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Poetics before Plato: Interpretation and Authority in Early Greek Theories of Poetry

By Grace M. Ledbetter | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
Socratic Poetics

SET AGAINST the background of the poets' theories of poetry, Plato's dialogues Ion and Protagoras, together with the Apology, can be shown to advance a revisionary Socratic poetics. Socrates' account undermines the general theme of discouraging interpretation that we found common to the poets' various theories of poetry. We shall find that Socrates' poetics discredits the inspired poets' claims to divine knowledge and topples the poet from sovereignty over his poetry's significance. Socrates' democratizing of poetry assigns the interpreter's task to audiences and supplies Socratic inquiry as the method for interpreting poetry. We have seen the notion of interpretation emerge in Pindaric poetics, but Pindar excluded all but the privileged poet from interpreting the Muse's words. Socrates, by contrast, provides a method that disciplines interpretation, makes it generally available to poetry's audience, and prevents it from being a mere instrument of the poet's authority. As we have already mentioned, the allegorical tradition had begun to undertake the task of interpreting the great poets, but as a way of maintaining the poets' authority in the face of new standards of conceptual thought.1 Socratic poetics serves the more radical goal of denying that poetry's real value stems from something that the poet himself contributes.

This chapter approaches Socratic poetics from what I shall argue is an implicit attack on the Homeric theory of poetry in the Ion and a more general denial of the traditional Athenian view of poets as wise educators and privileged interpreters. By maintaining the traditional view that poetry harbors wisdom, but denying that either the poet or rhapsode grasps that wisdom, the Ion and Apology together pose the question of who is qualified to interpret poetry. In the next chapter, I suggest that Socrates begins to answer this question in his attack on sophistic poetics in the Protagoras, and in his interpretation of the Delphic oracle's pronouncement in the Apology.

The Ion introduces the first main themes of Socrates' account of poetry by disputing doctrines we found at the basis of Homeric poetics. Homer's theory credits the inspired poet and his audience with divine knowledge. On this Homeric theory, divine inspiration consists in knowledge. The Socratic

1 See Introduction.

-78-

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