Alêtheia for Ion


Jeff’s Text


of the ways in which
Socrates critiques Ion’s
claim that he is thegreatest of rhapsodes is through comparing his work
to artistic appreciationof painting. 

„Well, have you ever seen anyone who was good
at Polygnotos, son of Aglaophon, and could show which of his paintings
are good and which are not, but with the other painters was incapable?
When someone shows him works of other painters, does he just doze, and
has nothing to say, and can’t put in a remark: but when he has to givean
opinion about Polygnotos, or any other one painter that you may choose,does
he wake up and take notice, and does he find plenty to say (Ion 533B)?“ 

If you accept that this implies the need for
critics,this statement implies either that there is something objectively
defined that critics can talk about even when they consider works of art
which they do not like, that critics like every work of art equally, or
that critics never actually talk about works of art, but about the methods
of analysis which they apply to each work. The latter interpretation is
inferred by the line of questioning near the end of the dialogue, where
Socrates asks whether or not a number of experts would learn anything from
the epics,eventually concluding that they would not.
to disvalue
idea that a work of art, or a literary object can actually be didacticat
all, saying that an individual expert in charioteering or medicine wouldfind
little which would further their knowledge in these poems.

Well, first of all, there’s something
odd in the way you quote the Ion. Let me point it out. You write: „Have
you ever met anyone, who was good at Polygnotos.“ This might be
interpreted as „was good at imitating the painting style of Polygnotos,“which

Let’s look at the passage in question, in the version provided by the

have you ever found anybody who is skilled in pointing out the successes
and failures among the works of Polygnotus1son
of Aglaophon,but
unable to do so with the works of the other painters; 533a] and who,when
the works of the other painters are exhibited, drops into a doze,and is
at a loss, and has no remark to offer; but when he has to pronounce upon
any other painter you please, and on that one only, wakes up and attendsand
has plenty to say?

on my honor, I certainly have not.



celebrated painter who came from Thasosand
adorned public buildings in Athensabout
470 B.C. Cf. Gorg. 488 B.



metal-worker (Herodot. 1. 51, 3. 41).



Your reading is interesting and deserves further development. But youoverlook
a peculiarity in the very comparison to which you draw our attention.

The individuals who are „good at pointing out“ aspects of a painter’sart,
are not practicing painting or any art form related to painting. Ion’s
„interpretation“ of Homeric poetry is fully  enmeshed in an art of
recitation of that poetry. His middle distance between poet and interpreter
is complexly diffracted by another  middle distance – that between
poet and rhapsodic recitation of that poet’s work.

In short, Socrates’s analogy raises more questions than it answers.


  1. „Disvalue“ is not a word. You mean „devalue.“

2.  Socrates asks Ion if he had the specialized knowledge of each
of these crafts depicted in the Homeric poems. The presumption that such
knowledge is necessary to interpret the poem properly implies there
may indeed be knowledge in the poem that would benefit the experts in therespective
trades and crafts  depicted. The conclusion  you draw is counterintuitive.


Part Two