A meditation on Plato's Ion

Plato was a Ancient Greek philosopher who lived around 2400 years ago in Athens. Almost all of Plato's surviving writings are dialogues (philosophical plays). Ion is a dialogue between Socrates (Plato's teacher) and Ion, a celebrated performer of poetry.

Although Plato is always interesting, it is often hard to find a positive lesson that can be drawn from his philosophy. Often his philosophical ideas contradict our modern sensibilities too much for us to sympathise with his position. The challenge here has been to read Ion while seeking a positive truth.


Ion begins with its eponymous character declaring that he has recently won a prize for his rhapsody, a result of his being an expert on Homer. Although Ion can’t explain why, this expertise appears to be limited to Homer and none of the other great poets. Another aspect of Ion’s skill which appears inexplicable is that when performing before a crowd, Ion finds himself acutely feeling those emotions expressed by the poem.

Socrates tries to get Ion to explain exactly what it means to be an expert rhapsodist, the difficulty being that Ion is not an expert on many sections of Homer's works, for example those which relate to particular skills, such as medicine. Ion can describe the medical portions of Homer's poems, but because he is not an expert on medicine he cannot explain why Homer's writings on medicine are right.Just before the end of the dialogue Ion claims that his expertise is the same as that of a military general.

Upon hearing this last answer, Socrates claims that either Ion is avoiding answering truthfully, in which case Ion is being dishonest, or else Ion doesn't truly know what the nature of his expertise is, in which case it makes sense (in light of the peculiar facets of Ion's skills mentioned above) that good poetry is the product of divine inspiration. Given the choice between these two characterizations, dishonesty or divinity, Ion chooses the latter.

Art as divine madness:

In Ion Socrates suggests that Muses may divinely inspire the poet, so that the poet experiences their passion for their art as a madness. Socrates offers the analogy of the magnet (the Muse) from which hangs a ring (the inspired poet), and from which ring further rings can be hung (trainers, performers like Ion, and eventually even the audience); the magnetic force which holds up the first ring spread through the entire chain.

Thus there is a vast chain of choral singers and dancers, and their trainers and subtrainers, who are suspended, as if from the magnet, at the side of the rings which hang down from the Muse. (536a)

It is unlikely that the notion of art being the result of the Muses – romantic by today’s standards – was being explicated by Plato with positive intentions. For instance, it is noteworthy that Ion’s dialogue conveys him to the audience as something of a self-important fool, whose ignorance shields him from Socrates’ final insult: forcing him to choose between admitting to dishonesty and external inspiration (and so ignorance).

One analogy for Ion’s understanding of Homer is that he is similar to someone who understands the effects of a drug by seeing what it does to experience; the analogy being that Ion may not be able to justify Homer’s point of view, but is happy to be an expert in seeing the world through Homer . From this is has been argued that Plato’s central argument against poetry is not merely its lack of knowledge (which it professes to possess), but that it is corrupting by teaching us a particular point of view, when in fact what we should be seeking are general truths.

Truths received:

It is initially difficult to take a positive lesson from the main thrust of Ion, which seems to disparage the arts (even if not yet at the stage of The Republic's call for them to be banned). The problem is not only that Plato is showing poetry to be inherently flawed as a medium (which would offend our considerations of art qua cultural expression), but even more basically Plato's showing something to be bad. It is difficult to simultaneously desire to be (actively, and not merely passively) open-minded of a position, and yet have that position be antagonistic to that same open-mindedness.

The question here is not "What is worthwhile in Ion?" but rather "How can Ion (in its summation) be seen as worthwhile?" Thus it is not enough to state that there are valuable lessons to be found interspersed through the text, but rather once the principle thesis of Ion is agreed upon that same thesis needs to be shown as a worthy point of view. This requires some walk-through:

Plato is demonstrating through Ion and Socrates that any truth found in poetry (and its propagators) is accidental, merely stemming from some unrealized external source. This is sufficient insofar as Ion is considered a classic "Socratic dialogue", showing that a certain assumption is weaker than originally supposed (in this case the assumption relates to the expertise of the poet); this is not sufficient insofar as a positive doctrine is being sought. The positive doctrine would be that belief which Socrates holds, and on account of which he is suspect of Ion's knowledge. It would seem that this factor being sought relates in some way to Socrates' criterion for truth and its contrast with Ion's. For Ion a truth can be established by proving its presence – whether simply or hermeneutically – in Homer's texts. Neither a simple nor a hermeneutical linkage to Homer is sufficient for Socrates (since any simple link implies a merely superficial awareness of what the text says about the matter, and interpretations are whimsical exercises ).

The contrast can be illustrated as follows: for Ion it is enough to know what Homer says about driving a chariot, whereas for Socrates it is important to know about driving a chariot irrespective of Homer. Thus although a person may correctly learn truth "A" by means of thing "B", they do not have a proper understanding (per Socrates' criterion for truth) until they are able to separate that which they’ve learnt, "A", from that which they’ve learnt it by, "B".

It follows that a person can conduct the following interview with themselves: "I know this thing 'A'. How do I know it? I know 'A' because I experienced 'B'. What would it mean, or how could I conceptualise 'A' without 'B'?”

Although the exercise seems to reflect some sort of effort at empirical awareness (that is, to be aware of how we know each thing), this is not its purpose. The problem is not only to determine how we know a thing, but rather to make an effort at knowing that thing after cutting it off from its learning process. The aim is not to test that thing, but rather to see it in itself.

This is a lesson we should learn.


  • Pappas, N. Plato's Ion: The Problem of the Author (1951) Philosophy [link]
  • Jowett, B. (translator) Plato's Ion [link] - a minor note on terminology: what Jowett translates as "art" is more akin to what we would call a technique or professional skill, and differs from what I've called "art" in the writeup in which I mean something like an aesthetic product. In Ion Plato seems to hold that the problem with poets is that their knowledge is not a techne, i.e. it is not a technical skill/proper knowledge, although it well should be. Plato is effectively arguing against the post-Romantic tendency to want artists to express their art primitively, without necessarily understanding what they're doing. Thanks to DonJaime for some helpful suggestions.