Socrates on Lyric inspiration: Selection from the Rock Commentaries

Socrates on the inspiration of poetry: From Plato’s Apology, Phaedrus and Ion

The best, or most beautiful and meaningful music comes to us, as we have been saying, not directly by knowledge, but by a kind of inspiration. Musical inspiration is different from religious inspiration, but is a kind of inspiration nonetheless.[5] While it comes from “within,” the source of the greatest songs is from “above” or “outside” the composers themselves, in some sense. Inspiration presupposes “art,” in the sense of technical ability, but, as is obvious, there is not a technique of writing even great poetry or music, as there is a technique of carpentry or bricklaying. The technical skill of the musician, an essential part of the wonder of performances, is only a body or vehicle for some daemonic[6] or magical something that supervenes on the activity of composing songs. The excellence, and the art, of the musician is to be prepared for and to be open to this inspiration. And this is the root of the other meaning of the word “art,” pertaining not to making useful but rather imitative products. The product does not come only from the character of the person, but somehow from the nature of man that we all have a part in. Hence the poet becomes the voice of a whole people or of an age, and even sometimes of mankind.

Socrates, in three or four places, is shown by Plato transmitting a teaching that the poets write what they write well from inspiration rather than knowledge. There is, first, a story in Plato’s Apology that is well known for being most revealing about poetry. Socrates tells the story to the Athenian jury when he tries to explain how it is that he acquired his reputation for a certain wisdom, a sort of “human wisdom.” This human wisdom seems to be that he knows that he does not have divine wisdom. As the story goes, Chaerephon, a friend of Socrates, had gone to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi and asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The oracle replied that there was not. When Socrates heard the saying, he understood it to be a riddle. He was aware that he was not wise “either much or little.” He was at a loss for some time, and then he set about investigating it, by examining those reputed to be wise, and demonstrating that they were not. While his associates found this amusing, many of those examined became angry. It is the poets, politicians and rhaetors who bring charges that led to the death of Socrates, each represented by one of the three accusers, Meletus, Anytus and Lycon. Socrates went around Athens to three sorts of people: the poets, the politicians and the craftsmen. He considered his questioning of his fellow Athenians to be like a divine mission or Herculean labor, to test and refute or vindicate the oracle. Since he knew he did not know anything, if he found someone who did, he would refute the oracle, but if he could not find someone wiser, then the oracle would be confirmed. Socrates went to the poets, politicians and craftsmen. The politicians and the poets both prove not to have knowledge, but the poets are said to work by a kind of inspiration. They produce their gem in a sort of madness, as Socrates told Phaedrus, and do not possess knowledge of the things they are inspired to say. As Socrates reports to the Athenians, “I would take up those poems of theirs which it seemed to me that they had worked on the most, and I would ask them thoroughly what they meant, so that I might also learn something from them at the same time.”[7] Famously, he concluded that almost anyone present would have spoken better than the poets did about the poems that they themselves had made.

It is not clear just what Socrates means by this saying, that almost anyone seemed to speak better than the poets themselves about their own compositions, and it is worth thinking about. Obviously, One would think that Dylan in a few weeks if not hours, could tell us more about All along the Watchtower than we could think of on our own in one hundred years, and one suspects that they do not talk because we cannot hear them, and they want to speak publicly through their art, rather than through interviews.

Perhaps Socrates means that the poets themselves would be distracted, whether by their own opinion of themselves or other concerns, while almost anyone present can directly address the meaning of the poems. In addition, there Socrates says…

I recognized from this that they do not make what they make by wisdom, but by some natural inspiration, like diviners and those who deliver oracles. For they too say many noble things, but they know nothing of what they speak.

(Apology, 22 a-c)[8]

The statement is paradoxical because great poets and musicians obviously do have a skill that is built up by a kind of knowledge and experience, as in the trades, yet, unlike the craftsmen, they produce their best work when they are very young. With musicians especially, their skill provides a vehicle or vessel which might allow for inspiration, should it happen by. While it is obvious that a composer, like Dylan, knows a great deal more about his poetry than we the listeners who enjoy it, there is another sense, the perennial spiritual sense, in which the poets are in the same circumstance as the listeners regarding the meaning of the permanent things addressed in their songs. The poems reveal things their own authors might find illuminating, even as one might see years later into the significance of a certain dream one had long ago. And there are many things, as for example the meaning of the wizard figure that appears to Tommy in The Amazing Journey, that are difficult to discuss, and would not sound proper for the songwriters themselves to discuss publicly. What would be said would not be understood, and they might then often have to praise themselves, as is proper only for the aged who are worthy.

In the dialogue Phaedrus, too, Socrates says that the poets work by a kind of divine madness. As he describes this sort of divine madness to Phaedrus,

…And a third possession and madness from the muses, seizing the gentle and chaste soul, stimulates it to rapt expression, as in odes and the other kinds of poetry, embellishing the myriad of deeds of the ancients to educate those born after. But he who comes to the doors of poetry without the madness from the muses, persuaded that composing from art is sufficient, the sound-minded are made invisible by the mad.

(Phaedrus 245 a )

Love itself is, according to their argument, a sort of madness that is “the greatest good fortune given from the gods,” “sent from the gods for the help of both lover and beloved,” (Phaedrus 245 c1-2).” The musician-songwriters are especially prolific when they are young, before the age of twenty-five, which is the age of love, so that the inspiration of music is related to the inspiration of love. Though Socrates does not say so, the songs about love, it would seem to follow, might also be as if divinely inspired, and so the other kinds of songs that we have come to sing.

The Greek lyric poetry recognized by Socrates here focused exclusively on the deeds of ancient heroes, while ours almost never does so. “Pride,” by U2 is an exception. There are eight or nine great lyricists of ancient Greece, as Orpheus and Marsyas, and a flowering of eight or so in the late Seventh to early sixth centuries B. C., including Arion, Sappho and Pindar. Much of their lyrics, and all of Greek musical notation, have been lost, so that we do not know, yet must expect that these are at least as great as some of the things in Renaissance opera and classic rock, if only they had been preserved. Orpheus and Museus are mentioned with Homer and Hesiod as those with whom Socrates would wish to speak after death, if it is a transmigration rather than a sleep.

In his discussion with Ion, Socrates focuses on the difference between divine allotment and the knowledge of an art, the difference between a poet and a statesman or diviner. He then seems to become inspired himself in describing the poet as being like an iron ring hanging from a magnet that is like the muse:

For they say, don’t they, that they bring us songs from honeyed fountains, culling them out of the gardens and dells of the muses–like the bees, and winging the air as these do. And what they tell us is true. For a poet is a light and winged and sacred thing, and is unable ever to… be a poet, until he is spellbound and out of his senses, and his wits are no longer in him…That is why the god takes away the wits of these men and uses them as his ministers, just as he does with soothsayers and godly seers, in order that we who hear them may know that it is not they who utter these priceless words, when they are out of their wits, but that it is the god himself who speaks and addresses us through them.[9]

(Ion, 534 a-d)

If they did make their poems by art, the poets would excel in many genres rather than each in a single kind of poem, and the rhapsodes like Ion would speak well not only on one but on every poet. J Keyser relates the instructions regarding how to guide one’s chariot around the stone (Ion 537 a-b), and the danger of touching the stone is compared to a wrong sort of divine possession. In the Republic too, the magnet is the muse, as dialectic is set at the top of education “like a coping stone” (534 e2). Socrates, the philosopher, rules in the republic of letters, even by his knowledge of ignorance. This allows intelligence on occasion to rule. Intelligence is then similar to the divine madness of poetry, in that it is in part not our own. And at the conclusion of the Symposium, Alcibiades compares the speeches of Socrates to the songs of the piper Marsyas, describes the effect of these tunes:

 And whoever plays them, from an absolute virtuoso to a two-penny flute girl, the tunes will have a magic power, and by virtue of their own divinity, they will show which of us are fit subjects for divine initiation. The tunes themselves are like a tuning fork which tests the music of the natures, and it is this that we will try to follow in looking for and considering the best of our songs.

Great lyric poetry, then, comes through a sort of divine madness, a rapture that leads to an expression that is not simply the poet’s own, in the way that our ordinary conversation is our own. This would not be surprising if, according to another famous Socratic teaching, there were somehow knowledge in the soul (Meno, 81a-d) especially regarding the things of the soul. The images and songs that occur to the poets come from this knowledge, something like the way water comes from a spring or fountain, or light spread through a prism. Jung attempts to explain this phenomenon in terms of archetypes contained in a collective unconscious of mankind. It would follow too that philosophy, in cultivating wisdom, might trace this spring to its source, in a kind of knowledge. Our admiration for the songs at best involves a participation in and integration of this knowledge that is somehow in the soul. One theory of Aesthetics is that visible beauty is the presence of the invisible intelligence in the visible. Beauty may be simply the presence of the intelligible, and hence, the more intelligible a work of art is, or the more it is an image of intelligible things, the more beautiful. This may be the hidden theory of the forms, more akin to Jung than the presentation of the forms as linguistic universals. It is a certain kind of forms, about human things, and a certain logos, that leads to philosophy of the true and musical sort. So the golden thread of beauty and nobility leads to philosophy.

Rather, then, than apply techniques of songwriting, what one can do to become a great and good lyric poet is to associate deeply with the great and good lyric poets, and give oneself over to the great cultivators of the mind of mankind, and find the best posture or regard for each of the things that are the lyric themes. Association with the best makes one better. Famously, Socrates taught that knowledge was not like pouring content from one soul into another, but like stimulating recollection by questioning and showing us we do not know what we think we know. In the Republic, Socrates teaches that there is an art of the turning of souls, from darkness and becoming to being and light. Then, turned toward its proper objects, the eye of the soul sees and appears to possess intelligence (Republic Vi-VII).

Wasserman on Shakespeare’s Measure

Irving Wasserman did not write, and we have begun to type out his classes from our our class notes of 1980-1983.

We do have, though, some excellent study questions on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, when it wqas included at the end of a class called Ethics, which featured a reading of Harry Veatch, Rational Man, and some Federalist and Lincoln.

Philosophy 201- Ethics

Study questions for Measure for Measure

Note: There are, of course, many ways to study a Shakespeare play, some of them exclusively literary or dramatic. We will be discussing Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare’s so called “problem” plays, as a documenrt that shows “the kind of claims that our very human nature makes upon us (Veatch, p. 136). It can be said that this play shows human extremes, both in setting ( a palace, a nunnery, a brothel, a prison) and in situation (threatened execution, etc.). How is extremism displayed in the characters, as well? Could you argue that the play seems to plead for a mean in human behavior and conduct?

Act I

  1. According to what the Duke says to Angelo (I,i. 27-47), why is he giving to Angelo all the power of city government?
  2. 2. In the second scene, we learn of two immediate concequences of Angelo’s administration of the laws. How would you characterize them?
  3. 3. Judging by what he says of himself (I,i. 67-72 and I,iii. 7-10), what kind of person is the Duke? What do you think of his scheme to reform the city and test Angelo?
  4. 4. What kind of person do you judge Isabella to be from her first appearance in I.iv?

Act II

  1. In the argument between Escalus and Angelo (II, i. 1-31), who do you think reasons more soundly?
  2. 2. Compare the behavior of Angelo and Escalus when it comes to hearing an actual case (II.i).
  3. 3. It seems likely that the case is so confused that there is no “truth to be found What do you thinknm of the “justice” that Escalus hands out to Froth and to Pompey.
  4. What are Pompey’s ethical assumptuions (see his comments II,i. 283-84)
  5. 6. Consider Angelo’s justification for his severity (II, ii. 110-25).

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7. Ironically, what does Isabella’s plea reveal to Angelo about himself?

8. Trace the logical dilemma Isabella finds herself in at Angelo’s proposition (II, iv).

Do you agree that she would be acting under compulsion, should she save her brother by these means? Are there circumstances that mitigate the3 seeming selfishness of her refusal to save her brother (see also III, i. 137-47


  1. The Duke, dressed as a Friar, offers Claudio a very skeptical view of human happiness, evidently in an effort to help him face death (III,i, 118-32 and 172).
  2. Which action would you call “natural”? “rational”?

3. To modern readers, the convention of the “bed trick that the Duke devises to save Claudio is not, certainly, believable. The Duke justifies it by the lines, “Virtue is bold and goodness never fearful” (III, i, 211) Do you think it is Ethical?

The marriage convention of the time involved dowries and financial settlements. Compare the way Angelo acted in the face of difficulties (III,i, 217-27) with the way Claudio acted (I,ii, 150-57).

Compare the view the Duke hears about himself from Lucio (III,ii, 120-42 and from Escalus (III, ii. 235-40). Granted that what Escalus says is the true character of the Duke, is he at all responsible for the stories Lucio tells of him?

Acts IV and V: and the play as a whole

  1. Consider the portrait of Barnardine given by the Provost (IV, ii. 145-55).
  2. Can he be held responsible for his actions?
  3. The play ends with a meting out of punishments and general forgiveness. Discuss the treatment given
  4. Angelo
  5. Barnardine
  6. Lucio

One of the concerns of the play seems to be the relation of politics, or law, to everyday life. Is it clear at the end of the play what kind of law or administration of law in regard to sexual offenses should be followed?

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4. Another concern of the play seems to be the nature of the ruler or leaders of the city. The Veatch text cited Charles I as someone who knew the situation of his country only “by report and study” (p. 85). Conmpare the Duke in Measure for Measure.

5. If “living intelligently involves seeing things as they are and seeing oneself as one is” (Veatch, p. 86), who in the play has learned the most- the Duke? Angelo? Isabella?

mm- Excellent! Maybe we can find the ’80 or 82 class notes!

Oil On Water Clean up

   There are better ways of getting oil spills cleaned up, related to the vortex sweeper already available for commercial cleanups. Oil sticks to itself on the surface of water, and slides off, into, for example, an open pop bottle held upright (not sideways) under the water, so that the opening is just under the surface. What water that gets in with the oil then separates, and could be drained off the bottom with a tap. In the gulf, this principle could also have been applied to protect the shore. The best method now used seems to be floating berms, deployed to physically block the oil from floating on the shore. But with underwater pipe-drains, reaching from the shore, under the water to the Gulf side of the floating berms, the oily side, a votex can be opened under the oil, into the pipe or hose.. The hoses then collect the oil into below ground level receivers on shore, before it is pumped into trucks for reclaiming. Waves out at sea were said to be a problem, but I do not believe this insurmountable. A large ship might have a chamber which lets in the oily water and calms it, before collecting the oil off the surface by the vortex method. The key is to work from under the water level, and open a place into which the oil can slide. I have seen ships, maybe in the Great Lakes, using a rotary sponge contraption, trying to lift the oil off the water from above. But in the Gulf, the decision was made to disperse the oil rather than clean it up, so they were not even trying. I wish I had a better idea for the coast once the oil is on it, and the birds. But the shore can be defended by the above method before the oil arrives there.

I saw this principle while trying to clean a pond in my yard that had an oil slick. Then I found two guys on the internet with floating devices.

Platonic Psych Tweets

   What would Psychology and Psychiatry look like set upon a Socratic or Platonic base? But as with teachers for pay, they would be non-profiteering, and a lot more humble, knowing that there are the questions of the soul.
Politics and psych would not be so separate: Instead of an animal man in an artificial state, Plato has three kinds of soul set upon a frame of three kinds of city. The bad forms give us 6, and then per Statesman there is the 7th- the best regime.
There is a study of tyranny, too, quite beyond our assumptions “authoritarianism” and “psych”- opathy or “socio”-pathy. Consider the werewolf in Books VIII-IX of the Republic. Drones. And here’s a biscuit: Who is the first thinker to suggest the equality of women in law and ed?
We say the knowledge of such things is “in” the human soul, and hence, self knowledge is possible. Plato also allows the question of the difference between madness, vice and ignorance, and between 4 types of divine madness and other types. Ever -iatros must know these things.
…Or we would not let them practice -iatreia. Let alone drug people for profit.
What is the same in these two- city and soul- is an example of what Jung calls an “archetype.” Socrates calls it the model and the form. Nations are of course different from cities. And for the artificial “state?” We have 50 of them, and none are yet like Machiavelli.
Politics and psych would not be so separate: Instead of an animal man in an artificial state, Plato has three kinds of soul set upon a frame of three kinds of city. The bad forms give us 6, and then per Statesman there is the 7th- the best regime.
Because there is a difference between philosopher and king.
What is the thought or theory regarding the health of the soul that is assumed by our modern psychiatry? For five years, we have asked this question on Twitter and wordpress, and no one has even attempted to state an answer. Anyone? Our Psych is mute- theory-less, THOUGHTLESS
Consider Allan Bloom (Closing, p. 356) on the world view of modern science: “But where natural science ends, trouble begins. It ends at man, the one being outside its purview, or, to be exact, it ends at that part or aspect of man which is not body, whatever that may be”
Bloom’s comment is the occasion of a 3 page study of modern psych in my “Shakespeare’s King Lear with the Tempest” book, notes 28-30 to Chapter V, because they bring in the doctor to treat the maddened Lear. It’s philosophy of psych- a whole new subject.
I have just found the original notes from the Conversation with Joseph Campbell, demonstrating that wholeness sought is the health of the soul, and good- and hence psychiatry assumes an objective good.
The knowledge in the soul is hence “in” an “unconscious,” and the highest faculties asleep in man. Theoretical virtue is its integration into “consciousness.”
The faculties that sleep in man, and the philosopher and king- are the measure unawares, of every human life- unaware as Oberon is to Theseus in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.