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Melissa L Cook
November 16, 2010

"so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
(William Carlos Williams 1996, 66)


Throughout Plato's dialogues, we encounter numerous passages of Socrates'

interlocutors goading him to tell them something. His reply is usually a rendition of an

admonition to not knowing anything. What can he tell them about what he does not

know? I do not believe that Plato would have Socrates living in this ignorant state, he

does know something, but claiming ignorance is Socrates' tactic to avoid telling others

what they will not understand. In The Seventh Letter, Plato writes:

"Thus much, at least, I can say about all writers, past or future, who say
they know the things to which I devote myself, whether by hearing the
teaching of me or of others, or by their own discoveries---that according to
my view it is not possible for them to have any real skill in the matter.
There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject. For it
does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after
much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a
light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from
another, and thereafter sustains itself" (341b-d)

This text comes from a letter Plato wrote to someone, and not a dialogue. For me this

passage represents the spirit in which Plato's dialogues should be approached and

understood. His goal was not to explicate the truth of the matter or systematically explain

himself, but to make us think, to spark the light of truth within ourselves. Nothing is

given but a riddle that we must try to solve, one that Plato thinks will only be solved by a

very devoted few.

This paper embodies such an enigmatic spirit. In the following pages I will
explore what Plato really thinks about poetry. I believe his thoughts are not to be found

on the surface of the dialogues but within the dynamics of the relationships within them. I

will begin with Socrates' dialogue with Glaucon where he openly explicates poetry as

imitation in The Republic, and then I will look closely at his conversations with both Ion

and Phaedrus in their character entitled dialogues. Within each conversation Socrates

plays a different role according to who is talking to, his skills of rhetoric are found within

the dynamics of the relationships within the dialogues. Finally, I will examine what this

means in understanding Socrates' dialogues in general.

Socrates the Shrewd Rhetorician

In his discourse with Phaedrus, Socrates reveals what he deems to be rules to the

art of rhetoric. One of the key requirements for mastering this art is being "able to discern

the nature of the soul, and discover the different modes of discourse which are adapted to

different natures, and to arrange and dispose them in such a way that the simple form of

speech may be addressed to the simpler nature, and complex and composite to the more

complex nature" (277c). This means that in order to be persuasive one must know their

audience, he must be aware of the composition of their very souls in order to sway them.

Although Socrates believes dialectic to be the highest form of dialogue (533c) it is

obvious that through the variety of interlocutors Socrates deals with he is unable to

practice this noble art. Socrates is approaching his dialoguers as a rhetorician, his

ultimate goal as expressed in the Apology is to travel around conversating with others and

exposing their dogmatic heirs to knowledge as ignorance. Although we know that many

of his contemporaries put him to death for this, within the dialogues there are no

escalating hostilities. Some of the dialogues end in aporia, but in Ion and Phaedrus in
particular, Socrates is able to persuade his audience to his side, the side of the lover of

wisdom. He is capable of achieving this by knowing the constitution of their very souls

and applying this knowledge individualistically to each one he carries discourse with.

Socrates and Glaucon

In The Republic, much of Socrates' conversation is carried on with Glaucon, a

student of his. Being that Glaucon is a lover of wisdom himself Socrates is able to speak

more openly about his thoughts on poetry. Socrates says, "Speaking in confidence, for I

should not like to have my words repeated to the tragedians and the rest of the imitative

tribe---but I do not mind saying to you, that all poetical imitations are ruinous to the

understanding of the hearers" (595a-b). Already we see that Socrates is not so much

trying to persuade Glaucon of anything as simply sharing his true feelings with a fellow

philosopher. Following this statement Socrates proceeds to explain why although he

himself has "had an awe and love of Homer," there is no room in the just State (which

also transfers to the just soul) for such imitation (595c). For Socrates there is the

Beautiful, a single immutable unity of the beautiful, there is also the mortal particulars of

beautiful, the many changing individual things that take part in the first, and finally there

is the imitation. This makes the imitative beautiful three times removed from the actual

Beautiful. It is not an appearance of the beautiful, but an appearance of the appearance.

Socrates himself is a lover of Homer, "but a man is not to be reverenced more than the

truth" (595c). This is what Socrates sees around him: an unjust society, incapable of

discerning the difference between truth, appearance and imitation, is having their souls

affected by the passionate nature of poetry. This is why imitative poetry is banished from

the just State, the majority of men's souls are too easily swayed by the poets, who have no
real knowledge of their own and only imitate appearances. Now that we are privy to the

extent of Socrates' secret loathing of poetry we are better equipped to understand his

clever persuasions within Ion and Phaedrus.

Socrates and Ion

Ion is a renowned rhapsode of Homer's works (541b). Socrates and Ion encounter

one another after Ion has attained first prize at the festival of Asclepius for his rendition

of Homer's poetry. Within the first few lines Socrates says, "I often envy the profession of

a man can be a rhapsode who does not understand the meaning of the poet.

For the rhapsode ought to interpret the mind of the poet to his hearers, but how can he

interpret him well unless he knows what he means?" (530b). Here we can already see

Socrates' shrewdness at persuasion in two ways. First, when reading these lines in light of

his genuine feelings towards poetry it becomes apparent that Socrates is flattering Ion's

ego in order to have his point of view more readily entertained. If the poet is third

removed from the truth and an imitation of appearance, then the rhapsode would be

fourth removed from the truth making his work an interpretation of an imitation of an

appearance of the real. I can hardly imagine Socrates actually envying such a profession,

being that he is a true lover of wisdom, who is concerned with the real. The second is

concerned with the question following his compliment. Going into the conversation

Socrates very well feels that the rhapsode is devoid of any real knowledge. Yet, he uses

the false assumption that the rhapsode knows what the poet means to wrestle the opposite

conclusion from Ion himself. There is a difference between telling someone the truth of

the matter and provoking them to come to this conclusion on their own. By beginning

under the assumption that Ion has true knowledge of Homer he has put himself on the
same playing field as Ion. Eventually Ion asks, "Why then, Socrates, do I lose attention

and go to sleep and have absolutely no ideas of the least value, when any one speaks of

any other poet; but when Homer is mentioned, I wake up at once and am all attention and

have plenty to say?" (532c) Socrates' answer can be easily predicted, it is because he has

no real knowledge. By the end of the dialogue Socrates has Ion admitting to having no

true knowledge of Homer, or poetry at all, but working under the influence of divine


At Ion's level of understanding Socrates cannot reveal his true feelings, as with

Glaucon, and he does not even attempt to. It is enough for Socrates to have awakened

within Ion the realization that he has no knowledge. Although he has divine inspirations

that allow for his enchanting recitations of Homer, he does not truly understand them. He

has no art, only momentary instances of inspiration that can lead him no further to the

truth, which can offer no refinement or order to his soul. I believe that this dialogue can

be seen as Socrates' accomplishment of helping one rhapsode come to admit that he does

not have knowledge, a great performance in a time when the Homeric poems were the

chief source of education.

Socrates and Phaedrus

Socrates' dialogue with Phaedrus represents his shrewdest tactics yet. Phaedrus is

the lover of Lysias, a renowned speechwriter and orator. Within the dialogue, Socrates

refers to his "simplicity" (241d). Knowing these two things we can expect Socrates to

tailor their dialogue accordingly, appealing to his love of words and his simple soul. He

knows that in order to bring Phaedrus to any understanding he will have to relate to him

in the way a young lover of inspired words can accept. Socrates goads Phaedrus into
reading a speech Lysias has written in which he advocates the choosing of the non-lover

over the lover, due to the madness involved in love. Socrates claims to become "inspired

with a phrenzy" and orates his own speech on the matter, where he actually strengthens

Lysias' argument (234c). I claim that Socrates is not "truly overtaken by the Nymphs," as

he says, but is simply another tactic of appealing to his audience. He knows the way to

affect the "simplicity" of Phaedrus' soul is through inspired words. Socrates plays on this

sympathy again when upon leaving he claims to be told by a voice that he has been

impious in his speaking. He stays to recant his earlier orations for fear of being blinded

for speaking untruthfully of the gods, such as Homer and Stesichorus had done (243a-b).

The mistake that both Socrates and Lysias make is choosing the non-lover over the lover,

because love is a god, necessarily good and divine. By equating his speech with Lysias' I

believe Socrates is not only softening the blow to Phaedrus that his lover is not only

wrong but impious, but he is also opening the way to an understanding of divine

inspiration within a hierarchical framework, one which reinforces Socrates disdain to the

level of truth within poetry. Socrates' recantation is concerned with the value of the

madness of love; he says that there exists a madness which is "the source of the chiefest

blessings granted to men" (244b). He divides "divine madness" "into four kinds,

prophetic, initiatory, poetic, [and] erotic..." (265b). The erotic being the madness of true

love, the love that makes philosophy possible. He also explicates a hierarchy of souls

depending upon how much truth the soul has seen before birth: "...the soul which has

seen most of truth shall come to birth as a philosopher...the fifth shall lead the life of a

prophet or hierophant; to the sixth the character of a poet or some other imitative artist..."

having nine positions all together (248c). I do not think that Socrates believes these
things verbatim but is simply using these stories to enchant his listener and persuade him

to the highest love of wisdom, and not speeches and words. Socrates has placed the

philosopher's soul closest to the truth, he strives to apprehend the essence of the Beautiful

itself and he does this through love, for lack of a better word, "erotic" madness. The

philosopher is a lover of wisdom which means he is mad and enraptured by the pursuit

and knowledge of truth. The souls of the prophet and the poet are far from the vision of

truth because they are results of prophetic and poetic madness and only act as vessels of

messages left to be interpreted. In the end Socrates sends Phaedrus off to willingly relay a

message to Lysias, he says:

"Go and tell Lysias that to the fountain and school of the Nymphs we went
down, and were bidden to convey a message to him and to other
composers of speeches---to Homer and other writers of poems; whether
set to music or not; and to Solon and others who have composed writings
in the form of political discourses which they would term laws---to all of
them we are to say that if their compositions are based on knowledge of
the truth, and they can defend or prove them, when they are put to the test,
by spoken arguments, which leave their writings poor in comparison of
them, then they are to be called, not only poets, orators, legislators, but are
worthy of a higher name, befitting the serious pursuit of their life...Wise, I
may not call them; for that is a great name which belongs to God alone;---
lovers of wisdom or philosophers is their modest and befitting title" (278b-

Socrates has achieved, at least for now, the awakening of one young lover to the

understanding of the difference between what he has been admiring and what he should

turn his endearing attentions to: loving the truth.

Plato's words and Socrates' voice

Through the voice of Socrates, Plato never dogmatically proposes to know the

truth, but always places it as the obvious goal to be loved and sought after. By focusing

on his shrewd tactics of persuasion we are able to see Socrates in a new light. By
focusing on his skills of rhetoric at work within the dynamics of his dialogues with

Glaucon, Ion, and Phaedrus we are able to see more clearly the cleverness of his declared

ignorance. He easily slips in and out of roles, practicing the very imitation he so

disapproves of. In one conversation a philosopher, the next an envious comrade, and

finally an enchanting poet himself. This fits in place with Plato's commitment to never

writing out a systemized philosophy but only leaving us a cryptic succession of

dialogues, using Socrates persuasive voice to hopefully awaken the vision of truth that

each of our souls has within it. Truth cannot be explained or given because it lies dormant

within us waiting to be awakened. We cannot be wise because we cannot be God. But, we

can be lovers of wisdom and through that love aspire to the noble truth. This is why

Socrates is prophesied to be the wisest of all, and through the madness of his love, this is

what he dies for.


The irony of the dialogues is that we do fall prey to Socrates' enchanting ways. He

is a man of mystery and intrigue and when we think we have him pegged he slips away

and leaves us either confused, or in the cases above, convinced. But what does it all really

mean? Already we can see the beginnings of the age old rift between the works of reason

and those of a more emotive source. Like Descartes, Plato's knowledge is a kindled light

in the soul and truth is subject to reason, measurement, and understanding. The poets, I

expect due to their egos, are already being stripped of the truth of their words and

shunned for affecting us with feelings which cannot be quantified and explicated, feelings

needing to be kept under the tight reigns of reason. To me this is an empty view, lacking

in depth as much as the idea of the Beautiful. Abstract notions of beauty are not capable
of being beautiful. Beauty is particular and these particulars represent the most real form

of beauty to exist. I would agree that a poem about a rose may seem to be lacking when

compared to a particular rose, but a particular rose will never come up short when

compared to the idea of one. The real is the corporeal, not a removed ideal form, and

poetry represents this real in all its changing varieties. We cannot know beauty without

ugliness, but Plato's Socrates loves an untainted, unattainable Beautiful. He does not love

life because he does not love particulars; he cannot love life because he fears that what is

beautiful today will be ugly tomorrow.

Plato. (1952). "Ion". In Benjamin Jowett (Trans), The Dialogues of Plato. Chicago:
Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 142-148.

Plato. (1952). "Phaedrus". In Benjamin Jowett (Trans), The Dialogues of Plato. Chicago:
Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 115-141.

Plato. (1987). The Republic. Desmond Lee (Trans). London: Penguin Books.

Plato. (1952). "The Seventh Letter". In J. Harward (Trans), The Dialogues of Plato.
Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 800-814.

Williams, William Carlos. (1996). "The Red Wheelbarrow". In Czeslaw Milosz, A Book
of Luminous Things: an International Anthology of Poetry. New York: Harcourt
Brace & Co. 66.