Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.4.3

Penelope Murray, Plato on Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. ix, 250. ISBN 0-521-34981-8.

Reviewed by Velvet Yates, Princeton University,

This very useful compilation contains the Ion in full and selections from the Republic (Books II and III, 376e-398b; Book X, 595-608b) with commentary, a bibliography, short indices in English and Greek, and an appendix of important Platonic passages on poetic inspiration. There is also a helpful yet concise introduction, which includes sections on several topics important to Plato's discussions of poetry. While it is not entirely true that "no commentaries have appeared in English on the Ion, or on the opening books of the Republic ... since the early years of this century" (p. vii), there is little overlap between this volume and the Bryn Mawr commentary on the Ion.1 The strength of this volume, however, lies elsewhere, as a convenient collection of Plato's main writings on poetry, and summary of scholarship on these writings.

This very strength, however, could create the false impression that Plato had a system of aesthetics, which can be extracted and compiled from the Platonic corpus. Murray does her best to counter this impression right away, pointing out that aesthetics as a field did not exist until the 18th century, while claiming Plato as the starting point for many questions that continue to be asked in aesthetics. She also remarks that "we cannot speak of a Platonic theory of poetry, but rather a collection of texts in which various attitudes, images and myths about poetry are expressed"; and that "his discussions of poetry are always embedded in some wider context" (2). This wider context is necessarily sacrificed in such a collection.

And what of the passages selected or omitted? There is no way to make everyone happy; I, for one, would very much like to see something more from the Phaedrus in this volume. The appendix contains Phaedrus 245a (without commentary). But it is the section at the end of the Phaedrus (274c-278e), a devaluation of all written works, which speaks to what Murray calls the "embarrassing impasse" (14) between Plato's condemnation of poetry and mimesis, and Plato's own dialogues as mimeseis. Plato was aware of this impasse and his assessment of it must be taken into account. One possible interpretation is Griswold's: "Plato's dialogues themselves recant their authority as written in order to return the reader to the life of ensouled discourse."2 Murray's omission of the Phaedrus from her main selections and commentary is regrettable, though perhaps understandable in view of that dialogue's complexity and concerns with issues other than poetry.

The key term mimesis receives a section in Murray's introduction. She duly notes the range, complexity and flexibility of the word, both in and out of Plato. She also notes the seeming shift in meaning of the term between Books II/III and Book X of the Republic, a problem which has long vexed scholars. Murray defends the relevance of Book X against those who view it as "little more than an afterthought" (185) and observes that "in the course of book 10 a more complex view of mimesis is developed with reference to the Platonic theory of Forms" (6). One might argue further that this more complex view makes clear the insidiousness of all mimesis, a point not yet clear in Books II/III, where mimesis was defined only in contrast with diegesis and some mimetic poetry was still admitted. The deeper understanding of the defective inferiority inherent in all mimesis informs the decision to ban all mimetic poetry in Book X (595a).

Still, mimesis serves a valuable and even constructive purpose in Plato. Using mimesis as his basis, he may have been the first to define something which approaches our concept of the "fine" arts.3 Mimesis in Plato can also be considered a necessary step in the search for ultimate reality.4

Murray also includes a section on the important problem of poetry and inspiration. Following Tigerstedt's influential study, she notes the apparent incompatibility of inspiration with mimesis, and Plato's separation of the two concepts. Poets are described as divinely inspired in the Ion, but this concept is replaced in the Republic by that of poets as imitators. One might ask what, if anything, lies behind this strategy; Murray rightly remarks that the approach of the Ion allows Plato to criticize poets without commenting upon the subject-matter of poetry, which, on the other hand, is closely scrutinized in the Republic. Murray also follows Tigerstedt in claiming that "in one passage, and one alone, P. combines the themes of inspiration and imitation" (12). That would be Laws 719c, though they both neglect to point out that this double claim to inspiration and mimesis is imagined to come from the poets themselves, and is apparently rejected by the 'Lawgivers' (whose restrictions on poets are just as harsh as in Republic X). A more troublesome passage in the Laws is 682a, in which the Athenian says that 'poets, being inspired, often enough hit upon the truth,' a statement which seems to flatly contradict the Athenian's attitude towards poets throughout the dialogue, as well as Plato's own sustained apposition of inspiration to knowledge.

The commentary for the Ion and Republic texts is, like the introduction, concise yet informative. There is an abundance of historical and cultural notes, such as a description of rhapsodic contests, especially at the Great Panathenaea. One very helpful section (among several) is one grappling with such concepts as lying and fiction, in the Republic commentary (pp. 150-153). There are plenty of cross-references to other Platonic dialogues, as well as references to other ancient authors, earlier and later. Murray also takes pains to make the text itself understandable, above and beyond the usual grammatical/syntactical explanations: she summarizes the argument where appropriate (as at Ion 531e9 ff.), and emphasizes important points (such as the denial of techne to poetry which forms the heart of the Ion, e.g. 532c8-9). The bibliography is broad and fairly extensive, supplemented by further references in the commentary, though there are bound to be some favorites missing when there is such a huge mass of scholarship to choose from.

I have only one small quibble to make on the interpretation of a particular passage, and that is the comment on p. 125, referring to Ion 536c2-6. Murray writes that "this passage suggests that Corybantic ritual involved the use of different types of music for diagnostic purposes, since participants would only respond to the music of the god by whom they were possessed." 'Diagnostic' suggests the notion of illness, but Linforth demonstrates the nearly complete lack of ancient evidence for the curative powers of the Corybantic rites; the whole idea of 'Corybantiasm' and its cure is a fairly modern invention.5

I would also make one addition, and that is to the discussion of Rep. 380d5-e1, on the immutability of god (pp. 146-147). Murray's discussion is illuminating on many points, but it is also important to understand that simplicity and stability are not just desirable ("characteristic of what is good"), but necessary for what is immortal or divine (Phaedo 78B-79B), whether this be god, the soul, or the Forms. So the argument of this section of the Republic is not only prefigured by Xenophanes (as Murray points out), but also by Plato's own work; and the traits discussed therein are inextricably wound into Plato's very conception of the immortal and divine.

By way of comparison with this volume, Miller's Bryn Mawr commentary on the Ion gives much fuller help with grammar, vocabulary and syntax, as one might expect. Miller also includes the apparatus criticus (both commentaries are based on Burnet's OCT text). On the other hand, Murray squeezes as much historical/literary/cultural context as can fit into a concise introduction and commentary; she also supplies a bibliography, index, and appendix (Miller has only a tiny bibliography). The two commentaries are obviously meant for different audiences, and so do not compete with each other. Murray's volume is also much more ambitious in scope: she has distilled from the great morass of Platonic scholarship a concise and useful guide to Plato's main writings on poetry. This book will be valuable both for specialists in ancient aesthetics, and for those teaching advanced undergraduate or graduate courses in Greek, who wish to focus on a particular theme in Plato rather than on a single dialogue.


1. A.W. Miller, Plato's Ion (Bryn Mawr, second edition 1981).

2. C. Griswold, Self-Knowledge in Plato's Phaedrus (New Haven, 1986) 225. See his discussion of "Plato's written dialogues" on pp. 219-225.

3. "It may have been plato's achievement to use mimesis to combine the 'Musical' arts with a select group of the 'productive skills (painting, sculpture, sometimes architecture) as essentially 'imitative.'" A. Ford, "Aesthetics, Classical," in D.J. Zeyl, et al. (edd.), The Encyclopediea of Classical Philosophy (Greenwood, 1997).

4. "[T]he skilled use of mimesis is an indispensable means for whatever approach we are able to make to ... ultimate reality." L. Golden, Aristotle on Tragic and Comic Mimesis, American Classical Studies 29 (Atlanta, 1992) 41.

5. I.M. Linforth, "The Corybantic Rites in Plato," University Publications in Classical Philology 13 (1946 121-162.