Techne, inspiration and comedy in Plato's Ion.
I formulate and critique the 'technical account' in [section] 1 and the 'inspired account' in [section] 2. I claim that these two models contradict each other at almost every level--but what they share is the appeal to an originating authority as the source of poetic truth. The rhapsode Ion, in struggling to explain the nature of his own expertise, endorses each account in turn; through his discussion with Socrates, both are shown to be inadequate and importantly wrong. In short, I claim that the dialogue endorses neither model. In [section] 3, I argue that, in the third section of the dialogue, through the problematic analyses of several passages of Homer (536e-539e), the dialogue gestures at what I call the 'oracular account,' which incorporates elements of inspiration and technique but eschews the need for an originating authority. This alternative model is anti-authoritative--oriented toward encouraging the active intellectual engagement of the audience.
In [section] 4, I argue that Plato depicts Ion as a laughable figure, particularly in the last section of the dialogue (539e-542b), in order to expose the moral danger of taking poetry as authoritative. Thus, the comic portrayal has a serious philosophical point, and, I shall argue, Ion's role as rhapsode is a crucial aspect of it. (5) By letting us see Ion as a comic figure, Plato encourages us--his audience--both to reject Ion as model and to use the Ion itself, not as a fount of authoritative wisdom, but as an invitation to philosophical dialogue.
1 The Technical Account
At the very beginning of the dialogue, we discover that Ion must be an excellent rhapsode as he has just won first prize in a festival contest. Socrates and Ion try to find an explanation for Ion's excellence by examining the skill for which he was rewarded, namely rhapsody. Socrates lays the foundation for the technical account when he assumes that Ion's rhapsodic skill constitutes a techne. (6) He begins by ironically claiming to 'envy [the] rhapsodes for [their] techne' (530b5-6). (7) As it emerges through the conversation, a techne is 'a thorough, masterful knowledge of a specific field that... can be taught to others and can be recognized, certified, and rewarded.' (8) Ion and Socrates understand the rhapsodic techne to comprise both performance and critical evaluation (530c3-4). (9) As Socrates articulates the rhapsodic techne, the rhapsode:
... must learn the poet's thought ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), not just his verses--that is enviable! I mean, no one would ever get to be a good rhapsode if he didn't understand what is meant ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) by the poet. A rhapsode must serve as the interpreter ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of the thought of the poet for his audience. It is impossible to do this well ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) (10) without knowing what the poet means. (530b8-c5) (11)
On this account, the rhapsode is an interpreter, a [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]: the word is the etymological ancestor of 'hermeneutics' and derives from Hermes, the messenger god. (12) As an interpreter, the rhapsode must transmit the poet's thought--his message--to the audience with as little distortion as possible. Thus, the thought intended by the poet is a regulative ideal for the rhapsodic techne. (13) The rhapsode's performance can be appraised on the basis of how well it represents the poet's intentions. (14)
The rhapsode's critical interpretation involves both explaining the thought of the poet and taking an evaluative stance toward it. According to Socrates, any techne will have  a determinate subject-matter and  a unified method; the expert technician will be able to employ the method to the entire subject-matter. Ion seems to agree with this characterization of the rhapsodic techne as a theory of poetic criticism, which enables him to assess the relative merits of all poets.
When the content of poetry comes to the fore, both Socrates and Ion treat Homer as though his poetry were explicitly didactic--as a wealth of technical information. They proceed as though the 'thought' of Homer was constituted by an endorsement of the proper way to execute technai, in other words, as if Homer thinks that we should perform various activities the way he describes and imitates them in his narrative. This understanding of the 'thought' of the poet may seem very peculiar to us from the perspective of a literate culture, but it was not so for the Greeks in the 5th century, who were still emerging from an oral culture, in which important information was precisely preserved in song. (15) On this account, no critical interpretation could ever genuinely assess a passage of poetry without knowledge of the techne it described. Only experts in the relevant subjects would be so qualified. Socrates evokes the possibility that two poets might have differing 'thoughts,' for example, about divination--the art, or techne, of decoding divine messages:
S: Take all the passages where Homer and Hesiod speak of divination ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), both where they agree and disagree: who would explain these better ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), you or one of the good diviners?
I: One of the diviners. (531b3-7)
Poetry, then, is or can be true in an obvious sense, that is, it can correctly describe the method of technical disciplines and imitate them properly, i.e., to the satisfaction of the relevant technician. (16)
Given the fact that rhapsody is parasitic on poetry, any account of the former will have implications for the latter. Indeed, on the technical account, poetry must itself be a techne. (17) For, if the rhapsodic techne gives one a method or procedure for interpretation, there must be some discernible principles of poetic composition, which inform or are informed by this method. In other words, the determinate subject matter must possess clear, discoverable principles in order to account for the method's general applicability. In short, poetry itself must be a unified techne. 'There is an art of poetry as a whole,' as Socrates contends in this section (532c8-9). (18) Socrates supports this conclusion via an analogy with the other fines arts: it is because sculpture (533a6-b5) and painting (532e5-533a6) are technai that critics are able make adequate judgments about their relative merits. (19)
Let the above suffice as a sketch of the technical account. This position is untenable for several reasons. First, as Ion protests again and again, it fails to account for his excellence as a rhapsode. Thus, Ion stands as a counterexample: he is good at rhapsody, but he does not possess the knowledge that such excellence would seem to imply. By his own admission, Ion lacks familiarity with and interest in all poets (531a1-4; 533c4-8); indeed, he even claims to 'doze off' when other poets are discussed (532c2). Thus he does not possess knowledge of the alleged subject-matter of the rhapsodic techne (criterion  above). Nor does he possess some consistent means or criteria for deciding amongst these poets (criterion  above). Rather, he simply declares--without any argument at all--Homer's verse to be superior (531d6-11). Thus, he fails to possess  a unified method applicable to the entire field of poetry. Ion thus fails to possess the knowledge that would qualify him to adjudicate amongst competing poets. As Socrates argues, the ability to explain why one speaker on a topic is good implies the ability to explain why others are bad, and vice versa (531d-532a). This is not necessarily decisive, however, because the possibility of the rhapsodic techne ought not to hinge on a single counterexample. Ion may be very lucky.
The second problem has to do with the viability of the rhapsodic techne itself. It is not clear that the rhapsodic techne can be said to have a determinate subject-matter, i.e., it would fail  above. If the rhapsode needs to be an expert in the topics covered in poetry, and poetry deals with everything, then the good rhapsode would have to be an expert in everything. Put differently, the rhapsodic techne has an indeterminate subject-matter. Socrates' own description of the subjects of poetry confirms this:
Doesn't Homer mainly go through tales of war, and of how people deal with each other in society--good and bad people, ordinary people and craftsmen; how the gods deal with each other and men; what happens to those in heaven and in Hades; and the births of the gods and heroes? (531c4-d1)
Homeric epic recreates the entire world and everything in it, including the moral realm. (20) If such is the subject-matter of rhapsody, then it is no techne.
A third problem concerns the extension of this line of reasoning to the poet. The poet, then, would also have to be a kind of universal expert, and this would seem to rule out the possibility that there is a poetic techne. Now the passage seems to be more like a reductio ad absurdum of the possibility of Ion's rhapsodic expertise: If Ion is an expert, then he would possess the rhapsodic techne. If there is a rhapsodic techne, then it has  a determinate subject matter and  a unified method. If it does, then the poetic techne possesses  a determinate subject matter and  a unified method. Actual poetry does not possess ; (21) therefore, there can be no rhapsodic techne. Because there is no rhapsodic techne, Ion cannot be an expert by possessing it.
To this one might add two final and not inconsequential complaints. First, this conception of the rhapsodic skill takes no account of rhapsodic performance, and this is arguably the distinctive expertise of the rhapsode. Second, the conception of the rhapsodic skill takes no account of the esthetic qualities of poetry, like beauty, in which case poetry might just as well be prose, and the poets, consigned to imitating technical disciplines, might just as well be technites. (22) To put this point another way, the technical account focuses on the content of poetry to the exclusion of its form. For all these reasons, we should reject it as an inadequate conception of rhapsody and poetry.
2 The Inspired Account
In the next section of the dialogue (533d-536d), the emphasis shifts from criticism and interpretation to poetic composition and performance, and the beauty of poetry becomes central. Socrates makes divine inspiration a necessary condition of writing beautiful poetry: it is 'not by techne but by being inspired ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and possessed... [that poets] compose beautiful poetry' (533e5-8). (23) The articulation of the inspired view seems itself inspired, since it employs rich poetic images and metaphors throughout. The technical account of poetry, by contrast, lacks a spiritual resonance entirely. (24) It is this section for which the Ion has been historically famous or infamous: Shelley found 'the true basis for a defense of poetry' in it; (25) Goethe saw an attack on poetry with 'Aristophanic malice.' (26)
When Socrates describes the composition of verses, he goes to great length to emphasize the poet's lack of agency. Using the metaphor of frenzied religious festival celebration, Socrates compares the poets to Corybantic dancers and Bacchic revelers. But the primary analogue to the inspired poet is the diviner, or inspired seer. (27) This passive understanding of the poet presents a stark contrast with the technical account whose framework assumes that the thought of the poet is the goal of interpretation. On the inspired view, the poets have no thoughts to interpret, at least not when they are composing. While composing, the poets are quite literally out of their minds. (28)
It is rather the Muse who plays a seminal role in poetic production. Using the metaphor of a magnet and iron rings, Socrates describes how the Muse begins a chain of inspiration: (29)
It's a divine power ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) that moves you, as a "magnetic" stone moves iron rings... This stone not only pulls those rings, if they are iron, it also puts power in the rings, so that they in turn can do just what the stone does--pull other rings... In this same way, the Muse makes some people inspired herself, and then through those who are inspired a chain of other enthusiasts is suspended. (533d3-e5)
With the Muse functioning as the magnetic force, the first ring in the chain is the poet. Socrates makes clear that the god speaks through the poet: 'the god himself is the one speaking ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) these things and through these poets, speaks ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) to us' (534d3-5). While the sounds come through the poets, the poets, like diviners, are merely the passive vehicle for the god's intended meaning:
[T]hese beautiful poems are not human nor are they from humans but they are divine and from the gods; these poets are nothing other than interpreters ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of the gods (534e2-5).
One should notice that, on this account, interpretation has the sense of 'passive transmission'--a stark contrast to its more active meaning in the technical account. (30) The poet, as interpreter, deserves no credit for his own poetry and he is barely afforded even a potentially disruptive role; at most, one could say that the poet is blessed. (31)
This account relegates the rhapsode to the role of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], an interpreter of interpreters (535a9). As the 'middle ring' in the chain of inspiration, his mediating function makes him twice removed from the source. An upshot of this account is that it can make sense of Ion's exclusive interest in Homer's poetry (536b-c). The other poets simply do not inspire Ion. (32) Since Homer does inspire him, Ion is drawn to Homer, and others in the audience are drawn to Homer through him. Ion's excellence as a rhapsode has to do with his being inspired and, thus, inspiring others: he is, in short, a link in the chain of inspiration.
When Socrates focuses on the poetic quality of the verses and their beauty, (33) he recognizes esthetic considerations, e.g., lyrical features of the verses, ignored in the technical account of poetry. Beauty becomes the criterion for the goodness of poetry. In articulating this view, Socrates employs highly poetic language as a kind of performative demonstration. His metaphors are richly drawn and articulated in a religious and almost ecstatic tone: (34)
[Poets] are not in their right minds when they compose these beautiful lyrics, but as soon as they sail into harmony and rhythm they are possessed by Bacchic frenzy... Poets tell us that they gather songs at honey-flowing springs, from glades and gardens of the Muses, and that they bear songs to us as bees carry honey, flying like bees. And what they say is true. For a poet is an airy thing, winged and holy... (534a1-b4)
In the inspired account, we find a preponderance of words relating to [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. The concern with beauty marks a shift away from the technical account's concern with correctness. Poems have immense value, coming as gifts from the gods, but it is not clear that they can be true in any sense. One can experience the divinely inspired vision of the poet through his poems and thus experience a poem's beauty. As the standard by which poetry is judged, beauty, conceived of as harmony and rhythm on this account, is the outward manifestation of that vision. (35)
Turning to Ion's actual performances--absent from the technical account --we see that emotion is central to the inspired account. Ion vividly describes the way he works himself up into an emotional frenzy when he performs a particularly jarring and passionate scene (535c-d). According to Socrates, Ion's 'inspired soul believes [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] that it is present at the events' that are described and enacted (535c1-3). When Ion illustrates his effect on the audience, he focuses on the emotional state that he induces in them, indeed, the way that Ion's own experience is reproduced in the spectator (535d8-9). When Ion performs an emotionally jarring scene, the audience members are crying, terrified and amazed (535e1-6). Thus, they too believe that they are present at these wondrous events. They are passive recipients of the inspiration which moves Ion.
Though Socrates' exposition is shot through with irony and exaggeration, I have reconstructed the view as though it were seriously meant. In critiquing the view, I will be giving voice to what the irony indicates. Indeed, one finds that there are several reasons for dissatisfaction. First, as with the technical account, this account fails to account for Ion's own activity. When Ion finally realizes that the account subtly mocks him, he protests: 'You're a good speaker, Socrates, but I would be amazed if you could speak well enough to convince me that I am possessed or crazed when I praise Homer' (536d4-7). Socrates' account overstates the degree to which the rhapsode gives up his agency. For example, Socrates claims:
Are we to say that this man is in his right mind at times like these: when he's at festivals or celebrations, all dressed up in fancy clothes and golden crowns, and he weeps, though he's lost none of his finery; or when he's standing amongst millions of friendly people and is terrified, though no one is undressing or harming him? (535d1-5) (36)
In short, Socrates' account makes the rhapsodes out to be delusional lunatics, and while Ion is surely unintelligent, he is certainly not insane. (37)
Second, we might extend this line of criticism to the author and the audience, the two other main links in the chain of inspiration. Since what is transferred from poet to rhapsode to audience is a kind of experience of being carried away, an implication of the view seems to be that poets and audiences are, when inspired, just as crazy as the rhapsodes. In describing the poet's composition, Socrates says 'he is not able to make poetry until he becomes inspired [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and goes out of his mind [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and his intellect is no longer in him [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]' (534b4-6). Through this accumulation of near-synonymous expressions, Socrates effectively executes a move from inspiration to insanity. (38) In addition, while we might agree that there is some sense in which the audience gives up its agency when it is transported into the world of the poet through the rhapsode, (39) as with the rhapsode, Socrates' presentation makes the audience seem like it is completely insane, and this seems unwarranted.
Third, Ion presents a counterexample when he claims to notice the effect of his performance from the rostrum. One would think that, being divinely inspired, Ion would be unable to remember or comment on the effect of performance, but Ion always has his eyes on the proverbial prize:
I look down at the audience from the rostrum, and they are crying and looking terrified, and as the stories are told, they are filled with amazement. I must keep my wits and pay close attention to them: if I start them crying, I will laugh as I take their money, but if they laugh, I shall cry at having lost money. (535e1-6)
For this to be possible, the inspired account must be wrong. How could someone who is possessed and out of his mind pay enough attention to the audience to make calculations concerning his potential earnings? (40) What Ion describes is a plausible enough scenario for a performer and would seem to present a more general problem with the account, and not just an idiosyncratic one about Ion. Socrates overstates the irrational and non-cognitive aspect of rhapsodic performance, i.e., he makes the poets and rhapsodes out to be far more passive than they are or even could possibly be. (41)
Fourth, at the end of the account, Socrates extends the magnetic chain of inspiration to include the audience and draws out to absurdity the implications of the magnet metaphor. He includes iron rings hanging off to the side and the chain of inspiration becomes unwieldy. Not only are poets, rhapsodes and audiences inspired, but so is anyone who has anything to do with poetic production and performance, including the choral performers, chorus trainers and assistant chorus trainers. What is lost entirely by the magnet metaphor is the content of the poetry--in the end, there are no 'thoughts' at all and the only thing 'produced' by the Muse is more inspiration. Socrates is surely right to deny that Ion has knowledge and even that there is no rhapsodic techne. However, one might say that the core problem with the inspired account is that it pushes the inspiration line so far that there is no discursive content in the poems at all, nor for that matter in the minds of poets, rhapsodes or audiences. Pushing the magnet metaphor further, we would have to vacate the minds of the choral performers, chorus trainers and assistant chorus trainers as well. Again, this seems to go well beyond what is warranted. Indeed, Plato's strategy here is similar to the reductio used to disarm the technical account; by amplifying the core components of the view to absurdity, Socrates mocks and undermines them. (42) For the reasons stated, we should reject the inspired account.
3. An Oracular Account
Both the technical account and the inspired account seem at least initially to be endorsed by the dialogue, but neither supplies a satisfactory account of rhapsody or poetry. As with the technical account, the inspired account fails to find a source for Ion's excellence in rhapsody and his alleged expertise. The two models provides two completely different origins as authorities (poet or gods) to which Ion might appeal in order to verify his expertise. As I have shown, neither account is adequate. One provides such an exaggerated focus on knowledge and content that it leaves out considerations of inspiration and beauty; the other provides such an exaggerated focus on inspiration and beauty that it leaves out considerations of knowledge and content. Part of Plato's purpose is to show that no account of poetry would afford rhapsody with an appropriate authority to ground Ion's rhapsodic alleged wisdom. On both accounts, Ion is the passive recipient of the authority's wisdom and his self-conception is dictated by his relationship to that authority.
I suggest that the dialogue points to, though never fully articulates, a view--what I call 'the oracular account'--which draws from both the technical and inspired accounts but eschews the need for an originating authority. Thus, there is some truth in both accounts, though each is, on its own, false. (43) I defend and elaborate on this suggestion in three ways in this section. First, Socrates, in discussing three passages from Homer (536d-538d), uses the term [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ambiguously: he initially employs [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] to mean 'correctly,' i.e., in a way that conforms to the technical account, but then he uses it to mean 'beautifully,' i.e., in a way that resists the technical account and conforms to the inspired account. Through this ambiguity, the dialogue points to a more fundamental unity and provides the impetus for a combination of the two views. Second, in discussion of the passages suitable for a diviner to judge (538d-539d), Socrates chooses passages which highlight two different aspects of divination: inspired vision of future events and technical interpretation of signs. Thus, the figure of the diviner, who can be either passively inspired or a technites, provides a second impetus for a view of rhapsody and poetry that incorporates both inspiration and technique. Finally, I fill out some of the details of this account using the model of the oracle, a kind of divination which explicitly incorporates both inspired vision and technical interpretation.
3.1 The Ambiguity of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]
When Ion retreats back to the technical view, Socrates puts him to the test by citing three passages from Homer and asking who would best judge Homer's account. The first Homeric passage Socrates and Ion discuss describes 'what Nestor said to Antilochus' about driving a chariot (537a2). What is at issue is: 'who will know whether Homer speaks correctly ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in these lines' (537c1). Nestor counsels Antilochus about managing a turn in a chariot race; he gives direct, specific guidance on the appropriate way to lean, use the reins and handle the horses. (44) The passage is thus quite congenial to analysis by a technical expert. When Socrates poses his question a second time, he substitutes [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] for [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; he asks: 'who will know better whether Homer speaks [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], you or a charioteer?' (538b2-3). The questions are taken to be identical by Ion, and indeed, in most cases, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] are interchangeable. (45)
In the second Homeric passage, Socrates recites a section of the Iliad in which Homer narrates 'how Hecamede, Nestor's woman, gave to the wounded Machaon a barley potion to drink' (538b). (46) It is unclear whether this passage depicts a medical treatment rather than, say, a few people sitting around having a drink together. Socrates asks:
Whether Homer speaks [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (correctly) or not, would this be diagnosed [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (beautifully? correctly?) by the doctor's profession ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), or the rhapsode's ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])? (538c4-5)
In asking whether a doctor would diagnose [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] whether Homer speaks [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Socrates somewhat surprisingly juxtaposes [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] with the doctor's expertise and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] with Homer's poetry; one might expect that the doctor would diagnose [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Homer would compose [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], not the other way around. In this subtle way, the dialogue unsettles the first example's semantic identity of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and reveals an ambiguity in the sense of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].
The third passage Socrates invokes has Homer narrating a simile of Iris traveling to fetch Thetis (Il. 24.80-2):
Leaden she plunged to the floor of the sea like a weight That is fixed to a land cow's horn. Given to the hunt It goes among ravenous fish, carrying death. (538d1-3)
Socrates asks if the rhapsode or the fisherman would know whether in these lines, Homer speaks [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or not. Here, the notion of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] falls to the side, but the ambiguity of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is most evident. Homer's similes are one of his distinctive stylistic achievements; they are not simple comparisons. According to Lesky, Homeric similes 'create many correspondences, include a brilliant wealth of detail, and give depth and coloring to the action they describe.' (47) A fisherman would almost certainly not be expected to give a proper assessment of these lines. The technical account seeks to make all poetry univocal and thus genial to interpretation; the use of metaphorical speech problematizes the univocal understanding of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in the technical sense (as 'correctly') and invites us to acknowledge the existence of its esthetic sense (as 'beautifully'). Even if the fisherman tells us that Homer has correctly described weighted fishing hooks by acknowledging the fact that hooks are often connected to a cow's horn, he will have assessed the passage in a superficial way and have missed its esthetic qualities entirely.
What these successive analyses open up for, I suggest, is the possible coexistence of beauty and correctness. This is not, in itself, implausible: surely a line of poetry can be both correct (to the extent that it properly imitates some aspect of the world) and beautiful (to the extent that such a line is harmonious and rhythmic). If this is right, then [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--techne and inspiration--are compatible, and this points us toward the possibility of an account of poetry, which conceives of it as both technical and inspired. Indeed, there may be both a deeper sense of beauty and a deeper sense of correctness implied here--whereby they do not merely overlap in an incidental way (a technically correct imitation that happens to be beautiful) but come together in a more fundamental way. They do come together, I suggest, in the notion of divine truth. (48) While technical correctness concerns imitating the practical activities of a craftsman, divine truth concerns the underlying structure of reality, which is the object of the philosopher's inquiries. (49) While superficial beauty concerns the formal features of verse, i.e., their pleasure-giving harmony and rhythm, (50) the deeper sort of beauty--understood as divine truth--concerns the harmony and rhythm of the cosmos, i.e., its order, which makes it knowable and ripe for inquiry. (51) If this deeper, philosophical sense of beauty is gestured at in these passages, an important question remains: whether and to what extent the poet can represent this beauty in his poetry and thus transmit truth to his audience. I return to this question later in section 3.3.
3.2 Two Kinds of Divination
Given the use of divination both as a paradigmatic techne in the technical account (Socrates' very first example at 531b) and as a primary analogy for poetic inspiration in the inspired account (534d), it is surely interesting that Socrates comes back to it yet again in quoting two long passages from Homer (539a-d). Its role, I suggest, is to provide a model for the compatibility of techne and inspiration. Continuing his refutation of Ion's view of himself as a technical expert, Socrates asks for (and supplies) passages in Homer which are supposed to be appropriate for a diviner to judge. Two features of the passages are important: first, the passages are in fact pointedly inappropriate passages for a diviner to judge; second, each passage would require the judgment of a different kind of diviner. (52)
In the first passage (Odyssey XX.351-7), (53) Theoclymenus perceives that Athena has made Penelope's suitors mad, and he has an inspired vision of their impending deaths. It does not take a diviner to know that Theoclymenus has truly seen their coming deaths. Anyone familiar with the Odyssey knows that he is right about that. In fact, Socrates alluded to the very scene in which Odysseus slays the suitors earlier in the dialogue (535b). But in order somehow to judge the passage for technical accuracy, another diviner would need the impossible: access to the inspired vision. While the future to which the vision refers is available to any reader of the Odyssey, the inspired vision itself is located in the mind of the seer. In the second passage (Iliad XII.200-7), Homer describes an eagle's encounter with a snake. Here we have a different problem. We are told the bird-sign, but not its interpretation. (54) How could a diviner know if the mere description of a bird's struggle with a snake is well, correctly or beautifully done? There is nothing for a diviner to judge without knowing the interpretation. (55)
The different ways that these passages are unsuitable for analysis by an expert highlights the significant differences between the types of divination implicated. (56) The first case fails because of the inaccessibility of a divinely inspired vision, and the latter, because the omen does not become comprehensible as a divine sign prior to its interpretation as such. If the inspired account is right about the fully passive and irrational nature of inspiration, then the inspired vision itself would require a rational interpretation in order for the content or meaning of the vision to be rationally understood. Otherwise, it could not play a role in practical reasoning. The figure of the diviner is on the border, as it were, between techne and inspiration. This passage not only provides a second impetus for a view that combines techne and inspiration, but it suggests using the analogy of divination to help formulate it.
3.3 The Oracular Model
Given the two impetuses for a combination of the technical and inspired views and the prevalence of divination in the dialogue, I use the example of oracular divination, which incorporates both inspired vision and rational interpretation, in order to fill out some details of this account. (57) An oracle, e.g., the oracle at Delphi, contains a divine seer and a technical seer, the prophetes. The divine seer has a more direct relationship with the god; ecstatic and possessed, she is the passive vehicle of the god's message. But such proclamations must be rationally interpreted. Consider Plato's own description of this process from the Timaeus:
While he is in his right mind, no one engages in divination, however divinely inspired and true it may be, but only when his power of understanding is bound in sleep or by sickness, or when some sort of possession works a change in him. On the other hand, it takes a man who has his wits about him to recall and ponder the pronouncements produced by this state of divination or possession, whether in sleep or while awake. It takes such a man to thoroughly analyze any and all visions to determine how and for whom they signify some future, past or present good or evil... This is the reason why it is customary practice to appoint prophets (7rpo<j)V]T&)v) to render judgment on an inspired divination. (71e3-72b1) (58)
At Delphi, the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] interprets the fragmentary message uttered by the divine seer into dactylic hexameter as an ambiguous response, (59) which in turn has to be further interpreted by whoever asked the oracle for help. (60) This means that inside the oracle itself, two motions are contained, one divine and the other technical. Once the oracular response is given to the petitioner, yet another interpretation must be conducted in order to make sense of the oracle's ambiguous reply. Crucially, the petitioner begins the whole process by actively seeking out the answer to an important question; since the petitioner must see something true in the text of the oracle's response to her question and interpret that response, the petitioner and the oracle engage in a kind of dialogue.
It is worth pausing here to look at the Apology and Socrates' own response to the Oracle at Delphi's proclamation to Chaerephon that 'there is no one wiser' than Socrates (21a6-8). Socrates considered it to present a 'riddle' (21b4), was initially 'at a loss to the god's meaning' (21b7), and then set about an 'investigation' in order to attempt to 'refute the oracle' (21c1). Socrates thus sought to interpret the oracle's meaning and only after he could not manage to refute the oracle's apparent content did he accept its proclamation as legitimate. Socrates initially assumed that the oracle means that he is wise in the sense of possessing divine wisdom, and on that basis approached the supposed experts; but he later came to realize that there is a human sort of wisdom--worth very little--that is being attributed to him (20d-e; 23a-a). Thus, the proper interpretation only emerged after much testing and inquiry. Socrates claims that 'the god does not lie' (21b6); however, the authority of the proclamation does not merely stand on its own. (61) Socrates, in short, subjects the oracular pronouncement to rational testing, without which he would have had no real understanding of the oracle's pronouncement and no guidance as to how to respond to the oracle from a practical standpoint, i.e., how to live and what to do.
How does this account of oracular divination help us to understand what the Ion suggests about poetry, inspiration and techne? I have argued that the dialogue, by showing the inadequacy of both the inspired and technical accounts of poetry, points us in the direction of a combination. This is not accomplished by the dialogue, but rather suggested by it. Thus, in attempting to fill in the details of the oracular account, I am inevitably going beyond what the dialogue explicitly offers. (62) I take as my model the three steps contained in the oracular paradigm, and this model provides me with a way of understanding the origin of poetry, its value and the proper way to approach it.
On the view of the origin of good poetry that I am suggesting, steps one and two are both internal to the poet: the poet plays the role of both the divine seer and the technical interpreter. (63) The Muse inspires the poet, who must interpret the vision and, using poetic techniques, gives it expression in rhythmic and harmonious verse. Thus, the poet and the Muse are both, in their own ways, responsible for the poem. The poet may be responsible for any superficial beauty and correctness the poem might have, but only the Muse can be said to be responsible for a poem's deep beauty. (64) This explains how the poets can 'say many beautiful things without any understanding of what they say' (Ap. 22c2-3). (65) Socrates nowhere denies that the poets say many beautiful things; he even goes so far as to claim that they 'say many true things' (Meno 99c3-5). What he denies consistently is that knowledge can be attributed to them on that basis.
Indeed, if we take Socrates to mean deep beauty here, then we have an explanation for why Plato pays attention to, quotes and analyzes poetry so frequently in his dialogues. (66) On this view, the poet's audience must interpret the poetic articulation of the inspired vision to see where its truth lies, i.e., one must subject the poem to rational scrutiny. (67) It is only through this active process of testing and investigating that the truth of the poet's vision can be accessed by another.
Just as the oracular model requires that the oracle's petitioner take an active role in interpreting the oracle's meaning, so too does this model of poetry require that the audience take an active part in approaching a work of poetry, determining its meaning and using it in order to seek the truth. Unlike with the oracle, however, one does not have a guarantee that there will be some truth in the poem. On the inspired account, only good poets are inspired (533e), and only when they are writing good poems (534d-e). (68) It is simply not possible to know ahead of time whether a poet has been inspired by the Muse, or whether he is merely an inferior poetic technites. (69) The poem itself must be tested, and if a deeper truth emerges from one's reflections on the poem, only then can we conclude, retrospectively as it were, that the poet was inspired when he wrote it. (70) Indeed, one must be careful not to confuse merely superficial beauty with the deeper kind, though this is in practice difficult to do. The value of poetry consists in its deep beauty and correctness, i.e., in its divinely inspired truth. (71) There is, by contrast, little value in technical correctness or superficial beauty, and its similarity to deep beauty makes its positively dangerous (more on this below in [section] 4). A poem may very well properly imitate the charioteer using verses that are harmonious and rhythmic, but this does not imply that the poem contains any deeper beauty that may be uncovered by reflection. It should be emphasized that neither in the case of a poem that has superficial beauty and correctness nor in the case of one with deep beauty are we warranted in attributing any content-knowledge to the poet. By extension, then, neither the rhapsode nor the audience can be said to have knowledge on the basis of their familiarity with a poet.
The oracular model, I suggest, shifts the focus away from uncovering the nature of poetic composition and origin of poetic authority and refocuses attention on the audience of poetry. The process of investigation that the poem provokes becomes central, and the poet as authority figure recedes. Indeed, to ask about the authority of the poet is to ask the wrong question--because it assumes that poets can be counted on to be reliable guides to truth. They cannot, and poetry cannot transmit truth to a passively receptive audience. (72) Poetry can, however, help us to see matters in a certain way by sparking an insight, but the truth of the vision is only accessible to an individual who interprets and critically engages the insight for herself, in short, who approaches the poem as a philosopher. A work of poetry, like an oracle, does not wear truth on its sleeves. (73) The oracular model, as I suggested at the outset, is anti-authoritative, and the role of poetry is subordinate to the pursuit of truth. By encouraging the active engagement of the audience and downplaying the authority of the poet, this oracular model guards against the danger that poetry might supply one with a false sense of wisdom, as in the case of Ion. More positively, poetry can be the impetus to philosophical reflection; (74) it can provoke an insight, but that insight should not be the endpoint of interpretive and critical reflection but rather a beginning. In this way, poetry can put one on the quest for wisdom. (75)
One may have noticed that the rhapsode has vanished from this model. Indeed, on the positive view that I am defending, the rhapsode loses any importance he might have been thought to possess. Only on one of the false authoritative models does the rhapsode really have anything to offer. Indeed, on the oracular model, the rhapsode, one might say, is replaced by the philosopher. However, as I will show in the last section, the figure of Ion as a rhapsode is crucially important to the critical implications of the dialogue and the threat that taking poetry as authoritative poses towards one's self-knowledge and identity. This threat is clearest of all in the portrayal of Ion in the dialogue's final section (539e-542b).
4 The Philosophical Purpose of the Comic Figure of Ion
Many scholars have noticed that the Ion, amongst Plato's dialogues, seems particularly comedic. (76) Woodruff calls the Ion a 'comic' dialogue; Oates, 'high comedy'; Wilamowitz, an 'Aristophanean farce.' (77) The dialogue was declared spurious in the 19th century by 'scholars who could not see how a work could be both comic and seriously philosophical.' (78) Despite the wide acknowledgement of the comic character of the dialogue, no scholar that I know of has tried to incorporate the comedic elements into a coherent interpretation of the dialogue as a whole. I wish to focus my analysis on Plato's portrayal of Ion as a comic imposter, or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], especially as he appears at the very end of the dialogue (539e-542b). One common complaint about the dialogue is that, put bluntly, Ion is just so dumb. (79) This fact has forced scholars to speculate as to the real target of the dialogue, as Ion's stupidity is thought to be unhelpful and even distracting from the philosophical content of the dialogue. I hope to make some sense of this with my analysis--to show how something philosophically significant is brought out through the character of Ion. (80) In short, the portrayal of Ion as an imposter shows how treating poets as authorities makes one ridiculous and self-ignorant.
The comic imposter, a standard figure from Old Comedy, is 'an impudent and absurd pretender' who attempts to lay claim to that what he does not deserve. (81) In the Philebus, Socrates defines the 'ridiculous' or the 'laughable' as a dispositional lack of self-knowledge, most commonly instantiated as a pretension to wisdom (48e). Socrates glosses this condition as standing in direct opposition to the Delphic inscription to 'Know thyself' (48c6-9). In Ion's case, appealing to Homer's authority, the rhapsode falsely believes himself to be wise. Socrates exposes this lack of self-knowledge, first by ironically submitting to Ion's authority through ironic praise (530b5-c6), and then by undermining that authority through the failed attempts to explain it. Both the technical and inspired accounts subtly mocked Ion--the first by insisting that he possessed far more knowledge than possible, the second by making him out to be insane. Throughout the dialogue, Socrates attempts to subvert Ion's false self-conception, generated by his purported access to the authority of Homeric wisdom; in my view, he does not do this simply to expose and mock Ion but rather to open up for him the possibility of self-knowledge and thus philosophy. Plato, by letting us see what Ion in the end does not see--that his claim to wisdom makes him absurd--cautions us against taking his dialogues as authoritative sources of wisdom and rather asks us to take them as an invitation to philosophy. (82)
In the last section of the dialogue, the arguments take on a pointedly ad hominem character, with Socrates trying to get Ion finally to think for himself. When Socrates tries to force Ion to take ownership of his views by pointing out that he holds logically incompatible claims, Ion simply shifts his position. When asked what Homeric passages are appropriate for a rhapsode to judge, Ion initially says 'every single one of them' (536e); and even after Ion has conceded that some passages are the provenance of technical experts, he still claims to be an expert concerning 'all of the [passages]' in Homer (539e6). An exasperated Socrates exclaims: 'No, Ion! You do not say, "All of them"!' (539e7), pointing out the contradiction. Socrates then mockingly supposes that Ion has forgotten what he has just agreed to but, recalling a similar barb in Hippias Major, rescinds it immediately: 'It wouldn't be fitting for a rhapsode to be forgetful!' (539e7-9). (83) When Socrates reminds Ion that, on Ion's own view (540a6), there are passages that fall outside of the rhapsode's expertise, Ion attempts to marginalize these passages by casting them as 'exceptions'; as Socrates points out, these 'exceptions' extend throughout the entirety of the Homeric corpus, which, as we saw, deals with 'everything' (540b).
Socrates fails to get Ion to take a stand, and the latter grasps at yet another position, claiming to know 'what's fitting to say for a man or a woman, or for a slave or a free man, or for a follower or a leader' (540b3). We begin to see here that the problem is not merely that Ion cannot stake out a philosophical position, but that his professional obsession has left him with an identity problem. He is, in a way, the sum of the characters he plays, but only in the most superficial way. He does not seem to understand the distinction between knowing what someone would say and possessing the knowledge that makes what is said appropriate. Thus, in this final attempt to formulate his expertise, Ion comes across as most absurd. Though admitting that he would not know what navigator, doctor, cowherd and woolworker should say, when asked whether he would know what a general should say, Ion jumps on it: 'Yes! The rhapsode will know that sort of thing' (540d2-3). He claims that the general's techne and the rhapsode's are identical, but--naturally enough--refuses the implication that all good generals are good rhapsodes. Since he is the best rhapsode in Greece, Ion agrees that he must also be the best general in Greece:
S: Are you also a general, Ion? Are you the best in Greece?
I: Know it well, Socrates--this too I learned from Homer's poetry! (541b3-5)
Socrates seizes upon this with a wickedly ironic rebuke: 'Why in the name of all that is holy, if you are both the best general and the best rhapsode, do you bother to go around Greece rhapsodizing when you could be leading an army?' (541b6-8). Ion's response, that his hometown of Ephesus is ruled by Athens and that the Athenians and Spartans think they are adequate to the task, implies that he would be willing to fight for either of the two main powers locked in a war for nearly 30 years. (84)
Socrates provides some examples of foreign generals fighting for Athens and proceeds to compare Ion to Proteus: (85)
Really, you are just like Proteus; you twist up and down and take many different shapes, until finally you've escaped me altogether by turning yourself into a general, so as to avoid proving how wonderfully wise you are about Homer. (541e6-542a1)
In the Odyssey, Proteus takes all sorts of different forms in order to scare off anyone trying to ask him a question (4.385ff.). Socrates' charge against Ion is obviously apt; Ion has endorsed and dropped positions without the slightest hesitation. He has explicitly endorsed inconsistent claims, and his thoughtlessness extends to that most important question of who he is.By claiming to be a general, Ion has simply continued a trend that he started at the beginning of the dialogue. Ion has no self-knowledge; worse, he hardly has a stable self-conception. (86) This is because of his shallow and unreflective relationship to himself. Ion cannot engage in a proper dialogue because he will not offer his own views; instead, he consistently relies on the authority of Homer. The one thing he emphatically claims to know about himself is his superior and exclusive expertise with respect to Homer (533c).
Ion's particular self-ignorance embodies two distinct tendencies: as rhapsode, Ion plays a dual role of both interpreter and performer. As performer, Ion's self-conception is determined by his rhapsodic performances; he thus mistakes himself for the characters he imitates. (87) Through his ability to plausibly reproduce various characters for his audience, Ion convinces himself that he is adequate to the tasks for which they are genuinely qualified. Not only does this harm his self-knowledge but it proves problematic for the stability of his very identity. As interpreter, Ion lets his conception of the world be dictated to him by Homer, thus losing himself in the world of the poet. (88) Just as he persuasively reproduces his characters for his own audience as performer, so too does Homer's poetry persuasively recreate the world to which Ion lays claim as interpreter. His passivity with respect to the authority of Homer makes him an imposter, a laughable figure who is simply incapable of thinking for himself.
Though neither the technical nor inspired accounts were satisfactory, Ion cannot escape the dilemma: he endorses the technical account until reduced to aporia (533c) and the inspired account until he understands that it makes him into a kind of lunatic (536d); but then he simply reverts to the technical model, which he abandons for the inspired model again at the very end of the dialogue (542b). At the end, Socrates presents Ion with the choice: either he is divine or unjust. If Ion has a techne, he should be able to give an explanation of it; since he does not, Ion is either unjust (because he refuses) or he is unable (in which case he has no techne but is divine). Ion replies, 'It's much lovelier [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] to be thought divine' (542b1-2). This final response shows that Ion ultimately does not care whether either account is true--he only cares about the extent to which each justifies his special claim to authority. Here we see the ambiguity of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in play again, and it is clear that Ion's own ideas about beauty only amount to the most superficial kind of estheticism. Not only is Ion not oriented toward the deeper beauty of truth, but because his passive submission to the authority of Homer has left him unable to think for himself, he cannot see any other alternatives, much less begin to formulate them.
As the dialogues in general amply attest, there are many paths to self-ignorance and many purported authorities promising wisdom. Plato's use of comic technique in drawing Ion's character reveals Ion as a pretender to wisdom with no self-knowledge. Ion becomes a ridiculous figure at whom we are meant to laugh. But the laughter is hopefully not without philosophical fruit. When we laugh, we negatively assess Ion for his lack of self-knowledge. More importantly, the laughter can remind us to take the opportunity to reflect on ourselves in order to ensure that we do not fall prey to the same seduction. Indeed, we are invited to see some of our own attitudes towards Homer and poetry reflected in the character of Ion. (89) In showing us the figure of Ion as a comic imposter, and tying his lack of self-knowledge explicitly to an inauthentic relationship to Homer's poetry, Plato shows us precisely how not to read to his own dialogues. Ion passes on Socrates' invitation to philosophy. We should not make the same mistake with Plato's.
I hope to have resolved the three interpretive difficulties I mentioned at the outset. First, both poetry and rhapsody are targets of the dialogue, but the core target is the conception of the poets as authorities. Second, the comic presentation of Ion has a philosophical purpose, namely, portraying the deleterious effects on one's character, if one takes the poets as authorities. Third, the dialogue endorses neither the technical nor the inspired accounts, because they both make poetry out to be authoritative, but rather gestures toward an oracular model which is anti-authoritative. Good poetry is oriented toward provoking a critical, philosophical reaction in its audience, and it would seek to avoid being cited as an authoritative store of wisdom. The Platonic dialogue, I suggest, is the exemplar of this conception of good poetry insofar as it attempts to inspire in its audience critical examination rather than passive acceptance. It aims, in short, at a philosophical response. (90) Any interpretation of Plato that takes what the dialogues try to show us as provocations for serious philosophical inquiry is prima facie an interpretation in the spirit of the dialectical nature of the dialogues. The dialogues point us not in the direction of their author, but right back to ourselves. They invite us to follow the philosophical tracks that Plato has left us in his dialogue in order to seek the truth.
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(1) Flashar 1958 claims that the Ion concerns the sophists; Tigerstedt 1969, poetry and the notion of poetical inspiration; Murray 1996, the authority of poets; LaDriere 1951, the criticism of poetry; and Dorter 1973, art. See LaDriere 1951, 26-9, for further discussion of the various possible topics of the dialogue.
(2) Murray 1996, 98, claims that Ion himself is so stupid that he is not worth attacking; the real target of the dialogue must be something other than this proverbially silly rhapsode.'
(3) According to Murray 1996, 96, the debate--largely in Germany--about the authenticity of the dialogue was begun by Goethe, who saw the dialogue as little more than a satirical attack on a foolish rhapsode. See also Tigerstedt 1969, 18-20; Moore 1974, 421-4.
(4) Critics have panned Plato both for endorsing the technical account and for endorsing the inspired account, and for good reasons which I shall lay out in [section][section] 1-2. Some commentators, especially the Romantics, have found the inspired account congenial: see e.g., Schaper 1968, 35-8, 120-34. On Shelley's Defense of Poetry, which admires and draws from the inspired account: see Murray 1996, 31-2; Stern-Gillet 2004, 192-194. As several scholars have noticed, Shelley does not seem to be aware of Socrates' irony in the passage: see e.g., Haines 1997, 80. United in their opposition to the Romantic reading are Woodruff 1982; Pappas 1989; Stern-Gillet 2004.
(5) Part of what makes the rhapsode important is his role as mediator between the poet and the poet's audience. Dorter 1973, 66, claims that the rhapsode provides the 'double perspective' of poet and audience. I will not be claiming that the dialogue exclusively targets rhapsody; this would be hard to justify because the discipline of rhapsody is parasitic on that of poetry. Indeed, I claim that poets, poetry and a particular attitude towards poetry are crucial targets as well. That there was a tradition of rhapsodic interpretation seems well established by Richardson 2006. Despite the certain affinities between rhapsodic and sophistic interpretation (see note 75 below), and thus the ways in which the criticism of the former would also apply to the latter, I see no reason to see the sophists as standing behind Ion as Plato's 'real' targets in the dialogue, as Flashar 1958 claims. For a judicious refutation of Flashar, see Tigerstedt 1969,22-5.
(6) Techne can be translated as 'art,' 'craft,' 'skill,' 'expertise,' or 'profession' but I will leave it, and related terms like technites, transliterated in this paper. See LSJ s.v. On the notion as employed by Plato, see Roochnik 1996.
(7) Socrates here clearly appeals to Ion's self-conception as an expert on Homer; later, when the inspired account is introduced, Socrates again appeals to Ion's sense of his own wisdom. Socrates' irony here serves both to get Ion into the conversation and to begin to expose the latter's claim to wisdom as fraudulent. Ion is, as I will argue in the last section, an imposter, or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a bombastic figure from comedy whose pretensions to wisdom are exposed. On the imposter, see note 81 below.
(8) Roochnik 1996, 1.
(9) Dorter 1973, 68, seeks to 'translate Socrates' questions about exegesis into questions about performance,' a move I find hard to justify. He claims that a separate field of literary criticism existed at that time. But this neither precludes rhapsodes from engaging into critical assessment of poetry nor justifies downplaying the critical role of the rhapsode which both Ion and Socrates avow. See Richardson 2006, who argues that there was a separate field of Homeric criticism, which included Ion and those he mentions as rival interpreters, Metrodorus of Lampsacus, Stesimbrotus of Thasos and Glaucon (530c9-d1). Further, there is nothing surprising about the mixture of performance and criticism, especially given the historical example of Aristophanes, who may well be considered the first literary critic. On Aristophanes as critic, see Grube 1965, 22-31.
(10) The use of this word in the context of the technical account is important for my interpretation in [section] 3 below. Within the parameters of the 'technical account,' [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] can only mean 'well' or 'correctly'; it almost never means 'beautifully.' In the 'inspired account,' the reverse is true. See LSJ s.v. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. See note 44 below.
(11) I translate [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as 'to mean' here in order to provide a proper object for the rhapsode's understanding corresponding to the poet's 'thought.' Socrates claims that the rhapsode needs to do more than just memorize the verse, i.e., know the words; he must know what is meant by them. See LSJ s.v. All translations of the Ion in this paper are from Woodruff's Hackett edition in Cooper 1997, with slight alterations.
(12) See LSJ s.v.
(13) One might claim that by introducing the 'intentions' of the author, I am either reading too much into the text or translating [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as both 'thought' and 'intention.' Both are perfectly acceptable translations of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]: see LSJ s.v. The main point of introducing authorial intention in this context is to emphasize what the technical account emphasizes, i.e., the author as the independent creator of his poems. The 'thoughts' underlying the verse are there because the author wants them to be there; an interpretation is right because it coheres with how the author wants his work to be interpreted. There is no unintended content, nor is there a more primordial source of content.
(14) The upshot of this approach is that it gives interpretation a determinate goal and some procedural guidelines. The downside is that the author's intentions are notoriously hard to reconstruct, a problem that has prompted some literary theorists to deny that authorial intention is at all relevant for understanding a text.
(15) As Havelock 1963, 36-60, has demonstrated, oral cultures depended on song for the retention of cultural knowledge, including technical knowledge, and it is not implausible to think that, on the cusp of moving from an oral to a literate culture, there continued to persist a strong cultural assumption about the role of poetry in society as a source of wisdom, both cultural and moral. On Homer as an encyclopedia, see Havelock 1963, 61-86. Further, as Urmson 1982, 133-4, has persuasively argued, the idea that poetry is supposed to be edifying has found its defenders in every era, and so Plato's attack on them for failing in this regard is still relevant today.
(16) The word, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], does not appear in this dialogue; however, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is implicated by the notion of correctness as a standard for poetic criticism. Dorter 1973, 71, claims that 'the conception of art as imitation is clearly implicit' in the Ion. Murray 1992, 34, also sees the notion as implicit in the dialogue, but for reasons that I do not find persuasive; in short, she thinks that the reason that Plato treats the ideas of inspiration and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] separate in his dialogues is that, for Plato, 'mimesis and inspiration are identical' (46).
(17) See Janaway 1995, 18-9, for an elegant reconstruction of the argument, which distinguishes between the critical-techne and the object-techne.
(18) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. On the proper way to translate this claim, see Stern-Gillet 2004, 184-5.
(19) Socrates adduces, in addition, the examples of flute-playing, cithara-playing and singing as being structurally similar. This has led some commentators, notably Dorter 1973, 66, to see the Ion as targeting the fine arts in general and Ion himself as a representative of art. Since the overt content of the dialogue concerns rhapsody and poetry, I will restrict my own analysis to these topics. Though I am sympathetic to much of what Dorter says, it is not clear to me that such an extension of the scope of the dialogue is warranted.
(20) On the indeterminate scope of Ion's alleged expertise as a defeating feature of his claim to have a techne, see Roochnik 1987, 285-6; as he further notes, 291n.25, poetry seems to be about everything, in philosophical parlance, the whole, but is not quite about everything. Indeed, given the focus on events and narrative, poetry does not, for example, seem to be about stable objects of knowledge.
(21) The question of whether poetry has a unified method is not directly broached in the dialogue, but, as I suggest above, the notion of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] seems implicit in the technical account.
(22) Thus, a widely made complaint in the literature is that Plato holds the poets to an unfair and inappropriate standard: see e.g., Guthrie 1975, 205.
(23) Tigerstedt 1969, 26, claims that Plato was the first Greek writer to describe poetic inspiration as possession'; on his view, inspiration' was a common motif, but not 'possession.'
(24) Arist. Po. clearly conceives of poetic production as a technical expertise and his accounts of epic poetry and especially tragedy at once delineate the theoretical bases of poetry and provide practical advice for the aspiring poet. It is interesting to note that Aristotle's Poetics de-emphasizes the mythic, religious and musical bases of poetry in general and of tragedy more particularly. On this, see Halliwell 1998, 82-108.
(25) Murray 1996, 31-2.
(26) See Tigerstedt 1969, 18-9, 26, for an account of Goethe's judgment and influence.
(27) According to Murray 1992, 33, the association between diviners and poets is 'ancient and widespread' and 'a commonplace in early Greek poetry.'
(28) This conception of poets as out of their minds when they compose has Aristophanic precursors in Ach. 395ff.; Th. 40ff. Murray 1992, 34, claims that, 'in reality the figure of the mad poet is a Platonic myth' and constitutes 'a radical break with the past.' This is only true if Plato is taken to be expounding doctrine here, as opposed to mocking the poets. If taken in the latter sense, he is firmly in line with the traditions of Old Comedy. On the possible influence of Democritus on Plato, see Tigerstedt 1969,72-6.
(29) Murray 1996, 113 notes that the magnet metaphor for inspiration has no known precursors. This use of the word seems to be the origin of our 'magnet' and its cognates.
(30) See Murray 1996, 121. See also Partee 1971.
(31) Indeed, on Socrates' account, to prove this, the Muse provided the example of Tynnichus, who apparently wrote an exceptionally beautiful and popular paean but absolutely nothing else of note (534e). He was, one might say, the world's first one-hit wonder.
(32) While in the technical account, interpretation was presented as a technical method in principle applicable to every poet, in the inspired account, interpretation is radically individuated. The poet interprets one god; the rhapsode interprets one poet. What was earlier presented as an absurdity, namely, the idea that one could interpret one poet exclusively, now seems perfectly natural.
(33) Woodruff 1982, 140-2, claims that Plato denies that there is an esthetic sense to kciTiOc. On his reckoning, Plato takes esthetic beauty to be radically distinct from the fine or beautiful itself ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). He claims that Socrates views 'mere beauty as a deception.' As I will argue, there are two senses of beauty at stake in the dialogue: one which is superficial and potentially deceptive, the other which is deeper and connected to truth. In other words, contra Woodruff, I will be claiming that Plato thinks that there is an esthetic sense to [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which is not in itself worth very much and may be deceptive. It can, however, be useful in leading us toward the deeper sense, as in Symp. 210a-e; Phdr. 249e-50d.
(34) Socrates' imagery is indeed evocative with roots in traditional Greek religion. However, Socrates' analogies are also reminiscent of comic accounts of poets. The comparison of poets to bees is traditional and generally favorable; however, the image of poets flying has mocking precursors in Ar. Pax 827ff.; Av. 1373ff. On the roots of the inspired account, see Murray 1992, 30-2.
(35) For the moral implications of harmony and rhythm, see Rep. 401d-402a; Tim. 47c-e.
(36) Cp. Ar. Ach. 410-5; Th. 149-50, for comic portrayals of the way that poets confuse themselves with their characters in real life. Such a confusion is, on my reading, a core feature of the comic portrayal of Ion (see below in [section] 4).
(37) See also Pappas 1989, 381-3, who rightly sees that the inspired account amounts to an imputation of insanity.
(38) The term [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] probably had an original medical sense of 'insanity,' since its earliest use can be found in the Hippocratic corpus. See LSJ s.v. It clearly indicates an impaired level of cognitive engagement, though, in the Lg., Plato uses [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in connection with Bacchic revelry (790e). The last term, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], though redundant, drives home the point. This line is an instance of what Stern-Gillet 2004, 178, describes as Socrates' 'cunning mix[ture of] flattering and unflattering language.'
(39) Cp. Mx. 235a-c, where Socrates describes the effect of funeral oratory on him. He feels so good about himself that he feels nearly transported to the Islands of the Blessed.
(40) This point has been noticed by other commentators: see e.g., Tigerstedt 1969, 21.
(41) Woodruff 1982 rightly finds in the Ion a radical separation of the poet from his poetry. Building on this, he concludes that the inspired individuals could not possibly compose poetry and that the inspiration story is simply false: 'Plato's story about gods and passive poets is absurd, and he cannot be sincere when he tells it' (146). I agree with this assessment of the inspired account, but as I will show in the next section, it contains certain elements of truth.
(42) See Woodruff 1983, 137, 147. On Plato's use of amplification as a parodic strategy, see Trivigno 2009; Trivigno 2012.
(43) Socrates seems to endorse the technical account at 532d8, when reflecting on the preceding discussion, he says, 'I speak nothing but the truth' and the inspired account at 534b3, when he says of the poetic descriptions of poetry: 'what they say is true.' Since they are logically incompatible, Socrates cannot mean to endorse all aspects of each account.
(44) The charioteer is the best qualified candidate for assessing these lines because the charioteer's techne includes this information. Socrates argues that each techne has its own object of knowledge and that it is only in virtue of the techne that the expert is able to judge what is done well and what not. This argument precludes the possibility that several technai might account for the knowledge of a single matter. This is, at best, a disputable claim.
(45) LSJ s.v. lists the three main senses of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as the esthetic, utilitarian and moral in that order. The adverb form, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], emphasizes the utilitarian sense; it is generally best translated as 'well' or 'correctly' and understood as the performance of some activity in accordance with its appropriate uses, methods and/or goals. It also has an adverbial sense that correspond to the esthetic and moral sense of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In artistic endeavors, note that the utilitarian and esthetic senses will overlap. On the ambiguity of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in the Ion, see also Dorter 1973, 75-6. On the wide variety of things that can be described as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], see HipMa; Symp. 210a-e.
(46) This passage is a badly misquoted mixing of three lines: II. 11.639-40 and 630: see Murray 1996, 127-8.
(47) Lesky 1963, 64.
(48) Dorter 1973, 75-6, also sees the dialogue as pointing to divine truth as a deeper sense of beauty, but, appealing primarily to Phdr., he develops this idea in a radically different way. In his view, 'beauty is a sensuous reflection of the primal order underlying the whole of reality' and, via this connection, all harmony and rhythm can be said to contain some truth irrespective of content. For Dorter, this means that the poetry can be an 'imitation of the divine'; this strikes me as an overly optimistic view --from Plato's perspective--about what the poets can accomplish. On Dorter's view, the divine truth of a poem--its affinity with the primal order--can be directly experienced by the audience through the poem's rhythm and harmony. This seems to contradict the depictions of poetic experience, as we see them in the Ion itself.
(49) This need not be understood in a robustly metaphysical sense as implying commitment to the theory of forms. Socrates' famous 'what is it?' question expressly seeks the principle which serves to unify an object or property, i.e., the one underlying the many.
(50) Dorter 1973, 76, denies that Plato thinks of beauty as giving pleasure, but his argument does not work. While he locates the beauty of verses in their form, i.e., their harmony and rhythm, he denies that beauty gives pleasure on the grounds that the Iliad, 'the most frequent example of beautiful art,' has gruesome and thus unpleasant content. Dorter cannot have it both ways: after locating the beauty in the Iliads metrical form, he cannot draw conclusions about its beauty by consideration of its representational content. Though Plato does not admittedly focus on the pleasure-giving qualities of poetry in the Ion, the connection between beauty and pleasure is made in HipMa. 297eff., with music mentioned prominently at 298a. Interestingly, this suggestion comes only after two more promising definitions suggesting a deeper sense of beauty (the appropriate (293eff.) and the useful (295bff.)) have failed to generate a proper account.
(51) This suggestion obviously has Pythagorean resonances and is further developed by Plato in later dialogues, but the connection itself is embodied in the very word for the universe, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]: the word primarily means 'order' but also means 'ornament.' See LSJ s.v.
(52) On the different kinds of diviners, see Cic. Div. 1.1-2; Halliday 1913.
(53) Plato omits line 354.
(54) On the interpretation of bird-signs, see Halliday 1913, 246-71.
(55) In Il. XII.210ff., the sign is taken by Polydamas to mean that the Trojans should not proceed beyond the walls to burn the ships of the Achaeans. It is unclear whether the sign is interpreted properly.
(56) Two other differences between these passages are of note. In the first passage, Homer speaks as a character, Theoclymenus, while, in the second, he speaks as the narrator. Also, in the first, he employs metaphors and rich imagery, while, in the second, he gives a bare description of the events. I pass over these differences as their possible implications are not directly related to my task here.
(57) Though the Ion makes no particular mention of oracular divination, the importance of divination in the dialogue as a whole and the resolution of the tension between inspiration and technique which oracular divination provides makes the move irresistible. The connection between poets and seers is affirmed by Socrates in Ap. 22a-c, a dialogue in which the basic model of divination is the Oracle at Delphi (20eff), and Socrates makes repeated reference to his interpretation of the oracle's message. Cp. Meno 99c-d.
(58) The translation is Zeyl's in Cooper 1997. On the use of this passage to help understand the nature of poetical inspiration, see Tigerstedt 1969, 71-2, where the parallel between poem and oracle is suggested, but not developed. While I am certainly sensitive to worries about using a 'late' dialogue like the Tim. to interpret an 'early' one like the Ion, the account of divination offered here does not seem connected in any way to any of the metaphysical and epistemological views that are characteristic of the later dialogues and absent in earlier ones. Indeed, it seems implausible that, over the course of Plato's life, the nature of divination had changed so radically that what he describes as customary' later in his life is irrelevant to what he says earlier.
(59) The primary sense of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is 'to be an interpreter of the gods' (LSJ s.v.). I did not translate [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as 'interpreter' only to avoid seeming as though I were conflating it with [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In Zeyl's translation, in this passage, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is rendered as 'interpreter.'
(60) See OCD s.v Delphic oracle. This account is controversial with respect to the nature of the priestesses' uttering and thus the nature of the priest's translation.
(61) On the debate over Socrates' attitude toward the oracle's proclamation, see Brickhouse and Smith 1990, 96-7. They are surely right to see that Socrates does not merely dismiss the oracle, but I am not in agreement with their larger picture of the role of the oracle in Socrates' mission.
(62) As I will show, the fact that the dialogue points to a view without actually articulating it is just what one would expect given the picture of poetry that emerges in the oracular account. Plato, as author, provides us, his readers, with provocations to philosophical reflection and with avenues of inquiry, but not with clear and decisive final answers.
(63) Woodruff 1982, 150n.17, considering a view that would assimilate poetry to prophecy, complains that the 'analogy between poetry and prophecy breaks down. Prophets speak in 'tongues' only a specialist can decipher; but any Greek can make a go of interpreting Homer.' By focusing on the oracle's message to the petitioner, as generated in two steps by distinct types of seers, my use of the analogy restores the sense in which prophetic utterances are accessible to non-experts. Surely anyone can attempt to interpret the oracle at Delphi.
(64) Woodruff 1982, 145, claims that 'all the beauty of a poem comes from the inspiring gods.' In my view, all of the deep beauty, i.e., truth, comes from the inspiring gods, while the superficial beauty--what Woodruff calls 'aesthetic beauty'--may come from the poet.
(65) Cp. Men. 99b-d. Even if Stern-Gillet 2004, 195, is right that, in the inspired account, inspiration serves as a kind of stand-in for 'dearth of explanation,' there is still something to be explained, namely the fact that the poets sometimes get it right.
(66) For the extensiveness of Plato's quotation of and reference to poetry, see Tarrant 1951; Halliwell 2000. As Halliwell 2000, 94, puts it, '[i]n the case of Plato, an engagement with the culturally powerful texts and voices of poetry is so evident, so persistent, and so intense as to constitute a major thread running through the entire fabric of his writing and thinking.'
(67) LaDriere 1951, 31, argues that part of the point of the dialogue is to establish that there is no science of as literary criticism, and further, that no such thing is possible. I am in full agreement with this. I am not claiming that Plato thinks that one needs a literary critical techne to understand a poem; rather, he is suggesting that one needs a philosopher to see whether a poem contains any truth. For Plato, all other considerations are ultimately unimportant. See Trivigno forthcoming.
(68) Given the example of Tynnichus, it seems clear that being inspired in one case does not imply that one is inspired in all cases. It may very well be that only certain lines of a poem are inspired. This restriction insulates my account from the kind of criticism that Woodruff 1982, 146, levels, namely, that poets, being mouthpieces of the gods, should all say the same thing.
(69) Woodruff 1982, 145, considers the possibility that poets have some 'skills at prosody or diction' but then claims that Plato denies the poets a 'techne, even of pure style.' He adduces Phdr. 263a in support, but strangely ignores Phdr. 245a: 'If anyone comes to the gates of poetry and expects to become an adequate poet by acquiring expert knowledge of the subject without the Muses' madness, he will fail, and his self-controlled verses will be eclipsed by the poetry of men who have been driven out of their minds.' Indeed, the contrast being drawn is explicitly between a poet composing merely with techne and one composing also with the inspiration of the Muses. On this issue, see also Janaway 1995, 16-7, 168-9.
(70) This view is consistent generally with Plato's use of inspiration, as Woodruff 1982, 139, notices, as 'a common factor in Plato's explanations of human success.'
(71) Cp. Moravscik 1982, 30, who claims that according to Plato 'the objects and products of inspiration have at best instrumental value insofar as they contribute to the seeking of understanding on higher, more theoretical levels.'
(72) Plato is thus attempting to instill in his audience a more critical attitude towards poetry, while at the same time preserving the idea that, through poetry, one can come to the truth. The path to the truth involves distrusting the authority of the poets and subjecting the poetic claims to rigorous philosophical analysis. See Trivigno forthcoming.
(73) One might say that the truth of the poem is not in the poem, but rather discoverable through the poem. The poem cannot, contra Dorter 1973, 75, directly imitate the divine; rather, it can provoke a true insight into the divine.
(74) To usurp the magnetic ring motif for the oracular account, we might say that a poet, in turning his audience to philosophy, might inspire them to turn still others. See Socrates' account of his own protreptic task as a philosopher in Ap. 30b-31c; 33d-34a; 39c-e. Cp. the account of the statesman's art in Euthyd. (291cff.), which, while aporetic, at least suggests that one of the tasks of the art is to teach the art to others who will in turn teach others (292d-e)
(75) Cp. Symp. 209c6-e4, where Diotima claims that the progeny of Homer and Hesiod are finer or more beautiful than human children because, as Janaway 1995, 74, puts it, they give rise to wisdom and excellence.' Of course, given the attendant dangers and the presence of a better, more direct route to wisdom, namely philosophical dialectic, reading poetry will not be a primary method for education. For the methodological debate between Socrates and Protagoras about the value of poetic interpretation, see Prot. 338e-348c. In my view, what distinguishes rhapsodic interpretation from sophistic interpretation is that the former takes the poet to be an actual authority, while the latter only pretends to take the poet as an actual authority, using the poet's words for his own rhetorical purposes, whatever they happen to be. For an analysis of sophistic interpretation, see Trivigno forthcoming.
(76) There is quite a lot of comedy to be found in Plato's dialogues: see e.g., Greene 1920; Brock 1990.
(77) Woodruff 1983 in the title of the Hackett edition; Oates 1972, 35; Wilamowitz, as quoted in Tigerstedt 1969, 18
(78) Woodruff 1983, 1, 5. For the fallacy involved in the thought that comedy cannot have serious meaning or intention, see Silk 2000, 310-20.
(79) Scholars are fond of claiming that the rhapsodes had a reputation for stupidity in Plato's time, but such claims are not, in my view, very persuasive. The evidence adduced for them comes either from the Ion itself and its portrayal of Ion, or from texts that have clearly been influenced by the Ion, like Xen. Symp. Indeed, in Symp. 3.6, the character Antisthenes' suggestion (along with Niceratus' agreement) that no group of people is 'more stupid than the rhapsodes' seems to have played a unduly prominent role in the historical reception of the rhapsodes. The power of Plato's comic portrayal of Ion, coupled with the absence of any contravening evidence, seems to have been the decisive factor.
(80) Tigersted 1969, 18-9, rightly sees Ion as 'a figure from comedy,' but does not pursue this point in his interpretation. Ranta, 1967, 222-6, also sees Ion as playing the role of the imposter, but his analysis remains at the level of the dramatic and does integrate this function into the larger philosophical content of the dialogue.
(81) Cornford 1961, 122. On the imposter generally, see Conford 1961, 115-33. Cp. Arist. EN. 1108a20-22; 1127a13-b32; EE 1124a24-25; Theophr. Char. 23. One finds a definition in pseudo-Pl. Def. 416a10-11: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ('Being an imposter is the state of pretending to a good or some goods which are undeserved'). Cornford 1961, 120, further claims that the imposter is exposed by an ironist, who 'masks his cleverness under a show of clownish dullness.' Though it is tempting to pursue the association of Socrates as ironist, I will let it pass here. On Socrates as ironist, see Ranta 1967, 220-2; Vlastos 1991.
(82) This is not to vacate the dialogues of positive philosophical content, but rather to insist that the content is partial and that it is up to us, Plato's audience, to follow the philosophical paths that the dialogue leaves unexplored.
(83) Cp. HipMa. 285e; HipMi. 369a.
(84) Apollodorus of Cyzicus, Phanosthenes of Andros and Heraclides of Clazomenae. Nails 2002, 316, uses this passage to set the dramatic date of the dialogue at 413, after the Sicilian disaster but before the Ionian revolt of 412, after which Ephesus was no longer under Athenian control: according to Nails, the reason that Athens began using foreign generals had to do with 'the acute shortage of leadership, materials and manpower after the Sicilian disaster.'
(85) For the use of Proteus as a metaphor for constantly shifting one's ground, cp. Eu thyph. 15d; Euthd. 288b.
(86) Woolf 1997, 189, finds in the Ion a 'theory of the self' whereby 'only knowledge qualifies one for selfhood.' A core piece of evidence for this theory is to be found in the comparison to Proteus. It seems much more plausible and true to Plato's text to see Ion's lack of a stable identity in his deferential relationship to Homer's poetry rather than in his lack of a techne, as Woolf 1997, 195-6, would have it. Further, Woolf's view has a clearly unacceptable implication, namely, that carpenters and all manner of technites possess selfhood, while Socrates himself, famously lacking in knowledge, is, to use Woolf's own elegant phrase, 'a nobody'.
(87) An anonymous reviewer has suggested that the expertise peculiar to the rhapsode is surely his facility in performance. As I argue above, the technical account makes no mention of performance, while Ion's clearheaded state during his performances is one argument against the inspired account. In the end, however, it is the rhapsode's knack for imitative performance that puts his very identity in question; given the criteria for what constitutes a techne, such a thing could never qualify as genuine expertise.
(88) See Pappas 1989, 385-6, who calls this aspect of Ion's ignorance 'perverse' and charges the rhapsode with choosing ignorance over knowledge. While I agree that Ion turns his back on a search for truth' based on the authority of Homer, it is less clear to me that this is particularly perverse. Given the prominent role of Homer in education, the tendency in Ion to look to Homer for guidance, while certainly exaggerated in Ion, is surely not exclusive to him.
(89) There is a danger here, as Nehamas 1998, 48, points out. If Plato puts an insurmountable gap between his readers and the interlocutors, then this might actually harm them. Nehamas thinks it does: he claims that Plato uses irony 'as a means for lulling the dialogues' readers into the very self-complacency it makes them denounce. It is deep, dark, and disdainful.' In my view, Plato evades this danger through what Miller 1999, 256-9, calls 'mimetic irony,' i.e., the partial identification of the audience with the interlocutor. While we are surely not meant to identify with Ion fully, we surely are meant to recognize certain tendencies in ourselves that are caricatured in Ion, e.g., the admiration of great poets. Blondell 2002, 88-93, attempts to refute Miller's notion on the grounds that it would be morally dangerous for the readers to identify with the interlocutors at all. She rather claims that readers are meant to disapprove of all but Socrates. Blondell's criticism, in my view, assumes an over-strong sense of identification. The reader might partially identify with the interlocutor without much risk. I doubt that there is any danger in understanding, from a first personal perspective, Ion's love of Homer--Socrates himself admits to loving Homer in the Rep. (595b-c). Without some such partial identification at work, it is hard to see how Plato's pedagogical aims could get a foothold in his audience.
(90) In Grg. 503a5-9, Socrates claims that good rhetoric--and, by implication, good poetry (see 502c5-d9)--is focused on the task of trying to make the souls of the citizens as good as possible and of striving to say what is best, whether the audience will find it more pleasant or more unpleasant.' Assuming the path to becoming as good as possible is through philosophy, then the account of poetry in the Ion dovetails with that found in the Grg. See Trivigno 2011.
FRANCO V. TRIVIGNO
PO Box 1881
Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881, USA
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|Author:||Trivigno, Franco V.|
|Publication:||APEIRON: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2012|
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