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. 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 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.” 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)
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.
(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).