Plato “Ion”: What’s the Problem with Poets?
Plato’s dialogue Ion is brief and seems to address a rather trifling question: Do poets know what they’re talking about? If Homer composed beautiful passages about chariot-driving, does his art include technical knowledge of that skill? This is, to put it nicely, not what most of us consider to be a pressing concern.
It matters though because the implications of this short piece shed light on one of the most troubling ideas in Plato’s corpus: that the ideal city would exile its poets. Living after the twentieth century, it’s hard to accept the proposal that a leader could make his citizens better people by banning art. It’s also hard to understand the idea given Socrates’s deep admiration for poets, especially Homer. Although he expels the poets from his ideal city, it is also clear that he does so with great regret. So what exactly is the problem with poetry?
Ion lets us come at the question from an oblique angle. Here Socrates questions the art of rhapsodes- men who gave dramatic recitations of the works of poets, particularly Homer, usually without musical accompaniment, for money- and not poets themselves. Also, it addresses technical knowledge, as opposed to moral knowledge. But the implications are clear enough that most scholars who write on Ion draw them out.
The banter here is playful, although less flirty than other dialogues. Ion is a rhapsode known for his knowledge of Homer, and the young Socrates wants to know what sort of knowledge this is; why, for instance, does it not extend to other poets, except when they discuss Homeric themes? What skills depicted in the Iliad and Odyssey does Ion have? Should we allow poets and rhapsodes to lead our armies?
Essentially, Ion believes that poetry involves a special knowledge and Socrates does not. Instead, he believes the poet is possessed, and not simply inspired, by the Muse and transmits that power to the audience. A rhapsode is farther in the chain from the source- he compares this nicely to a magnet and iron fillings- but still performs his art in a non-rational way requiring no special knowledge. Many artists would describe the moment of creation as a sort of trance state, although very few would agree that artistry requires no technical knowledge.
This point matters because, if poets have no special technical knowledge, they likely aren’t moral experts either. Indeed, many of his contemporaries took poets to be moral guides and there are still those who’d like to believe that art makes us better people. In spite of the very obvious problem that a god might act through an artist to deliver moral truth, Socrates is making the case that seeing artists as moral experts is a dangerous delusion. They arouse our emotions and provide us with entertainment, but ultimately they can hardly be our moral guides, since they don’t even know what they’re doing.
This is a central idea in Plato: Virtue is Knowledge. We would be good if only we had the moral knowledge to do so. But this knowledge is very hard to come by- Plato’s elitism stems from the fact that very few people will ever achieve moral knowledge, and even Socrates dies without ever reaching that knowledge. So the danger posed by poets is that they both fail to make us better, and they delude us into thinking their art is moral education. For Plato, everything comes back to education, and the reign of amateurs instead of experts- democracy in short- prevents us from becoming the noble species we might potentially be.