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Nicholas Pappas SOCRATES' CHARITABLE TREATMENT OF POETRY Of course this title seems wrong. If anything is certain about Socrates' treatment ofpoetry in Plato's dialogues, it is that he never gives a poem a chance to explain itself. He dismisses poems altogether on the basis of their suspect moral content {Republic II and III), or their representational form {Republic X), or their dramatic structure {Laws 719); he calls poets ignorant {Apohgy, Ion) and—not obviously as a compliment—mad {Ion, Phaedrus); and when he wants to use a poem to support his own position, he unhesitatingly distorts its apparent meaning {Protagoras, Lysis). I will not argue that, in spite of this behavior, Socrates occasionally gives poetry its due, nor that even as he dismisses it he is willing to preserve some portion of it. When I refer to Socrates' charitable interpretations of poetry, I mean a way of reading a poem that motivates and grounds the mistreatments I have catalogued. Socrates is, at all times, prone to read a poem charitably; and that is part of his hostility toward poetry. To make this point I will discuss the last mistreatment of poetry I named: Socrates uses a poem in his defense by forcing it to say what its author plainly did not intend. We see the workings ofhis interpretive method in an extended analysis of Simonides in the Protagoras, and perhaps also in a use of Homer and Empedocles in the LysL·. I will argue that what looks at first simply odd in those passages may be shown to follow a principle of interpretation which in some extreme form resembles the principle of interpretive charity. Thus it is Socrates' excessive charity toward poetry that stands behind his abuse of it. That charity points to a new attitude toward poets, perhaps the first theoretically motivated rejection of the author. I think that this fate of 248 Nicholas Pappas249 the author in Socrates' interpretation will illuminate both his hostility toward poetry and his examination of his live interlocutors. More generally , Socrates' example will show how the search for truth in an interpretation is one way to deny appeals to the author. Although Socrates' interpretation of Simonides in the Protagoras has been discussed many times, its purport or explanation is usually left unexamined.1 What is uncontroversial is that in Protagoras 338e-348a, Plato's most extensive depiction of Socrates saying what a poem means, we find Socrates systematically misreading Simonides. He plucks individual lines out ofa poem, combines them with his own highly specific ethical beliefs, and from this conjunction deduces a point which he then attributes to the poet. We must decide whether this is all some sort of joke, or whether on the contrary, as I believe, the interpretation reveals a coherent and deliberate method. The text examined is a nearly continuous piece ofSimonides' writing, roughly twenty-five lines from a much longer poem. It is Protagoras who goads Socrates into interpreting the poem, as part ofthe intellectual battle between them that continues through the dialogue. Protagoras sets an interpretive problem for Socrates to solve: two bits ofSimonides' poem seem to contradict one another, for the first bit says it is hard to become good, and the second denies that it is hard to be noble (339). Socrates begins with the more modest aim of resolving that contradiction , but goes on through the poem to hang a sophisticated moral point on Simonides. At first Socrates tries to resolve the contradiction by saying that Simonides thinks it hard to become good or noble, but easy to remain in that state (to be noble) once it has been achieved (34Od). Protagoras ridicules this explanation, and Socrates quickly drops it in the face of objections (34Ie); but already the tone of Socratic interpretation has been set. In abroad sense, this paradoxical notion ofmoral improvement is a Socratic notion: the steps toward clarity of understanding are slow and taken only reluctantly, but the state of enlightenment can be maintained , Socrates usually seems to think, without effort (see, e.g., Symposium 21 Id ff.). Socrates, in other words, has made Simonides' thought consistent by identifying it with his own. But that is still too broadly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 248-261
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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