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  • Talking About Homer:Poetic Madness, Philosophy, and the Birth of Criticism in Plato's Ion
  • Silke-Maria Weineck

for Charles Bernheimer

Es ist eine schöne Narretei, das Sprechen; damit tanzt der Mensch über alle Dinge.

Also sprach Zarathustra

I. Introduction

Ever since Plato formulated a sustained theory of imitation, the figure of the mad poet has had a singular impact on the Western understanding of poetry. Socrates' postulate that "some of the highest goods have come to us by way of madness" (, Phaedrus 244a),1 i.e., that a state of profound self-alienation can produce the most meaningful expressions of human existence, has proven so pervasive that it has by now become a cliché, informing readings of poetry as well as psychiatric practices and the marketing strategies of popular culture.2 [End Page 19]

This paper will analyze Plato's concept of poetic madness as it emerges in the short dialogue Ion where it serves to differentiate the procedures of philosophy and poetry: the controlled and repeatable labor of thought versus the spontaneous production of a text that is by definition unique. The Ion, I will further suggest, uses poetic madness to establish the necessity of criticism as a discipline different from poetry. While the dialogue does not explicitly describe the field of criticism as a concrete practice, it argues for the necessity of a discipline devoted to the knowledge of poetry, a discipline that would operate under the aegis of philosophy rather than of poetry.3

On a general level, Plato's writings on madness and reason pertain to the ancient question of the status of revelation as a source of knowledge. This study, more narrowly, is specifically concerned with the role that madness plays in what Socrates calls the "the ancient quarrel" between philosophy and poetry. On philosophy's side, more than on literature's side, this quarrel has been a struggle for identity, marked by an anxiety of contamination. But what exactly would constitute such contamination?

The most prominent question at the beginning of Western philosophy, or rather at the moment of its consolidation as philosophy with Socrates, is the question , what is . . . ?, replacing, in Heidegger's powerful analysis, the question of being itself. In arguably its most significant form, it concerns the nature of philosophy itself. What is philosophy? Socrates attempted many answers, and it is a matter of judgment whether any one can be privileged over the others. But one has [End Page 20] been persistent: the identity of philosophy lies in its difference from poetry. Socrates' banning of the poets from the philosopher's city is thus an emblematic act in the self-constitution of philosophy.

To say that the identity of philosophy is determined by its difference from poetry, however, creates a multitude of new questions about the nature of this difference. It has often been suggested that philosophy and poetry relate to each other like truthful and fictional representations of the world. While it is remotely possible that Socrates really thought so, it seems deeply dubious that Plato did, for the Republic is itself an elaborate, self-conscious master-fiction, a tale containing many tales within, some of them explicitly fictional, some even explicitly mendacious. Socrates does not ban fiction, but the poets, and the telling of lies is not a poet's prerogative. Not only is the lie a requisite tool of the philosopher-king, as in the education of the guardians, but fiction is as indispensable to philosophy as discourse itself. When Glaucon asks Socrates to explain the parable of the cave, Socrates responds (533a):

You will no longer be able to follow, my dear Glaucon, I said, although there wouldn't be any lack of eagerness on my part. But you would no longer be seeing an image of what we are saying, but rather the truth itself, at least as it looks to me.


If philosophy (as opposed to knowledge) were to abandon the image, we could no longer follow it; it would become unteachable and thus, at least for Socrates, cease to be philosophy. While this passage suggests the inevitability of philosophical images and fictions, it also points to the fact that part of...


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