Home | About | Curriculum Vitae | Milton Pages | Writing | Teaching | WinePoetry | Music | Links




        The question in Ion is threefold:

1) Is the rhapsode (literally the stitcher of songs) able to interpret the "mind of the poet to his hearers";

2) Is the rhapsode--or by extension the original poet/maker--knowledgeable about all of the subject matters (or "arts") mentioned in the poem; and

3) Is the making and performing of poetry--the tasks of the poet and the rhapsode respectively--a result of art (which should be guided by general and discoverable principles) or a result of inspiration?

        The assumption that poetry is an "oracular gift," that "God takes away reason from poets, and uses them as his ministers," implies a view of poetry as an inherently spiritual/religious undertaking. The act of creation--poeisis--is the oral act. We see this in the Judeo-Christian myth in the figure of the Logos: "Let there be light." Why, however, must inspiration (a breathing in) exclude the possibility of working with and through "rules of art"?
        There also seems to be an implicit valuing of content over form in the consideration here of poetry. I do not object to this in principle, but I think Socrates/Plato (Platocrates?) carries this valuation too far. The idea implied is that for poetry to be true art (= no inspiration/no spirit?) it should contain within itself superior knowledge/understanding of all fields of endeavor. The implication of this is that the only superior knowledge which a poem/poet could express would be about the formal aspects of poetry (A drearily New Critical stance anticipated by 2400 years). However, at the end of the dialogue, Platocrates denies Ion even that knowledge, saying that "so far from exhibiting the art of which you are a master, [you] will not even after my repeated entreaties explain to me the nature of it." Ion gets two choices: to be thought dishonest or inspired--neither of which gives him (or poetry/poets) any credit for any art or knowledge of a formally rigorous kind.

Republic--Book II

        "False" stories are to be censored. Poetry, to have a proper place in society, must serve the function of building virtue in the youth by providing them with noble examples for emulation. The gods are incapable of falsehood; therefore stories of gods changing shapes or playing false to mortals (which pretty much covers Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Sophocles, and Euripides) are to be censored for the greater good of the State.
        Similarly, stories of the gods fighting amongst themselves--such as the tales of Ouranos/Kronos, Kronos/Zeus, Hephaestus/Hera, and Hephaestus/Zeus are to be censored, lest the hearers of such tales form irreverent opinions of the gods. God (a figure which Plotinus later formulates as the One) is wholly good; thus God is incapable of authoring evil. This seems to anticipate the Augustinian view of God as the Summum Bonnum, with its corresponding view of evil as a privatio boni.

Book III

Poets should "commend the world below" in order to remove the fear of death from the people: "boys and men who are meant to be free. . . should fear slavery more than death." Poets who write "improperly" of the world below are to be censored precisely because their work is attractive and powerful and therefore exerts an undesirable influence on the minds of those who hear such work.
        A Good Man will not fear his own death or the death of a comrade--therefore those poetic scenes portraying the lamentations of famous men must be forbidden. Scenes portraying heroes of Gods in fits of laughter must also be disallowed because the guardians ought not to be "given to laughter."
        The rulers of the state may lie--either to enemies of the state or to citizens of the state--for the public good. However, "for a private man to lie to them [the rulers] in return is to be deemed a . . . heinous fault."
        Poets must not portray gods and/or heroes as evil or as no better than ordinary men. They must also not be allowed to say that the wicked prosper and the good suffer, that injustice is profitable if not detected. The poets must, in fact, confirm the opposite values.
        Imitation in poetry is to be restricted to the imitation of virtue; the narrative style is to be preferred over the dramatic.
        Harmonies, melodies, and rhythms which lend themselves to expressions of fear, sorrow (sorry--no B.B. King blues albums in the Republic), and/or vice are to be forbidden. Artists in the other arts--architecture, painting, sculpture, etc.--are also to produce only ennobling art (no Baroque architecture, Salvador Dali paintings, or Picasso sculptures from Chicago's Daley Plaza).

Book X

        This book explicates the philosophical doctrine of ideas/forms. "There is one single idea corresponding to each group of particulars."
        God is the true maker: he creates the ideas/forms. The craftsman is the second maker: he creates the particular (the example given is a bed) which he corresponds to the idea/form. The painter--and by extension the poet--is at a third level of remove from the idea/form, and is thus regarded as a mere imitator who is in possession of neither true knowledge nor correct opinion/belief. The painter and the poet deal only in appearances.
        Poets (Homer is the example) govern no states (in the days before Vaclav Havel--take that, Greek Boy), serve as generals in no wars, and contribute nothing to the "practical" arts. Nor do they privately guide of teach any pupils (a convenient apologia pro vita sua by Plato).
        Of the three levels of artist--1) he who uses; 2) he who makes; and 3) he who imitates--the user has true knowledge, while the maker has correct belief, and the imitator has neither.
        That part of the soul which trust to measure and calculation (reason) is the superior part; that part which does not trust to reason is inferior. Tragic and Comic poetry appeal to the inferior part of the soul (Plato would have us squaring the circle for a night out). Plato's account of the function of drama--that it serves to awaken undesirable passions--is one which Aristotle will refute in his Poetics.