Plato, "Ion" (4th century B.C.E.)
Plato was Socrates' student and an accomplished philosopher in his own right. His dialogues present a fascinating interpretive problem in that he presents them as verbatim transcripts of conversations his teacher had with various persons, many of whom we know to have existed in 4th-century Athens. He has no reason to falsify the events, especially since many of his readers might have known the participants and their versions of the discussion. However, in the absence of sound recording technology (and even with it!), accurate transcription of extended, complex conversation is a difficult task. For now, let us assume, with the philosophers, that Plato is telling us the truth, in some sense, about what Socrates asked Ion, the rhapsode.
In all the dialogues, Socrates interrogates his student/subjects in a pattern of linked questions, the "elenchus," that is designed to gradually trap them in a contradiction which will expose some basic concept to new understanding. This "Socratic elenchus" sometimes has been attempted by modern teachers, with controversial results. In any event, you should not assume that the conversation you read is merely casual and aimless. Ion is being stalked.
1) How does Socrates first describe the art of the Homeridae, and how does Ion describe what he does? (Hint: it involves the difference between performance and interpretation.)
2) Socrates is interested to know whether Ion can generalize his knowledge of what poetry means from one poet to another. What is Ion's response and what does it mean for your attempt to know what proper interpretation of poetry might be? Especially, why does Socrates concentrate on how to reconcile disagreements among poets and why is Ion unable to tell him how to do so? What does it mean for you if you cannot do so?
3) Socrates raises the possibility that poets' inspiration means that they are out of their minds when at work (33). What does this mean for the poets' credit for their work and what is "inspiration" in modern terms?
4) If the poet cannot know the arts of the various types of people who are described in the work, is art impossible, or merely inadequate? Or is poet's knowledge different from those of other people's?
5) Should poets be able to explain their art in order for poetry to be accepted as an art?