Plato’s Republic, Book X and Ion: the Never-ending Dualism

Boldini Giovanni's Reading in Bed

Boldini Giovanni, Reading in Bed

The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does and judge only by colours and figures (Republic Book X).

And what they say is true, for a poet is a light and winged thing, and holy, and never able to compose until he has become inspired, and is beside himself, and reason is no longer in him (Ion).

As in Plato’s Republic, much of the Ion seems involved with undermining the poet (or painter) as an individual, and the process of poetry (or painting) as a whole. Either the process is imitative or it is not a process at all, and it is surely not a valid human endeavour. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates simply shuns poetry as an art, calling it an imitation of a copy of the truth; Plato’s Ion, however, esteems the poet (the ‘good one,’ anyway) as the individual who contains the gift of being “inspired, possessed” (Richter 41). Still though, poets are left hanging amidst the stigma that they do not really do any work. Sure, you have a gift, says Socrates, but your gift is that of possession “by the divinity to whom [you] are in bondage” (41) – i.e., as a poet, you are never able to do anything until that moment of inspiration (which again, is not your own intrinsic doing) when you transcend and may begin spewing out ideas, experiences, and occurrences that aren’t really your own. These ideas are mere interpretations of the gods thanks to your gift.

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Just so the Muse. She first makes men inspired, and then through these inspired ones others share in the enthusiasm, and a chain is formed, for the epic poets, all the good ones, have their excellence, not from art, but are inspired, possessed, and thus they utter all these admirable poems (Ion).

Now, while I sit here with a clenched-tooth grin recalling the various people who have shared the belief that art and literature are superfluous and of little value to society, I must remember my own experiences as a creative individual: inspiration is true enough – that single, brilliant idea or premise holding a piece together – but as a creative writer, I view poetry, prose, etc. as a process…

It is a process that requires long hours, multiple revisions, and work. That “precious revelation” holds a weight of its own of course, but it takes training and technique to turn that revelation into a literary experience that is worthwhile (41). And with the mention of worth, the question of value comes up. We are made to ask: Is art practical? Does it need to be? What is of value? What is useful? (today’s world seems to be straying farther and farther away from the arts). Socrates’ aim at answering this, however, creates the infamous dichotomy.

Through Plato’s depiction, Socrates acts on his dualistic tendencies and splits the human soul into two – the rational and the emotional – by asking: “Then that part of the soul which has an opinion contrary to measure can hardly be the same with that which has an opinion in accordance to measure?” By which we are supposed to answer, “Certainly.” Further Socrates asks, “The part of the soul which trusts to measure and calculation is likely to be the better one?” And again we are supposed to answer “Certainly” (35). But call me irrational because I get more from reading Thomas Hardy or T.S Eliot than measuring the length of a stick.

Works Cited

Plato. Republic, Book X. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 30-8. Print.

— Ion. The Critical Tradition:  Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Trans. Lane Cooper. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 38-46. Print.

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