Plato’s Ion contains an unforgettable image describing artistic experience. In conversation with a rhapsode named Ion, Socrates likens the activity of poets to the operation of a magnet. Ion’s own professional expertise lies in the recitation of the poetry of Homer, and so Socrates says:
“The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet, but which is commonly known as the stone of Heraclea. This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed.” (Plato, Ion, trans. B. Jowett)
Like a magnet, the divine power moves the poet, who moves the rhapsode who recites his poetry, who moves us in the audience. All in the chain are transported out of their minds by the divine experience.
This is the characteristic feeling of being “wrapped up in” an artistic experience. For example, the audience is immersed in a world of “make believe” and momentarily takes it as real. The audience members identify emotionally with a protagonist, moved by her fate, and forget to remind themselves that she is a fictional being.
Ion is aware that he himself gets caught up emotionally in his enactments of Homer’s dramatic scenes. Thus Socrates takes this as evidence that “not by art or knowledge about Homer do you say what you say, but by divine inspiration and by possession”; in other words, any truly effective artistic experience demands that the poets, and the audiences along with them, lose their minds in order to feel the divinely inspired experience.
That artistic experience is divine is taken as the only possible explanation of “one-hit wonders” like Tynnichus the Chalcidian. His entire career consisted of mediocre and uninspired output. But then, once upon a time, and once only, divine inspiration struck. Ever since, the audience has praised the god who assumed Tynnichus as his mouthpiece for disseminating an unforgettable song. Socrates notes:
“Had he learned by rules of art, he would have known how to speak not of one theme only, but of all; and therefore God takes away the minds of poets, and uses them as his ministers, as he also uses diviners and holy prophets, in order that we who hear them may know them to be speaking not of themselves who utter these priceless words in a state of unconsciousness, but that God himself is the speaker, and that through them he is conversing with us. And Tynnichus the Chalcidian affords a striking instance of what I am saying: he wrote nothing that any one would care to remember but the famous paean which is in every one’s mouth, one of the finest poems ever written, simply an invention of the Muses, as he himself says. For in this way, the God would seem to indicate to us and not allow us to doubt that these beautiful poems are not human, or the work of man, but divine and the work of God; and that the poets are only the interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severally possessed. Was not this the lesson which the God intended to teach when by the mouth of the worst of poets he sang the best of songs? Am I not right, Ion?” (Plato, Ion, trans. B. Jowett)
Ion agrees with Socrates, but then goes on to qualify his agreement. Although he knows that he is a part of the chain of transmission of the divine through Homer, Ion does nonetheless also have some experiences where he is not out of his mind in artistic transport. Moreover, he wants to be able to claim to possess some kind of knowledge when he is in his right mind and is not simply caught up in the emotions of a dramatic scene from Homer.
But what kind of knowledge would this be? In the remainder of the dialogue, Socrates is able to show that Ion’s claims to knowledge do not withstand scrutiny. What then may poetry offer, when it is not simply a vehicle for direct communication by divine grace, to human nature in terms of real knowledge?
Socrates concludes his discussion with Ion by saying that the best he can do is simply ascribe to him the state of divine inspiration. For Ion possesses no art or skill or knowledge apart from that divine inspiration, says Socrates:
“But if, as I believe, you have no art, but speak all these beautiful words about Homer unconsciously under his inspiring influence, then I acquit you of dishonesty, and shall only say that you are inspired. Which do you prefer to be thought, dishonest or inspired?” (Plato, Ion, trans. B. Jowett)
Ion takes what he can get from Socrates and thus receives Socrates’ praise for being divinely inspired, like Tynnichus the Chalcidian. But he does not receive Socrates’ praise for his art. For it is not clear what claim to art or skill or knowledge a poet or artist may actually make. Apart from being a vehicle for the transporting experience of divine inspiration and communication, what does art offer the human mind? More to the point, is human nature able to reach its proper excellence, its proper virtue, through artistic experience?
Plato’s suggestion seems to be that poetry, with its claims to the heights of human excellence, inevitably sets itself up as a rival to philosophy. But only philosophy is capable of delivering what poetry claims to possess. Apart from the divine grace that poetry is capable of conveying, it seems that art cannot in fact possess true virtue.
This theme is taken up again in Plato’s Meno, which has a striking ending that returns to the problem. Socrates says there to Meno:
“not by any wisdom, and not because they were wise, did Themistocles and those others of whom Anytus spoke govern states. This was the reason why they were unable to make others like themselves—because their virtue was not grounded on knowledge.” (Plato, Meno, trans. B. Jowett)
We have seen in the Ion that the virtue, the excellence, of poetry was communicated by divine grace, through divine inspiration. And whether it is the virtue of poetry or of religion, it is a virtue in which people are “out of their minds” and not properly in possession of the excellence that perfects human nature. Hence Socrates concludes with Meno:
“SOCRATES: But if not by knowledge, the only alternative which remains is that statesmen must have guided states by right opinion, which is in politics what divination is in religion; for diviners and also prophets say many things truly, but they know not what they say.
MENO: So I believe.
SOCRATES: And may we not, Meno, truly call those men ‘divine’ who, having no understanding, yet succeed in many a grand deed and word?
SOCRATES: Then we shall also be right in calling divine those whom we were just now speaking of as diviners and prophets, including the whole tribe of poets. Yes, and statesmen above all may be said to be divine and illumined, being inspired and possessed of God, in which condition they say many grand things, not knowing what they say.
SOCRATES: And the women too, Meno, call good men divine—do they not? And the Spartans, when they praise a good man, say ‘that he is a divine man.’
MENO: And I think, Socrates, that they are right; although very likely our friend Anytus may take offence at the word.
SOCRATES: I do not care; as for Anytus, there will be another opportunity of talking with him. To sum up our enquiry—the result seems to be, if we are at all right in our view, that virtue is neither natural nor acquired, but an instinct given by God to the virtuous.”
(Plato, Meno, trans. B. Jowett)
We are left, however, with the intriguing dramatic suggestion that properly human virtue may be acquired in the same way that the slave boy acquired excellence in geometry earlier on in the dialogue. That is, human nature finds its own proper perfection by Socratic dialogue. When it is in search of the truth, Socratic dialogue takes our minds to places where art—which must be “out of its mind” to be done well—cannot go.
Socratic dialogue is a different sort of activity than art. Although there is nothing to be despised in divine inspiration, it seems only fitting to note that while being a conduit for divine communication (as with the poet or rhapsode) or being transported by the divine experience (as with the audience moved by the divine art) is a wondrous and sacred thing, one may not claim that experience as proper to one’s own human nature. It is, properly speaking, not one’s own virtue or excellence. The highest form of piety, therefore, would be that frame of mind in which divine inspiration is rightly credited to its source.
It turns out, then, that piety is eminently compatible with philosophy, which credits the divine with its divine excellence and yet leaves room for proper human virtue. By refusing to arrogate the divine to the sphere of properly human virtue, philosophy is more pious than the poets who, “out of their minds,” claim what they do not have.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on March 4, 2016.