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Plato, Memory, and Performance

From: Oral Tradition
Volume 20, Number 1, March 2005
pp. 111-129 | 10.1353/ort.2005.0013

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Oral Tradition 20.1 (2005) 111-129

Naoko Yamagata

The Open University

It is now widely recognized among classicists that in the culture of classical Greece, that is, in the fifth to fourth century B.C.E., the element of "performance" played a prominent role in various aspects of daily life. The term "performance culture" is often applied to classical Greece, especially to Athens, in reference to many areas where the citizens conducted their activities in public, such as dramatic and poetic competitions, athletic competitions, and debates in the democratic assembly and in the law court. All these activities that took place in public were highly competitive, though in different contexts, and demonstration of one's excellence in performance mattered a great deal in them.

Connected to this is another distinctive characteristic of life in classical Athens: that is, the still predominantly oral presentation of poetic works and political and philosophical ideas. Despite the gradual spread of alphabetic writing, the importance of oral communication in the intellectual life of Athens persisted well into the classical period. However, this was also undoubtedly a period of transition when the increasing importance of writing had begun to affect the way people published or otherwise disseminated their works and ideas.

In this paper I am going to take Plato's writings, especially his philosophical dialogues Ion and Phaedrus, as a snapshot of this transitional period to examine in some detail what was happening to the hitherto mostly oral culture. I have chosen these two dialogues in order to see how Plato represented the performance of poetry and of rhetorical speeches, respectively. By doing so I hope to gather some evidence for how performance was recorded, memorized, and retrieved, and how such retrieval or representation was regarded by the Greeks in the late fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. at the time of Socrates and Plato. What forms did those representations take and how did they compare with the "real thing," that is, the live performances?

Plato's dialogue Ion provides the best evidence for how Homer's poetry was performed in Plato's day because of its subject matter: Socrates' conversation with Ion, a leading rhapsode of Homeric poems. Socrates' tone is ironic throughout, friendly but often teasing, as he plays along with Ion's overconfidence in his ability and value as a rhapsode. Ion, on the other hand, does not seem aware of Socrates' irony, taking his double-edged compliments at their face value. The gap of awareness between the two interlocutors gives this dialogue a humorous touch, which veils Plato's attack on the claim of poetry as a vehicle of truth.

Almost as soon as the dialogue opens, Socrates challenges Ion in a most courteous and ironic way (530b-c). He says that he is envious of the rhapsodes like Ion for their art (tekhnê), which allows them to dress up and look glamorous, and to have intimate knowledge of many fine poets, especially Homer. He goes on to say that a good rhapsode would necessarily have proper understanding of the poet's words because he has to interpret the poet's thought for the audience. That, he says, is worthy of envy.

In these words, Socrates is setting out his program of discrediting the rhapsodes, and through them Homer himself, as educators of Greece. In the course of the dialogue, Ion is reduced to admitting that, although rhapsodes have some knowledge of all the matters Homer addresses, such as how to drive a chariot or how to be a commander of an army, they can only be inferior judges to the experts in each technical matter concerned. Ion is supposed to be a leading performer of Homeric poems as well as a critic of Homeric poetry at the time (530c-d), but apparently cannot even pinpoint the nature of his own expertise. The only honorable way out for him in the end is to agree to Socrates' view that the rhapsode can perform or praise Homer's poems well, not as a result of his skill (tekhnê) or knowledge (epistêmê), but by divine dispensation, or more simply, by being divine (theios) (541e-42b).

Plato's Socrates introduces his...



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