Lane Cooper writes in the introduction that
The dialogue is proof that the balance between opposites which had made the Periclean Age possible was passing away and had already passed to such a degree that the greatest of the Athenians had to put his effort into counteracting the rapidly growing disorder in a state ruled more and more not by the mind, but by the emotions.But I tend to disagree. As with most dialogues there are more questions than answers and Plato's mystery meaning is hidden beneath what appears to be a put down of art and a praise of philosophy. As Cooper writes, "In this little dialogue Plato is amusing himself." Yet the questions lead us away from such an interpretation.
Why, for instance, is the main character named "Ion"? There certainly was a contemporary of Plato's by that name, a famous rhapsode specializing in Homer, but Plato never passed up an opportunity for mythological meaning in his characters and this is no exception. Mythologically Ion was the son of Apollo and Creusa. His mother abandons him in a cave and he is raised by a nymph, eventually adopted again by Creusa and Xuthus, almost killed by his jealous mother but finally accepted into the family. A man at odds with his origins and, unaware that he is divine in nature, accepts his life as the son of a mortal man (much like Superman with Jonathan and Martha Kent).
Why is Ion's home in Ephesus, the land of Homer and the temple of Artemis, moon sister of the solar Apollo, lord of music and artwork?
Why has Ion come from Epidaurus, the capital of the cult of Asclepius and the home of healing? Is this part of the healing art of the dialogue? Is the healing begun at Ephesus only completed by Socrates inquiry into the true nature of the man? "We owe a cock to Asclepius" says Socrates at the end of his life, in praise for his lifetime of healing work and himself being finally "cured" of life.
What does Socrates mean by the image of the magnet and iron RINGS, an image very similar to the chain of being brought up later in the Republic.
SOCRATES: In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Corybantian revelers when they dance are not in their right mind,so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains; but when falling under the power of music and meter they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind.
Do you know that the spectator is the last of the rings which, as I am saying, receive the power of the original magnet from one another? The rhapsode like yourself and the actor are intermediate links, and the poet himself is the first of them. Through all these the God sways the souls of men in any direction which he pleases, and makes one man hang down from another. Thus there is a vast chain of dancers and masters and undermasters of choruses, who are suspended, as if from the stone, at the side of the rings which hang down from the Muse. And every poet has some Muse from whom he is suspended, and by whom he is said to be possessed, which is nearly the same thing; for he is taken hold of. And from these first rings, which are the poets, depend others, some deriving their inspiration from Orpheus, others from Musaeus; but the greater number are possessed and held by Homer. Of whom, Ion, you are one, and are possessed by Homer... (translation, Benjamin Jowett)
Why is the magnet called by its other name "Heracleaneum"? like Heracles? Does the poet (and poetic imagery) do the Heraclean task of keeping man connected to the divine (or concept of the divine in spite of all pull toward the earth) - iron is the metal of the earth, after all. Man is "iron" (piggish, apelike, bronze) until connected by poetry/art to the divine.
"... your words touch my soul, (says Ion in a remarkable poetic and religious, rather than philosophic/intellectual, metaphor) and I am persuaded that good poets by a divine inspiration interpret the things of the Gods to us."
SOCRATES: And are you aware that you produce similar effects on most spectators?Later on in the dialogue Socrates seems to remind Ion of his real nature when he asks him about the charioteer passage in Odyssey.
ION: Only too well; for I look down upon them from the stage, and behold the various emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon their countenances when I am speaking: and I am obliged to give my very best attention to them; for if I make them cry I myself shall laugh, and if I make them laugh I myself shall cry when the time of payment arrives.
SOCRATES: Tell me then, what Nestor says to Antilochus, his son, where he bids him be careful of the turn at the horse-race in honour of Patroclus.
ION: He says:
Bend gently in the polished chariot to the left of them, and urge the horse on the right hand with whip and voice; and slacken the rein. And when you are at the goal, let the left horse draw near, yet so that the nave of the well-wrought wheel may not even seem to touch the extremity; and avoid catching the stone.
SOCRATES: You know the passage in which Hecamede, the concubine of Nestor, is described as giving to the wounded Machaon a posset, as he says,
Made with Pramnian wine; and she grated cheese of goat's milk with a grater of bronze, and at his side placed an onion which gives a relish to drink. Now would you say that the art of the rhapsode or the art of medicine was better able to judge of the propriety of these lines?
ION: The art of medicine.
SOCRATES: And when Homer says,
And she descended into the deep like a leaden plummet, which, set in the horn of ox that ranges in the fields, rushes along carrying death among the ravenous fishes,- will the art of the fisherman or of the rhapsode be better able to judge whether these lines are rightly expressed or not?
ION: Clearly, Socrates, the art of the fisherman.
SOCRATES: Come now, suppose that you were to say to me: "Since you, Socrates, are able to assign different passages in Homer to their corresponding arts, I wish that you would tell me what are the passages of which the excellence ought to be judged by the prophet and prophetic art"; and you will see how readily and truly I shall answer you. For there are many such passages, particularly in the Odyssey; as, for example, the passage in which Theoclymenus the prophet of the house of Melampus says to the suitors:-
Wretched men! what is happening to you? Your heads and your faces and your limbs underneath are shrouded in night; and the voice of lamentationbursts forth, and your cheeks are wet with tears. And the vestibule is full, and the court is full, of ghosts descending into the darkness of Erebus, and the sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist is spread abroad.
And there are many such passages in the Iliad also; as for example in the description of the battle near the rampart, where he says:-
As they were eager to pass the ditch, there came to them an omen: a soaring eagle, holding back the people on the left, bore a huge bloody dragon in his talons, still living and panting; nor had he yet resigned the strife, for he bent back and smote the bird which carried him on the breast by the neck, and he in pain let him fall from him to the ground into the midst of the multitude. And the eagle, with a cry, was borne afar on the wings of the wind.
These are the sort of things which I should say that the prophet ought to consider and determine.
Socrates seems to know Homer as well as Ion. Why does he prompt him, then to recite the charioteer passage? Why does he choose these passages?
SOCRATES: And are you the best general (στρατηγός ἄριστος), Ion?
ION: To be sure, Socrates; and Homer was my master.
SOCRATES: But then, Ion, what in the name of goodness can be the reason why you, who are the best of generals as well as the best of rhapsodes in all Hellas, go about as a rhapsode when you might be a general? Do you think that the Hellenes want a rhapsode with his golden crown, and do not want a general?
ION: Why, Socrates, the reason is, that my countrymen, the Ephesians, are the servants and soldiers of Athens, and do not need a general; and you and Sparta are not likely to have me, for you think that you have enough generals of your own.
SOCRATES: ... indeed, Ion, if you are correct in saying that by art and knowledge you are able to praise Homer, you do not deal fairly with me, and after all your professions of knowing many, glorious things about Homer, and promises that you would exhibit them, you are only a deceiver, and so far from exhibiting the art of which you are a master, will not, even after my repeated entreaties, explain to me the nature of it. You have literally as many forms as Proteus; and now you go all manner of ways, twisting and turning, and, like Proteus, become all manner of people at once, and at last slip away from me in the disguise of a general, in order that you may escape exhibiting your Homeric lore.
SOCRATES: ...if you have art, then, as I was saying ,...you are not dealing fairly with me. But if, as I believe, you have no art, but speak all these beautiful words about Homer unconsciously under his inspiring influence, then I acquit you of dishonesty, and shall only say that you are inspired. Which do you prefer to be thought, dishonest or inspired?
The common interpretation of Plato is that only knowledge, philosophy, the mind's power can lead us to sure fact. But I'm not so sure of this. As Ion says, "what am I forgetting?" Knowledge is a remembering of things latent in our person, so Plato says. The remembering is a remembering of who we really are, that is, the Asclepian healing power of all Plato's dialogues is that they attempt to remind us of our real Apollonian, solar, greatness. They do so by stripping away our false pretenses of knowledge and granting us instead poetic images of what we real are.