Enthusiasm

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AtariKo
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Enthusiasm

Post by AtariKo » January 1st, 2018, 11:45 am

In Plato’s Ion, we find Socrates conversing with the poet and rhapsode Ion. Ion has just won first prize at the festival of Asclepius, and his arrogance is on full display:
I think I speak more beautifully than anyone else about Homer; neither Metrodorus... nor Stesimbrotus... nor Glaucon nor anyone else past or present could offer as many beautiful thoughts about Homer as I can... Really, Socrates, it’s worth hearing how well I’ve got Homer dressed up. I think I’m worthy to be crowned by the Sons of Homer [a renowned guild of poets] with a golden crown. (530d)
And again:
I speak about Homer more beautifully than anybody else and I have lots to say; and everybody says I do it well. (533c)
Now what does Ion have to be arrogant about? As noted above, he’s a rhapsode, that is, he’s someone who memorizes and recites poetry. But it’s not just any kind of poetry he recites: he memorizes and recites the most famous and renowned of Greek poets: Homer.

This is significant. The Homeric corpus is the closest thing to a biblical text that the ancient Greeks had. No doubt you’ve read some of the Iliad and the Odyssey, perhaps in high school, and there you’ll recall we learn of the tales of gods and men, of Agamemnon, Achilles, Paris, Penelope, and so on. We learn of the seige of Troy and of Odysseus‘s perilous journey home.

A recurring theme throughout these works — indeed, the dominant theme — is the danger and consequences of excessive self-confidence. According to Homer, and to the later Greek culture that he so powerfully influenced, the great threat facing the human race was hubris.

So Ion specializes in a religious text. You might view Ion as you would a priest, or a pastor, or a theologian (although he’s not strictly any of these). And he’s arrogant because he’s the one who speaks most beautifully about Homer.

What’s involved in speaking beautifully about Homer? Well, he says that he “has a lot to say” on the topic, and that he’s received the approval and praise of those around him. He also assumes that speaking beautifully involves knowing Homer well (530c). (We’ve hit a pivotal contrast in Plato, that between appearance and reality. But more next time.)

Leave it to Socrates to unhinge all of this. Consider Ion’s claim to know in the context of another one of Plato’s dialogues, the Meno. Socrates is conversing with Meno, who like Ion has the “habit of answering… fearlessly” and in the “style of men who know” (70c). These are interesting expressions: Ion and Meno answer fearlessly. They’re overconfident. The answer is obvious. They answer as if they know, with the implication of course being that they don’t. (Every time I read this passage in the Meno I can’t help but think of political pundits — Ben Ferguson answers fearlessly, and that’s not a compliment.)

Meno is soon befuddled by Socrates’s questioning. He compares Socrates to a stingray, a danger to Mediterranean swinmers, saying that Socrates has managed to numb and paralyze him with his incessant questioning. (Socrates grants the analogy only if we also concede that the stingray numbs himself. The explanation of this will be apparent in the next post). What he previously took for granted and as obvious is now up for grabs.

Likewise, Socrates is about to numb Ion. In response to Ion’s claim that he speaks and knows Homer the best, Socrates retorts:
[T]hat’s not a subject you’ve mastered — speaking well about Homer; it’s a divine power that moves you, as a “Magnetic” stone moves iron rings... This stone not only pulls those rings, if they’re iron, it also puts power in the rings, so that they in turn can do just what the stone does — pull other rings — so that there’s sometimes a very long chain of iron pieces and rings hanging from one another. And the power in all of them depends on this stone. In the same way, the Muse makes some people inspired herself, and then through those who are inspired a chain of other enthusiasts is suspended. You know, none of the epic poets, if they’re good, are masters of their subject; they are inspired, possessed, and that is how they utter all those beautiful poems. (533d-e)
This is breathtaking. Ion knows nothing. He hasn’t mastered Homer. He thinks he has, but he hasn’t. Instead of having mastered Homer, Ion is “possessed” or “inspired” — he’s an enthusiast. The iron rings cannot in themselves attract other iron rings (they lack that power in themselves), but a magnet can impart it to them. So too Ion lacks understanding (he himself is no expert of Homer), but, if he has some power to impart, it’s only because it’s been given to him from the gods.

Ion is an enthusiast. He speaks well, but knows nothing. He claims to know, but he’s ignorant. He has a power to move people, because his power is based on emotion, not truth. He’s emotionally intoxicated. (It’s no coincidence that an ion in chemistry is a particle that is electrically charged. Now does Socrates view Ion as an anion or cation?)

Thus enthusiasm is believing something because one believes that one is divinely inspired. It’s not the product of reason or a sincere search for truth, although enthusiasts may claim as much.

So Socrates claims that Ion knows nothing (of significance with respect to Homer). Is he merely making a clarification, or is he making a more substantive claim? I think it’s the latter. I can’t help but detect a bit of sarcasm in the dialogue’s ending. It proceeds:
Socrates: But if you’re not a master of your subject, if you’re possessed by a divine gift from Homer, so that you make many lovely speeches about the poet without knowing anything — as I said about you — then you’re not doing me wrong. So choose, how do you want us to think of you — as a man who does wrong, or as someone divine?
Ion: There’s a great difference, Socrates. It’s much lovelier to be thought divine.
Socrates: Then that is how we shall think of you, Ion, the lovelier way: it’s as someone divine, and not as a master of a profession, that you are a singer of Homer’s praises. (542a-b).
Should we view Ion as human or divine? This gets at another big distinction Plato, and it doesn’t bode well for Ion. That next time.

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AtariKo
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Re: Enthusiasm

Post by AtariKo » January 2nd, 2018, 6:10 pm

Here's ("Athens Meets Jerusalem") the second entry for the series, if interested! The third ("How to Cure an Overheated Brain") will be up soon as well.

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