Techne and poetry – technical philosophy
Plato never treated poetry as art and denied poets any standing, or worse, considered them dangerous, because he claimed they had no techne (‘tekne’ – skill, craft, art, system, method).
Plato forces a dichotomy, between
- REASON, exemplars are painters, doctors, fishermen who demonstrate the critical abilities of examination and judgment; and
- INSPIRATION, the mode of poets, rhapsodes, Corybants, and those who do not understand (in practice, are unable to give an account of) what they do.
The two are mutually exclusive (532c6-7) due to a necessary but not sufficient condition of techne, by Plato’s definition, being the ability to talk about what one does (532b7-8, 534c5-6)
In Ion, where Plato first attacks poetry, the notion of techne central. Who can talk knowingly of the past or present, who has access to truth? Ion claims he can truthfully interpret Homer? Plato attacks this claim, because Ion relies on inspiration, and so lacks techne and ‘episteme’ (understanding, knowledge). Ion can speak about Homer but not about poetry as a whole (531a, 532c8) nor the various teknai (arts, skills) depicted by Homer, only a chariot racer is qualified to judge whether a description of chariot racing is accurate (537a). Socrates suggests that as Ion fails to get his episteme from reason, he must be inspired, and uses the trope of the magnetic stones of Herakles (533d-e). ‘Nous’ (mind) is a property of and is explained via the stones (534b3-6).
Plato leads Ion to deny ‘nous’ to poets and rhapsodes, thus denying them the ability to recognise, interpret or evaluate what they say, see, or hear. [i] As Andrew Becker argues, ‘Since inspiration entails the absence of ‘nous’ (534b6), we are led to conclude, then, that Ion uses his ‘nous’ precisely when and where Socrates denies him ‘nous’, i.e. in his inspired recitation and his equally inspired discussions of Homer.’[ii] Becker concludes his essay, ‘To us, the opposition between reason and inspiration may be left to stand, but, on this ironic reading, Ion may not.’ However this is exactly my point, Plato has been too damaging in forcing dichotomies upon Ion and ourselves.
Plato was mistaken in the Laws and The Republic to engineer a polis without poets.[iii] As R.J. Bernstein notes, ‘A community or polis is not something that can be made or engineered by some form of techne or by the administration of society… the idea that we can make, engineer, impose our collective will to form such communities. But this is precisely what cannot be done, and attempts to do so have been disastrous.’ [iv] Aristotle’s definition of a polis more reasonable; ‘not a mere society’ but a ‘community of families and aggregations of families in wellbeing [eudaimonia], for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life.’[v]
[i] ‘Nous’ is necessary to recognise (‘anagignoskein’) signs (‘semata’) see G. Nagy in Greek Mythology and Poetics, Ithaca, 1990, p202-222. Without nous one is ‘ekphron’ (out of one’s wits), ‘entheos’ (possessed), or with ’theia dunamis’ (divine power).
[ii] Andrew S. Becker, ‘A Short Essay on Deconstruction and Plato’s ‘Ion’, Electronic Antiquity, Vol1: 4 – September 1993
[iii] Nehamas contrasts Plato’s authoritarian universalistic arguments (from the middle period on) with another style which he terms ‘aestheticist’ and ‘individualistic’, ‘According to it, human life takes many forms and no single mode of life is best for all. Philosophers like Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault articulate a way of living that only they and perhaps few others can follow… . They do not want to be imitated, at least not directly. That is, they believe that those who want to imitate them must develop their own art of living, their own self . . .’ The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, Berkeley: U of California P, 1998, p10. This is the style of living for poets! Plato dismisses non-philosophical approaches because he thinks reflective thinking reaches truth and wisdom. In Part 1, I showed this is untrue.
[iv] R. J. Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, Blackwell, 1983, p226. Alasdair MacIntyre, an Aristotelian communitarian, wants to go beyond altruism, for a broader ecological sense of morality, ‘If we need to act for the sake of such common good in order to achieve our flourishing as rational animals, then we also need to have transformed our … desires in a way that enables us to recognize the inadequacy of any simple classification of desires as either egoistic or altruistic’. Dependent Rational Animals 1999, p119. A land ethic expands on value communitarianism.
[v] Aristotle’s Politics, trans B. Jowett, Clarendon, 1959, 1280A30-1281A2.