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

By Grace M. Ledbetter | Go to book overview
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Chapter Five
Toward a Model of Socratic Interpretation

WE HAVE SEEN how the Ion challenges the Homeric conception of the poet as possessor and conveyer of divine knowledge, and how the Apology portrays Socrates as subverter of the poets' own authority in matters of interpretation. In the Apology, Socrates concurs with the traditional presumption that poetry encodes god-sent wisdom at the same time he disputes the tradition that credits that wisdom to poets. Socrates implies that the qualified interpreter, unlike the poet, can extract poetry's wisdom, but the Apology does not illustrate this hermeneutical enterprise with a specific example in which we may glimpse Socrates demonstrating his method of eliciting the meaning of some particular work of poetry. The one illustration of Socratic interpretation that the Apology does provide adapts Socratic hermeneutics to interpret nothing less than the Delphic oracle. As I shall show, Socrates' interpretation of the oracle illustrates the Socratic approach to interpreting a divinely inspired text. First, however, I shall turn to the Protagoras, where Socrates supplies an extended interpretation of a wellknown poem by Simonides.1 Unfortunately, Socrates' dialectical position in the Protagoras complicates the task of reading his interpretation as an illustration of Socratic poetics. His reading of Simonides' poem parodies sophistic methods of literary criticism so extravagantly that we may be tempted to dismiss it as mere pastiche. Doing so would prevent us from seeing that, in Socrates' caricature of sophistical methods of literary criticism and in his ridicule of their faulty hermeneutical assumptions, the Protagoras should be taken to illustrate the contrasting method and opposed assumptions of Socratic interpretation.

To be sure, Socrates' performance as a critic is deeply ironic. Commentators have been correct in their widely shared view that the episode attacks sophistical interpretive practices with an attempt to outdo the sophists at their own game. The interpretation Socrates presents is strained, anachro

1 As we shall see, Socrates' position here, as in the Apology and Ion, remains firmly distinct
from Plato's well-known critique of the poets. The Protagorais views are not informed by
the Republic's ethical and metaphysical arguments against the value of poetry (the occurance
of μιμείσθαι at 348a3 notwithstanding [see Carson 1992, p. 111]). This may be taken to sup-
ply an additional argument for including the Protagoras among either the early or transitional
dialogues. See T. Irwin, Plato's Moral Theory (Oxford, 1977), p. 292. On the chronology of
the Platonic dialogues in general, see L. Brandwood, “Stylometry and chronology,” in R.
Kraut, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plato (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 90–120.


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