Ion: Rhapsody and Knowledge

In the Ion, Socrates’s interlocutor is Ion, a decorated rhapsode of Homer’s poetry, a performer and interpreter of Homer’s works. Socrates greets him by saying how he envies the craft of rhapsody: not only does Ion dress beautifully, and recite Homer’s verse beautifully, but he can also “speak beautifully” about Homer’s thoughts. It is this aspect of the rhapsodic craft that Socrates is most interested in, and most interested in scrutinizing. He presents understanding Homer as a condition for being a good rhapsode about Homer: “A rhapsode must come to present the poet’s thought to his audience; and he can’t do that beautifully unless he knows what the poet means” (530c). Ion agrees, which sets Socrates on his line of questioning: what knowledge does Ion have in virtue of which he can speak beautifully about Homer?

One thing that is puzzling about the dialogue is that Ion and Socrates never seem to consider the way of understanding what a potential craft of rhapsody might be that seems most natural from a contemporary perspective. They never fully consider the possibility that Homer’s verse might itself be the subject matter of Ion’s genuine expertise—something like the way we might think of literary criticism today.  Does Ion give up too much ground? He’s silly, as Socrates’s interlocutors go, and he seems to make a crucial mistake early on, in letting Socrates get away with an assumption that he should have questioned: the assumption that to speak beautifully about Homer is to speak with expertise about the topics that his poetry is about.

The way in which Ion attends to the style of writing or speech is not a way of engaging with it as saying anything, that is, as potentially imparting any knowledge to its audience. With this potentially illicit assumption in hand, Socrates shows that such engagement with a text could not amount to a craft, and the Ion thus couldn’t have learned anything from Homer.

Socrates first rules out the possibility that knowledge of poetry in general equips Ion to speak about Homer, so if rhapsody is a techne, the knowledge in which it consists is not knowledge of how poetry in general works and what makes it good. Ion claims that he can only speak well about Homer, and not other poets like “Hesiod and Archilochus,” unless the others say the same thing as Homer (531b). However, when Socrates presents examples of different cases when they do say the same thing, such as when all these poets speak about a techne like divination, a rhapsode like Ion is not best equipped to speak “beautifully” about it, but rather, a diviner (531b). A diviner would also be able to explain where the poets disagree about divination as well as where they agree. Lacking the ability to speak beautifully about where the poets disagree, Ion also lacks the ability to speak beautifully about the topics that are shared between Homer and other poets.

Ion seems to have already given up too much ground. Socrates has already equated speaking beautifully about Homer with speaking truly about the topics that Homer’s poetry is about. Ion’s response to Socrates’s argument, though, suggests that he thinks that what he takes himself to be able to speak beautifully about is Homer’s words, not what Homer says about various topics. His knowledge of Homer is not knowledge about the topics that Homer covers and the other poets do not; there are no such topics (531c). Rather, the difference between Homer and the other poets, Ion supplies, is the way they wrote, where he plausibly means something like their style (531d). Ion blunders again, though, when Ion assents to Socrates’s suggestion that the difference between the poets is that Homer wrote much better about various topics. Socrates’s argument again appeals to the thought that to speak well about speech, including about who is better and who is worse, requires knowledge about the topic being spoken about. Because Ion can only speak about Homer, he cannot have the capacity to identify the best speaker: he does not know other poets well enough to say that they speak worse.

In the third argument in this section, Socrates addresses the thought that Ion’s expertise might consist in knowledge about Homer’s (potential) poetic craft. This seems, on the face of it, closer to the mark. However, because Ion insists that he can only speak beautifully about Homer’s poetry, he cannot claim expertise in any kind of general craft of poetry: talk of any of the other poets makes him “doze off” (532c). If Ion could speak beautifully about Homer’s poetry because he knows what makes poetry good, rather than knowledge about the various topics that it is about, he would have had to master a craft that concerned the “art of poetry as a whole” (532c).

For Socrates, one cannot speak beautifully unless one speaks knowledgeably. If Homer can speak beautifully about various topics in his poetry, this ability must come from knowledge about them, and if there is a craft of poetry, then Homer must write his beautiful poems in virtue of having mastered it. In the dialogue’s first three arguments, Socrates considers both whether Ion might have gained knowledge from Homer by learning what he has to say, and whether he might have gained knowledge of the specialized craft of producing poetry.

Socrates then suggests that Ion’s ability to speak beautifully about Homer comes from divine inspiration, an alternative to the kind of teaching and learning we would expect from an account of the transmission of craft knowledge. Socrates compares poets and rhapsodes to a “very long chain of iron pieces and rings hanging from one another” all connected to a magnet (533e). Poets are inspired by the Muse, and thus they are not “masters of their subject; they are inspired, possessed, and that is how they utter all those beautiful poems” (533e). They can only create when they are not “in their right minds” (534b). Poets not only do not speak knowledgeably, but they do not even speak for themselves: “poets are nothing but representatives of the gods” (534e). Rhapsodes, in turn, merely “present what the poets say,” and so are “representatives of representatives” (535a). Rhapsodes are inspired by the poets they specialize in; Socrates describes their connection with the Muse with the metaphor of a magnetic chain linking  Muse, poets, rhapsodes, and then their audiences. Ion’s performance has the “same effects” on his spectators, who “weep” and are “frightened” even though nothing threatens or has harmed them (535d). They are inspired indirectly by the Muse, by way of the rhapsode (535e).

This story explains Ion’s relation to Homer not in terms of the transmission of knowledge, but rather in terms of the transmission of text. Poets do not have any knowledge to pass on, at least none that could teach someone how to speak beautifully (533e). Ion agrees with Socrates’s assessment that poets are out of their mind when they perform (535a); this suggests that he does not take himself to have received knowledge from Homer over and above his verse, but instead that he thinks his talent for speaking beautifully about Homer comes from mastery of the verse itself.

Ion insists, however, that he is in his right mind when he performs, and so cannot be simply divinely inspired. Although he agreed that he was emotionally caught up in his performances, when the discussion turns to the spectator, he claims that he is aware of his effect on them: “You see I must keep my wits and pay close attention to them: if I start them crying, I will laugh as I take their money, but if they laugh, I shall cry at having lost money” (255e). Ion’s knowledge may thus be merely about how to gratify the audience, and concern only the cosmetic features of Homer’s poetry. When he says that he can speak beautifully about Homer, he means that he can perform words to move his audience, and thereby please them.  Whether he is inspired by Homer and out of his mind, or he is concerned with whether his speech gratifies the audience, Ion is speaking without concern for the truth of what he is saying.

This distinction, between the divinely inspired poet, and the manipulative rhetorician, contrasts two ways of being concerned with text, with the words that compose speech or writing and how they are put together. Someone who is divinely inspired might be moved by poetic speech as by a genuinely beautiful object. On the other hand, someone might be concerned with the efficacy of the words to induce pleasure in an audience. If Ion lies on the latter side of the distinction, then he should be held accountable for speaking without knowledge, for he is trying to change peoples’ minds—by manipulating their emotions—and this is a kind of deception. Both exclude the possibility that Ion is paying attention to what is true, either because he is out of his mind or because he merely wants to make an audience react in certain ways rather than teach them anything.

Ion returns to his old defense. He insists that his ability to speak beautifully about Homer comes from genuine expertise, rather than divine inspiration. Socrates now considers the question of which topics Ion is qualified to speak about, what knowledge he might have gained from Homer. Ion, it turns out, is not an expert on any of the topics covered in Homer, although he claims to speak well on all of them. He recites a passage from Homer in which Nestor gives instructions about driving a chariot (537a-c). Socrates and Ion agree that a charioteer would know best whether Homer’s words are true, because the charioteer has the distinctive knowledge of his profession. They conclude that only someone who has mastered a profession will be a good judge of whether something said about its domain is true, and therefore beautiful (538a). The same goes for brewing medicine, fishing, and divination, which would be best evaluated by a doctor, fisherman, and diviner respectively.

Once again, Ion tries to carve out a domain of knowledge that he might have in virtue of his being an expert not with what Homer says, but with his words. He now claims that what a rhapsode knows is “what is fitting for a man or a woman to say—or for a slave or a freeman, or for a follower or a leader” (539e; 540b). Knowledge of what-people-should-say-when could more plausibly consist in the mastery of Homer’s texts: if Homer’s poetry tells us what his characters should say when, then someone who knows this should also know what real people who are like these characters should say, namely, the words Homer ascribes to them. By this reasoning, it seems plausible that generalship could be a craft in which a rhapsode is expert, as a non-expert could imagine it consists largely in devising strategies and making speeches, all of which could be lifted directly from Homer’s verse. However, it becomes clear that Ion does not know why people should say the sort of thing that Homer attributes to them; for the speech of craftspeople, this would require mastery of the craft. When Ion finally insists that he does know what a general would say, he allows that this entails that he is a general as well as a rhapsode—and that rhapsody and generalship are the same craft (541b).

In the end, Socrates gives Ion the choice between admitting that he lacks knowledge and is instead divinely inspired, or being someone who has wronged Socrates, both by failing to step up as a general while so well-qualified, and by begrudging him a performance of the craft of rhapsody (541e). I have suggested that one way we can see this choice is as the decision of whether or not to hold on to the insistence that he has learned from Homer’s poetry. Socrates has shown that Ion can’t have learned from Homer’s poetry, because his sole concern is with Homer’s words and how they fit together, rather than what Homer says.

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