Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Logos of Agency (or the Agency of Logos): On Plato's Ion

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Logos of Agency (or the Agency of Logos): On Plato's Ion

Article excerpt

[He] may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot. But don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot.

--Groucho Marx


THE RHAPSODE. The deepest mystery of the Ion is Ion's idiocy. (1) This has led critics to rank the dialogue among early Plato, or worse the spurious dialogues, and although often credited as the first example of literary criticism in the Western tradition, it is just as often accused of exemplifying bad criticism. (2) At a glance it's easy to see why: the Ion is the only Platonic dialogue all about Homer and poetry, yet all we get is a flat-footed rhapsode and ugly prose. (3) Homer is systematically garbled--Socrates gives a false summary and misquotes him three out of four times; Ion misrecites him at his first and only opportunity. (4) So not only does Homer not show up, but when he does show up, he does not show up. Goethe famously concluded the Ion "has nothing at all to do with poetry"; instead of the poet, we get a spectator and an actor engaged in a second-rate conversation about a poet. (5) So at best the Ion gives us a shadow of a shadow, at worst an inaccurate shadow. But then isn't the upshot of a bad likeness that it is evidently counterfeit? The inaccuracy points to its nature as appearance, rather than permitting its appearance to point to the nature of being. There is no eliding Ion with Homer in the Ion. This leads us to ask, are we meant to take the rhapsode, who is clearly a false image of the poet, as a true image of the poet's image--the poem? Is the Ion not so much a critique of Homer as of the Homeridae--the lovers of Homer--whose instinct for conflating poem and poet is the poetic image of our instinct for taking a man's word as his bond or, more generally speaking, psychology (a rational account of soul) for psyche logistike (a soul skilled in reasoning)?

Indeed, Ion slides between associating with Homer and the Homeridae throughout the dialogue: he is the poet's best spokesman per the Homeridae, and Homer is the only poet he pays attention to; he is the lover of Homer par excellence. (6) Socrates likewise grants Ion the double status of poet and spectator--or speaker and listener--from the outset. Initially, he praises the way Ion embodies the poet's mind: the rhapsode presents as a simultaneous image the linear unfolding of thought. Such an art is always well ordered (kosmeo) and superlatively beautiful: Ion affectively turns reflection into action, which combines the strengths of drama and epic. (7) Socrates implies this is a productive skill in its own right by calling what the rhapsode performs poiein (to do/to make poetry): the poet, here, is the object of a poetic act; the rhapsode is the maker. (8) And Ion's particular object, Homer, takes for his object the entire cosmos: Homer speaks about everything via a series of binary relations--public and private, good and bad, association and war, gods and men, heaven and earth. (9) The poet is the part of the whole that shows us there is a whole, and the rhapsode is the whole display of this part. Between them we are living in a transparent world, with access to everything from what is inside a man's mind to what is outside any man's experience. Nothing is unknown. And yet the movements behind these respective technai (arts, skills, or crafts) seem at odds. One synthesizes and externalizes thought, rendering it perceivable; the other allows us to internalize and analyze the world, rendering it comprehensible. Both look like preconditions for us to know--that is, for understanding what men say and what they are talking about--but given the dissonance between their trajectories, we have no idea how we know.

Ion receives the praise--and as spectator, reifies the perplexity endemic to Socrates' account. The rhapsode is forced to look at an image of himself and to defend himself as the best image of Homer. Ion listens first to an exegesis of the rhapsode as the first listener and therefore ideal interpreter of the poet and is then asked to explicate his interpretive skill. …

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