With this installment of Plato’s Ion, we are entering the central section of the dialogue — and we will even be moving past the half-way mark!
The central section is built out of two long speeches by Socrates, and we’ll be looking at the first of them today. In both speeches, we’ll find Socrates declaiming oratorically, very much as though he were the rhapsode instead of Ion, in order to develop one of those extended “epic similes” so much beloved of the Homeric bards. By Plato’s day, in fact, the extended simile had become an obligatory “mark” or convention of epic poetry! So this is delicious irony, that Socrates uses an epic simile to deprive Ion as interpreter of epic poetry of the gift of reason (logos or nous), which would also mean that epiipoetike cannot be a formal way of knowing. [Pronounced “epi-poy-AY-tee-kay.”]
Remember that Socrates has just spent the first section of the dialogue teaching Ion that each of the ikes (the arts and sciences, or in Greek, technes and epistemes) must be “a whole art”: that is, a techne to holon. Why is this the case? Because this is an inherent formal necessity, a necessity within the very theory of the ike as a miraculous way of knowing that opens for the human mind. (Do you see this? If formal kinds of things had not manifested their presence, within the otherwise chaotic flux of the temporal world, then human minds would never have been able to participate in coming to know, through the ikes devoted to each kind-of-thing.)
There could be no ikes, no ways of knowing and no “arts and sciences” curriculum, without the givenness of formal elegance in the world, because the ike is by definition the careful theorizing of the formal structure of one of these kinds of manifested formalities or dynamic patternings. So bear in mind, always, in reading Plato and Aristotle that this vision of an epistemic wholeness – “for every ike is a whole art” – comes into play whenever humans are endeavoring together to know a kind of thing and to apply that knowing as a formal skill or power.
The same “white lightning” or formal elegance (and each ike has its own) is running through all these activities (coming to know by making formalizations that trace the patterning that makes the kind of thing, and applying that in new patternings governed by the same white-lightning formality) – this is the very the fulcrum upon which turns, for Plato and Aristotle, the original vision of an arts and sciences curriculum, a radically new hope for forming citizens
Again, why? Because experiencing this kind of dynamic ratio-nalizing (where ratio or logos is the account or formula for that particular kind of white-lightning formality, at least insofar as we know it at this point in our adventure of coming to know) has the power (dynamis) to give human minds a new hope and a new faith in the resources of knowing and of dialectical conversation, which could then be applied within the ultimate learning community, the polis or city-state. So the arts and sciences curriculum has as its telos (“end” or “goal”) the enabling of better polit-ical futures – the common good — through the way that liberally educated citizens can respond together to the never-ending series of emergent challenges to the polis.
But at the same time, within each ike, there is a nearer and more existential educational telos for the discipline, guiding all of its deliberations and acheivements, which is an existential telos, a personal telos. This is to save or liberate the student’s mind by bringing it into contact with deep reality, through the communion with elegant formality and with other human minds tracing that formality together.
This communal disciplinary excitement, directed toward the future and built upon the history of the ike, is felt deeply every time you will pick up a text dealing with disciplinary or philosophical or theological questions after Plato and Aristotle, in the times of the Romans, and the medievals, and the Renaissance humanists. These texts are marked through and through with this “stance of the question,” as I like to call it, and with the humble excitement and awe before the splendor of formal elegance. The liberal arts were their own justification for being!
Then the West turns abruptly, “abrupt” in the long view of things, from “the stance of the question” to the stance of the declarative sentence, uttering what are taken now to be absolute and universal truths, established upon a firm foundation of self-evidence and scientific rationality, in the age of Enlightenment, the “conversion experience” that established the Modern West.
This is where I got into trouble with the physicists (and chemists), when I tried in a few swift strokes to indicate the breakdown of this Enlightenment and Newtonian Modern Western worldview (reigning in the 18th and 19th centuries), during the course of a 20th-century critique of Modernity’s paradigms for thought (and we got into a 60-page discussion of quantum mechanics and relativity and of what could or could not be concluded from these areas of contemporary science. It starts here.)
Okay, given the background just reviewed for the form-ality of classical Greek thought about the ikes or the ways of knowing, we saw in the first section of Ion, then, that Socrates has taught us two formal features that indicate that a person does possess “a whole art.”
1) a “techn-ical” skill and understanding for dealing with of all instances of the kind-of-thing in question. This distinguishes ratio-nal skill from impressionistic poeticism. (Even in the case of “specializations” that Rick brought out, this notion of formal breadth and comprehenisveness applies. What would we think of a Jane Austen scholar who only wrote well on Pride and Prejudice but not on Sense and Sensibility?)
2) an orthotike: “formal standards of correctness and excellence,” that is used for evaluating or judging instances of the kind of thing, and any activities associated with it — with knowing or applying it. (By the way, each ike’s orthotike must be peculiar to its own discipline, another inherent Form-al requirement of the theory of ike, based on the fact that an ike is possible only when an elegant kind-ness has manifested itself to us as being in the world.)
Perhaps we are now ready to consider a more profound dimension of classical Greek thought, one deeply meditates upon by Heidegger in his Greek scholarship. All the various kinds-of-beings populating the world, called to ontos, or “the (kinds of) beings,” by the Greeks, are the beings or things that they are because of the manifold elegant formality manifesting itself in the world (physis) and producing and sustaining each of these kinds. (So medieval English texts call Nature “Mistresse Kynde.”)
Inevitably, the classical Greek mind looks from these “beings” (inherently formalized or else they would not be recognizable as kinds, and therefore formalizable) in order to consider the question of “being” itself. This is inherent in the structure of the Greek language and structure of classical thought. “Being” is what the Greeks called the ontos on — generally translated as the “really real,” because it is hard for us to say “the being-ly being,” or the “really-being being” or “the fundamentally existing (most deeply or truly existing) being,” or perhaps “essential being,” or being in essentia.
If elegant formality marks, originates, and sustains the to ontos (kinds of beings) then what of this elegant formality itself, the ontos on or really real that is the formal reality that gives formal reality to the kinds of being? Beings, after all, come into being and pass away, but essential being endures.
This is how the Greeks got themselves to the metaphysics of an “immanence” (an “abiding in” the world) of a formal reality that is at the same time more real than the actual world. “More real” than The Actual means that something is “transcendent,” of course. Something is “beyond” the comings-into-being and passing away observable in this world.
So this is how the Greeks arrived at the profound metaphysical paradox of immanence and transcendence, centuries before the Western Christian theologians and philosophers would do so, but the Christian mind would find it just as compelling, and for exactly the same philosophical reasons. Augustine recognized furthermore that this metaphysics was perfectly concordant with the insistently incarnational nature of the relationship between God and the world in the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition.
Scientists today should understand this movement of thought very well, because so many mathematicians and physicists today accredit a transcendent formal reality to “all possible mathematical universes” (the ones who designate themselves “Platonists”). And they are not laughed to scorn, because all mathematicians and physicists can understand, if I am not mistaken, their overwhelming sense of the necessary existence of these mathematical universes. It derives, but correct me if I am wrong here, from the same experience of a deep and compelling immanence of formal order in the physical world that originally gave rise to the Greek conviction that formal elegance itself must be “ontologically” more really real than any merely actual instantiation of formal order manifesting itself in our world at any local place or time.
So this is how our distinctively Western Greco-European notion of “the divine” came to be constructed, and how all of these attributes came to be ratio-nally associated with the ultimate and originary formal elegance. The divine is the name of whatever is 1) immanent in the cosmos, and 2) transcendent beyond it (more really real). Hence the divine elegance is 3) the origin and also 4) the telos of all things contained within the cosmos. And by being all of these things, divine elegance 5) sustains all things in their being. (“God it is in whom we live and move and have our being,” and “all things are out from God, and through God and toward God (as their telos),” writes the apostle Paul.
Take all of this together and you have what Derrida identified as the West’s obsession with “logocentrism.” The formal structure of this logocentrism runs through our thought. And it received a particularly strong and rigid entrenchment in the Enlightenment, this time in the form of scientism. Natural law takes on these divine characteristics, only this time the human mind is able to grasp the law and use it control nature and make nature serve humanity in a way never glimpsed before in history.
The human mind is now on a par with the divine rather than merely “a part of all that You have made” (Augustine).
I am not being polemical right now. I am describing a certain formal structure of thought that runs through the history of the West, as elucidated by semiotic theory and critique. But I will note that it does seem to me that Derrida — not to mention Nietzsche and Heidegger — was reacting against the Enlightenment version of logocentrism, which still shapes all of us today, even though such thinkers identify that later logocentrism with the logocentrism of the earlier Western tradition.
For my part, I find that earlier logocentrism already contained its own “deconstructions” within it, and in this way makes quite a formal contrast with the much more closed and absolutist structures of logocentrism that arose in the Modern West. The scientists in the QM debate here have illustrated heartwarmingly again and again how much the postmodern critique of science – as I see it — has taken hold within the outlook of contemporary scientists themselves. I wish this epistemic humility imbued the commenters on some of the science blogs, who are so fanatically scientistic in the old Enlightenment manner. (We don’t want to do away with logocentrism, or with scientific “objectivity, but to qualify and limit it with a critical play of mind, and to remain aware of its own contradictions or negativites.)
And the historical schema I have just sketched also suggests that science could have arisen without the absolutizing tendencies that, historically speaking, did accompany it. (My idea is to free science and religion both, by drawing back from the absolutizing tendencies built in to Modernity, to a modesty in knowing appropriate to all human endeavors in a pluralistic world. This way, we can think better. This could be the rebirth of thought, out of the ruins of our modern experiment in foundationalism.)
However, the scientists here would probably say that their humility and awareness of limits in doing science (see, for instance, Paul) comes from the science itself and didn’t need postmodernism to get there…. In fact, I was trying to say (in my lit theory session) just how honest and self-critical science had been, to deconstruct the absolutisms implicit in Newtonianism (or suggested by Newtonianism to the culture? or both?) through its own scientific developments in the 20th century! Hoever, that effort of mine wS not meet with whole-hearted approval!
Now Ion, unfortunately, doesn’t meet Socrates’ first formal feature for possession of an ike. He is skilful only in speaking about Homer, and not about the other epic poets. And he doesn’t seem to have the theoretical lucidity to discern when Socrates is not “speaking well” about the ike of poetry – because poiesis in different from other ikes in using language very differently from other ikes: as a building material of its own formal kind-of-thing. (See Rick’s commentaries for this here and here.)
With all of this in mind, therefore, let us listen now to Socrates’ first speech and to the first of the crucial exchanges with Ion that follow it:
Socrates I see the reason, Ion [that you speak well about Homer, since it is clear that you do not speak by techne or by episteme, for if you did, you would speak well of all that pertains to epic poetry and not Homer only]; and I will proceed to explain to you what I imagine [this reason] to be. The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet, but which is commonly known as the stone of Heraclea. This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epics as well as lyric, composed their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Korybantian revelers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right minds when they are composing their beautiful strains; but when falling under the power of music and meter they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind. And the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves say; for they tell us that they bring songs from honeyed fountains, culling them out of the gardens and dells of the Muses, they, like the bees, winging their way from flower to flower. And this is true. For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing,and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his ssenses, and reason is no longer in him: no man, while he retains that faculty, has the oracular gift of poetry.
Many are the noble words in which poets speak concerning the actions of men; but like yourself when speaking about Homer, they do not speak of them by rules of art: they are simply inspired to utter that to which the Muse impels them, and that only; and when inspired, one of them will make dithyrambs, another hymns of praise, another choral strains, another epic or iambic verses, but not one of them is of any account in the other kinds. For not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine; had he learned by rules of art, he would have known how to speak not of one theme only, but of all; and therefore God takes away reason from poets, and uses them as his ministers, as he also uses the pronouncers of oracles and holy prophets, in order that we who hear them may know them to be speaking not of themselves, who utter these priceless words while bereft of reason, but that God himself is the speaker, and that through them he is addressing us. And Tynnichus the Chalcidean affords a striking instance of what I am saying: he wrote no poem that anyone would care to remember but the famous paean which is in everyone’s mouth, one of the finest lyric poems ever written, simply an invention of the Muses, as he himself says. For in this way God would seem to demonstrate to us and not to allow us to doubt that these beautiful poems are not human, nor the work of man, but divine and the work of God; and that the poets are only the interpreters of the gods by whom they are severally possessed. Was not this the lesson which God intended to teach when by the mouth of the worst poets he sang the best of songs? Am I not right, Ion?
Ion Yes, indeed, Socrates, I feel that you are; for your words touch my soul, and I am persuaded that in these works the good poets, under divine inspiration, interpret to us the voice of the gods.
Socrates And you rhapsodes are the interpreters of the poets?
Ion There again you are right.
Socrates Then you are the interpreters of interpreters?
So, what are we to make of Socrates’ insistence here that the activities and words of the poets themselves are not ordered by a genuine art? Whatever elegant formality the work of the poets may manifest, it derives from a divinity who has inspired and possessed them, and not from their own ordered mental processes. “Not by techne, but by god-in-you” (en-theos).
This move seems to accord the poets some respect, or at least to finesse the issue of their high cultural prestige in Athens and everywhere else in the Greek world, and to do so by trickily using another one of the epic poets’ own identifying claims. The epic poet, after all, always begins with the conventional invocation of the Muse.
Given that the theme of this dialogue is techne, and how to discern a genuine disciplinary excellence from a mere pretense of possessing a rigorous way of knowing with genuine educational value, I would think that we must take these rather inspired and inspirational praises of the poets as heavily qualified by Socratic ironic, so that the speech ends up implying pretty much the opposite of the praise it literally enunciates.
However, notice what Ion says in response to this speech! “Oh Socrates, your (winged) words have touched my soul!” The rhetorical eloquence of Socrates’ speech has worked its magic. Like any literary person, Ion is highly sensitive to the effects of artistic language, and at this point he is sufficiently “carried away” by the words that he “is persuaded” that Socrates “speaks the truth (aletheia).”
How do you react to this speech? It’s fascinating that later writers of rhetorical manuals for the Roman schools would quote phrases such as “the poet is a light and winged thing” and say that this was the “divine Plato” recognizing the sublimity of the poet’s art. Is this simply naïve? On one level this seems naive, and yet on another level it is perfectly just that Plato has always been recognized in every period as a supreme poet. What do you think?
Remember, by the way, that poiesis in the Greco-European tradition has nothing to do with whether the poet is writing in verse or in prose. It has to do instead with structuring a poetic whole out of language: that is to say, literary art has to do with making fictive structures to convey truth.
(And this is why the rigorous study of how humans employ meaning-structures to negotiate with reality, which is what poststructuralism is all about, is potentially so relevant to the “science wars” of our day. The theory of the literary formalism is the bridge whereby literary theory became such a powerful branch of philosophy for a time in France, and why modeling reality with formally elegant structures may underlie all of the arts and sciences. See the section on Representation in my lit theory course, Session One, under Pages.)
But the exchanges immediately following Ion’s “conversion” to Socrates’ way of thinking are perhaps even more interesting and important than the speech attributing the source of Ion’s “gift” to inspiration.
First we have a condensed but effective version of the later argument in the Republic that the artist is “at three removes from reality.” First, there is the Ideal or Form-al Reality of the kind of thing itself (the “Chair” or the “Puppy”). Then there is the imitation or instantiation of that ideal formality in the temporal, material world of flux. Finally, there is the mimetic artist, who makes a portrait or representation of the instantiation. Therefore, the mimesis, whether in paint or marble or language, is at a third remove from truth….
In Socrates’ war of “reason” against poetry – that is, of ike against the irrational – not every argument used in Ion will be repeated in the Republic. Yet, fascinatingly enough, every argument presented in the Republic is already present in Ion. (By the way, to the best of my knowledge, you have heard this here, first.)
So, assents Ion, rhapsodes are the “interpreters” of the poets, who are merely the mind-less “interpreters” or vehicles for the truth of the gods…. “And you are the interpreters of the interpreters?” “Precisely.”
But what follows, I believe, is the most crucial moment in the dialogue, as far as assessing Ion’s pretentions to ike is concerned. We’ll look at that in the next episode of “Wily Socrates and the Witless Theorist”!