Since Plato's Ion is a short dialogue, humorous, and probably quite early, it has not often been taken seriously. Yet it does take very seriously the question "what is interpretation?" This blog post will not be a systematic explication of Ion but rather a musing on the notion of interpretation set forth there. The notion is ambiguous, perhaps even paradoxical. Socrates asks Ion in his typical way to explain his art of being a rhapsode (a rhapsode was in part a reciter of great poetry, but also someone who interpreted what he recited. His recitations were like one-person theatrical performances). The conclusion of the story is that Ion has no art at all but rather that he is inspired by Homer and Homer by the epic muse. Thus Ion is simply a spokesperson or a conduit, as Homer is, for a god. The magnetic chain that begins with the muse goes through Homer to Ion and thence to the members of the audience. Yet Ion himself, at least at the beginning of the dialogue, sees his art as one of interpretation, this to include not only the capacity to give interpretive readings, but also to interpret what Homer means, and to evaluate Homer's writings. As Ion says "interpretation has certainly been the most laborious part of my art" and that this involves being able not simply to recite Homer but to "speak about Homer," which Ion believes he can do better than any other man. Socrates himself had understood Ion's task as not merely to memorize Homer's words but to be able to "understand the meaning of the poet" and interpret his mind to the audience. To interpret well requires that he understand what Homer means. Ion peculiarly insists that he can interpret Homer and Hesiod equally well when they agree but not when they disagree. We then find him agreeing with Socrates that a good prophet is a better interpreter of what each poet says about divination than he is. It seems to us that Socrates is confusing the interpretation of the meaning of poets when they say something about divination with evaluation of the truth of what they say about divination. He thinks that to understand Homer is to understand whether or not what Homer says about something, e.g. military tactics, is true. (If this were what the dialogue came to in the end, it would not be worth much. It would be based on a mistake.) In any case, the prophet will not be limited to whatever Homer and Hesiod agree about but will be equally able to interpret when they disagree, unlike Ion. Ion also admits that only an arithmetician will be able to judge whether someone is a good speaker in the area of arithmetic, and he will be able to judge the bad speaker as well. We naturally think here that Ion should say that he is indeed a good judge of epic poets just as the arithmetician is a good judge in math. But of course what Socrates wants to say is that neither Homer nor Ion has a subject- matter proper to himself that he can be said to understand well. That Ion probably is able to say better what Homer's intended meaning was seems to count not at all. Socrates' solution to the dilemma is to insist that Ion does not speak of Homer with any "art of knowledge" or with "rules of art" or he would be able to be equally a good judge in all poetry: for "poetry is a whole." Socrates then says that the gift by which he speaks of Homer is not an art but inspiration, that he is inspired by Homer, and Homer is inspired in turn by the muse. Inspiration is described as a kind of possession in which the interpreter is not in his right mind. An example given for not being in one's right mind is falling "under the power of music and meter." Another example given is feeling as if one were in the very scene one is depicting, and thus having the same emotional reactions that the characters would have.
Socrates has offered, it appears to me, an alternative theory of interpretation, one that does not see it as a rule-following activity in the way the art of being a doctor or a charioteer might be, but as emphasizing a radically different kind of perception. To understand this different kind of perception we need to look at the metaphors Socrates uses. He waxes quite lyrical here, and this raises a question of whether or not he himself isn't like the poet and the rhapsode in being inspired (after all, we have the story of his personal daemon.) This is the paradox: Plato has Socrates make fun of poets and rhapsodes as having no real knowledge of the sort that doctors and charioteers have, and yet he waxes lyrical when talking about poetic inspiration, as though this were a good thing and even a valid method of interpretation. In contemporary theory of interpretation the view that inspiration plays an important role in interpretation is usually discounted. Some authors believe that we need to accurately transcribe the intended meaning of the author, some that we need to get the correct interpretation from the language itself, and some bring in social and historical context. But what about creative interpretation? What about inspiration? What role does it play?
Socrates describes the poets as being like Bacchic maidens "who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind." What is this to "draw milk and honey from the rivers"? The answer to this question is, I believe, the key to the dialogue. Both the good poet and the good interpreter are like ecstatic religious participants who perceive mere water at something both more nutritious and sweeter, something transformed, something with an aura of significance. They are not in their right minds because they perceive the physical world radically transformed, as perhaps transformed into a mythological or a fictional realm. (Note that the passage shows indirectly an intense interest in the aesthetics of nature, one not usually recognized in the ancient Greeks. The idea presumably is that nature is properly understood aesthetically when it is perceived in the way the Bacchic maidens would perceive it: transformed.) Socrates also says that the soul of the lyric poet brings "songs from honeyed fountains, culling them out of the gardens and dells of the Muses; they, like the bees, winging their way from flower to flower." And so the good poet is someone who works in a place where nature is transformed under the eyes of divinity. Socrates then says, "For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him." The poet can invent things but only when inspired. He is inspired when he is no longer rational but rather is possessed. His lightness seems to imply something non-serious or at least less serious than science. The poetic way of perceiving nature is here proposed as a viable alternative to the scientific way. Even when the poet says "noble words" concerning men's actions he is not speaking "by any rules of art."
But let's set aside the idea promoted by Socrates that poetry and literary interpretation are just the work of God himself, and focus on the way in which this alternative works against current views of literary interpretation and current views of the aesthetics of nature, both of which shortchange the ways in which ecstasy transforms the field of perception. Ion says "I am persuaded that good poets by a divine inspiration interpret the things of the Gods to us" the things of the Gods being simply the things of the world perceived as transformed in the way the river was transformed into milk and honey for the revelers. After this, how can one take seriously Socrates' surface message that the works of poetry should be replaced with tracts on medicine, charioteering, and other crafts that involve following rules. Of course, we might today prefer to say that these crafts too can benefit from inspiration, and that they are what we now call "arts" exactly when they do these, and otherwise they are simply technologies. Funny how words change their meaning.