Sailing Past the Siren Song of Censorship: An Evaluation of Plato's Complaints Against Homer
Sailing Past the Siren Song of Censorship: An Evaluation of Plato's Complaints Against Homer
A Project Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Master of Liberal Studies
by Robin L. Simmons
Mentor: Dr. Daniel DeNicola
Rollins College, Hamilton Holt School
Winter Park, Florida
I can now say that I had the good fortune to begin the MLS program with a bad attitude. For if I had been a model student from the start, the idea for this paper never would have occurred to me. Three years ago, I thought the Ancient Greeks were boring, and I resented having to spend two entire semesters studying their accomplishments. I am embarrassed to admit that frequently I didn't even begin reading assignments from LS 602, The Human Order, and merely skimmed the texts I did bother to dig out of the bookstore bag. But once we began that first dialogue, Plato reached right out of my Penguin Classic, grabbed me by the shirt collar, and ordered, "Listen up!" The Greeks have been speaking to me ever since.
One evening during a discussion of the Phaedo, Dr. Marshall made a point about Plato that inspired me to read all twenty-eight dialogues. She warned us that a student cannot read a dialogue like the Phaedo and expect to know everything Plato has to say about the soul. She explained that Platonic themes like the soul and the Forms have a fluidity that the student can only appreciate after reading the entire Platonic corpus. What more of a challenge did I need? I proposed an independent study—naive though I was of its scope—that would allow me to read all the dialogues and track the fluid themes that Dr. Marshall had noted.
While reading all twenty-eight dialogues, I realized that another important component of the Platonic cosmology, one that does not receive as much scholarly attention as do the Forms or the soul, makes an appearance in every dialogue: the expert. Plato notes again and again that the "one who knows" best performs an activity.
During the independent study, I was also catching up on the pre-Plato reading I had neglected from LS 602. One of the assignments I had abandoned early was the Iliad. My unintentional postponement of Homer's account of the Trojan War allowed an unexpected moment of intellectual synchronicity. As I was busily documenting the importance of the expert to Platonic thought, I chanced to notice that in all the situations where two Homeric characters meet, the expert always triumphs over the novice. Why, I asked myself, would Plato so often advocate the censorship of Homer when this epic poet so thoroughly mirrors Plato's emphasis on the expert?
That question has inspired this thesis project to fulfill my graduation requirements for the Master of Liberal Studies Program at Rollins College.
Since my ignoble start in this program, I have become a good student. My transformation, in part, is the result of the excellent instruction I have received. I would like to thank Drs. Tom Cook, Hoyt Edge, Eileen Gregory, Arnold Wettstein, and especially my thesis mentor, Dan DeNicola, for making my classroom experience as enjoyable as it was.
Introduction to the Project
"Take me alive! I can arrange a ransom!" begs Dolôn, the Trojan spy, in Homer's Iliad.1 Odysseus and Diomêdês, seasoned soldiers both, capture this unfortunate warrior during concurrent Akhaian and Trojan scouting missions. Besides offering bronze and gold for his life, Dolôn also spills important strategic information to his captors. Nevertheless, the dispassionate Diomêdês lops off the Trojan's head with a sword. Dolôn's death is no surprise. When Homer has the paths of two adversaries meet, the expert always triumphs over the novice. From the start, Hektor's incompetent leadership dooms Dolôn's mission: While Agamémnon, the Akhaian general, commands two of his finest fighters to reconnoiter the Trojan camp, Hektor asks one of his men to volunteer for the assignment, unwisely accepting a puny rich kid who was raised in a house full of women.2 Dolôn might believe that he is a warrior worthy of Akhilleus' chariot and team as a reward for this mission. His quick capture and execution, however, illustrate the incompetence of this pride-blinded amateur.
The importance of the expert is a theme found not only in Homeric poetry but also throughout the Platonic corpus. In fact, Plato's expert is the foundation for the better known Platonic themes, like the Forms, the tripartite soul, and the utopian government. Plato would interpret the Dolôn episode thus: Because both Agamémnon and Hektor have reached the limit of their self-sufficiency, they must delegate duties to their subordinates. Agamémnon successfully draws on the expertise of the men who serve under him. As Plato has Socrates note in the Charmides, "We should find out those who know, and hand the business over to them and trust in them. Nor should we allow those who [are] under us to do anything which they [are] not likely to do well."3 Agamémnon has followed this advice. He first consults the level-headed Nestor, his second-in-command, and then turns the mission over to Odysseus and Diomêdês, the two most qualified warriors the Akhaians have while Akhilleus is pouting by the ships.
Hektor, however, ignores Socrates' advice and reveals his incompetence as a leader. Because Hektor asks for volunteers, instead of making the assignment himself, he essentially allows a mob to determine the candidate for the mission. Hektor thus ruins the Trojans' chance at success, for as Plato has Socrates point out in the Greater Hippias, "The multitude is [certainly not] composed of men who know."4 Hektor's mob, as Plato has warned, allows the choice of a novice, one who brags of his competence but does not have the past success to validate it. That Dolôn so easily meets death would not surprise Plato.
The philosophy implied in the actions of Homeric characters thus echoes Plato's emphasis on the expert. The irony of Homer's accord with Plato is that the character Socrates so often speaks ill of poetry, especially Homer's. In the Republic, Socrates cites several reasons why poetry would endanger the souls of the guardians, the upper crust of Plato's utopia.5 One complaint is that the poets describe situations that will set bad examples for the guardians. For example, Homer's portrayal of a frightening and unpleasant underworld will ruin the guardians' courage and instill a fear of death. Also, when Homer shows heroes and gods overwhelmed with emotion, then the guardians listening to the tale will lose their hard-won moderation. In addition, when Homer has the Olympians performing evil deeds, then the gods become no better than human beings. As a result, the poet has not only contaminated the holy with evil but also given the guardians a reason not to think badly of themselves if they commit the same evil act. These scholar-soldiers can rationalize that they are merely following a holy model. Furthermore, when Homer shows injustice as profitable and justice as a cause of unhappiness, then the guardians will doubt their commitment to their perfectly ordered city. For these reasons, Plato makes Socrates warn that "We [must] strike out these and all similar things … [for] the more poetic they are, the less they should be heard by boys and men."6
The censorship of the poets, for the reasons above, is completely unnecessary if the guardians have truly become experts at instilling moderation in their souls. As Plato notes about experts in general, "The one who speaks well … will always recognize who speaks well and who speaks badly when there are many speaking about the same things."7 Here, Plato means that an expert knows competent from inept discussion of his art. The just education and societal organization of the utopia would have produced expert soul-masters. So those guardians who listened to poetry in its original, uncensored form would recognize the times when Homer spoke badly about the state of the soul. The guardians would be as little likely to imitate those episodes in their duties as an expert horse trainer would intentionally cripple an animal after he had watched a novice do so. To keep "the boys," the children, from the poetry, as Plato has Socrates suggest, is reasonable until they master the warring factions of their souls. But when Socrates advocates keeping the "men," the entire adult population, from the original, uncut Homeric epics, he casts doubt on the competence of the expert, the true foundation of the utopia and a person whose importance surfaces in all twenty-eight dialogues.
So why does Plato have Socrates advocate the censorship of Homer? The conclusion of this paper will be that Plato does not mean exactly what he has Socrates say. Allan Bloom has this to say about Socrates' style of argument: "The particular illustrations [that Socrates chooses] fit the nature of [his] interlocutor, … [so] the reader must ponder … what Socrates might have said to another man."8 The censorship that Socrates champions in the Republic might not be Plato's true beliefs about Homeric poetry. Rather, Socrates' discussion of censorship might be a strategy for getting Glaucon and Adeimantus, two young aristocrats, to realize something important about their own souls. Bloom's insight is just one piece of evidence that points to Plato's not being entirely serious about the dangers of poetry.
Before I produce the other evidence that suggests Plato doesn't really mean what he has Socrates say about censorship, the reader must understand how important the expert is to both Platonic philosophy and Homeric poetry. This paper, then, will address the following points in the order below:
- A definition of the Platonic expert
- The expert's importance to other Platonic themes (notably, the Forms, the tripartite soul, and the utopian government
- Homer's emphasis on the expert
- Plato's problems with poetry
- The consequences of censoring poetry
- Conclusion: A student of Plato shouldn't assume that everything Socrates says is what Plato means.
I. The Platonic Expert
In my first graduate class on Ancient Greece, the professor used a term that inspired my interest in reading all the dialogues of Plato; she said that a student cannot read the Phaedo, for example, and know everything that Plato has to say about the soul. Platonic concepts, she explained, have a fluidity that the student can appreciate only after reading all twenty-eight dialogues. I realized the truth of this statement as I watched the Forms evolve. Reading the Republic while I was an undergraduate gave me my first superficial understanding of the Forms. In this dialogue, Plato has Socrates explain the three couches: the one, true god-produced couch, the many couches that carpenters make in imitation of the one true couch, and the most inferior of the three, the couches that artists have painted in pictures.9 Socrates' discussion of the sofa strata implies that the Realm of Forms includes deity-fashioned Ideas for all the items found in the material world. Not only is there a divine couch floating around in the top stratum but also an ideal chariot, Ionic column, sandal, horse, and so forth.
Plato soon realizes the problem with this conception of the Forms: If there is a Form for a couch, then there must be Forms for everything, including ignoble items like backaches caused by inferior, human-crafted sofas. So in the Parmenides, a dialogue written after the Republic, Plato has Socrates retract his earlier statement about the Forms and conclude instead that things like hair, mud, dirt, or any "trivial or undignified object" are "just what we see [because] it would surely be too absurd to suppose that they have a form."10 In fact, Socrates admits in this passage that thinking about Forms for items like human body parts produces a "fear of tumbling into a bottomless pit of nonsense." At this point in the continuing evolution of the Forms, Plato allows Ideas for virtue, beauty, and goodness. He is unsure, however, if Forms for fire, water, or even human beings exist.
In the Sophist, Plato abandons not only a vocal Socrates but also the usual discussion that a Form for an idea like virtue exists. Leaving Socrates uncharacteristically on the sidelines, Plato concerns himself with the Stranger from Elea, who discusses only five Forms: existence, movement, rest, sameness, and difference.11 Plato lets the Stranger admit here that more Forms than these five exist. But the Stranger decides not to address them all "for fear of getting confused in such a multitude." Reducing the Forms to these five allows Plato to keep his characters from falling into the familiar trap of dissection. In the Laches or the Protagoras, for example, Socrates and his partners in conversation separate out from the Form of virtue qualities like knowledge, justice, courage, temperance, and holiness.12 So what conclusion can the reader draw from this reduction to five abstractions in the Sophist? Plato seems to desire that the Forms be eternal and static, Plato's recipe for perfection. By conceiving a Form for sameness, for example, Plato makes a nondimensional Form that offers no sides or corners where one can apply the knife and slice the original one into many.
Several questions plague this fluidity of the Forms: While the Forms become more abstract as the dialogues progress chronologically, the character Socrates, as he ages, denies the abstract and embraces the concrete instead. In the Republic, the first of these three dialogues, a middle-aged Socrates describes divine couches. In the Parmenides, written after the Republic, a teenage Socrates denies perfect furniture, discussing Forms for intangibles instead. Then in the Sophist, the latest of the three, an unnamed Stranger—who, by the way, has done nothing to earn the reader's trust—argues for the Forms of Socrates' youth. The Stranger's Forms are ones which Socrates has outgrown, if the reader believes what the older Socrates says in the Republic.
What accounts for the changes? Is it true, as Bloom claims, that Plato alters Socrates' manner of discourse depending on the intelligence of the other participants in the conversation? Does Socrates use a couch to demonstrate the Forms in the Republic because Glaucon and Adeimantus cannot understand anything less tangible? Does Socrates use more abstract Forms in his conversation with Parmenides, the thinker who reduced reality to an unchanging, static One, because god-produced furniture would convince Parmenides of Socrates' philosophical naiveté? And is the reader to trust the Stranger of the Sophist? If the Stranger is a student of Parmenides, as he claims, can he really have anything valid to say about the Forms? Parmenides believes that all indications of change are illusion, "nothing more than names" which a deluded humanity gives to its faulty sense perceptions.13 Would not Parmenides and his students catalogue the Forms as just one more component mistakenly separated out of what, in truth, is a static One? If the Eleatic School would dismiss the Forms, dare the reader trust anything its representative, the Stranger, says about them?
Questions like these keep students of Plato busy debating the problems caused by the fluidity of themes such as the Forms, the soul, and Plato's ideal government. With the expert, however, these questions do not arise. For although the expert does evolve as the dialogues progress, the changes never cause contradictions in the fundamental qualities of the "one who knows." No matter how different the skillful statesman is from the master cobbler, the two share four important characteristics: A) the expert always benefits the item on which his advice is sought, B) the expert's area of knowledge is limited to a single art, C) the expert always knows the good from the incompetent practice of his art, and D) experts do not travel in packs.
That Plato mentions the expert's importance at least once in every dialogue comes as no surprise to the student in the twentieth century. Anyone who has trusted, for example, a Jiffy Lube technician to change the oil of her automobile—but discovers later that this novice forgot to reattach the oil pan—will understand Plato's preoccupation with the expert. If society made each person contribute only in his one area of competence, then fewer ruined car engines and less customer frustration would result. Moreover, such a government would never allow master blacksmiths and skillful tailors to decide the fate of a great though annoying philosopher, as did the Athenian democracy. Instead, experts at wisdom would determine the guilt or innocence of an unconventional thinker like Plato's mentor, Socrates.
A. The expert always benefits the item on which his advice is sought.
An ideal society, Plato believes, would not exclude a single person from becoming an expert at one craft or another, able to benefit the object of his art. This belief that everyone is a potential "one who knows" at something complements Plato's conception of the immortal soul. Plato believes that the soul, because of its numerous incarnations, has acquired knowledge of many things during the time it spent both here on earth and in the spirit world.14 The soul cannot, however, remember everything it has learned, for it must cross the stifling hot plains of Forgetfulness and then drink from the river of Carelessness.15 The plain and river are surely poetic devices Plato uses to make his metaphysics palatable to the ambitious but philosophically unsophisticated Adeimantus and Glaucon. But this mythological geography has another function as well; it provides a metaphor that allows recovery of things lost. Just as a farmer can reclaim fertile land after drought and flood, the right person digging around in another's mind can recultivate the knowledge that heat and water destroyed.
Dialectic is this method of recovery. As Plato has Socrates point out in the Meno, "A man who does not know has in himself true opinions on a subject without having knowledge … Knowledge will not come from teaching but from questioning."16 In this dialogue, Plato has Socrates manipulate a slave so that the boy appears to recollect his forgotten memory of geometry. Socrates thus demonstrates the potential expertise everyone has for an art—if the right person is digging through the wet ashes of the novice's head. Furthermore, with this demonstration, Plato illustrates that he is not the elitist scholars often believe him to be. Plato lets Socrates prompt an insignificant slave into recollecting the formula for the area of a square, the sides of which are doubled. With the slave, Socrates reaches mathematical truth. But with the other two characters in the dialogue, Meno and Anytus, wealthy and educated men both, the definition of virtue remains beyond their grasp. The implication, in this dialogue, is that experts are more readily found among the slaves than the masters—especially when one "master" is Anytus, the real-life chief prosecutor of Socrates.
In fact, Plato appears to respect the competence of expert artisans, the lower class, as much as he respects that exercised by the masters of more upper class occupations. In the Charmides, for instance, Plato has Socrates ask Critias, Plato's wealthy aristocratic uncle, whether the expertise demonstrated by shoemakers, wood workers, or wool spinners resembles that of prophets and physicians, professions associated with the upper class.17 Critias denies that the competence of the cobbler has anything in common with that of the doctor. So Socrates notes that an important contradiction will result if they agree "to confine happiness to those who live according to knowledge of some particular [upper- class] thing." Critias' attitude denies the blue-collar workers of Ancient Greece the happiness that the upper-class experts have. Plato makes Socrates disagree. A skillful master, Socrates claims, can "discern good and evil," a skill equally necessary for the cobbler to produce quality shoes or for the doctor to return his patient to health. It becomes more difficult to label Plato elitist when he has Socrates explain that true expertise transcends class boundaries.
Depending on his area of competence, the expert can train a horse well, educate another man's children with virtue, or improve an individual's soul. Examples of these experts occur throughout the dialogues. For example, in the Lysis, Plato has Socrates explain to a group of young men that fathers, no matter how much they love their sons, do not allow their children to take the reins of a chariot during a race.18 For the paid servants, though of less value to the fathers, are expert drivers who will damage neither the animals nor the vehicles. Fathers determine the beneficial activities for their sons; skillful drivers tell the good from bad strategies to win a race. The irony in this dialogue is that parents know to give to the expert—not to the unskilled child—both the chores of the household and the rearing of their offspring. But this recognition of the expert's importance in parenting rarely transfers to matters of state. In the Assembly, the chariot driver can put in his two cents, even when he has as little real insight about the problem as Lysis and the other young men do about the difficulties of chariot racing.
Plato does not limit the expert to the improvement of material items only, like horses and the children. In the Symposium, Plato has Socrates, an expert at love (whether Socrates admits it or not), show that an intangible item like the soul will also benefit from the "one who knows." Here at Agathon's dinner party, Socrates describes the regimen one must follow to become an expert at love: First, the person must devote himself to the beauty of his lover's body, this devotion eventually helping him to realize the beauty in all handsome bodies; next, after recognizing that all beautiful things participate in a single Form, the initiate realizes that the beauties of the body do not compare to the finer beauties of the soul; and finally, learning of the soul's beauty will make one think of other intangibles like laws and institutions, confirming for the person beauty's "wide horizon" and helping him avoid an obsession with a single lover's handsome physique.19 The initiate would, at the end of his training, "be saved from a slavish and illiberal devotion to the individual loveliness of a single boy, a single man, or a single institution."20
The confession of the drunken Alcibiades, who interrupts the party, proves that the person Socrates has just described is an expert who can benefit not only his own soul but also those of the people he frequents. Alcibiades, a corrupt politician and military leader who was loved ironically by the same Athenians he betrayed, admits that "Socrates is the only man in the world that can make me feel ashamed. … I know I ought to do the things he tells me to, and yet the moment I'm out of his sight, … I dash off like a runaway slave."21 With this admission, Alcibiades reveals two important things: 1) that Socrates, despite his denials to the contrary, is a master in the management of the soul, and 2) that the power of the expert benefits the souls of other people who receive the advice of the "one who knows."
Although the character Socrates never labels himself an expert, he demonstrates by his actions, especially in the Symposium, the two important characteristics of a skillful master. In the Laches, Plato has Socrates suggest the two qualities a genuine expert must have: a good teacher in the claimant's past and then competent demonstration of the art he professes to know.22 Diotima, the Mantinean whom Socrates claims instructed him in matters of love, would be the good teacher necessary to create a love expert. And even if she is nothing more than an imaginary character Socrates calls up to draw attention away from himself, the reader soon learns that a good teacher isn't always necessary. In the Laches, an Athenian general points this out when he asks, "But Socrates, did you never observe that some persons who have had no teachers are more skillful than those who have, in some things?" Socrates replies, "You would not be very willing to trust them … unless they could show some proof of their skill or excellence." Plato thus lets Socrates easily dismiss the necessity of a good teacher if the person claiming competence can demonstrate his skill. In the Symposium, Alcibiades is the evidence of Socrates' competence in matters of the soul; here is a self-described hedonist whose only moments of temperance are in Socrates' company. That Alcibiades has to remove himself physically from Socrates' presence so that he can "keep in with the mob" demonstrates the reach of a real expert's power.
Furthermore, an expert in matters of the soul can best help other people with spiritual concerns, especially the fear of death. In no dialogue is this more clear than in the Phaedo, where Plato recounts Socrates' ultimate demonstration of a master philosopher—drinking the hemlock. In this dialogue, Socrates explains the characteristics of the true philosopher, one who practices the "greatest of the arts."23 The one quality that the master philosopher should have, Socrates explains, is readiness for death: "Those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying."24 An expert philosopher, Socrates continues, knows that death is nothing more than separation of the soul from the body. This separation is a purifying moment that the real philosopher anticipates because he will then be with absolute beauty and justice.
Like the expert cobbler whose power of discernment can evaluate the quality of leather and stitching, the expert philosopher uses his ability to tell the good from the bad in matters of the soul. Life in the body, the philosopher concludes, is inferior to life free of the body. For the physical satisfactions that the body demands keep one from pure knowledge. As an example, acquiring bread and wine for a growling stomach distracts a person, the philosopher realizes, from communion with truth. And just as the expert cobbler might cut away an imperfection in the leather he uses to craft a fine pair of shoes, the expert philosopher not only frees his own soul from the fear of death, a defect in its composition, but also benefits the souls of the people around him. The example Socrates sets as he downs the hemlock in front of his last audience is the evidence for his conviction in this belief.
Whether the item is a material possession, like a chariot team, or an intangible object, like a person's soul, the expert benefits rather than harms the thing on which he works. The expert improves the item because he can identify the bad from the good, and then his mastery of the art lets him care for the object in a way that improves its condition. This care will help a chariot team win a race or a person cleanse the fear of death from his soul. For experts to exist, however, Plato believes that each individual must limit himself to a single occupation.
B. An expert must practice a single art.
Why is Socrates unemployed, in the conventional sense, and forced to rely on his wealthier friends to put up the thirty-minas fine he suggests at his trial? The answer is that an expert must practice a single art. And as Plato notes in the Phaedo, Socrates' art is philosophy, the greatest of arts, an occupation that keeps Socrates concerned with intangibles rather than with manufactured goods or services. Socrates' real-life trial must have made Plato realize the foolishness of letting farmers, for example, attend not only to their crops but also to matters of state. Socrates met a premature end because the farmers, whose nature suited them to grow crops successfully, were inept at evaluating whether an eccentric could really corrupt the minds of Athens' young or blaspheme the gods.
Seeing the destruction that nonexperts could cause must have inspired Plato to make Socrates suggest in the Republic that a product will become "more plentiful, finer, and easier, when one man, exempt from other tasks, does one thing according to nature and at the crucial moment."25 The farmers and other artisans would have employed themselves better, Plato must have thought, in places other than the Assembly on the day of Socrates' trial. Because of this insight, Plato fills the dialogues with the problems people get themselves into when they range outside their one area of expertise and meddle in something where they have no business interfering. Although these examples often border on the absurd, what keeps the lesson they teach serious is the realization that the real-life Socrates died because Athens allowed incompetent novice statesmen to decide his fate.
Perhaps the most absurd of all these examples occurs in the Ion. In this dialogue, Plato manipulates a rhapsodist, a singer of Homeric poetry, to arrive at a most illogical conclusion about the nature of experts. Puffed up with pride after winning a recitation competition, Ion runs into Socrates and makes the mistake of claiming to be an expert at Homer, and only Homer. Plato first has Socrates "flatter" poor Ion; Muses, says Socrates, are lodestones that send inspiration like magnetic current through the poet, who next transmits the inspiration to the rhapsodist, who finally delivers it to the audience. Foolishly enjoying this faint praise, Ion neglects to notice that his profession can no longer claim an expert. Since receiving inspiration requires no skill, the rhapsodist has no art to master.
Next, Plato has Socrates point out that a real-life diviner or ship captain would, most logically, be the best judge of Homer's passages on oracles or navigation. For, as Socrates further notes, "whoever does not have a certain art will not be able to know in a fine way the things of that art."26 Ion tries to claim that rhapsodists practice the art of "knowing what to say," a type of Dear Abby spontaneity. But as Socrates reminds him, a cattle herder, not a rhapsodist, would know the best words to soothe the beasts in his care when a storm frightens them. Nevertheless, Ion blindly insists that the art of knowing what to say is the same as mastery of the skill itself. Then, Ion makes a huge leap in logic. Since Homer provides models of military leaders, Ion ridiculously asserts that he, an expert on Homer, would make just as good a general as a real-life military leader who had fought often at the front: "To me at least, [the art of rhapsody and the art of generalship] appear to be one."27 But Ion has shown no expertise, no skills, no philosophical insight to support his empty claim. Socrates shows him up as an expert at Homer, and after listening to this rhapsodist's bad strategies in conversation, no soldier would want to follow Commander Ion into battle. With his manipulation of this character, Plato illustrates the foolishness of people who claim to be the "ones who know" at more than one art.
With the same skill, Plato unmasks the arrogant Euthyphro. Plato arranges for Socrates to meet this overconfident character on the steps of the law courts, where Euthyphro asserts his mastery of matters divine. Euthyphro thinks that he understands which human actions please the gods. As a result, he believes that prosecuting his own father for the murder of an overseer is the right, or holy, thing to do. If Euthyphro had explained that he was dragging his father into court because the law said that murder requires punishment, Socrates would have had no complaint. Socrates himself had so much respect for Athenian law that he insisted on drinking the state-ordered hemlock, thereby ending his own life, even though Crito had arranged both his escape from jail and relocation to another city.
Plato must have happily let Socrates reveal Euthyphro's empty insight into the deific, for Euthyphro claims an expertise that the human body, with its physical composition, keeps all but the most spiritually diligent from acquiring. Central to Plato's understanding of the soul is its perfect, immortal and omniscient nature that entombment in the body subverts. In the Phaedo, for instance, Plato has Socrates make the point that "every pleasure or pain has a sort of rivet with which it fastens the soul to the body and pins it down … accepting as true whatever the body certifies."28 Because the physical matter of the body clouds the soul's originally clear perception, ordinary people cannot speak with accuracy about perfect things like the gods. And as Plato has Socrates note in the Republic, "a man who has his understanding truly turned toward the things that are has no leisure to look down toward the affairs of human beings."29 Perfection so enthralls the few extraordinary folks who have gained expert control over their desire-producing physical bodies that they rarely concern themselves with the problems of the mundane world around them. Euthyphro must then be a fraud: on the one hand, he claims familiarity with the gods—companions of the soul—but, on the other hand, he concerns himself with the daily affairs of ordinary people, a relationship that does not characterize the man of true understanding. This contradiction Plato must show for what it is, hypocrisy.
As his conversation with Socrates continues, Euthyphro tries to dodge its inevitable conclusion—that his inauthentic religious revelation means he has no justification for prosecuting his father. But like a sluggish chess king who can escape only one square at a time, Euthyphro has no luck evading the more versatile Socrates whom Plato has skim back and forth through the argument, destroying one assertion after another. When Euthyphro advances the equation, holy = what the gods find pleasing, Socrates counters that the different Olympians do not enjoy the same human actions. When Euthyphro submits holy = what all the gods love, Socrates dismisses this qualification of the original equation because being loved is an attribute, not the essential quality. When Euthyphro tries to describe holy as the science of sacrifice and prayer, Socrates notes that sacrifice and prayer merely please the Olympians. But pleasing the gods, as the discussion has already found, is not essential holiness.
Choosing flight from Socrates' presence as his only escape, Euthyphro hurries off with this bit of Socratic irony following him as he flees: "Will you leave, and dash me down from the mighty expectation I had of learning from you what is holy and what is not?"30 Perhaps Euthyphro is an expert charioteer or champion wrestler, but he has obviously stepped outside his one skill when he decides to go head-to-head with Socrates about the nature of the gods. Euthyphro might have intended to display his insight into the divine. But Plato manipulates the conversation so that Socrates reduces the poor Euthyphro to a spoiled rich kid who is grinding who knows what axe against his old man. Again, the lesson Plato leaves with the reader is that an individual should avoid mouthing unfounded opinions and stick to rational discussion of the art he has mastered.
The characters Plato uses to populate the dialogues are all similar to Ion and Euthyphro. They are all men who would be better occupied at a potter's wheel or a blacksmith's anvil than with intangibles like virtue and justice, divine nature and wisdom. Plato never takes a potter or blacksmith to task for incompetence, as he does sophists and other men of learning, because an artisan's lack of expertise is much less dangerous to society. As the character Socrates notes in the Republic, "That men should become poor menders of shoes, corrupted and pretending to be what they're not, isn't so terrible for a city. But you surely see that men who are not guardians of the laws and the city, but seem to be, utterly destroy an entire city."31 Plato thus concerns himself with the men who can do the most harm, educating his reader in the process. Bloom says that with Socrates Plato "wishes to compel us … to see a real and profound problem which Ion [, Euthyphro,] and, for that matter, most men, do not sufficiently grasp. They, in their lives, are caught up in it unawares."32 To make his readers take notice of their lives, Plato unmasks one fraudulent expert after another. And as he has Socrates live the Delphic inscription "Know thyself," as well as Socrates' own motto, "An unexamined life is not worth living," Plato points to the responsibility of each individual to find his one area of expertise and avoid meddling in arts at which he can demonstrate no competence. Thus, the second important quality of an expert is his practice of a single art.
C. The expert can determine the good from incompetent practice of his art.
When Plato advocates denial of the physical and pursuit of the ideal, he gives modern readers a reason to dismiss much of what he says. Modern readers want empirical proof, and the most sophisticated NASA telescope, no matter how expertly technicians craft the lens, will not photograph the Realm of Forms, just as no CAT scan will reveal the soul. Plato's philosophy thus has too much fancy for many folks in the twentieth century. The Platonic expert, however, is not elusive or irrelevant. While the "one who knows" practices his one art, he is neither mystically communing with the Forms nor exercising divine power which will produce perfection here in the material world. In fact, when variables are many and unpredictable, the expert can even occasionally screw up—yet he remains the best one to undo whatever the damage is. The skill of the "one who knows" is always rational, a mindfulness that helps the expert determine whether what he sees, hears, and does is competent or not. His is the ability to gauge the quality of a multi-million-dollar telescope lens before shuttle launch or interpret with accuracy the color coding of the CAT scan. If the Forms and the soul have lost their appeal to modern readers, the ability of the expert to distinguish between the good and the incompetent is a skill still relevant to the twentieth century.
Like a thermometer that can indicate temperatures from freezing to boiling, the expert can gauge degrees of success, from disaster to victory, in his art. In the Republic, Plato has Socrates remark that "an outstanding pilot or doctor is aware of the difference between what is impossible in his art and what is possible, and he attempts the one, and lets the other go."33 Sometimes, however, the variables are so great that even an expert can make a mistake. Weather conditions might be so unpredictable that the ship captain cannot maneuver his craft past a tricky reef, or the symptoms of a patient might be so contradictory that the doctor is unsure what disease to treat. In such cases, Socrates adds, "If, after all, [the expert] should trip up in any way, he is competent to set himself aright." The reason the expert can undo the damage is that he has an understanding of his art that includes degrees of competence which range from disastrous to victorious. So when his internal mercury dips toward defeat, he still has a vision of success and the skill to rise to it.
To know where success lies on the spectrum of disaster and victory is important not only to the physical requirements of the body, like safe passage to dry land or delivery from disease, but also in matters of education which concern the soul. To illustrate this comparison, Plato has Socrates chide the young Hippocrates in the Protagoras for not consulting an expert who understands the soul's nourishment. When Hippocrates arrives at Socrates' home with news that the great teacher Protagoras has arrived in Athens, this enthusiastic young man has already decided to become Protagoras' student and pay whatever price the sophist asks. This decision, however, creates a problem for young Hippocrates: If he really needs the wisdom that Protagoras hawks, then Hippocrates, an intellectual novice, cannot determine the qualifications of his potential teacher. For this reason, Plato has Socrates warn the young man,
If you chance to be an expert in discerning good from bad, … it is safe for you to buy knowledge from Protagoras or anyone else, but if not, take care you don't find yourself gambling dangerously with all of you that is dearest to you.34
Only an expert at wisdom can safely buy knowledge, which goes straight to the soul, because only he can determine the difference between the good and the dangerous in this art.
That success does not always lie at the highest point of victory, Plato illustrates in one of his most clever dialogues, the Lesser Hippias. Here Plato chronicles a meeting between Socrates and another sophist, Hippias of Elis. The topic of their debate is whether Akhilleus of the Iliad or Odysseus of the Odyssey is the better man. Hippias champions Akhilleus as the best of the two warriors because Akhilleus is true. When Socrates points out that Akhilleus often threatened to leave Troy and abandon the Greeks but then never did, Hippias counters that Akhilleus lied involuntarily while Odysseus was always intentionally false. The gist of the discussion becomes whether deliberate or involuntary wrong doing is better. Socrates advocates the former choice, claiming that the individual who intentionally runs a bad race is a better person than someone who cannot help finishing last. Although Socrates and Hippias abandon Akhilleus and Odysseus to discuss intentional falsehood in various crafts, the implication is that Odysseus is the better man. Odysseus is such an expert at mastering tricky situations that he can use his skill at any end of the spectrum, either at the high point near truth or the low point near falsehood, to maneuver his way to success.
Scholars consider the Lesser Hippias inferior to all the other dialogues because it seems to say that the good man is he who knowingly does wrong, the antithesis of the Platonic definition for justice.35 If Aristotle hadn't attributed the Lesser Hippias to Plato, modern scholars would dismiss it as an inauthentic Platonic dialogue. This evaluation of the Lesser Hippias is hasty, especially in light of the expert's importance. Plato isn't saying that the good man, or expert, is he who intentionally practices incompetence; rather, Plato makes the point that the expert can, when he needs to, utilize the lower end of the victory-disaster spectrum to succeed. Moreover, deliberate falsehood justifies Socrates often frustrating ironic style. When, in the Republic, Socrates claims that there is a Form for couch, he is choosing an example far from truth. For a lie will make the point for the audience—here the young Glaucon and Adeimantus—better than an example close to truth but over everyone's head. Knowing the full range of his art doesn't limit the expert to the incompetent; rather, it gives him a wide sample of choices so that he can best benefit the item or person who needs his skill. Therefore, the third quality essential to the expert is his ability to range between the good and the incompetent levels of his art.
D. Experts never travel in packs.
The expert's arch nemesis is the mob, the members of which refuse to accept their incompetence, especially when it concerns matters of state. Plato makes this point in the Apology, which recounts Socrates' trial. When Meletus, one of the prosecutors, accuses Socrates of being the only person in Athens who harms its young people, Socrates responds with these questions about horses:
Do you believe that those who improve [horses] make up the whole of mankind, and that there is only one person who has a bad effect on them? Or is the truth just the opposite, that the ability to improve them belongs to … very few persons, who are horse trainers, whereas most people … do [horses] harm?36
With this response, Socrates indicates the foolishness of the position that Socrates alone could harm Athens' youth. Today, a similar situation would be attributing a teenager's suicide to the lyrics of a single rock song. This inappropriate blame happens, but the truth is that listening to Socrates' conversations—or to a single song—is not a dangerous enough activity to wreck a young man's soul if other factors in his environment, like parents and teachers, are positive influences.
But even more important, this discussion indicates the scarcity of a particular expert. Because experts at a specific art are few, no city can produce a large group of them at one time. What is more likely to happen is that a mob of nonexperts has gathered, contributing advice that at best is foolish speculation and, at worst, dangerous counsel. Moreover, the real expert who tries to make himself heard above the noise of tumultuous false opinion has his work cut out for him.
One problem, Plato observed, is that when a single voice does distinguish itself from the mob, that voice often belongs to a fraud masquerading as an expert. This fraud is often a sophist-educated rhetorician who "does not know what is right or wrong, noble or base, just or unjust, but has contrived a technique of persuasion in these matters, so that, though ignorant, he appears among the ignorant to know better than the expert."37 Rhetoric, Plato has Socrates explain in the Gorgias, is not an art, for it produces gratification and pleasure, two qualities that absorb the body's attention and distract the mind from truth. Rhetoric, Socrates further explains, is to justice as cookery is to medicine.38 Cookery flatters the tongue without providing the real nutrition the body needs to perform, and in a similar fashion, rhetoric seeks to flatter the soul, giving it a taste of justice without any real content. But just as the person who has downed a Coca-Cola crashes after a five-minute sugar rush, the person whom the rhetorician swells with a sense of justice will be unable afterward to explain the nature or the cause of the truth he felt, an ability that characterizes the real person of virtue. A mob is likely to champion fraudulent advice after a rhetorician has pumped the audience full of a pleasant but empty virtue-like feeling.
Plato does believe that an orator can speak truthfully, but such a public speaker would so love the truth that his advice would not be what the mob wanted to hear. In the Phaedrus, the character Socrates describes the expert orator thus: "He should exert not for the sake of speaking to and dealing with his fellow men, but that he may be able to speak what is pleasing to the gods."39 In a typically ironic twist, an expert truly capable of addressing the mob would ignore the needs of his audience because the pursuit of truth would completely involve him. Again, the mob would be incapable of producing expert advice because the one person who can convince its members of the truth would be, by his very nature as an expert orator, unconcerned about his audience, allowing them to babble their nonsense as he pursued his own truth-determined goals. Consequently, a person need not seek expertise from a mob.
The Platonic expert is not a flashy concept, although its quiet presence in every single dialogue attests to its importance for the author. Although Plato doesn't emphasize the same characteristics of the expert in each dialogue, these qualities do not contradict one another as does the evolving definition of, say, the Forms. And unlike Plato's now fanciful soul or utopia, the expert is a concept still relevant in the twentieth century. Because the "one who knows" always benefits the object of his art, he brings that item to its more perfect and advantageous use. The expert can benefit an item because his focus is on a single art, with no other pursuits distracting his concentration. Since the expert understands the full range of possibilities—from good to incompetent—in his art, he can determine the best way to benefit the item on which he works. And because the expert is antithetical to the mob, the person seeking his advice knows the foolishness of looking for the "one who knows" in a pack of incompetents who are mouthing inanities.
II. The Expert's Importance in Plato's Cosmology
A tourist in the twentieth century sees the Acropolis in ruins. Today, the monuments are considerably more dilapidated than the newly-constructed temples an Athenian of the fifth century would have seen. Moreover, the modern visitors who mill around the hilltop have a different agenda than did the pious Ancient Greeks who came, at the very least, to go through the motions of worshiping gods whom healthy skepticism had diminished. Modern tourists might have no relationship with the Olympians; the only goal of these tourists might be keeping up with their guide and trying to snap pictures without a fellow contemporary walking in front of the lense. Even so, the beauty of the crumbling architecture still manages to overwhelm these visitors.
Despite the effects of a Turkish bombing during the seventeenth century, despite the unethical removal of friezes and statues by British museums, despite the inevitable wear by the forces of nature, the Acropolis continues to produce wonder and awe in the people who make a pilgrimage to Athens. The reason is that newly-minted statues, unchipped stone, landscaped paths free of rubble, and intact buildings are not essential for the Acropolis to amaze; these things, when they still existed, were merely enhancing decoration. The true worth of the Acropolis is the perfectly proportional foundations of the buildings, the aesthetically-spaced columns, the harmoniously-crowning roofs, and the purposeful layout of the hilltop. The architects' management of space is what makes the Acropolis, in its currently shabby state, an amazing work of art.
A student of Plato can use the Acropolis as a metaphor for understanding the twenty-eight dialogues. For the expert does fit into the architecture of Plato's cosmology. Is he then a foundation on which the other Platonic themes, like the soul or the utopia, rest? Or is the expert merely decoration, not at all essential to the more flashy points Plato wants to make? When the "one who knows" appears with the soul, the Forms, or the utopian government, he is like a Greek column. For the expert alone can connect the dual divine-mortal nature of human beings with the perfect Forms above, creating, in an ideal situation, a government which has as its goal the pursuit of virtue. Without the expert as a column-like go-between, the too often appetite-influenced humanity would lose the realm of absolutes forever.
With the twenty-eight dialogues, Plato fashions an extensive cosmology. In the Phaedo, Plato begins exploring the interrelatedness of the themes governing his picture of the universe. Plato's a priori assumption for this cosmology is that the universe divides into two realities: 1) a constant, invisible, absolute realm which the soul intuits and 2) a visible, constantly changing world of matter that the senses experience.40 The mixing of these two realities Plato attributes to the Demiurge of the Timaeus, a creator-god who, being good and without envy, fashioned in his image the previously inharmonious and disorderly matter he discovered in the universe.41 That this god-inspired organization is still imperfect, given its inferior nature as matter, motivates Plato to explore ways to realize a better world. The experts who exist in this dichotomous universe interact, in a complementary manner, with the body, the soul, the Forms, and the utopia.
An expert legislator, for example, could improve society as a whole—uniting, in the process, the "one who knows" with all of Plato's important themes—because the legislator could make language more exact. Ineffective language was a constant frustration for Plato. In the Cratylus, the character Socrates laments that people use names too indiscriminately. Because the things named have a proper and permanent essence, a person should not ascribe a word to an object at his pleasure; rather, the legislator, a "maker of names," should have this task.42 Socrates calls the expert legislator the rarest of the skilled artisans because he alone can look to the Forms and "give all names with a view to the ideal, if he is to be a namer in any true sense." If the legislator assigns to things their proper names, then the individual souls of the people in that society will improve, just as a nauseous person does after a teaspoon or two of Pepto Bismol. Searching for the nature of things, Plato has Socrates claim, makes one dizzy. In this state of unbalance, the seeker mistakenly attributes an instability or impermanence to the real world.43 Correctly named objects not only stabilize the dizzy seeker but also point to the interrelationship of Plato's cosmology: The expert legislator must look to the Forms to name things properly, and if he accomplishes this correct naming, then his fellow citizens will speak of things truly and avoid the soul-debilitating nauseousness which gives these folks an inauthentic picture of the universe.
In the Theaetetus, the student of Plato again finds the expert as a complementary component in Plato's cosmology. One of Plato's aims in this dialogue is to disprove Protagoras' claim that man is the measure of all things.44 While accomplishing this goal, Plato documents the expert's importance to the other components of the cosmology. First, Plato has Socrates note that the aim of law making is advantage to the city. Such legislation, however, concerns itself with the future, with "what is going to be." Furthermore, not every person is equally good at predicting things. Socrates points out that a vine grower, for example, can best predict the sweetness or dryness of a wine. For the vine grower, not the flute player, best knows the essence of wine production. As a result, an expert, rather than man in general, can better judge—or be the best measure of—an object or event because his knowledge as the "one who knows" helps him predict future occurrences in his art. This refutation of Protagoras again ties together all the important components of Plato's cosmology: Because the expert knows the Forms of his art, he can best judge the future of his craft. The implication is that an effective government will result when expert statesmen, those most competent to predict the future consequences of laws, are managing the city.
The expert is so closely intertwined with the other fundamental components of the Platonic cosmology because his actions mirror those of the Demiurge in the Timaeus. In the beginning, before the Demiurge began to organize the disorderly matter he discovered, he must have first consulted the Forms because "the world is the fairest of all things … [so] it must have been constructed on the pattern of what is … eternally unchanging."45 The Demiurge is thus the first expert. He meets the first qualification, benefiting the object of his art. Using the Forms as his guide, he arranged every piece of matter into its most advantageous construction—a spherical, ageless, self-sufficient world with uniform movement.46 The Demiurge meets the second qualification of the expert because he restricts himself to a single art. Once his initial ordering was complete, he let his children gods—whom Timaeus calls the Olympians for convention's sake—create mortal beings. The Demiurge knew his immortality would flaw these mortal beings by making them equal to gods.47 That the Demiurge realized his involvement in the creation of life would be harmful means that he knew the good from the incompetent practice of his art, the third quality of an expert. Timaeus notes that his description of the universe's birth might not be "on every respect and on every occasion … consistent and accurate" because being precise on matters concerning the gods is very difficult.48 The reader needs to stay on guard, remembering that Timaeus is a character manipulated by the dialogue's author. The explanations of Timaeus, as a result, might be nothing more than poetic devices aimed at what Plato believed was an insufficiently philosophical audience. Even so, Plato still has the Demiurge fulfill all the necessary qualities of an expert.
Without the Demiurge as the initial cosmos-fashioning expert, no universe would exist. So a preeminent expert has the very important function of creating the world as Plato wanted his audience to know it. Furthermore, without the advice of the expert at philosophy, no one would know to ignore the desires of the physical body so that the soul could more fully reflect on the realm of Forms. In addition, without expert statesmen who can engage the Forms, no one could manage a city virtuously. The expert is indeed an essential component of Plato's cosmology.
A return to the metaphor of the Acropolis will drive home this point: Without experts acting like Greek columns that connect humanity, with its dual divine-mortal nature, to the Forms, one would have a disproportionate mess that resembled a temple roof that lay directly on its foundation. The foundation would have no use for its crowning component because there would be no space in between to benefit from the roof's protection. Similarly, the roof-like Forms will always influence the organization of the world below. But if humanity lacks experts, people cannot experience these Forms because no skillful masters will be there to point the way.
III. Homer's Accord with Plato's Expert
The expert is an essential component of Plato's cosmology. The poet, however, is not. Plato's frequent deprecating jabs at the poets point to his complete disdain for their profession. At best, Plato finds the poets merely inadequate. In the Phaedrus, he has Socrates conclude that concerning truth, "none of our earthly poets has yet sung, and none shall sing worthily."49 Sometimes, the poets are dead wrong: In the Apology, Socrates notes that "it is hardly an exaggeration to say that any[one can explain] poems better than their actual authors."50 At worst, the poets are humanity's greatest enemies. Socrates warns Glaucon and Adeimantus that the "poet produces a bad regime in the soul of each private man by making phantoms that are very far removed from the truth."51 The irony of Plato's contempt for the poets is that their greatest member, Homer, the one who suffers Plato's most slanderous attacks, agrees with Plato on the importance of the expert. In fact, a close look at both the Iliad and the Odyssey reveals that when a Homeric expert—one who meets all of Plato's qualifications—takes charge of a situation, he realizes success, and when the situation keeps the expert from his one art, disaster results.
A. Fate does not diminish the expert.
Can Homer, though, really be in accord with Plato? One good refutation of this thesis is that in the Homeric epics, Fate rules. In a universe where Olympians predetermine events, the actions of an expert, at first glance, would have little meaning. The characters seem pulled along like puppets by the strings of destiny. One way to counter the eroding effect that predetermination has on the Homeric expert is to dismiss the Olympians as the "delightful, gay invention of the poets," not real expressions of Greek religion.52 If Homer, as some scholars believe, included the Olympians as comic relief from the grim realities of war, then their meddling is not important to the outcome of an event.
But to dismiss the gods is an easy out. Better it is to agree with E. R. Dodds and accept the Olympians as real expressions of divinity. Even their meaningful presence does not harm the importance of the Homeric expert. Fate does not erode the "one who knows" for three reasons: 1) an area of expertise limits an Olympian just as it does a mortal, 2) human and deific actions surprise even the gods, implying that although the Olympians can predetermine a conclusion, freedom of action remains between an event's foretelling and its actual occurrence, and 3) the gods respond to experts differently than they do to novices. The power the expert wields allows him to maneuver freely despite the chains of Fate.
Although the Homeric universe might at first seem a Fate-driven cosmology, the expert does exercise significant influence. For expertise limits even the gods. The best example of this restriction occurs in the Iliad when Aphrodítê, the goddess of love, tries her inexpert hands at warfare. In this scene, she suffers the same kind of humiliation from the skillful soldier Diomêdês that Ion or Euthyphro does when championing fraudulent knowledge against the true expertise of Socrates. During battle, an unstoppable Diomêdês uses a boulder to crush the hip of Aineías, Aphrodítê's son. Aphrodítê rushes to her child's aid, cloaking Aineías in her glimmering robe which shields him from mortal eyes. Unfortunately for the goddess of love, Athêna has given Diomêdês the ability to see gods on the battlefield. Athêna also allows him to harm her not-so-dear sister. So Diomêdês approaches Aphrodítê, slashes through her clothing, and nicks the goddess' palm, sending poor Aphrodítê screaming in melodramatic pain back to Olympos. As she departs the warriors' stage, Diomêdês has this advice for her:
Oh give up war, give up
war and killing, goddess! Is it not enough
to break soft women down with coaxing lust?
Go haunting battle, will you? I can see you
shudder after this at the name of war!53
Diomêdês can justify his patronizing tone. As Plato warns, an expert practices a single art—for Diomêdês, battle; for Aphrodítê, love—so Aphrodítê's sojourn into combat can only end in disaster because she has stepped into an arena where she is the novice and Diomêdês the "one who knows."
Like a spoiled child, Aphrodítê shows her "wound" to Zeus, wanting his sympathy or the divine equivalent of a kiss to make the boo-boo better. But even the father of the gods has nothing more than condescending patience for his daughter. He too advises,
Warfare is not for you, child. Lend yourself
to sighs of longing and the marriage bed.
Let Arês and Athêna deal with war.54
Like the expert ruler Plato describes in the Statesman, Zeus has the "kingly art," an expertise that allows him to know which skills suit which gods. In a manner Plato would find satisfactory, Zeus controls "the work of the [various] arts which instruct [individuals] in the methods of actions," Plato's job description for an expert statesman.55 Zeus exercises this control over Aphrodítê when he explains to her that war is the province of Arês and Athêna, the two individuals best suited for the trials of combat. That an area of expertise restricts the divine just as it does mortals suggests that the expert, in addition to Fate, has a powerful place in Homer's cosmology.
Predestination does govern the outcome of major events, like the Akhaian victory in the Trojan War. But Fate doesn't manage every moment of time. Homeric characters, both mortal and divine, have freedom to act as they wish between the foretelling of an event and its actual occurrence. So a true expert can rely on his skill to self-determine his behavior. This free time between the foretelling and occurrence has many examples. For instance, during a fierce battle, Athêna pulls Arês aside to suggest,
Why not allow the Trojans and Akhaians
to fight alone? Let them contend—why not?—
. . . while we keep clear of combat.56
The Olympians' decision to withdraw from the battlefield means that they are free either to help or not, as they will, not as Fate demands. And, during these divine-absent moments of war, the mortals can rely on their own expertise as soldiers since no gods are there to interfere. Later in the epic, an impatient Zeus warns all the Olympians to stay clear of the fighting so that he can begin to set the inevitable Trojan defeat in motion. Atop Mount Ida, with his golden scales, Zeus weighs the fate of the day's combat:
. . . Therein
two destinies of death's long pain he set
for Trojan horsemen and Akhaian soldiers
and held the scales up by the midpoint. Slowly
one pan sank with death's day for the Akhaians.57
Although Fate points to the Akhaians' defeat that day of battle, the easily-swayed Zeus soon changes his mind. Down below, Agamémnon starts complaining that the frequency of his sacrifices has had no significant effect. Feeling guilty, Zeus then decides to turn the battle in favor of the Akhaians. If Zeus can so easily overrule the decision of Fate, and if expertise limits even the gods, then the "one who knows" is an important power operating in the Homeric universe.
Yes, the gods do meddle in important moments of one-on-one warfare. Yes, the Olympians decide the ultimate outcome of an event. But for the most part, individuals must rely on their own skillfulness to determine their success or failure. And the expertise they acquire in these divine-absent moments influences the way the gods later treat them. The Olympians recognize the power of the expert and treat "the ones who know" more respectfully than they do novices. Athêna's actions are a good example of this different treatment. When Meneláos nicks Paris after a man-to-man struggle meant to settle the war, Athêna descends to the battleground to inspire the Akhaians and the Trojans to resume full-fledged combat (for Hera, jilted in a beauty contest, will settle for nothing less than Trojan decimation). Athêna decides to manipulate Pándaros, a Trojan archer, to break the truce. She has three strategies for tricking this gullible Trojan into shooting an arrow—in the middle of peace talks—at Meneláos: She disguises herself as a fellow Trojan, appeals to his self-pride, and offers him material gain. Pándaros is, in fact, a skillful archer, one who can hit Meneláos from a distance. The Akhaians and the Trojans, however, are not currently fighting, and Pándaros is not the expert diplomat his city needs. Poor Pándaros, though, cannot resist Athêna's tempting speech:
. . . Every Trojan
heart would rise, and every man would praise you,
especially Aléxandros, the prince—
you would be sure to come by glittering gifts
if he could see the warrior, Meneláos,
the son of Atreus, brought down by your bow.58
Inspired by these words, Pándaros shoots his bow, wounding Meneláos and ending the peace. With her deception and deceit, Athêna manipulates an expert to step outside his art and participate in diplomacy, a skill for which he has no talent. Plato would predict failure for Pándaros, and, in fact, this archer later dies in the battle he is responsible for restarting.
Respect, on the other hand, is the basis for Athêna's relationship to the expert Odysseus. At one point, Agamémnon tests his men by offering them the chance to abandon Troy and sail home. When the happy warriors begin dashing for their ships, Athêna descends to earth to inspire Odysseus to convince the men to remain:
Son of Laërtês and the gods of old,
Odysseus, master mariner and soldier,
must all of you take oars in the long ships
in flight to your old country? Leaving Helen
in Priam's hands—that Argive grace, to be
the boast of every Trojan? Helen, for whom
Akhaians died by thousands, far from home?
No, no, take heart, and go among the men;
in your mild way dissuade them, one by one,
from hauling out their graceful ships to sea.59
With Pándaros, Athêna disguises herself, but with Odysseus, she approaches him as the goddess she is. Her lack of trickery suggests her respect for this mortal commander. With Pándaros, Athêna appeals to his self-pride and material greed, but with Odysseus, a leader of men, she appeals to his nationalism. She also recognizes his mind when she mentions calculating the worth of the Akhaians killed already in the war. This appeal to Odysseus' higher faculty, reason, again suggests her respect. Furthermore, Athêna will call Pándaros worthy only if he takes the shot at Meneláos. But Athêna recognizes Odysseus' worth, addressing him as "master" and recalling his distinguished ancestry, even before he has done what she wishes. The truth is that Athêna is manipulating both men, but the more respectful treatment that real experts get from the gods—the esteem denied the novices—speaks again of the expert's power in the Homeric universe.
That expertise limits the actions of both men and gods, that it escapes, at times, the chains of destiny and gets respect from the divine—all these qualities suggest that the expert's power has a complementary, not a diminished, relationship to Fate.
B. The fraudulent expert causes death and destruction in the Iliad.
Just because Homer points to the expert's importance doesn't mean that the "ones who know" always practice the arts that suit them best. In scene after scene, the Iliad reveals how dangerous nonexperts can be to the people around them. Both the Akhaians and the Trojans suffer because experts attempt arts other than the ones they know. The difficulties of getting each expert focused on his one art fill the nine years that the Akhaians must wait until Troy finally falls.
The opening of the Iliad is a study of men powerful enough to step outside their field of expertise but then bring ruin as a consequence. Agamémnon is one such example. A debilitating plague is killing this leader's troops. Agamémnon seeks the cause of the plague, asking the expert diviner Kalkhas, "wisest by far of all who scanned the flight of birds," to determine the reason for the gods' anger.60 Here, Plato would approve of Agamémnon's behavior. The character Socrates notes that "if … the wise man were able to distinguish what he knew and did not know … and to recognize a similar faculty of discernment in others … [he would] not attempt to do what [he] did not know."61 Agamémnon has reached the limit of his self-sufficiency and so consults another expert to find the cause of the plague. Agamémnon, however, is a skilled warrior, not a real statesman, the job he is unsuccessfully attempting in the Iliad. So when Kalkhas reveals that the gods are angry because Agamémnon has refused to return the captured Khrysêis to her father, Agamémnon reacts in anger. Homer describes the Lord Marshall's internal state thus: "Round his heart resentment / welled, and his eyes shone out like licking fire."62 A true statesman requires a reason-controlled soul, and Agamémnon's quick anger—appropriate perhaps in battle—sets in motion further devastation for his troops.
Agamémnon again shows his lack of leadership expertise when he demands Akhilleus' woman Brisêis if he must give up Khrysêis. Material gain is more important to Agamémnon than the morale of his men and the lifting of the plague. This emphasis on material status is not a characteristic of a true leader. The true statesman is a student of philosophy and should disregard bodily pleasures. Plato says that such a leader "is sure to be temperate … [and] the motives which make another man desirous of having … [should] have no place in his character."63 Wielding a sword and spear, not caring for his subordinates, is Agamémnon's art, and his men pay with their lives for his unsuccessful attempts at leadership.
Akhilleus knows his expertise lies on the battlefield, for "the gods who live forever made a spearman of him."64 But because Agamémnon is no expert statesman, Akhilleus must take his focus from his art and use it in a realm for which he, too, is unsuited. When Agamémnon demands Brisêis for himself, Akhilleus decides to use his killing skills to execute the king. But as he is sliding his sword blade from its scabbard, Athêna descends and promises Akhilleus three times the winnings if he will stay his hand. Athêna suggests that Akhilleus give Agamémnon a "lashing with words" instead. Taking this advice, Akhilleus then accuses Agamémnon of being a coward, displaying, at the same time, his own misunderstanding of expert leadership:
You've never had the kidney to buckle on
armor among the troops, or make a sortie
with picked men—oh no;
that way death might lie.
Safer, by god, in the middle of the army.65
With these words, Akhilleus shows how little he knows of the ruler's art. The true statesman is not a warrior and should not act like one. His duties are to "weave"—the metaphor Plato explores in the Statesman—the various people under him into durable "cloth," not fight in the lead where his life and the governing skills he has are at the greatest danger. Neither Agamémnon nor Akhilleus can weave as Plato suggests. And as both men try to attain the highest position among the Akhaians, they predictably fail and harm their subordinates. Out of pride and anger, Akhilleus removes both himself and the Myrmidons from the battlefield, the one realm where they belong and have the skills to succeed. His bad response to Agamémnon's bad leadership further contributes to the unnecessary loss of soldiers.
Nestor might be the expert leader among the Akhaians. Unfortunately, both Agamémnon and Akhilleus refuse to heed his advice or turn command over to him, so no demonstration of the old man's art takes place. Nestor alludes to his past expertise while he is chiding the two hotheads for their inferiority to the great men of the past, men like Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur. He notes that concerning these superior warriors,
… none of them disdained me …
and I repeat: they listened to my reasoning,
took my advice. Well, then, you take it too.66
Although Agamémnon and Akhilleus listen to Nestor's condemnation of their actions, both ignore his words. Agamémnon insists on taking Brisêis from Akhilleus, and Akhilleus decides to pout by the ships rather than join the other Greeks in battle. That these two warriors dismiss the advice of the possibly true ruler would come as no surprise to Plato. Human nature, Plato discovered, encourages bad leadership. Most people misunderstand the importance of philosophy in government, so they overlook the potential usefulness of the philosopher. Plato believes that people are at fault for the philosopher's skills going unrecognized. He has Socrates note that "it's not natural that a pilot beg sailors to be ruled by him. … The truth naturally is that … every man who needs to be ruled [must go] to the doors of the man who is able to rule."67 Nestor is present and speaks with the most wisdom; Agamémnon and Akhilleus, however, are too busy competing for supremacy to notice. This decisive mismatching of experts to their wrong arts causes unnecessary death and destruction as the fall of Troy draws closer.
For the same reasons that plague the Akhaians, the Trojans are just as incompetently led. Hektor, the Trojans' most masterful fighter, decides to try his skill at leadership, a different art. Hektor's bad decisions cause the same grief among his men that the Akhaians face at Agamémnon's hands. That Hektor attempts mastery of more than one art is evident by Poulýdamas' advice to the Trojan commander: At one point while the Trojans are routing the Akhaians in battle, an eagle with a snake squirming in its talons flies overhead. When the eagle drops the reptile among the Trojan forces, all the men believe they have received an ill omen from Zeus. Hektor, however, refuses to acknowledge its meaning. Poulýdamas condemns Hektor's tunnel vision, saying,
Hektor, you always manage to rebuke me
When I talk well to assemblies: it won't do
at all to cross you, peace or war, in council;
only to confirm you. Well, once more,
I intend to speak as I think best.
Let us not carry the fighting to the ships!68
Here Poulýdamas notes that Hektor has long refused to recognize the sane advice of his friend. Hektor only wants yes-men who unthinkingly confirm the leader's decisions—whether those decisions are right or not. As usual, Hektor ignores Poulýdamas' contribution to battle strategy. Hektor's decision is not that of an expert ignoring the mob but that of a nonexpert denying an obvious divine sign. And, as Poulýdamas predicted, the snake does mean the battle is turning in the Akhaians' favor. Hektor and his men must now face Patróklos and the Myrmidons' return to battle—all without the protection of Troy's walls.
Poulýdamas attempts to forestall danger again after the death of Patróklos. He warns Hektor that the Trojans should retreat to the city rather than remain on the battlefield to engage the vengeful Akhilleus. Poulýdamas' expertise and his relationship to Hektor, Homer here notes,
He and Hektor were companions-in-arms
born, as it happened, on the same night; but one
excelled in handling weapons, one with words.69
If Poulýdamas is the expert word-handler that Plato documents in the Phaedrus, the one who speaks a truth that the mob doesn't want to hear, then Hektor behaves just as Plato would predict, ignoring his friend's advice. That Poulýdamas is this type of expert is evident in his understanding of the expert's one art. At one point, Poulýdamas remarks to Hektor that
Zeus gave you mastery in arms; therefore
you think to excel in strategy as well.
And yet you cannot have all gifts …
Heaven gives one man skill in arms, another
skill in dancing, and a third man skill
at gittern harp and song … [while] the Lord Zeus
who views the wide world has instilled clear thought
in yet another …70
Two to three hundred years before Plato manipulated any of his characters to conclude that an expert can practice only one art well, Homer had already made that same point in the Iliad. Hektor's art is wielding weapons, not leading men, so his ears don't recognize the ring of truth in this speech. As a result, the Akhaians, inspired by the return of a rage-driven Akhilleus, sweep the Trojans back to the city, killing many along the way.
The Iliad is thus rife with scenes that illustrate the problems nonexperts cause when they practice an art that does not suit them. These situations include the gods, as when Aphrodítê unsuccessfully tries her hand at battle. Mere mortals also suffer the same fate. For example, when powerful men like Agamémnon, Akhilleus, and Hektor try to practice the art of statesmanship, they learn that they would have better spent their time cleaning their weapons in preparation for another day of battle. In typical Platonic fashion, the potential real leaders, like Nestor and Poulýdamas, are ignored, their real worth grossly underrated. If the Iliad is a study of incompetence caused by frauds and novices masquerading as experts, then the Odyssey addresses the problems that the mob causes a true expert.
C. In the Odyssey, the mob always challenges the real expert.
Of continuing interest to scholars is the authorship of the Odyssey. Did Homer really compose this epic, or is it the work of another poet? The many differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey—like war vs. travel or honor in battle vs. peace at home—make many scholars conclude that different people wrote the two epics. Some scholars entertain the possibility that a woman might have composed the more feminine-laced Odyssey. Even if different people wrote these two poems, the expert's importance is just as constant in the second poem as it is in the first. A skillful master achieving success—while his absence causes unnecessary disaster—is a theme throughout the Odyssey. Moreover, the expert of the Odyssey constantly faces a mob that is trying to undermine his rule, a problem Plato also documents. The two epics might be "many poems [with many different authors] more or less incompetently combined," or Homer might be merely "a historical context for the poems" rather than a real person.71 Neither conclusion affects Homer's accord with Plato on the importance of the expert.
Odysseus meets all of Plato's qualifications for an expert statesman: 1) he benefits the community he rules, 2) he practices a single art and knows to seek another expert when he has reached the limit of his self-sufficiency, and 3) he knows the good from incompetent practice of his art. A situation during which Odysseus must illustrate these three qualities is his departure from Kirkê's island past the Seirênês. Odysseus knows the Seirênês' song tempts sailors to drown themselves in the sea. So Odysseus carves a cake of beeswax into bits, rolls the pieces in his hands until they soften, and plugs the ears of his crew so the men won't hear the Seirênês' call. Preserving the crew's lives benefits the ship community. Odysseus knows to anticipate these creatures because he has braved a séance to seek the advice of blind Teirêsias, an expert diviner who can predict the future. Because Odysseus blinded Poseidon's son, the Kyklops Polyphêmos, Teirêsias warns that there is but a single, relatively safe route past the sea god: "One narrow strait may take you through [Poseidon's] blows: / denial of yourself, restraint of shipmates."72 Odysseus risks a visit with the dead because as a true statesman he knows to seek the best advice for the future. And because he knows the good from incompetent practice of his art, Odysseus orders his men to lash him to the mast before they reach this dangerous section of ocean. He realizes that the Seirênês are such a temptation that not even his expertise will allow him to resist their song.
Despite his expertise, Odysseus must still contend with two mobs: the crew that accompanies him on his voyage and the suitors who have made themselves at home with his wife Penélopê. In Odysseus' absence, his men often overestimate their ability to lead, which then gets the entire Ithakan force in trouble. For example, after spending a month with the wind king Aiolos, Odysseus receives all the storm winds bottled inside a sewn bull's hide. This gift means that he and his crew can sail home without peril. For nine days, Odysseus pilots the ship until he and his men catch sight of shore fires along Ithaka's coast. Believing that he is safely home, Odysseus collapses from exhaustion and sleeps. The removal of this expert statesman allows the mob to try its hands at rule. One crew member, whose greed excludes him from true leadership, remarks that
It never fails. He's welcome everywhere:
… How about ourselves—
his shipmates all the way? Nigh home we are
with empty hands. And who has gifts from Aiolos?
He has. I say we ought to crack that bag,
there's gold and silver, plenty, in that bag!73
The crew members, minus expert leadership, cannot produce true knowledge, just faulty mob opinion. When they open the bull's hide, they release a hurricane that drives them far from Ithaka. This mob thus harms, rather than benefits, the voyage.
Eventually the Ithakan crew so overestimate their ability to make leadership decisions that they cause their own deaths. Just to have land underfoot again, Odysseus agrees to stop on Hêlios' island as he and his crew make their way back home. Both Kirkê and Teirêsias have warned Odysseus of the danger that will befall the crew if they injure any of the sheep or cattle that belong to the sun god. So Odysseus makes his men swear not to harm the animals. Unfortunately, a month of gales traps them on the island and forces them to consume all their provisions. Out of desperation, Odysseus leaves his men to beg the Olympians for mercy, and after the month of stress and worry, he falls asleep after making his prayers. The removal of this expert again results in disaster. Eurýlokhos, one of the crew, assumes the position of ruler and suggests a meal of the sun god's cattle:
All deaths are hateful to us, mortal wretches,
but famine is the most pitiful, the worst
end that a man can come to
Will you fight it?
Come, we'll cut out the noblest of these cattle
open your lungs to a big sea once and for all
than waste to skin and bones on a lonely island.74
Eurýlokhos' speech convinces his shipmates to kill and barbecue several heifers. When Hêlios discovers the demise of his precious beasts, he demands restitution from Zeus, who explodes the Ithakan ship with a thunderbolt, drowning all but Odysseus. The mob's decision to break its promise and make leadership choices of its own caused the ultimate harm, the deaths of all its members. Odysseus, a mortal who occasionally needs sleep, cannot be present to contribute his skillful ruling every single minute. And during the moments he's absent, the mob causes inconvenience at best, disaster and death at worst.
Eventually Odysseus does make it home to Ithaka, where he has to deal with a second mob, the suitors who consume all his food and hope to bed his wife Penélopê. That a mob cannot produce expertise is evident in the suitors' blindness to the return of the rightful king. Dressed as a beggar to disguise his arrival, Odysseus feeds on what the moochers toss him. When Iros, a professional beggar with an "insatiable swag-belly" discovers this competition, he orders Odysseus, the true king, to leave the Great Hall. To solve the scrabble, the suitors decide to arrange a boxing match between Odysseus and Iros. When Odysseus undresses for the fight, the suitors notice his remarkable physique but do not bother to consider its implications. When Odysseus tries just tapping poor Iros but breaks the beggar's jaw instead, no one questions the feat, even though rumor suggests that Odysseus still lives. Picking Iros up by the ankles and dragging him outside, Odysseus addresses him as a real leader would:
Here, take your post.
Sit here to keep the dogs and pigs away.
You can give up your habit of command
over poor waifs and beggarmen.75
Odysseus knows Iros' real place is not as a statesman among the poor, but as a guard of palace trash instead. This matching of person to profession is, Plato believes, the job of a true ruler: "The other arts must do what they are told to do by the kingly art."76 This quick evaluation of Iros' real abilities speaks of Odysseus' capabilities of expert rule—to all but the suitors, that is.
Shortly after Iros' demise, a demoralized Penélopê agrees to marry the suitor who can string Odysseus' bow and then shoot an arrow through the socket rings of twelve ax heads. None of the throne's pretenders can accomplish this feat, but as a joke, they allow the beggar, the disguised Odysseus, to try. Homer compares Odysseus to a musician replacing a string on a harp, so easily does Odysseus ready the bow. Still the suitors have no idea whom they have handed a weapon. Odysseus then shoots an arrow through the twelve heads, grazing not a one, while the suitors continue denying who the beggar must truly be. Not even Zeus' thunder overhead forewarns these clueless, doomed men. When Odysseus nocks the next arrow and sends it punching through the throat of Antínoös, the most swaggering of the pretenders, the other suitors continue to believe that Odysseus is just a beggar gone crazy, one whom they can punish with death. After all these signs, the suitors are incapable of forming an expert opinion of the beggar's real identity. Odysseus finally has to explain,
You yellow dogs, you thought I'd never make it
home from Troy. You took my house to plunder,
twisted my maids to serve your beds. You dared
bid for my wife while I was still alive.
Contempt was all you had for the gods who rule wide heaven …
Your last hour has come. You die in blood.77
Odysseus then executes them all, another characteristic of the true king. In the Statesman, Plato has the Stranger from Elea note that the ruler "puts [the lawless] to death or banishes them or else he chastises them by the severest public disgrace."78 Odysseus' decision to slaughter all the suitors in the Great Hall and then hang the maids who betrayed him is a reasonable punishment since these parasites have taken advantage of his absence for the last twenty years.
The Odyssey is thus a study of an expert's problems with the mob. Odysseus' absence, either for a few moments from his crew or for twenty long years from his home, allows the mob to operate without skill. As a result, the destruction of a ship or the disordering of a community occurs. Only the return of the expert can set right the disharmony caused by inexpert rule.
As in the Platonic dialogues, the expert in Homer is not a flashy concept. Valor and death in battle grab one's attention in the Iliad, and the strange lands and fantastical characters engage the reader of the Odyssey. Working in both these epics, however, is the importance of getting the "one who knows" to practice the art that suits him best. If novices and frauds, both in the Iliad and in the Odyssey, stopped meddling in areas where they lacked true skill, then the real experts could prevent disasters in battle and during travel—though both epics would, of course, be less interesting to read. If the "one who knows" is this important to Homer, then the next question is why does Plato, whose entire cosmology depends on the skill of the same expert that populates the Homeric universe, so often denounce Homer's influence on the audience that listened to these poems? Why does Plato dismiss the poet who discovered the expert's worth two to three hundred years before Plato was born?
IV. Plato's Problems with Poetry
The twenty-eight Platonic dialogues total 1,559 pages in the single volume, Plato, the Collected Dialogues. From this huge body of work, a person with an agenda can get Plato to say anything. For the dialogue format allows its author to express as many different points of view as there are characters. Concepts like the soul and the Forms seem fluid and evolving, and Socrates, the most thoughtful character, expresses contradictory opinions about the same things. If someone only superficially acquainted with Plato needs a single quote to support some outrageous or foolish claim, he will surely find the one sentence he needs from a speech by Socrates or one of the other characters. If, after reading about the identical education of men and women in the Republic, a feminist concludes that Plato thought the sexes were equal, she had better avoid the Timaeus. For here, Plato has one character remark, "Men … who lived cowardly or immoral lives were, it is reasonable to suppose, reborn … as women."79 If Plato really believes that women are failed men, he certainly doesn't consider the sexes equal. If a person picks up Plato on Homosexuality, a volume that collects the Lysis, Symposium, and Phaedrus, hoping to find that Plato, or Ancient Greeks in general, glorified same-sex relations, this person had better avoid Pausanias' speech, which notes,
We find in practice that if a father discovers that someone has fallen in love with his son, he puts the boy in charge of an attendant, with strict injunctions not to let him have anything to do with his [male] lover. And if the boy's little friends and playmates see anything of that kind going on, you may be sure they'll call him names, while their elders will neither stop their being rude nor tell them they are talking nonsense.80
A student of Plato must remember that Pausanias is a character manipulated by the author, just as Socrates is, and either personality (or neither of them, or both) could express Plato's real opinion on the subject. If someone ignores the common themes that run throughout the Platonic corpus—zeroing in, instead, on one or two quotes pulled from their context, one can get Plato to support anything.
If using Plato out-of-context is unethical, one can hardly blame the scoundrel who does it, for Plato himself is guilty of the same sin. Disdain for the poets is a common theme throughout the dialogues, but this contempt for poetry does not stop Plato from using a quote or two from Homeric epic to his advantage. Take, for instance, the Charmides, a dialogue that has Socrates questioning a beautiful though bubble-headed young man whose uncle claims is temperate. During the dialogue, Socrates first shows up the pretty-boy Charmides and then the clueless Uncle Critias, demonstrating for the audience that neither of the two males understands what temperance essentially is and so cannot accurately apply the adjective temperate to some other thing, like the boy. One of the definitions that Charmides suggests, that temperance is modesty, Plato has Socrates unconvincingly dismiss with this quote from Homer: "Modesty is not good for a needy man."81 Everyone involved in this conversation has agreed that temperance always makes a person good. Because the great Homer claims modesty is not always appropriate, Socrates concludes that modesty cannot be temperance. Charmides and Uncle Critias, convinced of Homer's authority, do not question Socrates' reasoning, letting a mere poet whom Plato so frequently rejects score a philosophical point and win this round of the debate.
This same type of convenient poetic authority occurs in the Theaetetus while Plato has Socrates interrogating a promising young mathematician. One objective of this dialogue is to evaluate the seemingly discordant claims of Parmenides and Heraclitus. The former Presocratic argues for a fixed, static reality while the latter believes in a universe of constant flux. Although Socrates has argued often enough that the poets paint an inauthentic picture of the world, here he twists Homeric description in such a way that the poet qualifies for clear philosophical insight. Socrates says, "When Homer speaks of `Oceanus, source of the gods, and mother Tethys,' he means that all things are the offspring of a flowing stream of change. Don't you think so?"82 The easily influenced Theaetetus replies, "Certainly," thereby making Homer agree with the Heraclitean picture of reality. Here Plato conveniently interprets Homer's world view as metaphor that has philosophical meaning. Elsewhere, however, Homer is understood literally, his metaphysical insight nil.
That Charmides, Critias, and Theaetetus all immediately accept Homer's authority when Socrates proposes it speaks of one problem Plato found with people in general: Too often they were unquestioning. Concerning poetry—Homer's especially—Plato challenges the conventions that all his contemporaries refused to examine. As a result of this questioning, Plato takes Homer to task for three things: A) that poetic knowledge is false, B) that the imitation poetry requires ruins a well-ordered soul, and C) that the poets appear to have an understanding of more than one art, an ability that characterizes a fraud or a novice. These complaints about poetry, though convincing in the individual dialogues where Plato explores them, actually cause all kinds of contradictions in the Platonic cosmology, the most important of them undermining the competence of the expert.
A. Poetic knowledge is false.
Plato never has Socrates or one of the other dialogue characters say definitively what anything is, so knowledge, like virtue, remains unclear as an essential quality. At the end of the Theaetetus, the dialogue which attempts to define knowledge, Plato has Socrates characteristically pronounce "stillborn" all the definitions his "midwife's art" has delivered from the head of a young mathematician. They first discard that knowledge is perception, then that knowledge is true belief, and finally that knowledge is true belief with the addition of an "account." Socrates sadly concludes that all of Theaetetus' definitions are "mere wind eggs and not worth rearing."83 Because Plato never has a dialogue arrive at a definition of knowledge, the assertion, in dialogues like the Laches and Protagoras, that knowledge is virtue—though possibly true—is, in reality, meaningless. Since no one can conceive a survivable "embryo thought" of virtue, then all the reader is left with is one undefined term equaling another.
Although Plato never gives a definitive explanation of essential knowledge, he does make very clear that dialectic is the only method for acquiring this elusive quality. In the Sophist, for example, Plato has the Stranger explain the benefits that dialectic has on a person's knowledge:
The purifier of the soul [the dialectician] is conscious that his patient will receive no benefit from the application of knowledge until he is refuted, and from refutation learns modesty; [the patient] must be purged of his prejudices first and made to think that he knows only what he knows and no more.84
With this quote, Plato justifies Socrates' style of argument. Only during debate, when a person voluntarily sacrifices his understanding to the razor-like scrutiny of another person, will he discover the difference between what is true knowledge and what are merely mob-influenced or novice-mistaken false opinions.
Plato does not believe that the acquisition of this knowledge is an easy task, either. This realization is especially clear when a student of Plato considers the arduousness inherent in all Platonic metaphor. Pain and loss are implied when Plato has Socrates equate the acquisition of knowledge with childbirth. No matter how carefully or for how long a person incubates a definition, its excruciating delivery into the world of conversation may reveal its lifelessness or deformities. Moreover, to acquire knowledge of the soul, a person must step into the two-horse chariot of the Phaedrus and master the noble animal (courage), which rushes bravely into battle, while the lazy steed (the appetites) tries to avoid all work. Taking the reins—that is, establishing reason—means the driver then gets to bump and jolt behind these two contrary horses. Plato also has Socrates indicate that a person must face loneliness and frustration to acquire knowledge of the universe's true form. In the Republic, the seeker who escapes his shackles and makes the painful, initially-blinding journey from the cave to the world of real light must then live with the ostracism his knowledge of reality wins him. For no matter how convincingly this traveler explains the falsehood of the shadows dancing on the cave's wall, his fellows are content to sit there and watch the flickering show rather than join him in his exploration of real objects illuminated by the sun. Although knowledge might remain undefined for Plato, one's acquirement of it is clearly challenging, and for this reason, Plato can assert that poetic knowledge is false.
Poets, Plato has Socrates conclude, don't have to work for the information and explanations they insert in their poems. Instead, the poets merely plug into a deific outlet and allow inspiration to flow through them. The poets thus use their inspiration from the Muses as a light bulb uses electricity. The poets convert the inspiration into a false knowledge—an artificial light—that inaccurately illuminates the world it attempts to define. Perhaps Plato would not have concerned himself with the dangers of poetry if this easily-acquired understanding from the Muses affected the poets only. The real problem for Plato is that poetry affects everyone involved in its recitation. Since poetry seizes the many minds of the audience, all the participants in the recitation become lazy while the Muse's power sweeps through them. As a result, a majority of people are kept from the rigors of dialectic as they passively absorb the inspiration sent from the divine. The passivity associated with poetic knowledge, not its information, is the real problem for Plato.
True, Plato does have Socrates complain about the behavioral extremes the poems teach, but these objections are illogical when one remembers the goals of the utopia's education. Socrates' most thorough attack on the poets occurs in the Republic while Socrates is concerning himself with the education of the guardians. The goal of this education is to make the guardians expert soul-masters who are capable of keeping reason in control. If experts know the good from incompetent practice of their art, then these accomplished wielders of reason would regard, for example, Akhilleus' grief over Patróklos' death with the same cool detachment that Mr. Spock manifests when emotions carry Captain Kirk away. When a novice or fraud practices an art badly, a true expert who looks on isn't inspired to follow that poor example. Rather, the expert recognizes that this skill-less behavior is harming instead of benefiting the soul under the care of the "one who doesn't know."
Another of Plato's complaints about poetic knowledge is that human beings cannot really understand what the Muses are telling them. Ion acknowledges Socrates' assertion that "fine poems are not human nor belonging to human beings, but divine and belonging to the gods."85 As Plato has Socrates point out in the Euthyphro, people might think that they know the gods, but this understanding is false because no human can define with any accuracy what the holy is. The Muses, Socrates also warns, are capable of a playfulness with human beings, inspiring, for example, a mediocre poet, Tynnichus the Chalcidean, to sing one of the finest lyrics.86 To believe blindly what the poets say is thus dangerous because the Muses are manipulating the poets in ways that human beings cannot truly appreciate.
When Plato says that poetic knowledge is false, a reader must remember that this conclusion from the Ion is a result of Socrates' conversation with a rhapsodist, not a poet. In this dialogue, Plato has Socrates make one assertion after another that Ion finds flattering and so agrees. The reader beware: Since Ion does not compose poetry himself, he does not have first-hand contact with the Muse. When he acknowledges as true one of Socrates' claims about poetry, he is merely a nonexpert whom one should not trust. Another problem is determining Plato's objective in the dialogue. Is the author having Socrates show up a fraudulent expert for what he really is, or is Plato itemizing his complaints about poetry? Or are both objectives happening simultaneously? If the goal is to point out the conceit of rhapsodists, then Plato might be letting Socrates lie about poetry so that Socrates can help poor Ion realize the difference between what Ion does and does not know. But if the goal is to list the faults of poetry, then the reader should take these complaints seriously. What is the right interpretation of this dialogue? The answer to that question must wait a bit longer.
B. The imitation poetry requires ruins a well-ordered soul.
In the Republic, Plato lets Socrates concern himself with the education of the guardians, soldier-scholars entrusted with the responsibility of defending the utopia that Socrates fashions with Glaucon and Adeimantus. The guardians must have well-ordered souls so that they do not abuse the power they have acquired during their training. Socrates' contention in this dialogue is that imitation is harmful to the guardians for two reasons: 1) it allows a person to practice (badly) more than one art, and 2) it lets ignoble qualities enter and lodge themselves in a person's soul. In the Republic, Plato has Socrates advocate that imitators—rhapsodists, actors, and the like—must have their art censored or their performances denied. But in the Laws, Plato proposes much harsher measures. The Athenian, the primary speaker in this dialogue, argues that education in an ideal state is so important that the government must not tolerate anyone's interference in the curriculum. If someone returns to the utopia with a foreign epic that undermines the citizens' education, and he still insists on sharing the poem with other members of the community, his penalty is death.87
Is imitation really this dangerous? The first problem, that imitation allows a person to know more than one art, does erode a well-organized society. Only one type of expert, the statesman, has true knowledge of the other arts. The statesman uses this knowledge to match individuals to their proper careers, thereby weaving a durable government. If a society encouraged imitation so that men pretended to be women, slaves, children, or experts at crafts for which they had no aptitude, then perhaps they would mistakenly believe that they too had the statesman's art and would desire a role in government. This desire to participate in an area where they have no true talent would undermine their own real crafts. At the same time, their meddling in the statesman's art would overthrow justice in the state.
The second problem with imitation, that it allows ignoble qualities to ruin the soul, also seems a legitimate complaint. For example, Ion admits that he is transported to Troy or Ithaka as he recites Homer and that during his performance he can manipulate his audience to laugh and cry, tremble with fear or inflate with courage, while he experiences these emotions himself.88 Poetry does affect the soul, seizing both its transmitter, the rhapsodist, and its receivers, the audience. And the kind of government that Plato hopes to establish would not want citizens to practice the same kind of anger and greed that Agamémnon demonstrates at the beginning of the Iliad, nor should the citizens emulate the same kind of gluttony and disrespect that the suitors display in the Odyssey.
These two complaints about imitation, however, make little sense in utopias that prepare and utilize so completely the power of the expert. The governments of both the Republic and the Laws have two primary goals: They seek to match each person to the art that suits him best and then educate the citizens in such a manner that reason controls their souls. In the Republic, Plato has Socrates concern himself with the upper crust, the gold and silver-souled individuals. But in the Laws, Plato lets the Athenian organize a society that involves everyone, from the leaders to the artisans, showing that even the bronze-souled populace can become experts with their reason in charge. In the Laws, if an artisan refuses to practice his one art, the Wardens will drag him to prison, or levy fines until he realizes the financial devastation of operating outside his area of expertise, or even expel him from the community.89 In such a society, people cannot avoid becoming the "ones who know." Moreover, the Athenian suggests state-supervised drinking parties where men can come, overindulge, and then attempt to master the warring factions of their souls while they are drunk. Plato has the Athenian note that no one can ever "achieve a perfect mastery … without having fought and conquered … the crowd of pleasures and desires that stimulate him to act shamelessly and unjustly."90 The carefully-monitored drinking parties would force the populace to master the contrary natures of their courage and appetites. After a reader discovers these built-in social strategies for behavior modification, the logical questions would be these: How could uncensored poetry harm experts who have conquered their internal strife? Why isn't the experience of uncensored poetry just as good a test as drinking parties for the "perfect mastery" the Athenian advocates? The answers to these questions must also wait.
C. Poets appear to have knowledge of more than one art, a characteristic of a fraud or a novice.
What must have worried Plato the most about the poets was their seemingly comprehensive knowledge of all arts. In the Iliad, for example, Homer demonstrates what might be a true understanding of chariot racing, divination, and war-making, among other skills. Since Plato believes so strongly that the "one who knows" limits himself to a single art, the apparently universal knowledge of the poets must have been a constant source of frustration. Obviously, Plato did not want an exception to his belief that an expert practices a single art. So he denied that composing poetry was an art, that it was a form of imitation, thrice-removed from the truth, and that poets were frauds who duped novices into believing that they had met wise men who knew all. Plato has Socrates dismiss the poets thus:
When anyone … [says] that he has encountered a human being who knows all the crafts and everything else that single men severally know, … it would have to be replied to such a one that he is an innocent human being and that, as it seems, he has encountered some wizard and imitator and been deceived.91
Instead of testing the comprehensive knowledge of the poets, Plato has Socrates dismiss these artists because they do not conform to an important characteristic of the expert. The young Glaucon lets Socrates' speech go unchallenged, but a more careful reader must wonder how the poets would respond to this charge. That the character Socrates never engages a poet in discourse, as he engages generals, slaves, mathematicians, sophists, and the like, makes the reader wonder if this conversation would be one Socrates could not win.
The only way that Plato could have allowed the poet to practice more than one art is to equate him with the statesman, whose responsibility is matching each citizen to the right job. But if the poet has the same abilities as the ruler, then why did Homer's contemporaries not appreciate the leadership abilities of this poet? In the Republic, Plato lets Socrates ask this very good question: "Do you suppose that if [Homer] were able to help human beings toward virtue, the men in Homer's time would have let him or Hesiod go around being rhapsodes and wouldn't have clung to [these poets] rather than to their gold?"92 Of course, the irony here is that Socrates, one of the greatest minds ever, was similarly unappreciated in his own time, allowed to swallow the hemlock even though he had demonstrated, over and over, his ability to improve others in virtue.
That the contemporaries of Homer and Hesiod allowed these two men to tramp from one city to another, reciting their poetry instead of contributing their wisdom to government, is easy to understand if one remembers an earlier statement by Socrates in the same dialogue. Plato had Socrates note, "It is necessary for … every man who needs to be ruled to [go] to the doors of the man who is able to rule, not for the ruler who is truly of any use to beg [to rule]."93 Not surprisingly, the people who needed to be ruled passed the doors of both Homer and Socrates, neglecting even to poke their heads inside for a quick look around. At this point in the dialogue, Socrates has so bedeviled Glaucon that the poor boy does not remember the earlier statement about rule. Homer might have been a truly valuable resource to the government of his day, but if his contemporaries did not recognize his worth, then Homer might have roamed from one rhapsodist gig to the next instead of giving advice in the company of kings.
All of the problems Plato has with poetry have an understandable logic at the moment he introduces them into the dialogue. However, when a student of Plato considers these complaints in the context of the entire Platonic corpus and with regards to the themes that seem most important to the author, these objections begin to reveal flaws. So did Plato really mean what he says about poetry? How seriously should the reader take his complaints? If Plato believes what he has Socrates say, did he realize how these complaints about poetry would erode the foundations of his cosmology? Now is the time to answer these questions.
V. The Consequences of Censoring Poetry
Plato explores consequences in every dialogue. In the Crito, for example, he examines the repercussions of conveniently breaking the laws of a city after a person has enjoyed, for many years, the benefits of living there. In the Euthydemus, while the character Socrates is questioning two eristics—practitioners of "wordy warfare"—Plato investigates the effects of using language sloppily. In the Critias, an unfinished dialogue that describes the first Athenians and Atlanteans, Plato begins to evaluate the consequences people must face as they forget their original divine-influenced nature.
Because Plato concerns himself so often with the effects of specific actions and beliefs, a student of his work must be equally attentive to the consequences of his conclusions, especially on the cosmology he has fashioned. As this cosmology relies so heavily on the expert, a reader must question why Plato would advocate any activity, like the censorship of poetry, which would undermine "the one who knows." For censorship does destroy the credibility of the expert, the person all twenty-eight dialogues work to describe. Plato's three complaints about poetry—that its knowledge is false, that the imitation it requires damages the soul, and that its creators seem to know more than one art—have two important repercussions: These complaints either discredit the abilities of the expert, or qualify the dialogues themselves for censorship.
A. If poetic knowledge is false, then Socrates and the dialogues are dangerous.
Ironically, censoring poetry for the reasons Socrates advocates discredits Socrates' own skill as an expert dialectician. This character never acknowledges his own expertise, but he still is "one who knows" because his actions meet all four qualifications of Plato's expert. For example, Socrates benefits his many interlocutors by delivering them from the harmful belief that they know things that they don't really know. Moreover, he practices this one art, that of the dialectician, refusing to concern himself with other occupations, even though he could use the money. Because he recognizes that fellow "teachers," like Gorgias, Protagoras, and Hippias, do not really give their students their money's worth, Socrates shows that he has the ability to identify the good from incompetent practice of his art, the third qualification of an expert. And although Socrates often finds himself surrounded by many people, his dissenting views keep him separate from the mob. Even though Socrates meets all the qualifications of the "one who knows," his own poetic knowledge tarnishes his expertise.
If poetic knowledge is information that the Muses pour into the heads of human composers—without these mortals having to work for the wisdom they receive—then an ideal government would have to censor not only episodes from Homer but also the conclusions of Socrates. For this thinker also acquires knowledge directly from the divine. Plato lets Socrates admit this personal connection to the gods in the Apology. Here Socrates acknowledges that a "prophetic voice … has always been my constant companion, opposing me even in quite trivial things if I was going to take the wrong course."94 Because of Socrates' ironic style of conversation, there's no telling what he really means by a "prophetic voice." The voice could be his conscience or reason engaging courage and the appetites in an internal dialogue. It could be a sleight of hand Socrates uses to convince other people of the "authority" of his positions. Or perhaps Socrates' denial of physical pleasures really has loosened the rivets which hold his soul to the material world so that he does indeed have direct communication with the gods. Whichever explanation a reader chooses, she cannot overlook Socrates' characterization of the voice as divine. The knowledge it transmits to him, if the reader believes what Socrates has said in other dialogues, is either false or incomprehensible because of its god-like nature.
Socrates' insistence on listening to this prophetic voice and repeating its advice to other people has calamitous effects if the reader remembers the penalty of the Laws. To bring an item into the utopia that threatens the education of its citizens, as false knowledge would, earns the person a death sentence. When Plato advocates the censorship of poetry, not only is he undermining the expertise of Socrates, but he is also implying that the Athenians could justify Socrates' execution. For Socrates does not differ from the poets. He is a peddler of false knowledge acquired from his prophetic voice, knowledge which can harm the education of his fellows. Moreover, such a reader must also accept that the decision of the Athenians to execute Socrates is just, for his behavior meets the criteria of a dangerous saboteur. When Socrates condemns poetry, he condemns himself.
The expertise of Socrates is not the only thing harmed by Plato's contention that poetic knowledge is false. If a reader can't trust Socrates because, like the poets, he has received at least some of his knowledge from the divine, then the dialogues themselves must be just as dangerous as Homeric epic. The inevitable conclusion that an ideal government—or the individual reader concerned about her soul—must draw is that the Platonic corpus itself would require censoring. But why would Plato create works that meet his own criteria for censorship? Is there not a better explanation? The dialogues seem meant to instruct their audience about the importance of reason. Should a reader imitate the poet's audience, passively letting Plato dump knowledge into her head? Or did Plato mean for his audience to use reason to think through the conclusions that his characters make? To accept Socrates' conclusion that poetic knowledge is false is to ignore one's own reason and neglect to rise to the challenge of thinking for oneself.
B. If imitation damages the soul, then the dialogues themselves require censorship.
If a student of Plato believes that imitation really damages the soul, then she must avoid the dialogues forever. For Plato gives his audience numerous opportunities to imitate characters who are novices and frauds. Because the dialogues have different people participating in the conversations—many of whom are not good role models for a reason-controlled soul—each speech has the potential to dislodge the reader's intellect from rule. While the reader is studying an argument of an ignoble character, she faces the same danger that a rhapsodist's audience faces when its members listen to an overemotional scene from the Iliad. If the reader takes seriously Socrates' warning that imitation will ruin the soul, then the dialogues become dangerous works. Take, for example, the Laches. While the student reads the speeches of Lysimachus and Melesias, two foolish fathers who are worrying about the education of their sons, the student is conceivably unseating her own reason. Her "imitation" of these two bumbling men during a study of the dialogue is allowing their incompetence to lodge in her soul. Even more damaging would be the Euthydemus. While the student is following the convoluted logic of Euthydemus and his brother Dionysodorus—"logic" that proves, for example, that a dog can be the father of a human—she must likewise be damaging her own soul while she reads this illogic.
Along with the highly emotional scenes from the Iliad, a government must also remove all the dishonorable Platonic characters. Not only can the reader throw out Socrates because his poetic knowledge is false, but now she can also throw out all the other characters who do not give her a balanced soul to imitate. But then what would be left to read? Blank pages only! Would Plato have intentionally created works that by their very format had the same problems as the poetry he wished to censor?
The reader needs to consider the context in which Plato makes his claims for censoring poetry. The government of the Republic is really an extended metaphor. Plato has Socrates propose, "First we'll investigate what justice is like in the cities. Then, we'll also go on to consider it in individuals, considering the likeness of the bigger in the idea of the littler."95 The utopia, then, is an easily understood macrocosm for the more difficult to define just man, the microcosm. Furthermore, Socrates asks, "Can anything be done as it is said? Or is it the nature of [doing] to have less truth than speaking?"96 These questions are rhetorical, indicating that his discussion with Adeimantus and Glaucon is an intellectual exercise, not the blueprint for a utopia under material construction. Although the Athenian of the Laws does not use his model of government as a metaphor, he likewise admits that the discussion is an intellectual exercise. He notes that "the real difficulty is to make political systems reflect in practice the trouble-free perfection of theory."97 Furthermore, the reader should not take the Athenian seriously. Plato has Socrates note that the type of government under which a man lives influences the type of person he is. The Athenian is thus ruined by the democracy that has produced him. Democracy, says Socrates, produces citizens which live "day to day, gratifying the desire that occurs to [them]."98 The Athenian might be deadly serious about the governmental interference he proposes in the Laws, but the reader should be wary of whatever reasoning this sick-souled speaker supplies, for his opinions might do an about-turn tomorrow.
Plato intentionally set up most of his work as dialogue, allowing the reader to watch Socrates skirt routine arguments to look at each new topic through convention-free eyes. But then would Plato have wished that the audience of these conversations sit passively accepting whatever Socrates says? In Socrates, Plato creates a first-rate model of a person who intelligently questions the authority of respected teachers, generals, philosophers, and politicians. Plato might also have added controversial claims, like the censorship of poetry, so that the reader can engage Socrates as Socrates engages his interlocutors. When a reader ignores Socrates' behavior and blindly believes whatever the principal character of a dialogue argues, she ignores the excellent example Socrates has set. But if the reader remains on guard, refusing to accept any claim that any speaker—even Socrates—cannot support, then her reason cannot help being in control, and whatever imitation she must perform while reading the speeches of ignoble characters will be unable to penetrate and harm her soul.
C. If the poets are frauds because they seem to know more than one art, then Plato is guilty of fraudulence as well.
In the Ion, Plato has Socrates drive home the point that a real expert knows more about the situations in the Iliad that concern his art than does Homer who composed the lines describing that art. A real charioteer, for example, would be the best judge of Homer's discussion of horse racing while a real-life doctor could best evaluate the remedies Homeric characters give to wounded soldiers. But if the reader dismisses Homer because he seems an expert at more than one thing, then she must also reject Plato. For the dialogue characters represent a number of different professions, indicating that Plato, like Homer, has the same fraudulent knowledge of more than one art.
The important thing to remember is that Plato is not an objective reporter transcribing conversations verbatim. In fact, Plato often gives the dialogues the atmosphere of a tall tale. At the beginning of a dialogue, a suspicious narrator will explain that he has heard the conversation he is about to tell recounted by someone else who wasn't there himself but knew one of the actual participants in the discussion. Usually many years have elapsed since the conversation first occurred. For instance, Apollodorus, the narrator of the Symposium, admits he was but a tyke at the time of Agathon's dinner party, but that he had heard about Socrates' discourse on love from Aristodemus, who claims to have been there. Stories grow in the telling, and the convoluted beginnings and third-hand narrators give Plato the poetic license he needs to play with the facts. Plato cannot claim that he is objectively recording the speeches of other people who mistakenly believe that they know more than one art. No, Plato is too much in control, having reduced real people to caricatures in many instances, and the multiple skills these characters know are arts Plato himself is discussing intelligently as he writes their dialogue. When Plato manipulates General Nicias, a character in the Laches, to discuss the merits of fighting in armor, Plato is indicating that he knows warfare as Homer knows warfare when the poet is describing the best piece of anatomy to hit with a spear.
If Plato and Homer are equally guilty of fraudulence, and if a government follows Plato's advice and censors the things that will damage the souls of its citizens, then again Plato undermines his objective in writing the dialogues. His readers can't learn to hone their reason if the Platonic corpus is withheld because its author is a sham. But there is an explanation for Plato's knowing more than one art, an explanation that exonerates Homer as well. A very likely reason for Plato's apparent knowledge of many arts is that he followed his own advice, and when he knew that he didn't know the information he needed for a specific character to speak believably, Plato went to a true expert and got the information from him. If Plato could do it, so could Homer. The reason that the skills documented in the Iliad and the Odyssey seem as believable as they do is that "ones who know" must have contributed their knowledge while Homer was composing the poems. This possible consultation of real experts would qualify Homer as an expert as well.
Censoring poetry for the reasons Plato gives destroys the expertise of Socrates. This character becomes a danger to both the citizens of an ideally-organized state and the reader of the dialogues because he peddles false knowledge from his "prophetic voice." In addition, the dialogues are just as dangerous as Homeric epic because they give the reader the same chances to imitate dishonorable qualities in inferior-souled characters. And because Plato is writing the speeches of his characters, just as Homer does his own, Plato is indicating that he knows more than one art, a characteristic of a fraud. The same complaints that Plato has of Homer's poetry are applicable to the dialogues. If someone takes these complaints seriously, she must then apply the same censorial knife to the Platonic corpus that Plato advocates the ideal government take to Homer's work. Is this logical? Of course not. To accept the charges of both Socrates and the Athenian against Homer is to ignore one's highest faculty, the intellect, which Plato spends twenty-eight dialogues training.
At the end of the Republic, the dialogue most critical of poetry, the character Socrates offers a challenge to anyone who wants to come to the defense of Muse-inspired art. Socrates says,
And surely we would give its protectors, those who aren't poets but lovers of poetry, occasion to speak an argument without meter on [poetry's] behalf, showing that it's not only pleasant but also beneficial to regimes and human life. And we shall listen benevolently. For surely we shall gain if [poetry] should turn out to be not only pleasant but also beneficial.99
Glaucon, whose initiative has been silenced by the blows of Socrates' logic, does not rise to the occasion. Neither do many scholars. Elizabeth Asmis turns down the invitation to argue on poetry's behalf, claiming that Plato's reasons for censorship "are worth taking seriously, even though some of his conclusions are repugnant."100 Guthrie echoes Asmis' sentiment: "We must renounce our love [of poetry] and repeat as a counter-charm our conviction that she is a stranger to the truth and endangers the balance of that polity which each man carries within himself."101 Even Bloom neglects to come to Homer's rescue. Taking the previous speeches of Socrates seriously, Bloom believes that poetry can safely enter the ideal state "only after having learned to subordinate itself, to mitigate its unguided tendencies toward indulgence and fanaticism."102 No one notices Homer's accord with Plato on the importance of the expert. No one pursues the consequences these beliefs have on the Platonic corpus. Instead, everyone acquiesces to Socrates' logic.
If Glaucon and I were tag-team interlocutors, I would rescue him from the ring there at the end of the Republic. Fresh for a fight, I'd demand that Plato put aside his puppet Socrates and enter the fray himself. "Plato," I'd say, "Every single person who's made it this far through your work should be ready to come to the poets' aid! If we've really understood what you've been trying to show us, we know better than to accept without question what someone argues, even you. What is the difference between Homer and you if I just sit here and let you catch me like a paper clip in the magnetic pull of your prose? All I will have accomplished is setting aside my highest faculty, my reason, the component of my soul that you've been so interested in training, so that you can flatter my appetites by convincing them that siding with you makes them wise.
"If the whole point of the Republic was to define the just man, the person who keeps his reason in control, then what would be the point of my pursuing the arduous curriculum you recommend? What would be the point of desiring to become an expert soul-master, only to have my skill, an expertise which would allow me to decide the good from incompetent practice of my art, dismissed by governmental censors who tell me I'm not really an expert, that I can't really keep my reason in command while I'm reading poetry?
"And if I align myself with your Socrates—obviously the most superior character in the dialogues—then where do I find myself? In the middle of a mob, that's where! I'm among all those readers who are secure in their superiority because they believe they have sided with the winner. These readers think that if Socrates says the government should censor dangerous poetry, then that is what you really want. But Socrates grew up in Athens where Homer was performed uncensored, and he survived undamaged. And you grew up in Athens, hearing the Iliad as Homer composed it, and you have obviously turned out okay. So why would you deny me the same opportunity, especially when you have shown me the art of mastering my appetites, the component of my soul that poetry supposedly unleashes? If I believe what you've told me about the importance of keeping reason in charge, then I know better than to remain among your readers who take your views on poetry literally. I learned from you that the `ones who know' don't travel in packs.
"Your conversations have given me the opportunity to observe real experts in action. I've seen the dangers of thinking I know something that I don't really know. I don't want to suffer the same conceit that Euthyphro and Ion do. But those same lessons are available in Homer, too. When Eurýlokhos believes that he knows better than Odysseus, the true statesman, how to survive starvation on Hêlios' island, or when Antínoös thinks that he is a better ruler of Ithaka than its rightful king, I'm taught how important real expertise is, the same lesson that I learn from your dialogues.
"I can only conclude that your complaints about poetry are a Siren song you use to drown the conceited on their voyage through your work. Some of your readers arrogantly assume that just because Socrates argues the best, he argues truthfully and is the winner with whom they should side. Others of us know to lash ourselves to the mast before we enter those dangerous waters where you advocate censorship. That way, even though we hear your song, we don't jump into its depths and drown in its illogic."
Asmis, Elizabeth. "Plato on Poetic Creativity." The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Edited by Richard Kraut. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
________. "An Interpretation of Plato's Ion." Giants and Dwarfs, Essays 1960-1990. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.
Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1951.
Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. IV, Plato: the Man and His Dialogues, Earlier Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
________. A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. V, The Later Plato and the Academy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Hammond, N. G. L. and H. H. Scullard, eds. The Oxford Classical Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Anchor Books, 1974.
________. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Classics, 1961.
Knox, Bernard. The Oldest Dead White European Males and Other Reflections on the Classics. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1993.
O'Connor, Eugene, ed. On Homosexuality: Lysis, Phaedrus, and Symposium. Translated by Benjamin Jowett with selected retranslation. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1991.
Plato. Plato, the Collected Dialogues. Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961.
Unless noted below, all the dialogues I use in this paper are from this volume.
________. Ion or On the Iliad. Translated by Allan Bloom. Giants and Dwarfs, Essays 1960-1990. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.
________. The Laws. Translated by Trevor J. Saunders. New York: Penguin Books, 1975.
________. The Republic of Plato. 2nd ed. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.
________. Timaeus and Critias. Translated by Desmond Lee. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.
Stone, I. F. The Trial of Socrates. New York: Anchor Books, 1989.
Taplin, Oliver. "Homer." The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World. Edited by John Boardman et al. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Vlastos, Gregory. Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Wheelwright, Philip, ed. The Presocratics. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1966.
1Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Anchor Books, 1974), 10.423. The names of Homeric characters that I use in this paper will conform to Fitzgerald's spellings of them.
2The Iliad, 10.348-351.
3Plato, Charmides, trans. Benjamin Jowett, Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 171e.
4Plato, Greater Hippias, trans. Benjamin Jowett, Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 284e.
5Plato, The Republic of Plato, 2nd ed., trans. Allan Bloom (n.p.: Basic Books, 1991), 386a-398b.
6The Republic of Plato, 387b.
7Plato, Ion or On the Iliad, trans. Allan Bloom, Giants and Dwarfs, Essays 1960-1990 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 531d-532a.
8Allan Bloom, introduction to The Republic of Plato (n.p.: Basic Books, 1991), xxii.
9The Republic of Plato, 595a-598d.
10Plato, Parmenides, trans. F. M. Cornford, Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 130b-130d.
11Plato, Sophist, trans. F. M. Cornford, Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 254e-255e.
12Plato, Laches, trans. Benjamin Jowett, and Protagoras, trans. W. K. C. Guthrie, Plato, The Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 190c-190d; 329c-329d.
13Philip Wheelwright, ed., The Presocratics (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1966), 98.
14Plato, Meno, trans. W. K. C. Guthrie, Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 81a-81d.
15The Republic of Plato, 621a.
16Meno, 85c-85d. Emphasis added.
18Plato, Lysis, trans. J. Wright, Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 208a-208c.
19Plato, Symposium, trans. Michael Joyce, Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 210a- 211c.
23Plato, Phaedo, trans. Hugh Tredennick, Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 61a.
24Phaedo, 64a. Emphasis added.
25The Republic of Plato, 370c. Emphasis added.
29The Republic of Plato, 500c.
30Plato, Euthyphro, trans. Lane Cooper, Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 15e.
31The Republic of Plato, 421a.
32Allan Bloom, "An Interpretation of Plato's Ion," Giants and Dwarfs, Essays 1960-1990 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 153.
33The Republic of Plato, 360e-361a.
35W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 4, Plato: The Man and His Dialogues, Earlier Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 195-199.
36Plato, Apology, trans. Hugh Tredennick, Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 25a-25b.
37Plato, Gorgias, trans. W. D. Woodhead, Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 459d.
39Plato, Phaedrus, trans. R. Hackforth, Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 273e.
41Plato, Timaeus, trans. Desmond Lee (London: Penguin Books, 1965), 29d-31b.
42Plato, Cratylus, trans. Benjamin Jowett, Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 386d-390e.
44Plato, Theaetetus, trans. F. M. Cornford, Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 177c-179b.
51The Republic of Plato, 605b.
52E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1951), 2-10.
55Plato, Statesman, trans. J. B. Skemp, Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 305d.
63The Republic of Plato, 485e.
67The Republic of Plato, 489b-489c.
70 ADD NEw NOTE
71Oliver Taplin, "Homer," The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World, eds. John Boardman et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 48-65.
72Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Vintage Classics, 1961), 11.116-117. Names of Homeric characters that I use in this paper will conform to Fitzgerald's spellings.
77Odyssey, 22.37-43. Emphasis added.
87Plato, The Laws, trans. Trevor J. Saunders (London: Penguin Books, 1970), 952c-952d.
91The Republic of Plato, 598c-598d.
92The Republic of Plato, 600d.
93The Republic of Plato, 489b-489c.
95The Republic of Plato, 368e-369a.
96The Republic of Plato, 473a.
98The Republic of Plato, 561c.
99The Republic of Plato, 607d-e.
100Elizabeth Asmis, "Plato on Poetic Creativity," The Cambridge Companion to Plato, ed. Richard Kraut (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 339.
101Plato, the Man and His Dialogues: Earlier Period, 554.
102Allan Bloom, "Interpretive Essay," The Republic of Plato, 2nd ed. (n.p.: Basic Books, 1991), 434.