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

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

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

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


Combining literary and philosophical analysis, this study defends an utterly innovative reading of the early history of poetics. It is the first to argue that there is a distinctively Socratic view of poetry and the first to connect the Socratic view of poetry with earlier literary tradition.

Literary theory is usually said to begin with Plato's famous critique of poetry in the Republic. Grace Ledbetter challenges this entrenched assumption by arguing that Plato's earlier dialogues Ion, Protagoras, and Apology introduce a distinctively Socratic theory of poetry that responds polemically to traditional poets as rival theorists. Ledbetter tracks the sources of this Socratic response by introducing separate readings of the poetics implicit in the poetry of Homer, Hesiod, and Pindar. Examining these poets' theories from a new angle that uncovers their literary, rhetorical, and political aims, she demonstrates their decisive influence on Socratic thinking about poetry.

The Socratic poetics Ledbetter elucidates focuses not on censorship, but on the interpretation of poetry as a source of moral wisdom. This philosophical approach to interpreting poetry stands at odds with the poets' own theories--and with the Sophists' treatment of poetry. Unlike the Republic's focus on exposing and banishing poetry's irrational and unavoidably corrupting influence, Socrates' theory includes poetry as subject matter for philosophical inquiry within an examined life.

Reaching back into what has too long been considered literary theory's prehistory, Ledbetter advances arguments that will redefine how classicists, philosophers, and literary theorists think about Plato's poetics.


Two QUESTIONS, or sets of questions, motivate this study. The first concerns the views of poetry advanced in the Socratic dialogues Apology, Ion, and Protagoras. Plato's famous critique of poetry in the Republic looms so provocatively and so demandingly that scholars have continued to assume that the reflections on poetry in the early Socratic dialogues can only anticipate or supplement Plato's mature, systematic treatment of poetry. This assumption survives despite the wealth of current scholarship that proceeds from Vlastos's systematic division of Platonic from Socratic thought throughout a wide range of ethical, metaphysical, and epistemological issues. The Republic's notorious banishment of the poets relies on Plato's mature doctrines in metaphysics and psychology. Might a case be made for understanding the discussions of poetry in the Ion and other early dialogues as distinctively Socratic and independent of the Platonic treatment of poetry?

The second question explores the intersection of theoretical reflections on poetry in the literary and philosophical traditions. The precursors of the Platonic philosophy of poetry familiar from Book 10 of the Republic include contributions in Plato's earlier Socratic dialogues and in the Presocratic philosophical traditions of Heraclitus and Xenophanes. They also include, I shall suggest, the substantial theories of poetry within the poetic tradition of Homer, Hesiod, and Pindar. Commentators have recognized the existence of a theoretical dimension within this literary tradition, but the relations among the three poets' theories as well as the influence each of the three exerted on the philosophical tradition remain largely uncharted. There is no doubt that Socrates, no less than Plato, responded to the poetry of Homer, Hesiod, and Pindar. But what influence did the poets' theories of poetry have on Socratic thought?

Vlastos is usually credited with initiating the now widely accepted view that the phi
losophy of the early Socratic dialogues is independent of Plato's mature philosophy. (See G.
Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher [Ithaca, 1991], pp. 45–131; T. Penner,
“Socrates and the Early Dialogues,” in R. Kraut, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plato
[Cambridge, 1992], pp. 121–169.) Contrast the arguments for a unitarian reading of the
dialogues in C. Kahn, Plato and the Socratic Dialogues: The Philosophical Use of a literary
(Cambridge, 1996), and in J. Annas, Platonic Ethics Old and New (Ithaca and Lon
don, 1999). On some of the difficulties facing unitarian readings, see A. A. Long, “A Crit
ical Notice of Julia Annas, Platonic Ethics Old and New” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philoso
19 (2000), pp. 344–349.

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