Plato and Inspiration

Hey guys, sorry about neglecting you for so long (again), but I have had a lot of work to do this past week. That being said, I figured I would post some of my philosophy papers as a sign of apology. The only think I want to say, obviously, is do not copy this or any of my posts into your paper. Not only is plagiarism morally wrong, but you will only end up looking like an ass in front of your teacher, because someone doesn’t wake up one day and think as if their whole life revolves around Plato or God or philosophy, so unless you have the behavior to back it up… alright, time for me to shut up for the present.

Looking at instances of inspiration in the work of Plato is rather difficult, because of the not-so-straightforward manner Plato puts everything in his writing. As pointed out in the letters, which, if not his, have to have been written by someone who was very familiar with his work, he is very reluctant to write openly, so one must take all of what Plato says with a grain of salt. That being said, we need not bury ourselves in the pit of skepticism, because Plato also assures the reader that, if he take to heart the philosophy of the dialogues, he will be able to understand and uncover what Plato is really trying to convey. For the purposes of this paper, inspiration will be looked at under two different fields, inspiration as witnessed by Socrates within himself and inspiration witnessed by others within themselves, though with the help of Socrates.

One very obvious dialogue to look at in this matter would be the Ion. In this dialogue, Socrates encounters a rhapsode, a man who has mastered the art of retelling Homer’s epics and performs in various functions. In addition, Ion claims that he can explain Homer to his listeners, which immediately grabs Socrates’ attention. Socrates first asks Ion about whether he can apply his knowledge universally, i. e. recite other poets’ works just as well as he can recite Homer’s, but Ion rejects the idea, saying that he is an expert in Homer and Homer only. Socrates then turns to ask Ion about whether he has any expertise in any of the matters that are discussed in Homer and Ion surprisingly claims that he does. Ion goes as far as to say that he is the best general in the land, since he is the best rhapsode in the land. Socrates asks whether the best general in the land would also be the best rhapsode in the land, but Ion denies it. It seems that Plato decides to do the reader a kindness here, because he does not go into further detail about whether the converse of Ion’s statement must be true, partly because it does seem quite obvious to the reader that Ion’s claim is nonsense from the beginning. Socrates then logically asks Ion why he is not leading the Greek forces. At this point, Ion decides the hide behind the fact that he is from Ephesus, claiming that the Athenians would never let a foreigner command their army. Of course, Socrates shuts this argument down, too. Socrates then returns to the “magnet” imagery, where he claims that the magnet is a metaphor for the gods, who input their magnetism into the poet, who then magnetizes the rhapsode, who, in turn, magnetizes the audience. Ion seems to look kindly on this view, however, it seems that he forgets the implications made by his statement (541b-542b).

If, as Ion claims, he is simply the second iron ring in the system of a magnet magnetizing three rings, then he has no magnetism of his own, i.e. Ion really has no knowledge of what he is talking, he is simply wrapped up in a pseudo-Bacchic frenzy when reciting Homer, who is himself wrapped in a similar frenzy by the gods. In saying this, Socrates is going after Homer’s inspiration, as well as Ion’s (pg. 937). Despite the radical claim that Socrates is making about Homer, i.e. that he has no knowledge, this idea could fit in well with the understanding of Homer in Ancient Greece, which is that he was inspired by the Muses, except for the fact that Socrates makes it very clear, in the Euthyphro among other places, that he is not quite a believer in regards to Homer being inspired by the gods or conveying any truth about them. The question then becomes, who is the magnet? If it is not the gods, then who is putting words in Homer’s mouth? One could easily, at this point, draw on the Republic and Plato’s critique of poetry (Books II, III, and X), but matters are made even more complicated by the fact that Socrates himself, in the Phaedo (61a-c), is writing poetry, seemingly inspired to do so by his “daimon” (of course, the presence of the daimon itself is a further complication, in addition to the apparent contradiction between the Apology and the Phaedo about whether the daimon is ever a source of positive knowledge for Socrates, but this will be treated in the second part). It does not seem, therefore, that Socrates’ argument here is simply another critique of poetry. Once again the question at hand is, who is the magnet? If such a thing as “the magnet” exists and Socrates has it, what does that mean about Homer, considering Socrates claims he relies false information about the divine, and what does it say about Socrates?

In order to make sense of this, we must modify the metaphor of the magnet and the rings and, for a second, try to be Socrates in his absence. If the true magnet is the daimon and Homer does not, in fact, have a daimon, then he himself must be the magnet. What of this? Homer is then giving out his own knowledge about the divine. Except, of course, that Socrates would claim he has no knowledge of the divine (let us compare magnets, if we accept Socrates’ to be right, then Homer’s must not be a real magnet). It seems, therefore, that Homer is the predecessor of Euthyphro, in that he claims to speak knowledgably about a subject in which he has no knowledge (of course, the fact that Euthyphro draws on Homer for his own argument brings it into a very nice circle), a trend which Socrates sees very commonly among the Athenians of his own day. The question of Socrates’ person concerning the magnet, however, still stands. If Socrates has a magnet also, (if he did not, then we cannot judge Homer’s to be wrong) then does Socrates also have no knowledge? One could here draw on the Apology and argue that Socrates claims from the beginning that he has no knowledge, but also knows himself to have no knowledge, which makes him wiser than the rest of the Athenians, but I believe that making that argument would leave us to forever wonder about whether the teachings of Socrates through Plato have any meaning at all.

Rather, I believe that there is an alternate route one could take. Having found the real magnet, one must, for a second, ponder the rings. Some may consider stretching the metaphor past its breaking point with this, but the results might grant us some deeper understanding of Plato’s corpus. It is obvious to most people that not any ring would fit to make the system work, i.e. that in order for the ring to channel the magnetism of the magnet, it must have a special property, conductivity. Whereas rings of iron complete the system, rings of bone would make it fall apart. It seems, then, that the magnet cannot use any ring, but only a certain type of rings, i.e. conducive rings.

This means that the ring, quite differently from being ordinary, must, in fact, be extraordinary. It seems then, that Socrates is the true teacher of the divine (in the Platonic sense, of the Forms and the Good which balances them all), not because he has no knowledge, but because he is a very specific type of a knowledgeable person, i.e. one made out of iron (one made adapt for the understanding of philosophy, a lover of knowledge and one who knows himself). This knowledge is then passed on to Plato, the true disciple if that title can be placed on him, the second ring, which, like the first, must be made out of iron. Plato then serves as a “rhapsode” to us, not only reciting Socrates, but also interpreting and expanding his teachings. Plato, then, conducts Socrates’ teaching to the reader, who must change his essence from bone to iron (i.e. the imagery of “bone” was intentional, indicating a change from corporeal to super-corporeal, from physical to spiritual) in order to gain the deep meaning of the teachings of Socrates.

That being said, the question of Socrates’ daimon still remains. In the Apology, Socrates claims that he hears a voice that always dissuades him from doing certain things, but which never encourages him to do anything (31d1-4). Even then, one can argue that this passage is not set directly at odds with the passage concerning poetry in the Phaedo (61a-c), if we do not first look at a similar passage in Crito. When Crito comes to Socrates’ room at the beginning of Crito, Socrates is glad that Crito did not wake him up from his dream, since he believes that it has given him some hints concerning his death (44a3-b1). It is quite clear that Socrates regards the dream as objectively true, so one must assume that the reader is supposed to take this dream as it being divinely inspired. In this light, one must also treat Socrates’ sudden disposition to write poetry in the Phaedo as divinely inspired.

The only way to explain this situation, then, is to claim that the daimon evolves as the story goes on. In the Apology, Socrates’ daimon has dissuaded him from going into public life, but there is a perfectly rational explanation for it, i.e. that Socrates would not have lasted nearly as much if he were involved in politics, which means that his philosophy may never have taken off and that modern Classicist would be reading Plato’s tragedies instead of Plato’s dialogues. On the other hand, once Socrates’ work is done and his death awaiting, the daimon changes its role, from guiding Socrates to carry out his work to giving him one image of comfort and one instance of positive knowledge. As far as the dream in the Crito goes, the greater meaning of it will not be discussed in this paper, but as the meaning of the one in the Phaedo can help the reader make sense of a general trend in Plato’s corpus.

Anyone who has read a fair amount of Plato would realize that Platonic dialogues can be divided into three large groups, dialogues which end in positive knowledge, dialogues which end in negative knowledge, and dialogues where Socrates is either present at the beginning or not at all, where the reader is perhaps invited to judge according to his own mind. Of these, the ones that end in negative knowledge, i.e. learning about what something is not (or, rather, about the reader’s own ignorance), are the earlier dialogues, then the dialogues that end in positive knowledge (where the reader actually learns from Socrates), and lastly dialogues where Socrates is not present for the bulk of the argument (where the reader is perhaps invited to take Socrates’ position on his own). This fits in quite nicely with the progression of the daimon, from negative to positive information.

Another useful way to look at the instance of poetry in the Phaedo is as an apology for poetry in its own right. Though Socrates critiques poetry in the Republic and other places, it is the eternal question of having a material in Greek in the original form to ask whether Socrates is talking about poetry in general or the poetry existing at the time (a similar problem arises in Latin, one instance of which is in the Aeneid, where it is impossible to discern whether Lacoon in Book II is speaking about all the Greeks or the Greeks at Troy’s beaches when he says, timeo Danaum…). Of course, the fact that Plato’s corpus is filled with references from Homer in itself should be a pointing hand toward the fact that poetry, even in the form that Homer gives it, may be useful in illustrating a principle. However, one is left to ponder whether there can be poetry which one may regard as “Homer as it should have been.” A discussion in the Symposium may offer some help in this regard.

Toward the end of the Symposium, Socrates is discussing with Agathon (a poet) and Aristophanes (a comedian) that the skilled dramatic artist should be able to also write good comedy (223d4-5). This may be poetry’s saving grace. Though it is quite clear that poetry for poetry’s sake may not offer much help in one’s pursuit of philosophy, poetry guided by philosophy may be a useful tool in learning philosophy. Part of the point in Socrates saying that a good artist should be able to write both comedy and tragedy is that a good artist should be able to rise to universals (a point made in Ion), but also a two-fold path to knowledge, either through somber, academic discussion or through a more entertaining, titillating discussion. The emblematic examples of these two very different approaches to philosophy, which are both present in the Platonic corpus, are the Republic and the Symposium, respectively. In fact, all of Plato’s writing, whether in the genre of the Republic or the Symposium, are filled with drama and poetic language, though they are written in prose. This is not to add the fact that many Platonists throughout the ages have written in poetical language (C. S. Lewis and Tolkien not the least).

It seems, therefore, that inspiration has a very important place within the Platonic corpus, but, at the same time, within the corpus itself, are included many decoys, to condition the reader to understand that not “inspiration” is, in fact, genuine inspiration. From all of it, only what one can gather from Socrates is to be regarded as genuine inspiration, but the reader is cautioned that what the many hold to be inspiration may, in fact, be a fake. Inspiration, therefore, is both used as a form of irony, when it comes from people other than Socrates, which he discredits, as well as a true guide to philosophy, indeed, as the true spirit and muse of philosophy itself, when it comes through the ring of Socrates himself.

(References are provided in Stephanus pages)

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2 comments on “Plato and Inspiration

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