Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Plato's Ion and Hippias Minor, Part One: Ion

"The secret to acting is sincerity. Once you learn how to fake that, the rest is easy."
[George Burns]

The very short Platonic dialogs named Ion and Hippias Minor are in many ways mirror images of each other. This is nowhere more true than in the title characters of each dialog. Ion and Hippias are both famous men who think very highly of themselves. But Ion is completely without guile, and he readily sees and admits to his own limitations, whereas Hippias is vainglorious to a fault, and aggressively defends his inflated self-image against any perceived slight or criticism. Both dialogs end "aporetically" - that is, having raised many questions while answering none of them with any certainty. This is not an uncommon way for a Platonic dialog to conclude, and is meant to reflect (or even, it might be hoped, to catalyze in the reader) a state of greater open-mindedness and readiness to learn - resulting from the realization that one does not know as much as one had thought. Ion is led quite easily and even gently to this "aporia" - whereas Hippias is dragged kicking and screaming all the way.

Ion was a "rhapsode" - a professional performer in classical Greece, whose artform consisted of publicly reciting epic poetry, especially Homer. Ion was highly skilled at his profession, and the dialog opens with him recounting a recent victory at a rhapsodic contest in another city (in honor of the God Asclepius). Socrates congratulates Ion on his recent success and then adds that he hopes Ion will win an upcoming contest in Athens (in honor of the Goddess Athena) as well, to which Ion responds "And I will win - if the Gods will it."

It's a small thing, Ion's quip about the will of the Gods. It is the type of thing that any pious (or even not so pious) Pagan might say without attaching any real thought or importance to it at all. But the subsequent dialog between Ion and Socrates confirms that Ion is a man characterized by an abundance of sincerity and openness combined with a complete lack of artifice. And yet Ion's chosen profession is, in a sense, the essence of artifice. For rhaspodes, at least award winning ones, did not just stand there and passively read Homer's poetry in a monotone - they enthusiastically "acted out" what they were reciting.

In fact, Plato's Ion is the single most important source we have for information on the craft of rhapsody and the artists who performed it. The following excerpt from the dialog gives a good feel for what rhapsody was and who these rhapsodes were:

Socrates: "When you produce the greatest effect upon the audience in the recitation of some striking passage, such as the apparition of Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognized by the suitors and casting his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles rushing at Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam,- are you in your right mind? Are you not carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy seem to be among the persons or places of which you are speaking, whether they are in Ithaca or in Troy or whatever may be the scene of the poem?"

Ion: "That proof strikes home to me, Socrates. For I must frankly confess that at the tale of pity, my eyes are filled with tears, and when I speak of horrors, my hair stands on end and my heart throbs."

Socrates: "Well, Ion, and what are we to say of a man who at a sacrifice or festival, when he is dressed in holiday attire and has golden crowns upon his head, of which nobody has robbed him, appears weeping or panic-stricken in the presence of more than twenty thousand friendly faces, when there is no one despoiling or wronging him;- is he in his right mind or is he not?"

Ion: "No indeed, Socrates, I must say that, strictly speaking, he is not in his right mind."

Socrates: "And are you aware that you produce similar effects on most spectators?"

Ion: "Only too well; for I look down upon them from the stage, and behold the various emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon their countenances when I am speaking: and I am obliged to give my very best attention to them; for if I make them cry I myself shall laugh, and if I make them laugh I myself shall cry when the time of payment arrives."

What is the key to Ion's success as a famous rhapsode? Ion himself believes his own deep understanding of Homer as a poet is what makes him so successful. But Socrates undermines this position by asking whether or not Ion is equally skilled when it comes to understanding the works of other poets. Ion readily admits that he has no interest in any other poets - in fact they put him to sleep! Socrates insists, and Ion agrees, that if Ion were an expert on poetry in general then he would be skilled in interpreting all poets.

But even once Ion admits that he apparently (according to Socrates' argument) is not an expert on poetry in general - he reminds Socrates that "the world agrees with me in thinking that I do speak better and have more to say about Homer than any other man." It is characteristic of Ion's guilelessness that he does not seek to defend his own self-image (that he is an expert in understanding poetry) but only what is objectively true (that his recitations of Homer are extremely popular). And it is equally characteristic of Ion that when faced with this apparent paradox (that he is no expert in poetry, and yet he is a very successful rhaspode) he looks to Socrates to help him sort it out: "Tell me the reason of this."

Socrates' explanation is that Ion's success is not due to skill at all, but rather to inspiration: "there is a divinity moving you".

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