The Problem of Rhapsody in Plato’s Ion

Both Plato and Xenophon share a common criticism of the rhapsodes as empty-headed memorizers of the great poets. In the Ion, Socrates meets Ion, an ordinary rhapsode. Socrates appears to initiate the conversation with Ion at the outset. Ion reveals himself to be a self-satisfied person, he knows who he is and what his profession as a rhapsode, and it is sufficient for him. He is distant from the radical self-doubt posed by philosophy.

Ion is a cosmopolitan man. He has traveled throughout Hellas as a rhapsode. He hails from Asia Minor but has recently arrived 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.” Whereas Socrates famously claims to know nothing.

However, as Socrates notes, in order to be a good reciter of ‘divine Homer,’ a rhapsode must possess some kind of knowledge, not simply of the words a poet says or writes, but also of what he means (i.e. his intention). Here, Ion troublingly agrees. Otherwise, Ion would simply be a mindless robot, a repeater of beautiful words. So he acquiesces to Socrates. He also claims to solely have knowledge of Homer, not of Hesiod or Archilocus. Thus Ion reveals that he is a mere bearer of convention, with little to offer the world. His profession is rapidly losing its illustriousness. He inherits only what is passed down to him, even though, as Socrates point out, he would not so much as buy a cloak without sampling others first. Inn other words, Ion has an opinion about greater and lesser things, and surely that opinion extends to poetry, as well. Thus, the rhapsode can only claim the superiority of his text, without giving reasons. In this way, Homer’s book resembles the Bible to the rhapsodes. It has adherents who rely utterly upon it, but can offer no argument in its favor when confronted with other books. Why Homer and not Hesiod? Why memorize and echo the words of Shakespeare instead of Dante? The rhapsode must learn to extend beyond his profession to consider why he memorizes certain authors.

The conversation in the Ion turns to divinity, or the Bacchic and frenzied madness that surely possesses Ion, as his knowledge likely comes from a god. Is Ion a reflection of the divine? Likely not. 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 what men most want to hear. Ion is neither an educator nor a learner. He is songbird who repeats what he hears so that other men may gain knowledge. 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 have knowledge tend to draw upon the great book of the world, while the poet speaks about the 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 many 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 perplexing.

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