The Problem of Rhapsody in Plato’s Ion

Both Plato and Xenophon criticized the emptiness of the rhapsodes, mere memorizers of lines from the great poets. In the Ion, Socrates meets Ion, an ordinary rhapsode. Socrates appears to initiate the conversation at the outset. Ion reveals himself to be a self-satisfied person, he knows who he is and what he is, and that is sufficient for him. He is distant from the radical self-doubt posed by philosophy.

Ion is a cosmopolitan man, traveling throughout Hellas as a rhapsody. He is from Asia Minor but has just come from a festival to Asclepius at Epidaurus, a city in the Peloponnesus. His goal in life is to win awards based on his recitations of Homer. Indeed, he even boasts about his greatness to Socrates. Socrates claims to be “envious” of Ion and the rhapsodes, for they claim to have an art, a kind of knowledge, a techne or “know-how.”

However, in order to be a good reciter of divine Homer and his poetry, a rhapsode must have some knowledge not just of what the poet said or wrote, but also what he meant. Here, Ion troublingly agrees. Otherwise, Ion would simply be a mindless robot, a repeater of beautiful words. So he acquiesces. He also claims only to have knowledge of Homer, not Hesiod or Archilocus. Thus he reveals that he a mere bearer of conventional, with nothing new to offer the world. He inherits only what is passed down to him, even though he wouldn’t buy so much as a cloak without sampling others first. Thus, the rhapsode can only claim the superiority of his text, without giving reasons. In this way, Homer’s book resembles the Bible. It has adherents who rely utterly upon it, but can offer no argument in its favor when confronted with other books.

And thus, the conversation in Ion, turns to the divinity, or Bacchic and frenzied madness that must possess Ion, as his knowledge comes from a god. In a much more real way, Homer is the great educator of Greece because he presents a look at the whole, because his divination contains a view to the whole and is what men most want to hear. Socrates is thus testing Greek knowledge. The philosophic quest is to test traditional opinion (rather than authentic knowledge), opinions which appear unproblematic to most men.

People who know draw upon the great book of the world, while the poet speaks about that world. No book is sufficient entirely of itself; every book is essentially related to something beyond itself which acts as a standard for it (Allan Bloom On the Ion page 375). Ion fails to recognize this point, and like others in Platonic dialogues (such as the framing of the Symposium by Aristodemus, or the framing of the Theaetetus with the conversation between Euclides and Terpsion), Ion comes to light as a preserver of speeches, an echo-chamber for the great poet, Homer. The choice of Socrates to engage with Ion is vexing.

At any rate, Ion reveals himself to be a mere knower of words, or to paraphrase from the Theaetetus, he is a windbag of speeches. In the end, Socrates compares Ion to proteus, as he changes his shape to fit the applause of the crowd, devoted to no particular city or politics, and not a knower of anything true, good, or beautiful. Socrates leaves in search of better knowledge of speeches about the gods.

For this reading I used the Agora Edition of “The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues” and edited by Thomas Pangle. This translation was completed by Allan Bloom.

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