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Translated by Benjamin Jowett
Persons of the Dialogue
Socrates. Welcome, Ion. Are you from your native city of Ephesus?
Ion. No, Socrates; but from Epidaurus, where I attended the festival
Soc. And do the Epidaurians have contests of rhapsodes at the festival?
Ion. O yes; and of all sorts of musical performers.
Soc. And were you one of the competitors- and did you succeed?
Ion. I obtained the first prize of all, Socrates.
Soc. Well done; and I hope that you will do the same for us at the
Ion. And I will, please heaven.
Soc. I often envy the profession of a rhapsode, Ion; for you have
always to wear fine clothes, and to look as beautiful as you can is
a part of your art. Then, again, you are obliged to be continually
in the company of many good poets; and especially of Homer, who is
the best and most divine of them; and to understand him, and not merely
learn his words by rote, is a thing greatly to be envied. And no man
can be a rhapsode who does not understand the meaning of the poet.
For the rhapsode ought to interpret the mind of the poet to his hearers,
but how can he interpret him well unless he knows what he means? All
this is greatly to be envied.
Ion. Very true, Socrates; interpretation has certainly been the most
laborious part of my art; and I believe myself able to speak about
Homer better than any man; and that neither Metrodorus of Lampsacus,
nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor any one else who ever
was, had as good ideas about Homer as I have, or as many.
Soc. I am glad to hear you say so, Ion; I see that you will not refuse
to acquaint me with them.
Ion. Certainly, Socrates; and you really ought to hear how exquisitely
I render Homer. I think that the Homeridae should give me a golden
Soc. I shall take an opportunity of hearing your embellishments of
him at some other time. But just now I should like to ask you a question:
Does your art extend to Hesiod and Archilochus, or to Homer only?
Ion. To Homer only; he is in himself quite enough.
Soc. Are there any things about which Homer and Hesiod agree?
Ion. Yes; in my opinion there are a good many.
Soc. And can you interpret better what Homer says, or what Hesiod
says, about these matters in which they agree?
Ion. I can interpret them equally well, Socrates, where they agree.
Soc. But what about matters in which they do not agree?- for example,
about divination, of which both Homer and Hesiod have something to
Ion. Very true:
Soc. Would you or a good prophet be a better interpreter of what these
two poets say about divination, not only when they agree, but when
Ion. A prophet.
Soc. And if you were a prophet, would you be able to interpret them
when they disagree as well as when they agree?
Soc. But how did you come to have this skill about Homer only, and
not about Hesiod or the other poets? Does not Homer speak of the same
themes which all other poets handle? Is not war his great argument?
and does he not speak of human society and of intercourse of men,
good and bad, skilled and unskilled, and of the gods conversing with
one another and with mankind, and about what happens in heaven and
in the world below, and the generations of gods and heroes? Are not
these the themes of which Homer sings?
Ion. Very true, Socrates.
Soc. And do not the other poets sing of the same?
Ion. Yes, Socrates; but not in the same way as Homer.
Soc. What, in a worse way?
Ion. Yes, in a far worse.
Soc. And Homer in a better way?
Ion. He is incomparably better.
Soc. And yet surely, my dear friend Ion, in a discussion about arithmetic,
where many people are speaking, and one speaks better than the rest,
there is somebody who can judge which of them is the good speaker?
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?
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.
Soc. Is not the same person skilful in both?
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.
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
Soc. And there are and have been many painters good and bad?
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
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. Yes, indeed, Socrates, I feel that you are; for your words touch
my soul, and I am persuaded that good poets by a divine inspiration
interpret the things of the Gods to us.
Soc. And you rhapsodists are the interpreters of the poets?
Ion. There again you are right.
Soc. Then you are the interpreters of interpreters?
Soc. I wish you would frankly tell me, Ion, what I am going to ask
of you: When you produce the greatest effect upon the audience in
the recitation of some striking passage, such as the apparition of
Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognized by the suitors and
casting his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles rushing
at Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam,- are you
in your right mind? Are you not carried out of yourself, and does
not your soul in an ecstasy seem to be among the persons or places
of which you are speaking, whether they are in Ithaca or in Troy or
whatever may be the scene of the poem?
Ion. That proof strikes home to me, Socrates. For I must frankly confess
that at the tale of pity, my eyes are filled with tears, and when
I speak of horrors, my hair stands on end and my heart throbs.
Soc. Well, Ion, and what are we to say of a man who at a sacrifice
or festival, when he is dressed in holiday attire and has golden crowns
upon his head, of which nobody has robbed him, appears sweeping or
panic-stricken in the presence of more than twenty thousand friendly
faces, when there is no one despoiling or wronging him;- is he in
his right mind or is he not?
Ion. No indeed, Socrates, I must say that, strictly speaking, he is
not in his right mind.
Soc. And are you aware that you produce similar effects on most spectators?
Ion. Only too well; for I look down upon them from the stage, and
behold the various emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon
their countenances when I am speaking: and I am obliged to give my
very best attention to them; for if I make them cry I myself shall
laugh, and if I make them laugh I myself shall cry when the time of
Soc. Do you know that the spectator is the last of the rings which,
as I am saying, receive the power of the original magnet from one
another? The rhapsode like yourself and the actor are intermediate
links, and the poet himself is the first of them. Through all these
the God sways the souls of men in any direction which he pleases,
and makes one man hang down from another. Thus there is a vast chain
of dancers and masters and undermasters of choruses, who are suspended,
as if from the stone, at the side of the rings which hang down from
the Muse. And every poet has some Muse from whom he is suspended,
and by whom he is said to be possessed, which is nearly the same thing;
for he is taken hold of. And from these first rings, which are the
poets, depend others, some deriving their inspiration from Orpheus,
others from Musaeus; but the greater number are possessed and held
by Homer. Of whom, Ion, you are one, and are possessed by Homer; and
when any one repeats the words of another poet you go to sleep, and
know not what to say; but when any one recites a strain of Homer you
wake up in a moment, and your soul leaps within you, and you have
plenty to say; for not by art or knowledge about Homer do you say
what you say, but by divine inspiration and by possession; just as
the Corybantian revellers too have a quick perception of that strain
only which is appropriated to the God by whom they are possessed,
and have plenty of dances and words for that, but take no heed of
any other. And you, Ion, when the name of Homer is mentioned have
plenty to say, and have nothing to say of others. You ask, "Why is
this?" The answer is that you praise Homer not by art but by divine
Ion. That is good, Socrates; and yet I doubt whether you will ever
have eloquence enough to persuade me that I praise Homer only when
I am mad and possessed; and if you could hear me speak of him I am
sure you would never think this to be the case.
Soc. I should like very much to hear you, but not until you have answered
a question which I have to ask. On what part of Homer do you speak
well?- not surely about every part.
Ion. There is no part, Socrates, about which I do not speak well of
that I can assure you.
Soc. Surely not about things in Homer of which you have no knowledge?
Ion. And what is there in Homer of which I have no knowledge?
Soc. Why, does not Homer speak in many passages about arts? For example,
about driving; if I can only remember the lines I will repeat them.
Ion. I remember, and will repeat them.
Soc. Tell me then, what Nestor says to Antilochus, his son, where
he bids him be careful of the turn at the horse-race in honour of
Ion. He says:
Bend gently in the polished chariot to the left of them, and urge
the horse on the right hand with whip and voice; and slacken the rein.
And when you are at the goal, let the left horse draw near, yet so
that the nave of the well-wrought wheel may not even seem to touch
the extremity; and avoid catching the stone.
Soc. Enough. Now, Ion, will the charioteer or the physician be the
better judge of the propriety of these lines?
Ion. The charioteer, clearly.
Soc. And will the reason be that this is his art, or will there be
any other reason?
Ion. No, that will be the reason.
Soc. And every art is appointed by God to have knowledge of a certain
work; for that which we know by the art of the pilot we do not know
by the art of medicine?
Ion. Certainly not.
Soc. Nor do we know by the art of the carpenter that which we know
by the art of medicine?
Ion. Certainly not.
Soc. And this is true of all the arts;- that which we know with one
art we do not know with the other? But let me ask a prior question:
You admit that there are differences of arts?
Soc. You would argue, as I should, that when one art is of one kind
of knowledge and another of another, they are different?
Soc. Yes, surely; for if the subject of knowledge were the same, there
would be no meaning in saying that the arts were different,- if they
both gave the same knowledge. For example, I know that here are five
fingers, and you know the same. And if I were to ask whether I and
you became acquainted with this fact by the help of the same art of
arithmetic, you would acknowledge that we did?
Soc. Tell me, then, what I was intending to ask you- whether this
holds universally? Must the same art have the same subject of knowledge,
and different arts other subjects of knowledge?
Ion. That is my opinion, Socrates.
Soc. Then he who has no knowledge of a particular art will have no
right judgment of the sayings and doings of that art?
Ion. Very true.
Soc. Then which will be a better judge of the lines which you were
reciting from Homer, you or the charioteer?
Ion. The charioteer.
Soc. Why, yes, because you are a rhapsode and not a charioteer.
Soc. And the art of the rhapsode is different from that of the charioteer?
Soc. And if a different knowledge, then a knowledge of different matters?
Soc. You know the passage in which Hecamede, the concubine of Nestor,
is described as giving to the wounded Machaon a posset, as he says,
Made with Pramnian wine; and she grated cheese of goat's milk with
a grater of bronze, and at his side placed an onion which gives a
relish to drink. Now would you say that the art of the rhapsode or
the art of medicine was better able to judge of the propriety of these
Ion. The art of medicine.
Soc. And when Homer says,
And she descended into the deep like a leaden plummet, which, set
in the horn of ox that ranges in the fields, rushes along carrying
death among the ravenous fishes,- will the art of the fisherman or
of the rhapsode be better able to judge whether these lines are rightly
expressed or not?
Ion. Clearly, Socrates, the art of the fisherman.
Soc. Come now, suppose that you were to say to me: "Since you, Socrates,
are able to assign different passages in Homer to their corresponding
arts, I wish that you would tell me what are the passages of which
the excellence ought to be judged by the prophet and prophetic art";
and you will see how readily and truly I shall answer you. For there
are many such passages, particularly in the Odyssey; as, for example,
the passage in which Theoclymenus the prophet of the house of Melampus
says to the suitors:-
Wretched men! what is happening to you? Your heads and your faces
and your limbs underneath are shrouded in night; and the voice of
lamentation bursts forth, and your cheeks are wet with tears. And
the vestibule is full, and the court is full, of ghosts descending
into the darkness of Erebus, and the sun has perished out of heaven,
and an evil mist is spread abroad.
And there are many such passages in the Iliad also; as for example
in the description of the battle near the rampart, where he says:-
As they were eager to pass the ditch, there came to them an omen:
a soaring eagle, holding back the people on the left, bore a huge
bloody dragon in his talons, still living and panting; nor had he
yet resigned the strife, for he bent back and smote the bird which
carried him on the breast by the neck, and he in pain let him fall
from him to the ground into the midst of the multitude. And the eagle,
with a cry, was borne afar on the wings of the wind.
These are the sort of things which I should say that the prophet ought
to consider and determine.
Ion. And you are quite right, Socrates, in saying so.
Soc. Yes, Ion, and you are right also. And as I have selected from
the Iliad and Odyssey for you passages which describe the office of
the prophet and the physician and the fisherman, do you, who know
Homer so much better than I do, Ion, select for me passages which
relate to the rhapsode and the rhapsode's art, and which the rhapsode
ought to examine and judge of better than other men.
Ion. All passages, I should say, Socrates.
Soc. Not all, Ion, surely. Have you already forgotten what you were
saying? A rhapsode ought to have a better memory.
Ion. Why, what am I forgetting?
Soc. Do you not remember that you declared the art of the rhapsode
to be different from the art of the charioteer?
Ion. Yes, I remember.
Soc. And you admitted that being different they would have different
subjects of knowledge?
Soc. Then upon your own showing the rhapsode, and the art of the rhapsode,
will not know everything?
Ion. I should exclude certain things, Socrates.
Soc. You mean to say that you would exclude pretty much the subjects
of the other arts. As he does not know all of them, which of them
will he know?
Ion. He will know what a man and what a woman ought to say, and what
a freeman and what a slave ought to say, and what a ruler and what
Soc. Do you mean that a rhapsode will know better than the pilot what
the ruler of a sea-tossed vessel ought to say?
Ion. No; the pilot will know best.
Soc. Or will the rhapsode know better than the physician what the
ruler of a sick man ought to say?
Ion. He will not.
Soc. But he will know what a slave ought to say?
Soc. Suppose the slave to be a cowherd; the rhapsode will know better
than the cowherd what he ought to say in order to soothe the infuriated
Ion. No, he will not.
Soc. But he will know what a spinning-woman ought to say about the
working of wool?
Soc. At any rate he will know what a general ought to say when exhorting
Ion. Yes, that is the sort of thing which the rhapsode will be sure
Soc. Well, but is the art of the rhapsode the art of the general?
Ion. I am sure that I should know what a general ought to say.
Soc. Why, yes, Ion, because you may possibly have a knowledge of the
art of the general as well as of the rhapsode; and you may also have
a knowledge of horsemanship as well as of the lyre: and then you would
know when horses were well or ill managed. But suppose I were to ask
you: By the help of which art, Ion, do you know whether horses are
well managed, by your skill as a horseman or as a performer on the
lyre- what would you answer?
Ion. I should reply, by my skill as a horseman.
Soc. And if you judged of performers on the lyre, you would admit
that you judged of them as a performer on the lyre, and not as a horseman?
Soc. And in judging of the general's art, do you judge of it as a
general or a rhapsode?
Ion. To me there appears to be no difference between them.
Soc. What do you mean? Do you mean to say that the art of the rhapsode
and of the general is the same?
Ion. Yes, one and the same.
Soc. Then he who is a good rhapsode is also a good general?
Ion. Certainly, Socrates.
Soc. And he who is a good general is also a good rhapsode?
Ion. No; I do not say that.
Soc. But you do say that he who is a good rhapsode is also a good
Soc. And you are the best of Hellenic rhapsodes?
Ion. Far the best, Socrates.
Soc. And are you the best general, Ion?
Ion. To be sure, Socrates; and Homer was my master.
Soc. But then, Ion, what in the name of goodness can be the reason
why you, who are the best of generals as well as the best of rhapsodes
in all Hellas, go about as a rhapsode when you might be a general?
Do you think that the Hellenes want a rhapsode with his golden crown,
and do not want a general?
Ion. Why, Socrates, the reason is, that my countrymen, the Ephesians,
are the servants and soldiers of Athens, and do not need a general;
and you and Sparta are not likely to have me, for you think that you
have enough generals of your own.
Soc. My good Ion, did you never hear of Apollodorus of Cyzicus?
Ion. Who may he be?
Soc. One who, though a foreigner, has often been chosen their general
by the Athenians: and there is Phanosthenes of Andros, and Heraclides
of Clazomenae, whom they have also appointed to the command of their
armies and to other offices, although aliens, after they had shown
their merit. And will they not choose Ion the Ephesian to be their
general, and honour him, if he prove himself worthy? Were not the
Ephesians originally Athenians, and Ephesus is no mean city? But,
indeed, Ion, if you are correct in saying that by art and knowledge
you are able to praise Homer, you do not deal fairly with me, and
after all your professions of knowing many, glorious things about
Homer, and promises that you would exhibit them, you are only a deceiver,
and so far from exhibiting the art of which you are a master, will
not, even after my repeated entreaties, explain to me the nature of
it. You have literally as many forms as Proteus; and now you go all
manner of ways, twisting and turning, and, like Proteus, become all
manner of people at once, and at last slip away from me in the disguise
of a general, in order that you may escape exhibiting your Homeric
lore. And if you have art, then, as I was saying, in falsifying your
promise that you would exhibit Homer, you are not dealing fairly with
me. But if, as I believe, you have no art, but speak all these beautiful
words about Homer unconsciously under his inspiring influence, then
I acquit you of dishonesty, and shall only say that you are inspired.
Which do you prefer to be thought, dishonest or inspired?
Ion. There is a great difference, Socrates, between the two alternatives;
and inspiration is by far the nobler.
Soc. Then, Ion, I shall assume the nobler alternative; and attribute
to you in your praises of Homer inspiration, and not art.
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