A monograph on Plato's Ion, to be published by Cambridge University Press

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bolton
Department Name: Health and Social Sciences


Plato's Ion, which features Socrates in conversation with a typical rhapsody, is the earliest essay on aesthetics in Western philosophy, lon boasts of the success of his recitations of Homer, the poet whom Plato's contemporaries viewed as a compendium of knowledge and wisdom. At a time when books were rare and literacy far from universal, rhapsodies and poets wielded considerable influence. Plato distrusted their influence as symptomatic of the new-found power exerted by orators in the political life of fifth-century Athens, when speeches in the assembly determined the rise and fall of city-states, the successes and failures in the policy of imperial Athens.

In the lon, Socrates raises the crucial question: does the rhapsody's success depend on the way he speaks, or does it have to be founded on his knowledge of what it is he is speaking of? This seemingly simple question raises an issue fundamental for Plato's philosophy. Can there be true pleasure or happiness that is not founded on knowledge?

Since a rhapsody's influence is ultimately dependent on the poet whose verse he chants, the debate between Socrates and lon opens up the wider issue of the nature and power of poetry. Socrates suggests that the poetic word is aimed, not at enlightening or instructing, but at charming, or even enrapturing, its audience. The power of poetry, he adds, is not due to the knowledge or skill of the poet, but to the divine inspiration of which the poet is the passive recipient. Through the intermediary of a rhapsody, himself enraptured by the inspired discourse of the poet, poetry works its power on an audience, which therefore receives the divine inspiration at thrice-remove.

In Socrates' hands, the notion of 'divine inspiration' to account for poetic excellence is a double-edged sword. While it flatters poets by assimilating them to oracles and seers, it also excludes them from the company of those who know and reason. It also denies them the full authorship of their compositions.

The subtlety, philosophical and psychological, with which Plato portrays the debate between the cock-sure lon and Socrates* half-hidden irony ranks the lon among the most intriguing works of the Platonic canon. But the dialogue has often been misunderstood, both by Romantic poets, who read their own notion of inspiration into Plato's, and by philosophers, who have missed the delicate interplay between the requirements of the dramatic dialogue and the philosophical claims expressed in it.

The present study relates the ideas that underlie the dialogue to the theoretical assumptions embodied in the poetry of Homer, Hesiod and Pindar, and also takes into account the moves made by Pre-Socratic thinkers towards a more narrowly philosophical explanation of poetic inspiration. This historical study of the background to Plato's ideas makes it possible to disengage the novelty of Plato's own approach, and to relate the philosophical issues debated in the dialogue to crucial questions of epistemology and aesthetics that loom large in the dialogues of Plato's maturity.

.A necessary corollary to this combination of history and philosophy is the analysis of earlier interpretations of the dialogue. Plato has been the victim of his own artistry. The psychological subtleties of his portrayal of the exchanges between Socrates and lon have led to wildly different versions of the dialogue. In uncovering the bias of earlier translators and commentators, philosophical analysis has therefore to be accompanied by literary criticism. Only by grasping the subtleties of Plato's representation of character, and by analysing the nuances of speech attributed to Socrates and to lon, is it possible to unravel the complexities of the philosophical issues that Plato has addressed in the lon. ^

The present monograph will shed new light on Plato's deft handling of a range of philosophical issues that still play a central role in current aesthetic debates.


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