Poetics before Plato

Poetics before Plato: Interpretation and Authority in Early Greek Theories of Poetry

Grace M. Ledbetter
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 144
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    Poetics before Plato
    Book Description:

    Combining literary and philosophical analysis, this study defends an utterly innovative reading of the early history of poetics. It is the first to argue that there is a distinctively Socratic view of poetry and the first to connect the Socratic view of poetry with earlier literary tradition.

    Literary theory is usually said to begin with Plato's famous critique of poetry in the Republic. Grace Ledbetter challenges this entrenched assumption by arguing that Plato's earlier dialogues Ion, Protagoras, and Apology introduce a distinctively Socratic theory of poetry that responds polemically to traditional poets as rival theorists. Ledbetter tracks the sources of this Socratic response by introducing separate readings of the poetics implicit in the poetry of Homer, Hesiod, and Pindar. Examining these poets' theories from a new angle that uncovers their literary, rhetorical, and political aims, she demonstrates their decisive influence on Socratic thinking about poetry.

    The Socratic poetics Ledbetter elucidates focuses not on censorship, but on the interpretation of poetry as a source of moral wisdom. This philosophical approach to interpreting poetry stands at odds with the poets' own theories--and with the Sophists' treatment of poetry. Unlike the Republic's focus on exposing and banishing poetry's irrational and unavoidably corrupting influence, Socrates' theory includes poetry as subject matter for philosophical inquiry within an examined life.

    Reaching back into what has too long been considered literary theory's prehistory, Ledbetter advances arguments that will redefine how classicists, philosophers, and literary theorists think about Plato's poetics.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2528-8
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction: Poetry, Knowledge, and Interpretation
    (pp. 1-8)

    Two questions, or sets of questions, motivate this study. The first concerns the views of poetry advanced in the Socratic dialoguesApology, Ion,andProtagoras. Plato’s famous critique of poetry in theRepubliclooms so provocatively and so demandingly that scholars have continued to assume that the reflections on poetry in the early Socratic dialogues can only anticipate or supplement Plato’s mature, systematic treatment of poetry. This assumption survives despite the wealth of current scholarship that proceeds from Vlastos’s systematic division of Platonic from Socratic thought throughout a wide range of ethical, metaphysical, and epistemological issues.¹ TheRepublic’s notorious banishment...

  6. Chapter One Supernatural Knowledge in Homeric Poetics
    (pp. 9-39)

    There is an influential reading of Homer that found its classic formulation in E. Auerbach’s essay, “The Scar of Odysseus.”¹ There, Auerbach argued that certain formal features of theIliadandOdysseycombine to discourage any interpretation that would seek to derive from the poems implicit teachings or ulterior meaning. In Homer, Auerbach observes, all phenomena are at the fore and in focus: “never is there a form left fragmentary or half-illuminated, never a lacuna, never a gap, never a glimpse of unplumbed depths.” There is never a hint that something remains to be expressed, nor a sense that events...

  7. Chapter Two Hesiod’s Naturalism
    (pp. 40-61)

    The homeric poems promise their audience supernatural knowledge. Such a grandiose undertaking leaves them vulnerable to criticism that Homer endeavored to deflect. Xenophanes, and later Plato, famously criticize both Homer and Hesiod for portraying the gods as immoral.¹ Heraclitus’s charge that Hesiod and others possessed “learning of many things” (polumathia) rather than intelligence views poetry through the lens of Homeric poetics and turns that theory against itself. The charge ofpolumathiaamounts to the charge that a certain kind of poetry amasses and conveys information, but does not lead us toward true understanding of thelogos,which would require interpretation.²...

  8. Chapter Three Pindar: The Poet as Interpreter
    (pp. 62-77)

    Like homer and Hesiod, Pindar¹ petitions the Muse for a divine message:

    μαvτεύεo, Moîσα, πρoΦατεύσω δ’ έγώ.

    Muse, be my oracle, and I shall be your interpreter. (fr. 150)

    Pindar, however, departs from both Homer’s and Hesiod’s poetics by casting the poet as an interpreter (πρoΦήτης). Much of Pindar’s poetic theory flows from this innovative model, including his radical conception of a poem as a decryption of a divine message from the Muse. Pindar’s revisionary conception of the Muse as oracle also lends sense to his poetry’s claim of authority: poetry interprets for its human audience a divine message that...

  9. Chapter Four Socratic Poetics
    (pp. 78-98)

    Set against the background of the poets’ theories of poetry, Plato’s dialoguesIonandProtagoras, together with theApology, can be shown to advance a revisionary Socratic poetics. Socrates’ account undermines the general theme of discouraging interpretation that we found common to the poets’ various theories of poetry. We shall find that Socrates’ poetics discredits the inspired poets’ claims to divine knowledge and topples the poet from sovereignty over his poetry’s significance. Socrates’ democratizing of poetry assigns the interpreter’s task to audiences and supplies Socratic inquiry as the method for interpreting poetry. We have seen the notion of interpretation emerge...

  10. Chapter Five Toward a Model of Socratic Interpretation
    (pp. 99-118)

    We have seen how theIonchallenges the Homeric conception of the poet as possessor and conveyer of divine knowledge, and how theApologyportrays Socrates as subverter of the poets’ own authority in matters of interpretation. In theApology, Socrates concurs with the traditional presumption that poetry encodes god-sent wisdom at the same time he disputes the tradition that credits that wisdom to poets. Socrates implies that the qualified interpreter, unlike the poet, can extract poetry’s wisdom, but theApologydoes not illustrate this hermeneutical enterprise with a specific example in which we may glimpse Socrates demonstrating his method...

  11. Bibliographic References
    (pp. 119-124)
  12. Index
    (pp. 125-128)