Ion. Yes.
Soc. And he who judges of the good will be the same as he who judges of the bad speakers ?
Ion. The same.
Soc. And he will be the arithmetician ?
Ion. Yes.
Soc. Well, and in discussions about the wholesomeness of food, when many persons are speaking, and one speaks better than the rest, will he who recognizes the better speaker be a different person from him who recognizes the worse, or the same ?
Ion. Clearly the same.
Soc. And who is he, and what is his name ?
Ion. The physician.
Soc. And speaking generally, in all discussions in which the subject is the same and many men are speaking, will not he who knows the good know the bad speaker also ? For if he does not know the bad, neither will he know the good when the same topic is being discussed.
Ion. True.
Soc. Is not the same person skilful in both ?
Ion. Yes.
Soc. And you say that Homer and the other poets, such as Hesiod and Archilochus, speak of the same things, although not in the same way ; but the one speaks well and the other not so well ?
Ion. Yes ; and I am right in saying so.
Soc. And if you knew the good speaker, you would also know the inferior speakers to be inferior ?
Ion. That is true.
Soc. Then, my dear friend, can I be mistaken in saying that Ion is equally skilled in Homer and in other poets, since he himself acknowledges that the same person will be a good judge of all those who speak of the same things ; and that almost all poets do speak of the same things ?
Ion. 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 ?
Soc. The reason, my friend, is obvious. No one can fail to see that you speak of Homer without any art or knowledge. If you were able to speak of him by rules of art, you would have been able to speak of all other poets ; for poetry is a whole.
Ion. Yes.
Soc. And when any one acquires any other art as a whole, the same may be said of them. Would you like me to explain my meaning, Ion ?
Ion. Yes, indeed, Socrates ; I very much wish that you would : for I love to hear you wise men talk.
Soc. O that we were wise, Ion, and that you could truly call us so ; but you rhapsodes and actors, and the poets whose verses you sing, are wise ; whereas I am a common man, who only speak the truth. For consider what a very commonplace and trivial thing is this which I have said — a thing which any man might say : that when a man has acquired a knowledge of a whole art, the enquiry into good and bad is one and the same. Let us consider this matter ; is not the art of painting a whole ?
Ion. Yes.
Soc. And there are and have been many painters good and bad ?
Ion. Yes.
Soc. And did you ever know any one who was skilful in pointing out the excellences and defects of Polygnotus the son of Aglaophon, but incapable of criticizing other painters ; and when the work of any other painter was produced, went to sleep and was at a loss, and had no ideas ; but when he had to give his opinion about Polygnotus, or whoever the painter might be, and about him only, woke up and was attentive and had plenty to say ?
Ion. No indeed, I have never known such a person.
Soc. Or did you ever know of any one in sculpture, who was skilful in expounding the merits of Daedalus the son of Metion, or of Epeius the son of Panopeus, or of Theodorus the Samian, or of any individual sculptor ; but when the works of sculptors in general were produced, was at a loss and went to sleep and had nothing to say ?
Ion. No indeed ; no more than the other.
Soc. And if I am not mistaken, you never met with any one among flute — players or harp — players or singers to the harp or rhapsodes who was able to discourse of Olympus or Thamyras or Orpheus, or Phemius the rhapsode of Ithaca, but was at a loss when he came to speak of Ion of Ephesus, and had no notion of his merits or defects ?
Ion. I cannot deny what you say, Socrates. Nevertheless I am conscious in my own self, and the world agrees with me in thinking that I do speak better and have more to say about Homer than any other man. But I do not speak equally well about others — tell me the reason of this.
Soc. I perceive, Ion ; and I will proceed to explain to you what I imagine to be the reason of this. The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration ; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet, but which is commonly known as the stone of Heraclea. This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings ; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain : and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself ; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Corybantian revellers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains : but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed ; 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. And the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves say ; for they tell us that they bring 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 this is true. 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 : when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles. Many are the noble words in which poets speak concerning the actions of men ; but like yourself when speaking about Homer, they do not speak of them by any rules of art : they are simply inspired to utter that to which the Muse impels them, and that only ; and when inspired, one of them will make dithyrambs, another hymns of praise, another choral strains, another epic or iambic verses — and he who is good at one is not good any other kind of verse : for not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine. Had he learned by rules of art, he would have known how to speak not of one theme only, but of all ; and therefore God takes away the minds of poets, and uses them as his ministers, as he also uses diviners and holy prophets, in order that we who hear them may know them to be speaking not of themselves who utter these priceless words in a state of unconsciousness, but that God himself is the speaker, and that through them he is conversing with us. And Tynnichus the Chalcidian affords a striking instance of what I am saying : he wrote nothing that any one would care to remember but the famous paean which ; in every one’s mouth, one of the finest poems ever written, simply an invention of the Muses, as he himself says. For in this way, the God would seem to indicate to us and not allow us to doubt that these beautiful poems are not human, or the work of man, but divine and the work of God ; and that the poets are only the interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severally possessed. Was not this the lesson which the God intended to teach when by the mouth of the worst of poets he sang the best of songs ? Am I not right, Ion ?
Ion by Plato