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Part of the series on:
The Dialogues of Plato
Early dialogues:
EuthyphroFirst Alcibiades
Hippias MajorHippias Minor
Transitional & middle dialogues:
Later middle dialogues:
The RepublicPhaedrus
Late dialogues:
The SophistThe Statesman
Of doubtful authenticity:
MinosRival Lovers
Second AlcibiadesTheages

In Plato's Ion Socrates discusses with the title character the question of whether the rhapsode, a professional performer of poetry, gives his performance on account of his skill and knowledge or by virtue of divine possession.

Dialogue summary

Ion has just come from a festival of Asclepius at the city of Epidarus, and is full of himself for having carried off first prize in the competition. Socrates presses the view that it is divine possession and not acquired skill that is behind the actor's art, but Ion admits that it is the specter of money that really keeps him on his toes. Socrates subjects Ion to his philosophical dialectic, and gets him to admit that because he recites Homer's war stories, he is as much military general as actor. Only then does Socrates seem satisfied that he has made a fool of the actor, whom he accuses of being as shifty as Proteus.

Ion admits when Socrates asks, that his skill in performance recitation is limited to Homer, and that all other poets bore him. Socrates finds this puzzling, and sets out to solve the "riddle" of Ion's limited expertise. He points out to Ion that art critics and judges of sculpture normally do not limit themselves to judging the work of only a single artist, but can criticize the art no matter who the particular artist. Socrates deduces from this observation that Ion has no real skill, but is like a soothsayer or prophet in being divinely possessed. Socrates offers the metaphor of a magnet to explain how the actor transmits the poet's original inspiration from the muse to the audience. He says that the god speaks first to the poet, then gives the actor his skill, and thus, gods communicate to the people.

Socrates tells Ion that he must be out of his mind when he acts, because he can weep even though he has lost nothing, and recoil in fear when in front of an admiring audience. Ion says that the explanation for this is very simple: it is the promise of a paycheck that inspires his deliberate disconnection from reality. Ion says that when he looks at the audience and sees them weeping, he knows he will laugh all the way to the bank, and that when they laugh, he will be weeping at losing the money (535e). Ion tells Socrates that he cannot be convinced that he is possessed or mad when he performs, but Socrates does not allow him to explain why he rejects this explanation (536d,e).

Socrates then proceeds to recite passages from Homer which concern various arts such as medicine, divining, fishing, and making war. He asks Ion if these skills are distinct from his art of recitation, and Ion becomes confused. The actor admits that while Homer discusses many different skills in his poetry, he never refers specifically to the rhapsode's craft, which is acting. Socrates peppers Ion with his questions, presses him about the exact nature of his skill. Doing his best to cope with Socrates' dialectic, Ion asserts that when he recites passages concerning military matters, he cannot tell whether he does it with a general's skill, or with a rhapsode's. Socrates complains that Ion changes his spots: he was first an actor and then has become a general. He gently berates the actor for being Protean, which after all, is exactly what an actor is: a man who is convincingly capable of being different people on stage.

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PP Ion530a (entire text in Greek and English, trans. by W.R.M Lamb)

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