31 pages 1 hour read



Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Ion”

The Greek philosopher Plato wrote “Ion” in approximately 380 BCE. This philosophical dialogue focuses on the relationship between poetry and inspiration. The main character, Socrates, questions a rhapsode named Ion about his ability to interpret the poetry of Homer. This study guide refers to the Paul Woodruff translation of “Ion,” published in 1997 by Hackett Publishing Company.

Ion of Ephesus arrives in Athens from Epidaurus, where he has just attended the festival of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. At the festival, Ion participated in contests to determine who was the greatest rhapsode (a type of poet, actor, singer, and performer). Ion won first prize. Socrates expresses his envy of Ion’s profession. As a rhapsode, Ion wears fine clothes, looks beautiful, and spends his days learning and reciting poetry with other rhapsodes and poets (938). Ion agrees that the profession of a rhapsode is enjoyable and claims no one can recite the poetry of Homer as well as he can.

Socrates distinguishes between memorizing a poem and understanding its meaning. He says that both are necessary to recite a poem properly. When Ion speaks of his ability to interpret Homer, Socrates inquires whether he can interpret other poets as well. Ion says he cannot. Socrates wonders why and asks Ion whether he could interpret Homer and Hesiod equally well if the poets agreed on a certain topic. Ion says he could. When Socrates asks if Ion could interpret Homer and Hesiod equally well if they disagree, Ion says he cannot. Ion says that if the poets disagree the best person to interpret them would be an expert on the subject they disagree about.

Socrates asks why Ion can interpret only Homer. Ion claims it is because Homer is the best poet. But this answer does not satisfy Socrates, who gives examples of other professionals who can judge both the good and the bad of their art, such as mathematicians, doctors, painters, sculptors, and musicians. They agree that if someone is skilled in a particular art, then they should be able to judge both good and bad examples. Yet Ion maintains that he has no skill at all when it comes to interpreting any poet other than Homer, claiming,

When someone discusses another poet I pay no attention, and I have no power to contribute anything worthwhile: I simply doze off. But let someone mention Homer and right away I’m wide awake and I’m paying attention and I have plenty to say (940).

Socrates concludes that Ion can perform and interpret Homer because he is inspired by the gods.

To explain what he means by inspiration, Socrates uses the metaphor of magnets, claiming “it’s a divine power that moves you [Ion], as a ‘Magnetic’ stone moves iron rings” (941). Socrates explains that a magnet endows a metal object with the ability to attract other metal objects, and so on, with the strength of the magnetism becoming weaker as the original magnet gets further away. Socrates says that the god inspires the poet Homer directly and that inspiration comes to Ion through Homer’s poetry, which Ion passes on to whoever watches him recite the poetry. True poetry is the work of the gods, and humans are merely their mouthpieces when they are inspired. Socrates gives an example of a terrible poet who never wrote anything worth hearing except one incredible poem that everyone knows and loves. The poet himself explains that he was only able to write that one amazing poem because the Muses compelled him to do it. So, Socrates concludes, the poets are the interpreters of the gods because the gods use the poets to speak their divine messages through them.

Socrates says that to be inspired, one must be “possessed” or “not in their right mind” (942). He claims that if poets used their intellect to write poetry, their poems would be inferior to the ones they produce through divine inspiration. Ion agrees that he is not in his right mind when he recites poetry, as he feels transported to whatever situation his poem describes; if the story he tells is sad, it brings tears to his eyes, and if it is frightening, he feels his hair stand on end. These reactions are against reason because, in reality, he is standing in a room reciting a poem. Furthermore, his spectators feel these same effects when they hear Ion recite poetry, showing that Socrates’s claim about how divine inspiration works like a magnet has merit, with inspiration flowing from the gods to the poet to the rhapsode to the audience.

Ion claims to be able to speak well about any subject Homer has written about. But Socrates is not convinced because he does not think Ion’s understanding of these subjects amounts to knowledge—the source of his ability to speak about them was determined to be inspiration. To show the difference between inspiration and knowledge, Socrates asks Ion if he knows as much about chariot driving as a charioteer does simply because Homer writes about that topic. Ion admits that the charioteer knows more. Socrates then says, “What we learn by mastering one profession we won’t learn by mastering another, right?” (945). Ion agrees: If being a charioteer and being a rhapsode are different professions, then Ion cannot have learned how to be a charioteer from learning to recite Homer’s poetry, even if it is about chariot-driving. Socrates gives several more examples of professions that can be found in Homer’s work, and Ion agrees that the people who have mastered those professions would be better judges of whether Homer represented their professions accurately.

Socrates continues: If the charioteer is the best judge of passages that have to do with chariot-driving, and the doctor is the best judge of passages that have to do with medicine, then which are the passages that the rhapsode is the best judge of? “All of them,” Ion replies, apparently forgetting that he just agreed that such cannot be the case (947). Socrates reminds him that different professions have different domains of knowledge and that a rhapsode cannot know more about a profession than someone who practices that profession.

Ion asserts that “[a rhapsode will] know what it’s fitting for a man or a woman to say—or for a slave or a freeman, or for a follower or a leader” (947). He thinks, for example, that a rhapsode would know “what a man should say, if he’s a general, to encourage his troops” (948). Socrates insists that even if Ion does know what a general should say, he does not know this because of his skills as a rhapsode. Ion believes that “anyone who is a good rhapsode turns out to be a good general too,” but not “anyone who turns out to be a good general is a good rhapsode” (948). So now Ion asserts that because he is the best rhapsode, he is also the best general.

Socrates asks him why he spends his time “giving rhapsodies but not commanding troops,” as Greece needs a general more than it needs a rhapsode (949). Ion claims it is because Athens and Sparta do not realize what a good general he would be because he is a foreigner. Socrates asserts that if Ion was as good a general as he says he is, Athens and Sparta would realize it. Socrates says Ion would not make a good general because he does not know about the art of being one. He knows how to be a rhapsode, however, even though he cannot pin down what a rhapsode should know. Socrates concludes, “it’s as someone divine, and not as master of a profession, that you [Ion] are a singer of Homer’s praises” (949).