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Andrew Watson

'The best things we have come from madness, when it is given as a gift of the god' (Phaedrus 244a). An assessment of Plato's theory of divine inspiration (mania)

In the Republic Plato argued that 'beauty itself' is an absolute Form dwelling in a supratemporal realm. Only the philosopher, trained in dialectic, can distinguish between Absolute Beauty and the things that share its character in the world of ordinary experience. In the Ion, Phaedrus and Symposium, Plato changes tack, considering the experience of 'beauty itself' from the poet's point of view. He describes how the poet, when engaged in creating his work, falls into a meditative trance, becoming saturated with a pure, non- material energy, untouched by human desires. It is in the Symposium that Plato most clearly and poetically takes us through the various stages of the flight upwards to the 'final and highest mystery', to see the 'Beautiful itself'.

At 211 c-e Plato begins: 'one goes always upwards for the sake of this Beauty'. 'Beautiful things' are to be used 'like raising stairs: from one body to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, then from beautiful bodies to beautiful customs, and from customs to beautiful things'. Following these lessons he arrives at he ultimate lesson, which is 'learning of this very Beauty' and comes to know 'just what it is to be beautiful'. Plato concludes: 'there if anywhere should a person live his life, beholding that Beauty... absolute, pure, unmixed, not polluted by human flesh or colours or any other great nonsense of mortality'.[1]

In the Ion, Socrates claims that the poet experiences this rarefied atmosphere in the form of a divine 'madness' that comes from the gods, channelled through the poet, who 'is not able to make poetry until he becomes inspired and goes out of his mind, and his intellect is no longer in him.' Socrates concludes that 'beautiful poems are not human, not even from human beings, but are divine and are from gods; that poets are nothing but representatives of the gods, possessed by whoever possesses them' (534b-e).[2]

Socrates discusses the need to go beyond discursive reason, implying that the whole intellect is temporarily jettisoned in the experience of the 'Beautiful itself'. Mania or divine inspiration helps the poet to transcend reason.

In the Republic, Plato states that in a well-lived life a love of beauty is cultivated alongside a love of truth. In book three he highlights benefits for children in learning about literature and music, serving as a proper foundation for the life of reason. Yet Plato wields a sledge hammer against poetry in book ten, advocating that art is a barrier to morality, affecting and stirring up unhelpful, irrational emotions in the appetitive part of the mind, and should be completely abolished. Poetry's link with the metaphysical realm provides the poets with a type of spiritual energy that has the power to deform the 'audience's minds' (598b) and which the poet does not have the wherewithal to see and use properly: only the philosopher has this insight.

Cavarnos posits that the true artist, 'being a true lover of wisdom', is a philosopher.[3] He makes reference to the Apology, where Socrates, in defending his devotion to philosophy, talks about poets (22b-c). Socrates realises that the poets 'do not compose their works with knowledge, but by some inborn talent and by inspiration, like seers and prophets'.[4] Socrates concludes that most bystanders would have a better understanding of what the poets had created than the poets themselves. Cavarnos argues that the poets' creations 'cannot be considered to be the result of art' because true art is rational, while their works are 'composed when they are out of their mind', an obviously irrational state.[5]

Cavarnos highlights a principle in Plato's works from the earliest to the latest which reasons that only good can come from God, nothing evil. So, if the works of these poets really are direct manifestations of the heavenly realms then the works that they produce should be consistently good. But, using Plato's views on poetry in the Republic as a guide, the works of poets are evidently not uniformly good. Cavarnos concludes that Plato's real view about poets' creations is that they cannot come from God. When Plato mentions artists being out of their minds he is being ironical and should not be taken literally.[6]

Cavarnos then draws us to the most potent piece of evidence used in his argument.[7] In the Laws Plato demonstrates that the god-like state is at one with representation, which Plato connects to the lower, irrational part of the soul. In book iv, 719c the Athenian says that 'when a poet takes his seat on the tripod of the Muse, he cannot control his thoughts. He's like a fountain where water is allowed to gush forth unchecked. His art is the art of representation'.[8] And, because it clouds our vision of the 'beautiful itself', it is representation that must be crushed.

Bredin/Santoro-Brienza, on the other hand, in dealing with the 'radical ambiguity in Plato's responses to art, between the philosopher and moralist on the one hand and the poet and the connoisseur on the other', have claimed that the type of divine experience of poetry contained in the narratives in the Phaedrus and the Ion, takes the place of the principle of mimesis.[9] They conclude that 'poetic creation demands the abandonment of human reason and the adoption of a non-rational, non-dialectical, intuitive disposition. And this is far from being defective or evil'.[10] Surely divinely inspired madness is attractive because only the 'best things come to us' through it. At 249d-e of the Phaedrus Plato again states the benefits of someone whose experience of beauty in the earthly realm reminds him of 'true beauty'. A person 'gazes aloft... paying no attention to what is down below': it is this experience that brings the charge against him of being 'mad', yet it is the 'best and noblest of all the forms that possession by god can take'.[11]

Cavarnos thus opposes Bredin/Santoro-Brienza. For Cavarnos the madness of the poets is actual irrationality, contrary to reason and linked to mimesis in which lies a wealth of delusions afflicting those contemplating beauty in the earthly realm; for Bredin/Santoro-Brienza, mania replaces the principle of mimesis and shows that poetry is not inferior to reason because it transcends reason. Bredin/Santoro-Brienza go further to make the significant claim that mania is in fact 'an exposition of art's specific character and value'.[12]

In light of the fundamental dualism between art and beauty in Plato's writing, and the opposing views of his interpreters, attempting to illuminate Plato's actual view of poetry or the creative process is an enormous challenge. It may be that Plato himself was unresolved on this matter. Is poetry truly 'divine and from the gods' or is it twice removed from the 'throne of truth' with the potential to 'deform' our minds, worthy only of being completely abolished?

Although Cavarnos made a strong case for the dual nature of reason, arguing for the non-discursive aspect of it to be the most important in the ascent to the Good,[13] it is not clear why the philosopher should be the only true artist able to 'gaze aloft'. Why does Plato use so much of his creative energy talking about the importance of the poet's experience, only to denigrate that knowledge? Plato argues after all that when the poets are in the ecstasy of creation they are freed from their irrational, base desires. And it seems excessive for Plato to censure the poet so harshly. What human being could, even if he had tasted divine revelation of beauty itself, ever convey the experience in language that would perfectly reflect that experience? The truth of the rapture felt by the poet is surely not diminished just because he cannot perfectly express it. Does not Plato himself resort to the 'imperfect' tools of metaphor and allegory, woven in to extremely poetic language, when he attempts to adumbrate the Good? How would Plato view his own writing?

It might be, as some have argued, that there is a limit to Plato's dialectical method because it provides a method for subverting the very thing to be cherished. Pirsig maintains that Plato's commitment to 'dialectically determined truth' to establish the Good as the highest truth or idea of all, usurps the Good, or to use Pirsig's term, Quality.[14] Truth, the result of the process of dialectic, must always pre-dominate over the thing in question, in this case, the Good. Pirsig claims that 'once it's stated that the 'dialectic comes before anything else', this statement itself becomes a dialectical entity, subject to dialectical reason'.[15] The conclusion drawn from this is that the real admission of truth from Plato comes in when he acknowledges his use of analogy in the Phaedrus (246b).[16]

Pirsig pointed out that prior to Plato, Quality or the Good had been spoken of only by the Sophists, drawing the conclusion that the difference between Plato and the Sophists was that 'Plato's good was a fixed, eternal and unmoving Idea, whereas for the rhetoricians it was not an Idea at all. The Good was not a form of reality. It was reality itself, ever changing, ultimately unknowable in any kind of fixed, rigid way'.[17] Pirsig highlights that 'Plato and Socrates are doing that which they accuse the sophists of doing — using emotionally persuasive language for the ulterior purpose of making the weaker argument, the case for dialectic, appear the stronger. We always condemn most in others... that which we fear most in ourselves'.[18]

Plato, however, knows that he cannot ultimately define the Good or the forms, nor provide a cast-iron theory to prove their existence. The Good is 'beyond existence'. Pirsig therefore adheres to a view that Plato and many others would agree with, namely that we can't measure beauty, nor give it a scientific definition. Any rational attempt to do so will fail; it is, to use an expression of C. S. Lewis, like trying 'to bottle a sunbeam'.[19]

Plato was also no doubt aware of Quality, and probably experienced it. The reason that there is such a tension in his writing might be partly explained by his reliance on dialectic as the sole method of determining Truth, which he knew conflicted with his belief that poets don't use dialectic to achieve the experience of ultimate reality. But what is this experience like?

Let us suppose that we free ourselves from the dialectical trap sketched out by Pirsig and allow the Good to emerge. We know that we are in its presence and we are engaging in its non-material energy. What then? The experience seems to beg the following questions. First, if we accept that it was Plato's desire to quash our animal feelings, and this is generally accepted by philosophers, the main problem that looms large is connected to how we feel when we are 'out of our minds' and what thought process, if any, connects us to that experience. It is all very well to say that we are apprehending beauty itself in a divine rapture and are bathed in the sunlight of the Good, but if we have transcended our animal nature, what is it that is creating any feeling at all in us? And if our intellects have been abandoned, how can we make sense of the experience?

What of Bredin/Santoro-Brienza's claim that mania becomes an 'exposition of art's specific character and value'. Is the specific 'character and value' the same as the value, one that stands outside a 'series of possible systems of value' because it is the 'sole source of all value judgements? Both Pirsig and Lewis refer to what the Chinese speak of as the Tao, 'the reality beyond all predicates... the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time'.[20]

Quality (Tao) is therefore 'not a thing. It is an event... the Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects'.[21] Pirsig came to believe that 'reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualisation takes place — a time lapse between the 'instant of vision and the instant of awareness' that had traditionally and unjustifiably been neglected. This pre-intellectual reality is Quality and 'since all intellectually identifiable things must emerge from this pre-intellectual reality, Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects'.[22]

The poet as described by Plato has then indeed detached from his intellect and animal feelings. In Pirsig's terms the poet has experienced Quality, which is 'neither a part of mind', nor a 'part of matter' but is rather a 'third entity' independent of both of them.[23] It is Quality that helps us to make sense of our experience and it is Quality that generates the feeling. If Quality is brought into our existence it can no longer be Quality and if we define it 'we are defining something less than quality itself'.[24] Perhaps this is why the poet has to out of his senses, for to be in them he would not be in Quality.

Owing to the close association he had with his own culture of myth creation, Plato knew more than most that what poets and mythologies are most concerned with is not simply seeing beauty, but becoming one with it. Peopling the air the earth and water with gods and goddesses is an admission that we cannot enjoy fully, or for long periods, that 'beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image',[25] but the projections we create, can partake of and take pleasure in reality itself. Poets do talk falsely. And Plato is a poet. He tells us that a person should live his life breathing the 'pure' air of reality, 'unmixed', unpolluted. But who could? As Lewis said, 'at present we on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of the morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure'[26]. Most of us are only capable of glimpses; the poets might be blessed more than most. But if the poet's writing is false it is only because he does not speak of a rational, literal truth, but one more akin to prophecy. The truth of the poet will only be realised when we are one day clothed in the splendours of the sun, no more in need of an earthly divine rapture, or mania, for we will be able to breathe that pure, crystal clear air.


1. Cooper, John M., Editor, Plato Complete Works, Indianapolis, 1997, pp.493-494.

2. Cooper, 1997, p.942.

3. Constantine Cavarnos, Plato's Theory of Fine Art, Athens, 1973, p.22.

4. Cooper, 1997, p.22.

5. Cavarnos, pp.19-20.

6. Cavarnos, p.20.

7. Cavarnos, p.21.

8. Cooper, 1997, p.719.

9. Bredin, Hugh and Santoro-Brienza, Liberato, Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Introducing Aesthetics, Edinburgh, 2000, p.31.

10. Bredin, Santoro-Brienza, p.32.

11. Cooper, 1997, p.22.

12. Bredin, Santoro-Brienza, p.32.

13. Cavarnos, p.14.

14. Robert M Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, London, 1999, pp.379-380.

15. Pirsig, 1999, p.391.

16. Pirsig, 1999, p.389.

17. Pirsig, 1999, p.379.

18. Pirsig, 1999, p.378.

19. C. S. Lewis, 'Reflections on the Psalms', in C.S. Lewis, Selected Books, London, 1999, p.705.

20. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, London, 1978, p.15.

21. Pirsig, 1999, p.239.

22. Pirsig, 1999, p.247.

23. Pirsig, 1999, p.237.

24. Pirsig, 1999, p.251.

25. Lewis, 'The Weight of Glory', in Martindale, Wayne, and Root, Jerry, The Quotable Lewis, Illinois, 1989, p.66.

26. Ibid.