Marian Demos, Lyric Quotation in Plato: Chapter 1. Introduction

Chapter 1. Introduction

The subject of this study is Plato’s incorporation of lyric poetry into the fabric of his own work. Although much has been written about Plato’s views on poetry, as revealed explicitly in the Republic and the Laws, few studies have been concerned with Plato’s own use of poetry. [1] The dialogues are replete with poetic allusion, by paraphrase and by quotation. This could be perceived as paradoxical in light of Plato’s proposal to banish poets from his ideal polis. [2] However, if we take into account the tradition of literary criticism embedded in Greek literature from Homer forward, [3] Plato’s relationship with poetic works that were already considered classics by his own time seems far less anomalous.
Any discussion of Greek views on poetry necessitates the understanding that for the Greeks the essence of poetry lies in its capacity to delight and to instruct. In the words of E. E. Sikes, “the history of Greek criticism is largely occupied, not so much with a denial of the function of art to teach, as with the relation between this teaching and the claim of pleasure to be its immediate end.” [4] Although this observation may be generally valid, Sikes does not explain the type of instruction poetry is meant to provide. [5] Aristophanes, for example, has Aeschylus say in the Frogs (11. 1054-55) that poets are responsible for the teaching of adults. Poetry, as a medium for recording the glorious deeds of men (κλέα ἀνδρῶν), [6] is itself the bestower of glory upon the deeds of gods and men. [7]
Note that Odysseus says that either the Muse or Apollo taught (viii 488: ἐδίδαξε) the bard Demodocus to sing and that Hesiod himself claims that the Muses taught him lovely song (Th. 22: καλὴν ἐδίδαξαν ἀοιδήν). The poet therefore is a teacher insofar as his own instruction by the Muses is transmitted to the audience by way of his song. It can then be said that the power of a poet, who is taught and inspired by the Muses, is his ability to choose his subject and treat it in whatever way he sees fit. Such a view is intimated by Hesiod in the Theogony when he describes what the Muses said when they inspired (1.31: ἐνέπνευσαν) him with a divine voice:

ἴδμεν ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγειν ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα,
ἴδμεν δ᾽, εὖτ’ ἐθέλωμεν, ἀληθέα γηρύσασθαι.

Th. 27-28
We know to tell many falsehoods that resemble truth,
but we know to sing true things when we wish.

We may infer that Hesiod, like the Muses, is capable of speaking not only true things but also many false things that resemble truth. This is a divine sort of power that mortals may obtain only through inspiration.

Pindar takes the metaphor of divine inspiration to even greater lengths, as he envisions himself as a prophet of the Muse. He invites the Muse to prophesy and declares that he will be her prophet: μαντεύεο, Μοῖσα, προφατεύσω δ’ ἐγώ (fr. 150 Snell-Maehler). [8] The source of knowledge (σοφία) for both the poet and the seer is the same: divine inspiration. The notion that poets have special relationships with Muses is a familiar one; however, Pindar makes it clear that inspiration is related to the poet’s being σοφός by nature: σοφὸς ὁ πολλὰ εἰδὼς φυᾷ (Ol. 2.86). The divinely inspired knowledge of an encomiastic poet like Pindar lends authority to his conferral of praise or blame. Consequently, Pindar can criticize even Homer, his predecessor in the poetic tradition, on the grounds that Homer’s poetic skill (σοφία) misleads men into attributing more fame to Odysseus than he deserved (cf. Nem. 7.20-27). Such a comment regarding a poet’s power to deceive his audience by the charm of his words is striking in the context of a poem; Pindar is obliquely self-referential. He appropriates for himself the power that he ascribes to Homer. While Pindar criticizes Homer for bestowing excessive praise, he disapproves of Archilochus’ excessive fondness for blaming (Pyth. 2.52-56). Pindar views Archilochus as an unwitting victim of his own predilection for speaking ill (κακαγορία), and describes his predecessor as fond of blaming (ψογερός). It is interesting to note that Pindar, within the context of an epinician ode, is blaming a past poet for misusing blame (ψόγος) poetry.
Since any poet, epic or lyric, can confer praise or blame, it can be said that his work is moralistic by its very nature. Passing judgment is a deontological activity that condemns or recommends behavior that is consistent with an established ethical code. By glorifying the deeds—both praiseworthy and objectionable—of gods and men, the poet becomes a transmitter of moral values and, as such, an obvious target of attack. Xenophanes, the sixth-century Ionian philosophical poet who composed in a variety of meters, is the first to attack Homer and Hesiod for their portrayal of the gods. The criticism, like the poetry it attacks, is composed in hexameters:

πάντα θεοῖς ἀνέθηκαν Ὅμηρός θ’ Ἡσίοδός τε
ὅσσα παρ’ ἀνθρώποισιν ὀνείδεα καὶ ψόγος ἐστίν,
κλέπτειν μοιχεύειν τε καὶ ἀλλήλους ἀπατεύειν.

Diels-Kranz 21 Β 11
Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods all
things that are shameful and blameworthy among men,
theft, adultery and deceiving one another.

Xenophanes is generally thought to be “the first person on record to condemn the epic explicitly on moral grounds.” [9] In response to this sort of criticism, which focuses on the immorality of myths found in poetry, allegorical interpretations of traditional poetry are offered by such figures as Theagenes of Rhegium in the sixth century and Anaxagoras in the fifth. Allegorical interpretations of poems defend the value of poetry as a didactic medium from which one can learn about the physical universe as well as about moral questions.

By the fourth century, poetry is no longer the only medium to form the basis for a person’s education. Rhetoric and philosophy infiltrate the domain of παιδεία that poetry, both epic and lyric, had claimed for its own. More importantly, poetry becomes the object of study for both sophists and philosophers alike. Gorgias, for example, in his Encomium of Helen discusses poetry at length, especially its power to influence human emotions; [10] like prose, poetry is viewed as a powerful tool that can be manipulated for a pragmatic purpose. [11] Other sophists, notably Protagoras and Prodicus, study poetical works with a philological bent. Plato often refers to their preoccupation with correct wording (ὀρθοέπεια). [12] I will say more regarding the sophists in my chapter on the exegesis of Simonidean poetry in the Protagoras.
The sophists are not alone in their scrutiny of the technical and stylistic aspects of poetry. Aristophanes, recognizing the impact of dramatic poetry, especially tragedy, on the polis, not only parodies the poetic language of the tragedians but also makes literary criticism the subject of his comedy the Frogs. Euripides, asked by Aeschylus about the qualities that characterize a good poet, remarks that a poet’s—more precisely, his own—technical skill and counsel with a view toward making men in the cities better are worthy of admiration: δεξιότητος καὶ νουθεσίας, ὅτι βελτίους τε ποιοῦμεν τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἐν ταῖς πόλεσιν (Frogs 1009). Aristophanes places this comment in the mouth of the upstart Euripides for comic effect, since the agôn of the play pits the old-fashioned Aeschylus against the irreverent Euripides. Specifically, Aristophanes condemns the new tragic poetry of Euripides and advocates a reversion to the older sort of tragedy as composed by Aeschylus.
Morality, as transmitted through the theater, is a central issue for Aristophanes. We need only recall the words of Pluto in the exodos (ll. 1501-1503), which indicate that the primary function of the tragic poet is as teacher: ‘save our city by your good advice and instruct the foolish’ (σῷζε πόλιν τὴν ἡμετέραν γνώμαις ἀγαθαῖς, καὶ παίδευσον τοὺς ἀνοήτους). The fact that in the Frogs Aristophanes criticizes contemporary dramatic poetry—as exemplified by Euripides—on stylistic and moral grounds highlights the prominence of dramatic poetry, as compared to epic and lyric, within the Athenian social context by the end of the fifth century. [13] The nostalgic longing for the older poetry of the tragedian Aeschylus that characterizes the Frogs resembles the “back to basics” approach to education advocated by the character Strepsiades in the Clouds. Strepsiades says that his confrontation with his son Pheidippides, an admirer of Euripides’ poetry, began when his son refused to take up the lyre and sing a Simonidean song after dinner:

καὶ μὴν ὅθεν γε πρῶτον ἠρξάμεσθα λοιδορεῖσθαι
ἐγὼ φράσω. ’πειδὴ γὰρ εἱστιώμεθ’, ὥσπερ ἴστε,
πρῶτον μὲν αὐτὸν τὴν λύραν λαβόντ’ ἐγὼ ’κέλευσα
ᾆσαι Σιμωνίδου μέλος, τὸν Κριόν, ὡς ἐπέχθη.
ὁ δ’ εὐθέως ἀρχαῖον εἶν’ ἔφασκε τὸ κιθαρίζειν
ᾄδειν τε πίνονθ’, ὡσπερεὶ κάχρυς γυναῖκ’ ἀλοῦσαν.

Clouds 1353-1358
I will tell you when we first began to reproach each other.
When we were feasting, as you know, I first asked him to
take up the lyre and sing a song of Simonides, “How the
ram was shorn.” But he immediately said that it was old-
fashioned to play the cithara and to sing while drinking,
and he compared this to a woman grinding wheat.

Pheidippides, we are told, regards performing lyrical compositions after dinner as passé. He even dares to call Simonides a bad poet: καὶ τὸν Σιμωνίδην ἔφασκ’ εἶναι κακὸν ποιητήν (1362), Strepsiades then asks his son to recite, without musical accompaniment, some lines of Aeschylus; Pheidippides proceeds to criticize the old-fashioned tragic poet Aeschylus, who is regarded by his father as foremost among poets (1366: πρῶτον ἐν ποιηταῖς). The performance of lyrical compositions by educated symposiasts is of course obsolete by Aristophanes’ time; however, Strepsiades is portrayed as nostalgic for the good old days when a sound education in the classics presupposed the ability not only to recite but also to sing lyric works and accompany oneself on a musical instrument like the cithara. [14] Strepsiades’ preference for the older, more august tragedies of Aeschylus instead of the newer works of Euripides is similar to the verdict of Dionysus in the Frogs; in both plays, Aeschylus, as opposed to Euripides, is represented as part of the established poetic heritage of the polis. Aristophanes’ plays, therefore, are works of literary criticism, since they not only parody the particular themes and types of diction found in the works of Aeschylus and Euripides but also highlight the central role of poetry and music in the sphere of civic education.

Like Aristophanes, Plato is a literary critic insofar as he is concerned with the impact of poetry and music (μουσική) upon education. He too is concerned with the moral instruction poetry is assumed to provide. Aristophanes, however, is himself a poet; he accepts poetry’s exalted status in society as a given, and it is through the poetic medium that Aristophanes calls attention to the use—and potential abuse—of that medium. Plato, on the other hand, regards philosophy as the supreme educational medium that ought to exert the greatest influence upon a man’s mind and character. [15] In other words, dialectic, as exemplified by its greatest practitioner, Socrates, is superior to poetry because its essence is not irrational and it serves as a better guide in the search for truth. Although a detailed discussion of Plato’s complex views on poetry in general is beyond the scope of this study, it is important that we focus on Plato’s inheritance of the poetic tradition fundamental to education in Greek society. [16] Even if Plato criticizes poetry on moral and epistemological grounds, his work presupposes a thorough familiarity with the poetic tradition that he proposes to uproot. We may surmise that Plato would agree with the observation that it is justifiable to dismiss a body of knowledge as unworthy of study only after one’s mastery of it has led to the questioning of its authority. My subsequent analysis of Plato’s quotations from the lyric poets is based upon this paradox. This study concentrates on three lyric quotations: the Simonides poem in the Protagoras, Callicles’ reference to Pindar in the Gorgias, and Socrates’ use of Stesichorus’ “palinode” in the Phaedrus. [17]
In Books Π and ΠΙ of the Republic, Plato has Socrates reject poetry on moral grounds. The stories related by the poets, especially Homer and Hesiod, concerning the behavior of the gods are considered immoral and therefore are not suitable for the education of the “guardians” of the ideal polis (377b-378e). Even the poetry of the tragic theater is not spared from criticism. Plato has Socrates quote a passage from the Niobe of Aeschylus (fr. 162 Nauck) as an example of impious and false utterance regarding gods and heroes (391e7-11). Worst of all, the words of the poets can be harmful to the souls of those who hear them: καὶ μὴν τοῖς γε ἀκούουσιν βλαβερά (391e4). [18] Socrates continues in Book III with his prescriptions concerning the other components of song (398d1: τὸ μέλος), namely, ‘the organization of pitches’ (ἁρμονία) [19] and ‘rhythm’ (ῥυθμός). He concludes that having a “good” disposition or character is a pre-condition for one’s displaying all the elements of “good” song: εὐλογία ἄρα καὶ εὐαρμοστία καὶ εὐσχημοσύνη καὶ εὐρυθμία εὐηθείᾳ ἀκολουθεῖ (400d11-e1).
Plato’s criticism of poetry as a “mimetic” art is too complex a topic for a brief investigation into his treatment of the lyric poets. Nevertheless, the following observations must be made. First, Plato in Book X of the Republic has Socrates consider most poetry (with the exception of hymns to the gods and eulogies of praiseworthy men) a mimetic art that has no place in his ideal city-state. [20] It is argued that poets, like painters, create imitations of reality that are inferior to reality and appeal to the irrational or inferior part of the soul (605a-c). Second, poets have the power to corrupt the “city-state” of the soul by placing a spell over the listener. In the presence of poetry’s power to bewitch the listener, [21] Socrates urges the chanting of a ‘counterspell’ (608a4: ἐπῳδή) that prevents one from taking poetry seriously (608a6-b2). Plato has Socrates refer specifically to lyric (or “melic”) poetry as one type of mimetic poetry that ought to be banned (607a5; cf. 607d4).
The views Plato expresses regarding poetry in his last work, the Laws, resemble those of the Republic. However, now the poets are not expelled outright; rather, they are to be heavily censored. The ideal lawgiver would insist that poets employ diction and music representative of, and conducive to, correct behavior (660a3-8; cf. 801c8-d6). A specialized knowledge of poetry and its concomitant musical element is here considered essential to a “liberal education.” The poet himself must be a virtuous man in order to compose good poetry. In the words of D. A. Russell, “the acceptable poet of the Laws is a good man in his way: over fifty years of age, having served the state with credit, he is now allowed under licence to compose poems of praise and blame.” [22] The traditional Greek concept of the poet’s role as educator of the polis is reaffirmed in the Laws.
Although Plato makes a conscious effort to dissociate himself from the tradition that makes poetry the chief educational medium, the dialogues themselves indicate that he is greatly influenced by poetry, especially epic and lyric. Socratic diction is filled with casual references to the words of the poets, thereby displaying Plato’s own knowledge of poetry. Often, however, the quotations play a vital role in their respective contexts. The quotation of Simonides in the Protagoras, for example, provides an opportunity for exegesis on the part of Socrates and his interlocutor while simultaneously allowing Plato to promote his own vision of the optimal method of discourse among educated men. As I will argue, Callicles’ quotation of Pindar in the Gorgias subtly reveals much concerning the character of one of Socrates’ most eloquent opponents. In addition, Socrates’ “palinode,” as compared to Stesichorus’ recanting of his earlier defamation of Helen, serves as a framework for his own poetic and ritualistic language in the Phaedrus. An appreciation of the significance of these references to lyric poetry within their respective contexts is the ultimate goal of this study.


[ back ] 1. Moravcsik and Temko (eds.) 1982 provide a sampling of the varied approaches to the general topic of Plato’s philosophical views on the nature of poetry as a mimetic art.
[ back ] 2. Cf. Republic 3.398a, 10.595a ff., 607a and Laws 7.817c (with respect to the banishment of tragic poets).
[ back ] 3. 3 Cf. Sikes 1931 for a survey of the tradition of Greek “literary criticism”; Maehler 1963 discusses the self-stylized role of the archaic Greek poet. Lanata 1963 provides important texts with Italian translation and commentary.
[ back ] 4. Sikes 1931.1.
[ back ] 5. Russell 1981 (chapter 6) discusses “the poet as teacher.”
[ back ] 6. Odyssey viii 73.
[ back ] 7. Cf. Nagy 1979 passim for a discussion of the power of poetry to confer glory (κλέος).
[ back ] 8. For a discussion of the relationship between prophet (προφήτης) and seer (μάντις), sec Nagy 1990.163 regarding the interchangeability of these terms and the notion that “the prophecy of the mantis and the poetry formulated by the prophete s are…one.”
[ back ] 9. Russell 1981.87.
[ back ] 10. Cf. Gorgias, Helen 8f.
[ back ] 11. Cf. Sikes 1931.27-36; Russell 1981.22-24.
[ back ] 12. See, for example, the Protagoras and the Cratylus.
[ back ] 13. Cf. Nagy 1989.66-69; he calls attention to Old Comedy’s “dramatised alienation from everything that happens to be current” and “the evolving predominance of Athenian theatre as the primary poetic medium” (p. 66).
[ back ] 14. Cf. Protagoras’ comments on the musical education of wealthy young men such as Pericles’ sons in the latter half of the fifth century (Prot. 325e-326c). After having read and memorized poetry while at school in order to learn about and emulate the noble figures of the past, youths are taught to play the lyre and to perform the works of the lyric poets (326a7-bl: ἐπειδὰν κιθαρίζειν μάθωσιν, ἄλλων αὖ ποιητῶν ἀγαθῶν ποιήματα διδάσκουσι μελοποιῶν, εἰς τὰ κιθαρίσματα ἐντείνοντες…). See also the comments of the anonymous Athenian interlocutor in Laws 810e6-813a3.
[ back ] 15. Note Socrates’ own mention of the ‘ancient disagreement between philosophy and poetry’ (Rep. 607b5-6: παλαιὰ μέν τις διαφορὰ φιλοσοφίᾳ τε καὶ ποιητικῇ).
[ back ] 16. Socrates himself refers to the love of poetry nurtured by city-states in Rep. 607e7-8.
[ back ] 17. See Vicaire 1960.129-149 for other examples of lyric quotation in Plato’s dialogues. Tarrant 1951.59-67 discusses Plato’s use of quotations from poets, especially from Homer, and argues that they form the bulk of his “illustrative material.”
[ back ] 18. As Russell 1981.90 succinctly remarks: “Indeed, the better the poetry, the worse the moral effect.”
[ back ] 19. Cf. Barker 1984.130 for this translation of ἀρμονία and for a detailed study of this passage concerning music (397a-401b). Plato returns to the topic of musical education in Laws 654a-672e.
[ back ] 20. See 607a3-5 for the reference to hymns and encomia as the two “permissible” genres; cf. Laws 801e1-802b1. Perhaps Plato allows for them because he believes they instill a pious attitude toward divine and heroic figures; i.e., poetry is “good” only when it “imitates” the ideal form of “the good” by calling attention to “particular” examples of goodness (e.g., virtuous deeds associated with heroes).
[ back ] 21. Socrates emphasizes the spellbinding effect of poetry at 607c7.
[ back ] 22. Russell 1981.104.