In the Ion, Socrates converses with a rhapsode who specializes in Homer.  Rhapsodes were performers, and celebrity performers at that; in the opening of the dialogue Ion tells Socrates that he has just come from the festival to Asclepius at Epidaurus, where he has been awarded the first prize for his performance, and is hoping to carry away the first prize at the Panathenaea as well.  Presumably these prizes were valuable (Ion at one point mentions that he keeps a sharp eye on his audience, since if they weep at his performance he knows that he’ll be “making money”).  But in addition to performing, the rhapsodes evidently also lectured on the poets.  Ion claims that no one “the world has ever seen had so many nor such fine comments to offer on Homer” as he has.

By the end of the dialogue, Socrates will (of course) have convinced Ion that he does not, in fact, know anything about the art of poetry, but that instead he does what he does by divine inspiration, rather than rational understanding.  There are basically two arguments given for this.  The first is that if there is a “whole art” of poetry, and Ion has mastered it, then he should be able to speak intelligently about any of the poets.  Yet he claims that he has nothing to say, and dozes off (!) when other poets are being discussed, but on Homer he is a genius.

Now this argument seems to imply that while Ion may not understand the whole art of poetry, there is such a thing and someone theoretically could.  Socrates suggests that those who are skilled at talking about some painters can talk about all painters, so he seems to acknowledge that there is such a thing as being, say, an art history professor (always assuming that any art history professor can speak equally intelligently about any painting by any artist). By the same token, then, one could be a poetry professor (and speak intelligently about any poem).

But the second argument seems to undercut this possibility as well.  Here Socrates asks Ion which parts of the Homeric poems he speaks particularly well about, and in each case suggests that a specialist would speak better.  For instance, the passage in the Iliad describing the chariot race would be better explicated by a charioteer, passages concerning wounds and their treatments would be better explicated by a doctor, etc. etc.  Finally Ion must admit that in every case it is the specialists who can better judge Homer than he.

So now we are left to imagine that we cannot after all have a professor of poetry, as that poetry will inevitably be about something, and Socrates asserts that the object it is about (charioteers, pilots, cowherds, generals, etc.) will always be able to speak about the poems best.  It’s not clear why this wouldn’t also be the case with painting, then; Socrates’ argument would imply that it would always be the subjects of paintings who would best be able to speak about the art that depicted them.

This is analogous to the argument Socrates made in the Gorgias, denying that there could be an art of persuasive speaking that was unrelated to the subject of the speech (i.e. doctors will always be the most persuasive about illness and health, etc.).  It is a funny way to think about language — that it is only ever a transparent container of content; that its form can never be considered separately.  But it’s also interesting that our own educational system embraces both the more general (rhetoric!) and the more specialized (Homerists, Shakespearians, etc.).

But what most interests me about the dialogue is what it says about performance and interpretation.  I read it back during the term, while teaching a course on ancient drama; the course is cross-listed with theater studies and attracts students interested in theater as well as those interested in classics.  I am convinced that combining focus on performance as well as text is really fruitful, because performance always involves interpretation.  Socrates even says this towards the beginning of the dialogue: “For the rhapsode ought to make himself an interpreter of the poet’s thought to his audience; and to do this properly without understanding what the poet means is impossible” (530c).

Yet Socrates’ conclusion is that performance, like poetic composition, is divinely inspired, and that the performance of emotion, as well as the experience of that emotion by the audience, is a function of the god (here the Muse).  He develops a very interesting analogy to the power of a magnet, which can not only draw iron, but magnetize that iron so that it can draw other bits (533d-534e).  The implication seems to be that the whole enterprise lacks any intellectual element: there would be (e.g.) no art (as Aristotle will claim there is) distinguishing the most and least effective ways of producing that emotion, or trying to interpret significance beyond the production of emotion.

I’m sometimes utterly gobsmacked to think about what Socrates would have thought of most of the people who spend time reading Plato!

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