Plato “Ion”: What’s the Problem with Poets?

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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23 Responses

  1. Mr. Prosser says:

    Perhaps the idea of moral uplift through art is one of intent. Does an artist who intentionally sets out to do good or promote a certain perspective defeat the entire purpose of art? Was Kipling a great poet or Riefenstahl a great cinematographer? They were both good technicians but what of intent? Perhaps the trance or inspiration idea is not incorrect, the uplift is in the eye of the beholder.Report

    • Wouldn’t intent imply knowledge? You need a method, a way of getting from point a to point b, in order to traverse the distance. If you have know idea what you’re doing intent is meaningless. What is it you would be intending?Report

  2. Will H. says:

    This reminds me of a video I saw on youtube a few days ago of Spongebob playing a tune by the Tragically Hip on guitar. No, it’s not functionally accurate. No, it’s not particularly artistic. No, I’m not going to learn to play the song by watching Spongebob. But it’s funny.
    Does watching romantic comedies give one an unbalanced view of courtship, and instill unrealistic expectations? I’m sure you could cite evidence of that, were you to look hard enough.
    Then again, were I to go looking for a map of the territory which the sasquatch inhabits, I’m sure I could find something, and probably with a lot of documentation and very scientific-looking.

    I don’t think people are as big of rubes as Plato gives them credit for.
    Maybe that’s a society issue.
    Perhaps the missing element is that differentiation was not established as a virtue in the dialogue, the capacity to distinguish between one thing and another.
    It’s sort of like the debate over what Jesus really looked like, in a way. Were it really that important, an illustration would have been supplied in the original text.
    Or objecting to The Godfather on the basis that Marlon Brando wasn’t really a mobster.Report

  3. Paul B says:

    I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s really important to think of Plato’s concerns here in the context of the transition from an oral to a literate culture.

    We’re pretty comfortable with the idea of a text we can revisit, compare against other texts, and evaluate as something independent of both ourselves and the larger world — but those ideas hadn’t completely taken hold in Plato’s time, and even Socrates was uncomfortable with literacy. So for something like Homeric poetry, which was very much a product of the earlier oral culture, the “truth” of a statement can’t be anything more than whatever hook we use to keep it in mind. So it’s not too hard to understand why Plato/Socrates were awfully worried that someone might come along with something hookier than their concept of virtue.

    To take an example from another genre, think of how often those well-worn nuggets of wisdom we call proverbs directly contradict one another: “haste makes waste,” but “a stitch in time saves nine.” If you were Socrates or Plato, and you had dedicated your life to pinning what Homer called “winged words” not just to fixed texts but to eternal forms, wouldn’t that drive you absolutely crazy?Report

    • Paul B in reply to Paul B says:

      @Paul B,

      Oh, another thing speculative thought that just occurred to me is that this oral/literate transition might explain both Athenians’ initial indifference to Euripides and his posthumous popularity.

      Rufus has several excellent posts about how Euripides tweaked and toyed with his mythical subjects, which must have jarred an audience used to the traditional stories and probably explains why he was a perennial also-ran during his lifetime. But perhaps, once the Greeks got a little more used to the idea that their traditional myths had been fixed as texts and weren’t going away, they could better appreciate how Euripides reimagined them and thus kept his plays alive on the revival circuit.Report

  4. Mack S says:


    What dialogues make you think that Socrates very much loves the poets, as opposed to just being well-versed in poetry? I’m not necessarily saying you’re wrong – I’ve not read all the dialogues – but in those I have read, as far as I can remember, he typically speaks of poetry as being beneath ethical living.


    • E.C. Gach in reply to Mack S says:

      @Mack S, I think the Symposium and the Phaedrus are two dialogues that point towards Plato’s affinity with the poets, or at least a sympathy for them.

      The Phaedrus does this pretty clearly in its discussion of madness. The Symposium seemingly denigrates the poets, though Plato’s own style in the dialogue and the way the discussion of love is crafted through various character’s speeches points, I believe convincingly, to a much more complex relationship between Plato and the poets, and philosophy and poetry.Report

      • Mack S in reply to E.C. Gach says:

        @E.C. Gach,


        While I have not read the Phaedrus, and would never argue about a work I have not read, I do not know that I agree with you about the Symposium. I think you are very correct that the Symposium puts Plato’s “affinity” for poetry on display; I think the dialogue shows that Plato loves poetry, at the very least. But I also think it’s telling that Socrates, presuming we take him for Plato’s philosophical proxy, finishes the main work of the dialogue by moving the conversation away from poetry, and to the abstract nature of Beauty. I might even go further, and say Alciabades is meant to contrast with this abstract discussion, to show how reason can take you further than, say, passion – and by implication, poetry. What do you think?Report

        • E.C. Gach in reply to Mack S says:

          @Mack S, I think I fully agree with you.

          I also think it’s telling that half of Socrates’ speech is a retelling of a past discussion between him and Diotima, her self an “inspired” oracle.

          One could read Socrates’ dialectic with Diotima as Plato’s way of showing how philosophy does not oppose poetry, but rather builds on it and enriches it.

          As to the question of beauty. This seems to lead us back into muddied waters. I’ve always identified strongly with Aristophanes myth in the Symposium, where he explains the origins of love and sexual desire.

          Where as the philosophic Socrates positions beauty as a quality or form divorced from a specific body, central to Aristophanes’ view is that we in fact fall in love with particular or unique beauty. It is not the “best” that is most beautiful to us, but a specific other who completes us.

          Similarly, Ion loves specifically the poetry of Homer. Socrates wants to extrapolate the beauty of Homer to some quality Ion, or at least any “knowledgeable” poet, would be able to discern in other poetry. And yet this seems to undermine the very nature of poetry to assign it universal qualities. Rather, like Aristophanes’ account of love, I think we more often look at different forms of poetry (or art more generally) has being unique. While we might have some standards, even among the greats, some are likely to favor the Mona Lisa while others prefer Monet’s Impression Sunrise. And yet how can philosophy, always seeking the universal or principle, explain these seemingly arbitrary preferences, whether in love or in art?

          Whether intentionally or not, Plato makes the sometimes disastrous consequences of philosophic “division and collection” (socrates’ dialectic method), apparent but leaves it unanswered, at least unsatisfactorily in my view. Dissasterous, at least, in that Socrates’ desire to discover principles and fix definitions is a process often inappropriate to art, and when applied forcibly can strip the art it seeks to explain of any beauty.

          Those are just some general thoughts, nothing I’m committed to.Report

          • Mack S in reply to E.C. Gach says:

            @E.C. Gach,


            The following from your response, I think, contains the crucial claim:

            “One could read Socrates’ dialectic with Diotima as Plato’s way of showing how philosophy does not oppose poetry, but rather builds on it and enriches it.”

            I would read it like that. But I would evaluate that more closely. Enrichment, after all, implies a prior level of impoverishment (relative to the enriched state). For Plato, poetry without reason may be beautiful or ugly in itself; but the point is that you can’t know whether it will lead to beauty or ugliness in the soul, at least not without bringing the poetry into contact with reason. So poetry (as the Republic makes clear), isn’t good in itself, but is only good for the promotion of the soul’s virtue. If a poem’s moral consequence is vice, then, even if the poem is in itself beautiful, it is still bad. At least, that’s what I see Plato’s position as.


            • Rufus in reply to Mack S says:

              @Mack S, I see what you’re saying here. I think my statement probably did have more to do with his being well versed in the poets as opposed to coming down hard in their favor. I was probably thinking of Phaedrus too and the conversations about Homer here and in Hippias Minor. He also quotes Sappho and Pindar as I remember, but you’re right that his familiarity doesn’t necessarily demonstrate a kinship. I mean, there are certainly passages in which he seems, briefly, to be praising the sophists, so it could be more a matter of being well-versed in the poetry that people of his milieu knew rather than actually having a fondness for poetry. Nevertheless, when you get to the Republic, at least for me, it’s a bit startling.

              I would also note just how hard it is to nail down Socrates on very many points. I think it’s part of Plato’s literary genius that it’s really impossible to boil to a “school of Socrates” with a set of clear-cut doctrines. I think he probably wanted to avoid that at all costs.Report

  5. John says:

    Laurence Lampert has a new book which argues how philosophy became Socratic, and he promises another book about how Socrates became Socrates. So the Ion presents us with a young Socrates–not yet a Socratic philosophy nor even yet a Socrates.

    The young Socrates of the Ion wants to know what the poet knows. It turns out that that knowledge is nothing that can be taught–or even said apart from relying on metaphor and analogy. It is akin to magnetism (an idea that still is unresolved in modern physics). Poetry–let alone rhapsody–is not a “useful art” as the US Constitution puts it. In a democracy, anyone can be a poet, as long as he is literate. It is hard to explain. Louis Armstrong spoke of Jazz in a similar manner–if you don’t get it, you can’t be told.

    So poetry is useless. Is it more philosophic than history as Aristotle says? Or is it simply a charade or a bamboozle? The Republic paints poetry as third removed from the manufactured bed to the the image of the bed. It is neither wood, fabric, etc. from which a bed is made nor is it the bed itself–it is but an image of that bed. The bed demonstrates a kind of productive knowledge possessed by the bedmaker useful to human well being. It makes of the original things something other than they are, viz. something useful like a bed.. Poetry tells a story in speech about the bed. It makes an image of something that is already a product. None of which entails knowledge of bed making, however poetry surely implies a knowledge of sleeping–the use of a bed (amongst other uses).

    Perhaps Freud was right that the dreams of our sleep tell us more about ourselves than the arguments made in waking life. He was scientifically making a claim for poetry in his reliance on dreams as the key to understanding what it means to be human. Perhaps waking life is a dream–this seems to be the poets claim, and the rhapsodes like Ion, make careers from this fact.

    In the cave, some will become expert regarding the shadows. They will become literary critics. Others will become like Ion–like in popular music which reproduces the same rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic structure over and over again. In a democracy, perhaps everyone can become Ion.

    Who will make the beds?Report

    • E.C. Gach in reply to John says:

      “It turns out that that knowledge is nothing that can be taught–or even said apart from relying on metaphor and analogy.”

      And it’s interesting that the most memorable passages from Plato are just that, metaphor and analogy.Report

    • Rufus in reply to John says:

      @John, That’s one of the amazing things about art for me. You can teach me to play the guitar and I can study it for thirty years and I’m still not going to be Django Reinhardt because it’s just not in me to be Django Reinhardt. It does seem like the really great artists are in touch with something pre-conscious that they know how to express consciously.Report

  6. John says:

    Let me defend poetry against philosophy at this point. Plato provide us with the quarrel of philosophy and poetry. Poetry means making. It is neither a techne art nor a stochastic art. It makes a place for itself in terms of making a self for itself.

    I have no interest of those who want to make a serious regard for my own well being. I tend to want to make my own life a prescience that is worth while. Needless to say, the most ordinary and the most deep male a life that must defend itself to any and all others. I defend the life at living the best of the making the dying by presentig we will die.Report

  7. E.C. Gach says:

    “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.”

    If the conflict of poetry and philosophy is looked at through the prism of Plato’s tripartite in the Phaedrus, where he builds the metaphor of the chariot driver led by two horses. One horse is unruly and spurred on by passions, while the other is submissive and modest (253d):

    “As I said at the beginning of this tale, I divided each soul into three-two horses and a charioteer; and one of the horses was good and the other bad: the division may remain, but I have not yet explained in what the goodness or badness of either consists, and to that I will proceed. The right-hand horse is upright and cleanly made; he has a lofty neck and an aquiline nose; his colour is white, and his eyes dark; he is a lover of honour and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by word and admonition only. The other is a crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow; he has a short thick neck; he is flat-faced and of a dark colour, with grey eyes and blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur. Now when the charioteer beholds the vision of love, and has his whole soul warmed through sense, and is full of the prickings and ticklings of desire, the obedient steed, then as always under the government of shame, refrains from leaping on the beloved; but the other, heedless of the pricks and of the blows of the whip, plunges and runs away, giving all manner of trouble to his companion and the charioteer, whom he forces to approach the beloved and to remember the joys of love. They at first indignantly oppose him and will not be urged on to do terrible and unlawful deeds; but at last, when he persists in plaguing them, they yield and agree to do as he bids them.”

    In some ways, it feels more as if philosophy is building on the foundation of poetry, both in style and purpose, and so rather than tearing down the current poetical institution of the time, Plato is adding the next level, refining it, and ultimately seeking to harness and steer the energy, passion, and inspiration of poetry much as the charioteer seeks to steer the inspired, dark horse.Report

  8. sam says:

    As I said here before, Martha Nussbaum (The Fragility of Goodness) convinced me that Plato’s problem with the poets, the tragic poets, anyway, was, at base, their acceptance of moral luck and human powerlessness in its face. In a universe of contingency and luck, the claims of reason, as immunizing against luck, can gain only limited purchase, if any at all. This Plato could not abide.

    See Moral Luck in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.Report

    • Rufus in reply to sam says:

      @sam, I think there’s something to that- I just need the time to read her book!Report

    • E.C. Gach in reply to sam says:

      @sam, Nussbaum’s book is one of my favorite ways of looking at this question. But in light of her work, do you think Plato is consistent on the question of beauty and art? Or does he put forth different views through his corpus that are ultimately irreconcilable, even within a single work sometimes.Report

  9. E.C. Gach says:


    With regard to the Republic, not all of the poets are actually cast out in the end, but some are left who can be of service to the pursuit of “justice.”

    While this is definitely a radical position, I think there is something to the fact that the passions or “spirit” inspired by poetry/art/beauty is still needed, even in an ideal republic. That even there, Philosophy/reason are not enough to move people to action, and art, though state censored and sponsored, is still necessary.Report

  10. Chris H says:

    I think the point about oral vs. literary (written) culture is key here. The debate Socrates has with Ion–whether poets inspire their audience from knowledge or supernatural possession–is not one I would immediately have with my modern mind. Of course poets (and all artists) are not “supernaturally possessed,” my modern mind reasons. They have just learned a skill and are good at doing it. (Or, they have biological or other predispositions that allows them to perform their craft so well.) But in an oral-centric culture, one in which poets have much power, I can see how this would be an issue. I guess one might even point to J Edgar Hoover’s treatment of rock artists (such as John Lennon) as “dangerous influences” on young people in the late 1960s and early 1970s as having some relationship to this debate.Report

  11. Esther says:

    Please who can explain the inconsistencies in Plato’s ion?Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Esther says:

      I’d need a little more information. What do you mean?

      (Also, I’d like to thank you for bumping this and reminding me of the problem of poets. We still have to deal with this sort of thing today.)Report