiesis, treating the formal kinds called epic and tragic most of all. (Is this not suggestive concerning Plato’s own relationship to poietike? In fact, Aristotle mentions the “Socratic dialogue” right off, as a prime example of mimetic poiesis!)
But no, here in Ion and again in Republic (in Books 2, 3 & 10, which you’ll find in Hazard Adam’s Critical Theory Since Plato or in the Norton Anthology of Literary Theory – as you lit theory students out there already know quite well), we find “Socrates,” Plato’s mimetic character, speaking as the historical author of “dialectic,” the finely honed language used for a discipline’s critical questioning about a subject matter, and hence the word used for critical thinking in general for the next 2400 years on the European Continent – and for the next 2000 years in the English-speaking worlds! That is, whenever rigorous critical thought is not called simply called “philosophy.”
Socrates seems to equate the ike with dialectical or diegetical language-use. He will continue in this next passage to maintain that if a doctor can judge whoever is speaking about what foods are wholesome – both when someone speaks well and when someone speaks poorly (from a medical standpoint), then Ion ought to know when any epic poet is speaking well or poorly concerning the certain kinds of things that all epic poets “speak about.” Ion should not “speak well” about Homer only — no, not if he possesses epiipoietike, and this is indeed a curious flaw that seems to plague Ion (not speaking well about any other epic poet besides Homer), as luck (or Plato) would have it.
But is this – as our own in-house commentator Rick questions (may his name be praised) — really the literary techne? Is the ike of poetry really formal expertise a nd knowledge of the various formal kinds of things in the world that are encountered in the course of the epic narrative, or shouldn’t poietike instead treat its own unique formal kind of thing: the epic poem, in its formal structure and in terms of the poet’s artistic and stylistic acheivements?
We will see as we proceed through the dialogue that Socrates goes to great lengths never to allow the epic poem itself to come into view as though it were a formal kind of things in its own right. Socrates wants to talk about how to determine if someone possesses mastery of an ike through the accurate and competent way that person uses language to set out disciplinary principles about a subject matter in which language is not implicated at all!
As my marvelous mentor and classical scholar James Craig La Driere used to say, before his untimely death, Socrates “flattens” or “reduces” the language of epic to an expository flow of language in which the subject-matters of various ikes are discussed. In so doing, he lays out for us very clearly the formal characteristics of the ordinary ike, whether it be a theoretical science or a productive art that makes things. (Whenever I say “things” are you now thinking “formal KINDS of things”? Be sure you practice this mental discipline as you engage a Greek text!)
But an epic poet uses language in an unusual manner: in oreder to make a poem and not just to talk about the subject matters referred to in that language.
Is this a sore point for “Socrates” precisely because of the newness of the kind of rigorous dialectic speaking/thinking he represents – at least in the minds of Plato and Aristotle and the students in those first schools of the arts and sciences they founded in Athens? Don’t we still see this today, especially since the rise of science? (Very prominent in Francis Bacon and his explicit rejection of the loose language and cultural conceptual structures that he called the Idols of the Tribe, the Marketplace, and the Theater.
Some fields in the modern centuries have wanted to make language-use exceedingly precise and atomistic (as in Russell’s symbolic logic) and to ground words by seeing them only in terms of their specific real-world referents. They want to say “cat” denotes the cat as a species in the world, and do not want to think about “cat” as a formal place-holder in a system of signs which takes its value and identity from its place in a rich web of relationships of identity and difference….
Such disciplines and thinkers are exceedingly suspicious of metaphorical or symbolic language use or of “fictions” or “myths” as structures that can actually be used to explore and convey deep truths. (Isn’t this why an Oxford analytic philosopher like Richard Dawkins and a Continentally-informed lit theorist like Terry Eagleton are locking horns over Dawkins’ treatment of religion, regardless of theistic commitments or lack of them?)
So keep in mind as we progress through Ion that Socrates was after all the originator of dialectic, that new kind of philosophically more rigorous and thoughtful way of “talking back and forth” that Plato makes into the foundation of a vision of an arts and sciences education for young citizens of the polis. Derrida thinks it is the potent formalisms of poiesis that makes it the enemy to be rooted out by philosophical dialectic, and he reads Plato as 100% “logocentric” in using rationalism to rule out in advance any recourse to fictive structures, and in this case the mythic structures in Homeric epic are being used sloppily to reinforce rec eived values and opinions in the Greek polis. So lets so how the dialogue and evolves. Then we will step back and look at the dialogue as rhetoric. And then as poietics or literary art.
At any rate, Socrates certainly seems to be living up to Derrida’s notion of the Platonic enterprise in his treatment of Ion here. (Folks, I was expecting passionate approval of Socrates early in this dialogue, and instead I am getting from a scientist-cum-litterateur like Rick some passionate defenses of Ion, or at least of Ion’s art! Will the world never cease to amaze? Whose side are the rest of you on?)
These are curious matters, indeed! But not any “curiouser” than what readers of Plato are accustomed to encountering in his endlessly ironic dialogues. These dialogues do nothing for us unless they make us think and ponder their perplexities. And I highly recommend “a poet”’s embrace of “living with the mystery.” “Wondering” at what is perplexing is the origin of philosophy after all, as Aristotle tells us, precisely because “all humans by nature desire to know” – Metaphysics.
(A tangent: The difference between the first 2000 years of the Greco-European tradition, I argue, and the modern West was the shift from thinking though dialectic and open-ended questioning, still seen in medieval scholasticism, to the obsession with finding an absolute foundation and building an absolutist fabric of fact upon it that we see in Descartes’s vision of truth. Our science contingent has succeeded in convincing me that most scientists today aren’t like that, but I am still trying to convince them that nonetheless this was historically the case, until recently, in terms of the impact of science on modern Western culture in the 17th through the 19th centuries! This is precisely what gets thought out all through the 20th century and is the deep structure of the emergence of a post – Modernity mindset. It is not “relativism,” except in its most irresponsible forms.)
So hang in here with Plato and this dialogue. It’s well worth the effort. Ion truly is the beginning of the 2400-year-old history of literary theory as a very perplexing branch of philosophy in the West. What Plato clearly saw was that poetics represents something puzzling and provocative for the future of the philosophical project of applied critical thought, even in the very beginnings of Western philosophy.
Plato is placing the question of literary theory – for it always was and is and must be a question and an interrogatory – at the very heart of his immensely influential philosophical project. As its enemy? As its gad-fly? As an unacknowledged return of the repressed? We can only talk about those meta-level questions of interpretation after we have finished reading the entire dialogue on its diegetical or ostensible level of meaning, in which poietike does not seem to fare very well…
Socrates And generally speaking, in all discussions in which the subject is the same and many men are speaking will not he who knows the good know the bad speaker also? For obviously if he does not know the bad, neither will he know the good, when the same topic is being discussed. [The Greek doesn’t say “when the same topic is being discussed.” It says “concerning the same (kind of) thing,” using the Greek word autos, which is also the word usedin other situations to indicate the Form or Idea of a kind of thing, as opposed to an instance of it – jlb.]
Socrates We find, in fact, that the same person is skilful in both? (judging both the good and the bad speaker in terms of knowing the ike)
Socrates And you say that Homer and the other poets, such as Hesiod and Archilochus, speak of the same things, although not in the same way; but the one speaks well and the other not so well?
Ion Yes; and I am right in saying so. [Ahem. Did Ion ever say this? No, Socrates put all these words in his mouth, in the last passage we looked at!]
Socrates And if you know the good speaker, you ought also to know the inferior speakers to be inferior?
Ion It would seem so.
Socrates Then, my dear friend, can I be mistaken in saying that Ion is equally skilled in Homer and in other poets, since he himself acknowledges that the same person will be a good judge of all those who speak of the same things; and almost all poets do speak of the same things?
Ion Why then, Socrates, do I lose attention and have absolutely no ideas of the least value and practically fall asleep when anyone speaks of any other poet; but when Homer is mentioned, I wake up at once and am all attention and have plenty to say?
Socrates The reason, my friend, is not hard to guess. No one can fail to see that you speak of Homer without any art (techne) or knowledge (episteme). If you were able to speak of him by rules of art [speak of him by techne], you would have been able to speak of all other poets; for poetry is a whole (a whole ike). [Literally: for poietike is (techne) to holon]
Socrates And when anyone acquires any other art as a whole [a whole techne], the same may be said of them. Would you like me to explain my meaning, Ion?
Ion Yes, indeed, Socrates; I very much wish that you would: for I love to hear you wise men [sophoi] talk.
Socrates O that we were wise, Ion, and that you could truly call us so; but you rhapsodes and actors [hypocrites], and the poets whose verses you sing, are wise; whereas I am a common man, who only speaks the truth [aletheia]. For consider what a commonplace and trivial thing is this which I have said – a thing that any man might say: that when a man has acquired a knowledge of a whole art [when anyone possesses a whole techne], the inquiry into good and bad is one and the same. Let us consider this matter; is not painting a whole art?
Socrates And there are and have been many painters, good and bad?
Socrates And did you ever know anyone who was skilful in pointing out the excellences and defects of Polygnotus the son of Aglaophon, but incapable of criticizing other painters; and when the work of any other painter was produced, went to sleep and was at a loss, and has no ideas; but when he had to give his opinion about Polygnotus, or whoever the painter might be, and about him only, woke up and was attentive and had plenty to say?
Ion No indeed, I have never known such a person.
Socrates Or take sculpture – did you ever know of anyone who was skilful in expounding the merits of Daedulus the son of Metion, or of Epeius the son of Panopeus, or of Theodorus the Samian, or of any individual sculptor; but when the works of sculptors in general (the sculptural kind of thing) were produced, was at a loss and went to sleep and had nothing to say?
Ion No indeed; no more than the other (i.e. in the case of painting).
Socrates And if I am not mistaken, you never met with anyone among flute-players or harp-players or singers to the harp or rhapsodes, who was able to discourse of Olympus or Thamyrus or Orpheus, or Phemius the rhapsode of Ithica, but was at a loss when he came to speak of Ion of Ephesus, and had no notion of his merits or defects?
Ion I cannot deny what you say, Socrates. Nevertheless, I am conscious in my own self, and the world agrees with me, that I do speak better and have more to say about Homer than any other man; but I do not speak equally well about others. After all, there must be some reason [aitia, or “cause”] for this; what is it?
Socrates I see the reason, Ion, and I will explain to you what I imagine [sic] it to be. The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not a techne, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration [a divine dunamis or “godlike power”]; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripedes calls a magnet….
I hate to break off the dialogue at this very dramatic and funny point, just as Socrates is launching into his long and elaborate and highly inventive “epic simile” about the magnet, but we will have to leave those marvelous speeches for next time.
It’s interesting that Socrates at this point uses only examples drawn from the imitative or artistic technes and seems only to be thinking of “merits and defects” in terms of verisimilitude with what is being imitated, in each case. But I can’t help but think we could just as well see Socrates here as giving hints about how Ion might respond to this whole line of questioning. At least, if Ion does think he has a formal kind of thing that is not the subject matter of any other ike, shouldn’t he be speaking up about it by now? Ion doesn’t have a clue about the formal nature of what he is doing, does he? I think he is failing the test of defending his poietike quite miserably. And Socrates has only begun
Even if Socrates is not playing fair, as Rick and I both suggest, isn’t it also fair to say that if Ion had Rick’s expertise, for instance, Ion would be “speaking better” of his techne than he is able to do. Also, he should be able to recognize that Socrates is “speaking well” of the ike only occasionally and that he is speaking very “poorly” of it at other times? Ion shows no ability to judge the speaking of Socrates by a set of formal standards, or what Plato & Aristotle would call the “orthotike” that belongs to each discipline and is to some degree different for each.
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle seek the truth first as educators, and I would argue that for them this is a higher priority and a more powerfully guiding formal end (or telos) of liberal thought than seeking truth within the ikes, important as that is. The difference between riding a bandwagon, playing to emotions, and following trends in order to win prestige and wealth and on the other hand actually possessing more than a shallow grasp of the ike in question – this difference (and it is a moral or ethical issue too) may be more in view in this dialogue than the actual ikes involved. Does Ion simply “learn his words by rote” and say what invariably stirs the crowds, rather than challenging and perhaps disturbing them, without a critical and thoughtful formal understanding of what an epic poem might be and what an interpreter of it would understand about it in its own right? If so, this is important, at the birth of the idea of a liberal arts education.
In our next installment, while Ion was eager to perform for Socrates, but was forestalled by him, now it is Socrates who will launch into one of the strangest and most memorable of epic similes of all of literarure….
Well, there is much to ponder here. But remember that we have learned an extraordinarily important formal principle for Greek thought: “every ike is a whole ike.” And this is only because an ike by definition treats one formal kind of thing in the world. And it is the that formal elegance of that kind of thing (its white lightning) that is followed and traced out in every purposeful activity associated with that ike.
The Greeks alone of historical human cultures, as far as we know, and this was the miracle of Greece, found an origin for human coming-to-know, and it was elegant ande compellling: the fact that there is indeed elegant formal order of a plenitude of different varieties visible to the human mind (“intelligible”) in the cosmos, including within the human space of appearance that is the city-state or polis.
We can come-to-know, for the Greeks, only because the world is filled not with things, but with kinds of things! Every time we see a cat, we also know something of the Form-al identity of “cat-ness,’ and therefore we can press further with our knowing. If there is form, then we can know, because rigorous knowing is formal by nature. And remember the Pythagoreans, early Greeks who discovered number, not as a humble method for counting in trade and everyday affairs, but in its own superbly elegant formality and its potent further “formalizabilities.”
Right here, this is the gist of classical Greco-European thought forever after. Identify a formal kind of thing and work out its elegance dialectically in an ongoing discovery procedure – this is the exciting way that “thought calls to us “in our deepest core of being (thank you, Heidegger).
So as Socrates continues to drill Ion with his strongly leading questions, notice the formal principles of ike he is expounding. Possessing an ike genuinely, or possessing a genuine ike (both of these are at issue in ion’s case, but they are formally quite distinguishable issues) must equip all members of that disciplinary community to 1) treat every instance of the formal kind of thing it is devoted to formalizing, and to 2) distinguish poor from excellent talking about (and practice of) the ike. The person claiming an ike must be able to apply an orthotike, a set of formal standards of evaluation, as developed by the disciplinary community.