85. Plato’s Dialogue ‘Ion’ -Inspiration in Poetry, Human, Divine, or Demonic?

A Rhapsode Reciting Homer

Musical artist Joni Mitchell once said, “Music comes from the muses, and not other musicians,” illustrating that the concept of the muse is alive and well in modern times. Many would say that she was speaking figuratively, but was she?

Music comes from the muses.

-Joni Mitchell

This leads us to the question: where do poets and musicians get their inspiration? In fact, we get the word “music” from the word “muse.” This is the operative question in Plato’s dialogue, Ion. Before dismissing the concept of the muse, we should read Ion.

Joni Mitchell

And what did Plato think about poets and artists in general? In his dialogues Laws, Republic, and Phaedrus, he discusses poets, but only incidentally in relation to other matters. What is fascinating about “Ion” is that it is the only one of Plato’s dialogues where he directly addresses the issue. Consequently, we gain deeper insight into his perspective on the matter.1 Ion is the world’s oldest surviving book on art theory, and it holds implications for how we view art and artists today.

This dialogue consists of only two interlocutors: Socrates and Ion. Ion had the distinguished role of being what was called in ancient Greece, a rhapsode.

Ion the Rhapsode

Rhapsodes were professional performers of epic poetry.2 They are most known for their recitations of Homer. They dressed elaborately and carried a staff, indicative of the itinerant nature of their craft, as they would accompany their readings with musical instruments such as the lyre. Their readings were dramatic and emotional, riveting the audience with every word and voice inflection. They would also incorporate within their recitations of epic poetry, like Homer’s, myths, tales, and even jokes, so that even if someone was familiar with the poem itself, the material would have a freshness about it.

As I mentioned, these rhapsodes were professionals, so they expected to be paid for their services, whether they performed privately or publicly. In public, they could and would often attract large crowds, especially at civic functions.3 So far, so good. I think that if the rhapsode’s role ended there, all would have been well and good with philosophers like Plato. However, many rhapsodes would often do much more than just recite Homeric poetry.

In this way, they were more than reciters of poetry; they were authoritative teachers who derived their authority from Homer himself, and all Greeks recognized Homer’s authority.

And now, I think we can see where some of the friction may have come in between the rhapsodes and the philosophers. After all, it is one thing to recite poetry, but quite another entirely to become teachers of wisdom, for this was the purview of the philosopher. In this dialogue, we will see Socrates attempt to deconstruct Ion’s role as a teacher and cut him down to size, if you will.

By thinking through these things, we can also ponder questions about the role of poets and artists in modern society. What is their role exactly? Is it reflecting back to us who we are so that we can better understand ourselves, or are they authoritative teachers of wisdom and knowledge? Hopefully, we can gain some insight into these matters as we read Plato’s Ion. I will discuss this dialogue in the three parts into which it seems to be divided.

Part I – Ion’s Skill, Is It Genuine?

How can Ion claim to possess technical skills when the only skill he is capable of elaborating upon is that found in Homer? But outside of home, Ion lacks knowledge of technical processes.

Below is the introduction to the dialogue, setting the stage for the conversation:

SOCRATES: Ion! Hello. Where have you come from to visit us this time?
From your home in Ephesus?
ION: No, no, Socrates. From Epidaurus, from the festival of Asclepius.
SOCRATES: Don’t tell me the Epidaurians hold a contest for rhapsodes in
honor of the god?
ION: They certainly do! They do it for every sort of poetry and music.
SOCRATES: Really! Did you enter the contest? And how did it go for you?
ION: First prize, Socrates! We carried it off.
SOCRATES: That’s good to hear. Well, let’s see that we win the big games
at Athens, next.
ION: We’ll do it, Socrates, god willing

530, a-b

With this opening dialogue, we get a sense of the prominence of the rhapsodes in ancient Greece. After all, people from all cultures crave entertainment, and who could provide it better than the rhapsodes? Due to this, they had attained a kind of celebrity status that most philosophers did not possess, except perhaps for the Sophists.

SOCRATES: You know, Ion, many times I’ve envied you rhapsodes your
profession. Physically, it is always fitting for you in your profession to be
dressed up to look as beautiful as you can; and at the same time it is
necessary for you to be at work with poets—many fine ones, and with
Homer above all, who’s the best poet and the most divine—and you have
to learn his thought, not just his verses! Now that is something to envy!
I mean, no one would ever get to be a good rhapsode if he didn’t understand
what is meant by the poet. A rhapsode must come to present the poet’s
thought to his audience; and he can’t do that beautifully unless he knows
what the poet means. So this all deserves to be envied.

530, b-c

This is typical Socrates, flatter your opponent a bit to disarm him, and then move in for the kill.

ION: Really, Socrates, it’s worth hearing how well I’ve got Homer dressed
up. I think I’m worthy to be crowned by the Sons of Homer with a
golden crown.

-530 d

Here, we see some conceit on Ion’s part. How could you not be, though, if the crowds adored you? After the opening cordialities, Socrates zeroes in on his target.

SOCRATES: Really, I shall make time to hear that later. Now I’d just like
an answer to this: Are you so wonderfully clever about Homer alone—or
also about Hesiod and Archilochus?

-531 a

The trap is laid and Ion steps right into it.

ION: No, no. Only about Homer. That’s good enough, I think.


Socrates then sets up the main premise of his argument, now that Ion has conceded the above point.

SOCRATES: Then what in the world is it that you’re clever about in Homer
but not in Hesiod and the other poets? Does Homer speak of any subjects
that differ from those of all the other poets? Doesn’t he mainly go through
tales of war, and of how people deal with each other in society—good
people and bad, ordinary folks and craftsmen? And of the gods, how they
deal with each other and with men? And doesn’t he recount what happens
in heaven and in hell, and tell of the births of gods and heroes? Those are
the subjects of Homer’s poetry-making, aren’t they?


How can Ion claim to know only about Homer and not other poets, even if the other poets speak on the same subjects as Homer? Ion answers that, even though many poets spoke on similar subjects, Homer was superior, and the others were far worse.

Socrates continues his line of questioning and then asks how Ion would know that the other poets are inferior if he wasn’t adept at understanding them. If he wasn’t adept at understanding them, then that would mean he had no technical knowledge that he claims to have.

SOCRATES: You’re superb! So if we say that Ion is equally clever about
Homer and the other poets, we’ll make no mistake. Because you agree
yourself that the same person will be an adequate judge of all who speak
on the same subjects, and that almost all the poets do treat the same subjects.
ION: Then how in the world do you explain what I do, Socrates? When
someone discusses another poet I pay no attention, and I have no power
to contribute anything worthwhile: I simply doze off. But let someone
mention Homer and right away I’m wide awake and I’m paying attention
and I have plenty to say.
SOCRATES: That’s not hard to figure out, my friend. Anyone can tell that
you are powerless to speak about Homer on the basis of knowledge or
mastery. Because if your ability came by mastery, you would be able to
speak about all the other poets as well. Look, there is an art of poetry as
a whole, isn’t there?

532 b-c

Socrates proceeds to draw analogies in various other domains, including painting, sculpture, and music. A person capable of assessing artists in these fields as either inferior or superior would need to possess a profound understanding of the respective arts, rather than merely evaluating an individual painter.

After Socrates made mincemeat out of Ion on this point, Ion could muster only a tepid response.

ION: I have nothing to say against you on that point, Socrates. But this
I know about myself: I speak about Homer more beautifully than anybody
else and I have lots to say; and everybody says I do it well. But about the
other poets I do not. Now see what that means.


Part II – The Nature Of Poetic Inspiration

Since technical skills cannot then account for Ion’s abilities, something else must account for his inspiration. What is that something? This is where it gets interesting. Socrates then posits his own explanation of inspiration, and in doing so, I think he paints himself into a corner as we shall soon see.

SOCRATES: I do see, Ion, and I’m going to announce to you what I think d
that is. As I said earlier, that’s not a subject you’ve mastered—speaking
well about Homer; it’s a divine power that moves you


Ion’s ability as a rhapsode is not a skill at all, but rather a divine inspiration, akin to the frenzied Bacchanalian possession. He discusses poets being “possessed by Bacchic frenzy” in 534a. How’s that for undermining any innate skill you might possess as a poetry reciter?

SOCRATES: For of course poets tell us that they gather songs at
honey-flowing springs, from glades and gardens of the Muses, and that
they bear songs to us as bees carry honey, flying like bees. And what they
say is true. For a poet is an airy thing, winged and holy, and he is not
able to make poetry until he becomes inspired and goes out of his mind
and his intellect is no longer in him. As long as a human being has his
intellect in his possession he will always lack the power to make poetry
or sing prophecy. Therefore because it’s not by mastery that they make
poems or say many lovely things about their subjects (as you do about
Homer)—but because it’s by a divine gift—each poet is able to compose
beautifully only that for which the Muse has aroused him

534 b-c

Socrates likens inspiration to bees carrying honey, describing it as “winged and holy.” Socrates should be cautious, as he appears to be delving into poetic expression himself. Evidently, he maintains a distinct dichotomy between poetic inspiration and intellect, considering them mutually exclusive. Could this signify a subtle attempt to draw a line between rational philosophers and the irrationally “possessed” poets, thereby depreciating one while exalting the other? It seems apparent that his intentions are quite clear.

SOCRATES: That’s why God takes their intellect away from them when he
uses them as his servants, as he does prophets and godly diviners, so that
we who hear should know that they are not the ones who speak those
verses that are of such high value, for their intellect is not in them: the
god himself is the one who speaks, and he gives voice through them to


He then goes on to put the strike his final blow on this point.

SOCRATES: In this more than anything, then, I think, God is showing us, so that we should be in no doubt about it, that these beautiful poems are not human, not even from human beings, but are divine and from gods; that poets are nothing but representatives of the gods, possessed by whoever possesses them. To show that, the god deliberately sang the most beautiful lyric poem through the most worthless poet. Don’t you think I’m right, Ion?

534e -535a

Socrates then concludes this section.

SOCRATES: You see it’s not because you’re a master of knowledge about Homer that you can say what you say, but because of a divine gift, because you are possessed.


Rhapsodes are nothing then but one link in a chain from the gods to the people.

SOCRATES: And you know that this spectator is the last of the rings, don’t
you?… The middle ring is you, the rhapsode or actor, and the first one is the poet himself. The god pulls people’s souls through all these wherever he wants, looping the power down from one to another.

535e -536a
Homer inspired by the Muse Sappho in Charles Nicholas Rafael Lafond’s Sappho Sings for Homer, 1824

Part III – Ion’s Choice: To Be Skilled Or Inspired

Finally, in this third part, Socrates gets Ion to admit that the various skills presented in Homer’s writings, such as being a prophet, doctor, charioteer, and fisherman, are distinct from one another as well as differing from the skill of the Rhapsode. It is intriguing that Socrates now acknowledges that being a Rhapsode is a skill, whereas he had denied it previously.

Upon cross-examination by Socrates, Ion concedes that a rhapsode is not as skilled as a prophet, doctor, charioteer, or fisherman in the aforementioned areas of expertise. This reinforces Socrates’ earlier assertion that when a rhapsode performs, it is done under divine inspiration. Just before the dialogue draws to a close, Ion introduces a peculiar exception to the aforementioned list. He asserts that in terms of generalship, there are no distinctions between those skills and that of a rhapsode, likely due to the military themes interwoven throughout the tapestry of Homeric epic poetry.

SOCRATES: And what a man should say, if he’s a general, to encourage
his troops?
ION: Yes! That’s the sort of thing a rhapsode will know.
SOCRATES: What? Is a rhapsode’s profession the same as a general’s?
ION: Well, I certainly would know what a general should say.
SOCRATES: Perhaps that’s because you’re also a general by profession,
Ion. I mean, if you were somehow both a horseman and a cithara-player
at the same time, you would know good riders from bad. But suppose I
asked you: “Which profession teaches you good horsemanship—the one
that makes you a horseman, or the one that makes you a cithara-player?”
ION: The horseman, I’d say.
SOCRATES: Then if you also knew good cithara-players from bad, the
profession that taught you that would be the one which made you a cithara player, not the one that made you a horseman. Wouldn’t you agree?
ION: Yes.
SOCRATES: Now, since you know the business of a general, do you know
this by being a general or by being a good rhapsode?

ION: I don’t think there’s any difference.
SOCRATES: What? Are you saying there’s no difference? On your view
is there one profession for rhapsodes and generals, or two?

ION: One, I think.
SOCRATES: So anyone who is a good rhapsode turns out to be a good
general too.
ION: Certainly, Socrates.
SOCRATES: It also follows that anyone who turns out to be a good general
is a good rhapsode too.
ION: No. This time I don’t agree.
SOCRATES: But you do agree to this: anyone who is a good rhapsode is
a good general too.
ION: I quite agree


Ion goes on to say that even though there’s no difference between the two, any rhapsode can be a good general; however, a general cannot be a good rhapsode.

The dialogue comes to an end on this humorous note as Plato adds a coda to the dialogue. It doesn’t resolve the issue as much as it leaves us with the operative question of the dialogue concerning the rhapsode, and by implication, the arts in general: Are these merely human skills like any other earthly skill, or are they divinely inspired?

SOCRATES: If you’re really a master of your subject, and if, as I said earlier, you’re cheating me of the demonstration you promised about Homer, then you’re doing me wrong. But if you’re not a master of your subject, if you’re possessed by a divine gift from Homer, so that you make many lovely
speeches about the poet without knowing anything—as I said about you—then you’re not doing me wrong. So choose, how do you want us to think
of you—as a man who does wrong, or as someone divine?

ION: There’s a great difference, Socrates. It’s much lovelier to be
thought divine.

SOCRATES: Then that is how we think of you, Ion, the lovelier way: it’s
as someone divine, and not as master of a profession, that you are a singer
of Homer’s praises.

542 a-b

Plato’s Strategy and Purpose in ‘Ion’

I would like to remind my readers that Plato, in his writings, was more concerned with asking the right, thought-provoking questions than necessarily resolving an issue once and for all. That is why his dialogues often leave readers with more questions than they started with. He was one of the few philosophers who were more interested in teaching his students how to think, instead of just what to think that we see so often in modern philosophy. Because of this, reading his dialogues can help strengthen and sharpen one’s reasoning skills.

Having said that, I’d like to point out a contradiction in Socrates’ reasoning in this dialogue. Socrates’ main argument in all three parts is that being a rhapsode is not a skill. In part one, he completely undermines it by attempting to prove through dialectic that it is not genuine. And in part two, he paints a rather negative picture of a rhapsode, suggesting they get inspiration through some sort of demonic, Bacchic, frenzied trance rather than reasoned skill. In part three, Socrates leads Ion to agree that prophets, doctors, charioteers, and fishermen are more skilled than a rhapsode.

And therein lies the contradiction, albeit subtle. In part two, Socrates stated that rhapsodes had no skill whatsoever, but in part three, he admitted that they indeed had skill, albeit inferior compared to the other legitimate professions listed above. Which is it? Do they have skills or not? I think that Plato would have obviously seen this discrepancy when he wrote the dialogue. This, I believe, is a subtle way in which he leaves a crack in his own argument, not just to sharpen our thinking skills but for another, more important reason.

He does this with his theory of Forms as well. In some dialogues, he establishes his theory of Forms and makes strong arguments for it, but in Parmenides, he dismantles it almost completely, poking holes in it at every turn.

He’s doing the same thing here in discussing artistic skill, simply making an argument for his position that reciting poetry is not a skill, but he’s cracking the door a bit to allow the possibility that he isn’t correct. He learned this from his mentor, Socrates, who was more interested in asking the right questions than in giving iron-clad answers. And in this way, he goads us to think through the reasoning. Socrates was far from a “know-it-all,” and for that reason, neither was his student Plato.

It is telling that in part two, Socrates portrays the rhapsode’s activity in the worst possible light – a completely irrational, Bacchic utterance, something akin to demon possession. In part three, he softens that stance a bit and, at the end, concurs with Ion that:

Then that is how we think of you, Ion, the lovelier way: it’s
as someone divine, and not as master of a profession, that you are a singer of Homer’s praises.


Is this sarcasm? I think not. Socrates can be quite sarcastic in Plato’s dialogues, and it becomes quite apparent when such is the case. I believe that Plato, as a highly skilled and gifted writer, accomplishes a superb job in creating a healthy tension between, on one hand, poetry as an irrational, frenzied, emotional activity, and on the other hand, as something very beneficial, even deemed “of the gods.” This aligns with his other writings as well.

Plato’s High and Low View of Art

As students of Plato, I believe he now wants us to resolve this tension and contemplate the origins of artistic inspiration. It’s as though the dialogue serves as a prompt for us to compose the essay. This is why he intentionally leaves it ambiguous. Many interpret this as a poorly constructed argument or mere sarcasm at the dialogue’s conclusion, but I respectfully disagree. We that Plato was not just a philosopher, but a teacher of philosophy.

The following point holds great significance in understanding Plato’s stance towards the arts at large. Plato deliberately introduces tension into his dialogues concerning the arts because he grappled with appreciating them, and furthermore, he desires us to partake in his internal struggle. By engaging with this tension and working through it, we ultimately practice philosophy as Plato intended. It’s not neat and pristine; rather, it’s messy and, at times, perplexing. This constitutes the Platonic approach to philosophy, building upon the Socratic method but elevating it to new heights. Through this process, we evolve into true philosophers. The most profound philosophy emerges when we refine our ideas within the context of tension and conflict. This is the lesson Plato imparts in his dialogues, though regrettably, many overlook it. This explains why Plato often employs antimonies in dialogues such as Parmenides.

Allow me to conclude with a few examples of this concept. In the subsequent article, I will delve deeper into the theory of art and beauty, aiming to address the question of the origin of artistic inspiration using this dialogue as a starting point.

One instance of Plato’s conflicted views on the arts is evident in the Republic. In the third book of the Republic, he lavishes praise upon the arts. He asserts that they provide a valuable service to the ideal state.6 The arts offer a means for the youth to emulate the Guardians of the city. Art imitates the commendable character traits of the Guardians, which the youth can then imitate in turn.7 Therefore, poetry, along with all other forms of art, possesses the essential function of training the youth to cherish and imitate the beauty of truth, ensuring that as they develop their reasoning abilities, they will recognize truth as a familiar companion. I refer to this as Plato’s high view of art.

What is remarkable is that in the tenth book of Republic, Plato does an about face, completely disparaging the arts and taking a very negative posture towards this idea of imitation. He goes so far as to say that poets are dangerous to society and should be expunged. Why the negativity in book ten? To begin with, a natural antagonism existed between philosophers and artists in Greece. As I stated above, there was a sort of a turf war between them. In addition, Plato viewed the world as illusory, with the Forms representing the sole authentic reality. The artist’s role was to replicate the illusion of the Forms, thereby creating a copy of a copy. Consequently, they had the potential to lead people away from the Forms instead of guiding them towards those ideals. I would term this Plato’s low view of art.

Engaging in imitative art was one thing, attempting to impart truths based on those pale imitations was an entirely different matter. As observed in Ion, poets often went beyond recitation and ventured into moral instruction territory, which philosophers deemed exclusively their domain. This mirrors the resentment some individuals today harbor towards celebrities, whose influence and impact often surpass those of true experts. Undoubtedly, a degree of envy is at play here. We might question Leo DiCaprio’s expertise on the environment, yet many heed his words.

Indeed, artists play a significant role in helping us perceive the realities of life and ourselves in ways we might otherwise overlook, albeit not in the manner of Leo DiCaprio. I intend to delve further into this topic in my next post.

Plato and Divine Inspiration

Finally, we end with another apparent contradiction in Plato’s thoughts on this issue. In the Symposium, Plato talks about Diotima’s ladder of love.9 This ladder of love was revealed to Socrates by the goddess Diotima. The ladder had six rungs and as one ascended, one experienced a purer form of love until finally, one reached the top rung which was the Form of pure Beauty, the highest level of love. The first rung of the ladder was where much of humanity lives which was lust and affection for earthly objects.10 One’s goal in life was to ascend from lust to absolute Beauty, which is nothing less than eternal life.

I bring this example up to illustrate that Plato attributed this special knowledge to divine revelation:

This, Phaedrus and you others, is what Diotima told me, and I am persuaded of it; in which persuasion I pursue my neighbors, to persuade them in turn that towards this acquisition the best helper that our human nature can hope to find is Love.


In the Symposium, Plato not only gives credence to divine revelation but also holds it in high regard, albeit not considering it the highest source of knowledge. Therefore, when reading Ion, we must exercise caution and refrain from hastily concluding that Plato disparaged divine revelation in favor of rationality. I firmly believe that nothing could be further from the truth.

For me, it’s a vital part of being a musician. It’s a vital part of being able to tap into the unknown without thinking about it too much. It’s a vital part of being some sort of empty vessel so that music can flow through you. But it’s hard to get to this point. It takes a lot of discipline. And it take a lot of thinking about writing music.

-Kurt Hammett, Metallica lead guitarist

Portrait of Diotima by Józef Simmler

Please leave your comments below and don’t forget to subscribe or press the follow button. Thank you!

Deo Gratias!

Featured Book:

Footnotes and Endnotes:

  1. Dorter, Kenneth. “The Ion: Plato’s Characterization of Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 32, no. 1, 1973, p. 65. JSTOR
  2. Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Rhapsodist”, Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 23 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 231
  3. Plato, Early Socratic Dialogues, Penguin Classics; Translation edition (December 27, 2005), p. 39, Trevor Saunders and Chris Emlyn-Jones, editors
  4. Ibid., pp. 39-40
  5. Ibid., p. 49
  6. Tate, J. ‘Imitation’ in Plato’s Republic.” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 1, 1928, p. 16.
  7. Ibid., See this article for exact passage references in the Republic.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Plato, Symposium, 210a-212a
  10. Buckingham, Will, “Diotima Climbs the Ladder of Love”, Philosopher Files, Looking for Wisdom, Nov. 2, 2020

Further Reading:

Plato, Early Socratic Dialogues, Penguin Classics; Translation edition (December 27, 2005), Trevor Saunders and Chris Emlyn-Jones, editors

Ranta, Jerrald. “The Drama of Plato’s ‘Ion.’” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 26, no. 2, 1967, pp. 219–29. JSTOR 

Dorter, Kenneth. “The Ion: Plato’s Characterization of Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 32, no. 1, 1973, pp. 65–78. JSTOR

Tate, J. ‘Imitation’ in Plato’s Republic.” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 1, 1928, pp. 16–23. 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2023 Ron Gaudio

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *