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  • By Gerald Therrien

Shall We Allow the Poets in the Republic? Part II

At the end of the article – ‘Shall We Allow Poets in the Republic’ – we saw that reason obliged us to ban poetry from our republic, and that reason can admit poetry into our republic, but that it is our job to become the defenders of poetry, to keep it the best and truest!

To further examine Plato’s ‘appearance’ of ambiguity on this idea, we should therefore, continue by exploring his ‘Io’ dialogue, wherein Socrates is congratulating Io, the rhapsodist, for winning the chief prize in the ‘trial of skill of the Muse’s art’. [Note: translation by Floyer Sydenham, 1759]

Socrates says how he is envious of the rhapsodists, who are conversant in the works of many excellent poets, especially of Homer – who Socrates calls ‘the best and most divine’, and who learn, not merely his verses, but also his meaning. Socrates wishes to know if Io, as well as being a master at explaining Homer, is also a master at explaining Hesiod and Archilochus. But Io replies, no, that his powers were confined only to illustrating Homer. But, asks Socrates, in the writings of Homer and Hesiod, aren’t there any passages where their sentiments and thoughts agree? Io says that he can explain both of them, but only where they agree, and that the poetry of Homer is better than that of other poets.

Socrates thinks that if he can know which compositions excel, that he can also know which compositions do not excel, and asks if –

‘the nature both of the good and of the bad discourses would be discerned by the same person? For if a man was no proper judge of the defects in the meaner performance, is it not evident that he would be incapable of comprehending the beauties of the more excellent?’

Io answers that is appears probable, but that –

‘whenever I am present at a harangue upon any other poet, I pay not the least regard to it; nor am I able to contribute to the entertainment, or to advance any thing upon the subject in my turn, worth the regard of others; but grow downright dull, and fall asleep: yet that as soon as any mention is made of Homer, immediately I am roused, am all attention, and with great facility find enough to say upon this subject’.

Socrates reasons that it was because he wasn’t capable of explaining Homer ‘on the principles of art, or from real science’.

Socrates and Io now begin a discussion of art (whether the art of painting, or of sculpting, or of music) – that if someone is able to understand this art, then their way of considering and criticizing all the professors of this art, and their judgement in every case, would depend on the principles of this art. Io can only reply that concerning Homer, he disserts the best of all men, but of the other poets, it is quite otherwise.

Socrates then says that it appears to be that, since Io can discourse well concerning Homer, but not because of any art that he is the master of, therefore, that his ability must come from some ‘divine power’ – a power that resembles a magnet, that not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts that power to those same rings to attract other iron rings, as in a chain – and that in the same way, the Muse inspires and moves poets through her ‘divine impulse’ – inspiring others to form a chain of ‘divine enthusiasts’.

This way of composing of verses, not according to the rules of art, but from divine inspiration, Socrates compares to the ‘priests of Cybele’ and ‘the priestesses of Bacchus’.

He says that a poet is not able to write poetry –

til the Muse entering into him, he is transported out of himself, and has no longer the command of his intellect. But so long as a man continues in the possession of intellect, he is unable to sing either odes or oracles; to write any kind of poetry or utter any sort of prophecy.’

If poets cannot write poetry by using what is taught to them by art, then their poetry is limited to what only comes from divine inspiration!?! This type of poetry Socrates compares to ‘oracles’ and ‘prophecy’!?!

‘Hence it is, that the poets say indeed many fine things, whatever their subject be; just as you do concerning Homer: but each is alone able to accomplish this through a divine destiny, on that subject to which he is impelled by the Muse – this poet dithyrambic; that in panegyric; one in chorus songs; another in epic verse; another in iambic. In the other kinds, every one of them is mean, and makes no figure: and this, because they write not what is taught them by art, but what is suggested to them by some divine power, on whose influence they depend.’

Socrates said, because these poets have no knowledge of the art, then they cannot write any verses that are not suggested by some ‘divine power’ – because they have been deprived of their intellect!?!

‘For if it was their knowledge of the art which enabled them to write good poems upon one subject, they would be able to write poems equally good upon all other subjects. But for this reason it is, that the god, depriving them of the use of their intellect, employs them as his ministers, his oracle fingers, and divine prophets; that when we hear them, we may know, it is not these men who deliver things so excellent; these, to whom intellect is not present; but the god himself speaking, and through these men publishing his mind to us.’

And without knowledge of the art, and without the use of their intellect, poets are not poets but have become mere interpreters.

‘that those beautiful poems are not human, nor the compositions of men; but divine, and the work of gods: and that poets are only interpreters of the gods, inspired and possessed, each of them by that particular deity who corresponds to the particular nature of the poet.’

To this, Io whole-heartedly agrees, that ‘I feel as it were in my very soul … the truth of what you say’, and he also agrees with Socrates, that the rhapsodists, since they interpret the writings of the poets, therefore are ‘the interpreters of interpreters’.

But, we are left questioning whether this divine inspiration from the Muse has ‘the free use of intellect’, or, is it rather in ‘a state of mental alienation’, in ‘an ecstasy’? Can the art of poetry become known, or will it remain unknown, in the realm of mysticism?

Socrates then asks Io if ‘when you perform your rehearsals in the best manner, and strike your audience with uncommon force and efficacy’, do you imagine that yourself are present ‘to those very things and actions which you relateas if you had been hurried away by some divine power tothe scene of action’ and ‘produce this very same effect upon many of your auditors’?

To this question, Io admits that –

‘at every striking passage I look down from my pulpit round me, and see the people suitably affected by it: now weeping, then looking as if horror seized them; such emotion and such astonishment are spread through all. And it is my business to observe them with strict attention, that if I see I have set them a weeping, I may be ready to receive their money, and to laugh; but if I find them laughing, that I may prepare myself for a sorrowful exit, disappointed of my expected gain.’

[Is this perhaps, a humorous hint at the motive behind the ‘mysticism’ of the ‘oracles’ and ‘prophecies’? while Socrates is tip-toeing around any possible accusations that he was disrespecting the gods?]

Socrates then returns to his ‘metaphor’ of the magnet and the iron rings – the last ring being like the audience, the middle ring being like the rhapsodist, and the first ring being like the poet, all deriving their power from the magnet at the top of the chain – ‘by means of all these, does the god draw, wherever it please him, the souls of men, suspended each on the other through attractive virtue’.

In this way, Socrates says, Io is being held fast, inspired and enthusiastically possessed, by Homer – ‘when you harangue upon Homer, you do it not from art or science, but from enthusiasm, of that particular kind which has possessed you by divine allotment’; that ‘not science but enthusiasm’, and ‘not art but divine destiny’ is the cause.

But Io objects to this – ‘but I should wonder if, with all your fine talk, you could persuade me to think myself possessed, and insane, when I make my panegyrics on Homer. Nor would you, as I imagine, think so yourself, were you but to hear from me a dissertation upon that poet’.

Socrates and Io now begin a dialogue on the different arts – ‘has not thus every one of the arts an ability, given it by God himself, to judge of certain performances?’ – and such as pertain to the rhapsodical art.

Io replies that a rhapsodist knows ‘what is proper for a man to speak, and what for a woman; what for a slave, and what for a freeman; what for those who are under government or command, and what for the governor and the commander.’ But on examining each of these, they could not find the art of the rhapsodist.

Socrates is left to ask Io, whether he is an truly an artist or ‘if indeed you are not an artist, but an enthusiast, one of those who from divine allotment are inspired by Homer; and thus, without any real knowledge, are able to utter abundance of fine words about the writings of that poet’.

Io thinks that ‘it is certainly much the better thing to be deemed under divine influence’, and Socrates agrees that he is ‘an enthusiast, and not an artist’.

So, when we are offered two choices, we logically deduce that rhapsodists and poets must be ‘possessed and insane’ and must derive their inspiration from some divine influence – like the oracles and prophecies of the priests and priestesses of the gods, for surely they can not derive this power from any skill in the art.

But, wait a second … there is also a third choice – Socrates’s metaphor of the magnet and the iron rings – that the audience, who from the rhapsodists, who in turn from the poets themselves, receive their inspiration, not by science, but by enthusiasm from the Muse.

Sometimes, when given two choices, it is better to pick the third option. For I must admit, that I much prefer this third choice of that humorous, ironical and now, metaphorical Plato, and his idea of enthusiasm.

Originally published on The Rising Tide Foundation

Gerlad Therrien is a historian and author of a four volume series on Canadian history entitled Canadian History Unveiled and has lectured on topics ranging from poetry, ancient Athenian culture, the Renaissance and the Haitian Revolution.


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