Earl’s Comments on Ray Nayler’s Response to Plato’s Ion

Ray Nayler

Earl Jackson, Jr.’s comments


Earl’s comments are in response to the

red portions of Ray’s text.

Date: Monday, February 15, 1999 05:21:36

From: Ray Nayler

Subj: Response to the Ion

To: Earl Jackson, Jr.

In 523C of the Ion, Socrates states “ . . . it is plain to everyone that not from art and knowledge comes your power to speak of Homer.“ this statement is confusing as it elides conflates art and knowledge, (rational knowledge) two areas of discourse seen in the modern period as antithetical. To a modern reader, this statement makes very little sense, taken out of its historical context. However, art in the Periclean age was seen not as antithetical to knowledge, but belonging to its realm.

Where art today, as can be seen in the „action paintings“ and the German expressionist movements, is regarded as expressive of emotion and as coming from „inspiration“ and an artist’s „passion,“ in the Periclean Period it was regarded as highly intellectual, a balanced marriage of knowledge and human emotion


Poetry, on the other hand, Socrates regards with an attitude similar to that of modern discourse about painting, from those textbook promoters of the „genius school“of art appreciation. Socrates argues that poetry comes from divine inspiration, and is separate from art–even antithetical to it, at least in its mode of production. When Ion states that he is an expert only on Homer and not on the other poets, Socrates uses this opportunity to cross-examine the statement, and to demonstrate that therefore Ion must be inspired. If he were simply knowledgeable (and therefore like the artist) he would be able to appreciate the works of all poets, rather than just one, with an even and critical eye.

The conclusion that Socrates draws is that Ion’s „speaking well on Homer“ is not an art (533d). After demonstrating this, Socrates hypothesizes a structure of inspiration which is similar to that of the magnet charging successive steel rings with attractive power. he brings Ion to admit that as a rhapsode he is an „interpreter of interpreter“ (535a), and compares the task of a rhapsodist to that of an actor (536a).An important point about the discourse of the Ion in relation to our modern discourse inside the space of the seminar, is that there is no mention in the Ion of philosophy, or of its being superior to poetry.

Socrates does not demonstrate or allude whatsoever to his own superior ability to interpret poetry, he simply dismantles the idea that the poet is an artist, and through argument causes Ion to admit that he is not knowledgeable, but divinely inspired. It seems to me that in the past

weeks, as we have gotten further away from the primary reading of the text early in the term, we have forgotten that this argument does not take place, and have, as aneffect of our own discourse, added it to the material of Plato’s text. If anyone is posited by Socrates as being superior to the rhapsode in the interpretation of Homer’s poem, it is those disparate people who have mastered the arts, crafts and trades which are present everwhere in Homer’s text, and the last part of the dialogue is almost wholly devoted (539-542) in demonstrating how only these individual artists would have the knowledge which Ion has proposed that he possesses. As usual, in this dialogue, Socrates make few concrete statements, and deconstructs another’s argument rather than constructing

one of his own. Interestingly, however, we seminarians seem to have begun constructing an argument for him of the superiority of literary interpretation over poetry, and have managed to inject this modern argument into our ideas of the original text, solidifying what we percieve to be the argument of Socrates, and inventing for him a more solid and modern method of discourse. We have done in class precisely what he would never do, and then attributed it to him.


A final note–maybe it seems strange to bring up our discussion of Ion in my response to the Ion, but I could not help but observe some rather disturbing tendencies–in myself as well as others, toward expansion on the arguments in these dialogues, which seems to me to be a reductive and particularly modern way of going about things. Since I assume that a primary goal of this course is to grapple with our own tendencies toward viewing ancient text in modern context, I thought that this self-reflexive example might be a good place to start the debate.

Unfortunately, I cannot provide you with any direct quotes to support my argument about what has been occuring in seminar–I can only offer my own fluid–and certainly flawed–perceptions of our continuing conversation.









You write that 523c „conflates art and knowledge“ – Consult the

lexicon on our site. Especially the items on techne and epistêmê. Read the dictionary entries thoroughly and look up some of the other texts cited as illustrations of the meanings of the terms. Having done this, do you want to reformulate your statement here?

Your characterization of „art“ in modern Western culture as conceived of as „coming from ‚inspiration‘ is multiply confusing. For one thing, the term „inspiration“ is seldom (if ever) used with any real weight behind it in modern critical parlance. What would it mean? Secondly (and closely related) this is terribly confusing, since „inspiration“ is the key term in Socrates’s theory! And presumably even if Socrates didn’t mean it literally [I tip my hand here a little] he certainly thought he was speaking to a audience who did take that literally. To use the term double time like this seriously damages the coherence of the argument both from the perspective of the Greek text and from that of the modern presumptions.






When you write that Socrates’s theory of poetry as originating from „divine inspiration“ resembles the „genius school“ of art criticism, the fears I express in the cell above come home to roost. The „divine inspiration“ of the poet is supposedly literal and not open to question. It has little to do with the kind of „inspiration“ that a „genius“ would enjoy. Remember, Socrates is not praising Ion with this, he’s accusing him of „divine inspiration.“ The inspired party is disqualied altogether from knowledge of or responsibility for what utterance the divinity produces via the medium of the possessed person. The modern „inspired“ Genius is given all the credit for her or his „inspired“ work. Remember – an English word used to translate the ancient term has little to nothing to do with the same English word used in contemporary contexts. The coincidence of the two do not provide a basis for deductive reasoning or unguarded extrapolation.


 I am going to take another route – but not an escape route – Instead of me responding to the last third of Ray’ss text, I would like to ask each of the participants in the seminar to write up a response and to send it to me for posting (or distribute it via email to each other, please)

Thank you.


Javiera on Ion

Scott Seguin’s Intellectual Autobiography

Ray Nayler on Ion

Lisa v. W on

The Cratylus

Loren Silvers‘ Intellectual Autobiography

Anthony C. on Ion

Nichole K. on

The Cratylus

Jeff B. on Ion