Please enjoy this repost of my modernization of Plato’s classic dialog “The Ion.” Please note, all dialogue is directly based on the original.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” proclaimed an unseen voice. “Welcome to the Socrates Talk Show! Please put your hands together for tonight’s first guest –Justin Beaver!”
The handsome young pop singer entered the stage from behind the blue curtain and waved to the adoring crowd. The cheers and applause were deafening. Even after he sat down opposite the show’s host, the noise kept up without pause. Seated on opposite sides of the desk, the contrast between the two was stark: Justin in the polished bloom of youth, and Socrates, looking every bit of his three thousand years. Finally, after several minutes, Socrates was able quiet the crowd and begin the interview.
“Justin! Always good to see you. Just fly in from LA?”
“Nah, Socrates, I was playing a festival outside London.”
“London? Where they have that big singing contest?”
“Yeah, singing, dancing, everything.”
“Were you in it? How did you do?”
Justin sneered. “You really gotta ask?” The crowd cheered again, almost drowning out the last part of the young star’s reply. “I won it.”
“Great, great. No more than what we expect. I want to hear the same story when you play New York, mind you.”
“No doubt, no doubt.”
“You know, Justin, I envy you pop singers. Look at you, you look great all the time –you really do! Wearing the hottest new clothes, staying fit, changing up the hairstyle, it’s all part of your job. But at the same time, you’re also working with the best producers and songwriters in the business –real artists.”
The young star acknowledged the praise with a nod and a smirk.
“In particular, you’ve worked for a long time with your mentor Homer, who in my humble opinion is the best lyricist there ever was –and the best there will ever be! And not only do you have to learn his songs, you also have to understand them. Now that’s something to really make a guy like me jealous… I mean it!”
Laughs, scattered applause.
“The way I see it, no one can be a good pop singer unless he understands the songs he’s singing. You’re the voice of the songwriter, but how can you be that voice unless you really get where the writer is coming from? That’s what I mean when I say I’m jealous. I’m jealous of that relationship you have with the songwriter –the immortal Homer.”
“Yeah, Socrates, that’s right. I’m pretty proud of that. It didn’t come overnight, I really had to work at it. But you know, I made it. No one sings Homer better than me. There’s a lot of other singers out there, like Jackson Timberboot, Gander or Frank Rivers but they just don’t get Homer the way I do.
“That’s just great Justin, and I’d love to hear you sing a bit of it for us.”
Justin perked up as the crowd cheered enthusiastically.
“Yeah, Socrates, let me break a little of that off for you. When you hear how well I sing Homer, you’ll be ready to give me the Grammy right here and now!”
More cheers, wild applause, screams.
“Like I said, Justin, I’d love to hear you. But let’s make it some other time. Right now, I’d like to ask you a question.”
“Are you great at singing songs by other songwriters too, or just Homer? For instance, how about the songs of Barb Dillon?”
The crowd fell silent.
“Just Homer,” said Justin, spitting out his words like a toddler who just tasted something nasty. “Isn’t that enough?”
“But don’t Homer and Dillon agree on a lot of things?”
“And are you more in tune with Homer or Dillon about the things they agree about?”
“The same, I guess, when they agree.”
“But what about when they don’t agree? For instance, they both have strong opinions about religion, don’t they?”
“So who would be the better judge of what they say about religion. You, or a preacher?”
Justin kicked his foot against the desk.
“But if you were a preacher, you’d be able to judge them whether they agreed or not, right?”
Socrates leaned back in his chair, and tapped his fingers together.
“That’s very mysterious, isn’t it? How did you come to have this great skill to understand Homer’s songs, but not the songs of Dillon or any of the other great songwriters? Doesn’t Homer write on the same topics as the other songwriters? Love, and religion, and being lonely or afraid or happy or going to parties or all the other great topics of human life?”
“And don’t all the other songwriters write about all the same things?”
Justin squirmed in his chair.
“Yeah, Socrates, I guess, but not in the same way as Homer.”
“What, in a worse way?”
“Yeah, much worse.”
“And Homer in a better way?”
Justin looked angry, and his voice when he spoke had become a growl.
“Yeah, much better.”
Socrates leaned forward.
“But surely, my dearest Justin, if we were talking about something else, say, math, and one person spoke about it better than all the others, there would be someone who would be able to tell the difference.”
Justin looked confused and a little defeated by the sudden change in topic.
“And the person who knows who the good mathematician is would be the same person who knows who the bad one is?”
“It would be a math teacher?”
“And suppose there was a discussion about which foods are good to eat, and everyone has a different opinion. Who would be the person who knows which person is right and who would be the person who knows which one is wrong? Would it be the same person or a different person?”
“And who would that be?”
“I don’t know. A doctor?”
“And in general, in any discussion of any topic, the person who judges the good speaker will be the same person who judges the bad one, right? For if he can’t tell who is speaking badly, how can he tell who is speaking well?
“The same person who has the skill to judge the good has the skill to judge the bad.”
“But you said that Homer, and Barb Dillon, and Tim Weights, and all the other songwriters, they all write about the same topics, although in different ways, and one is better and the others are worse.”
Justin looked angry again.
“Yeah, Socrates, and I know I’m right about that.”
“And if you know who the best songwriter is, you also know that the others aren’t as good.”
“But then, my dearest friend, shouldn’t I say that Justin Beaver is equally an expert on Homer and all the other songwriters, since he himself has said that the same person will be a good judge of all those who speak on the same topics, and since he has also acknowledged that all songwriters speak on the same topics?”
In response, Justin stuttered and stammered.
“But Socrates, explain this! Why do I fall asleep and don’t have anything worthwhile to say whenever anyone is talking about those other songwriters, but if Homer is mentioned, I immediately wake up and can talk about him for hours?”
Socrates arched an eyebrow, and turned to the audience as if to poll their opinion, before turning back to his young guest with the air of someone revealing a great mystery.
“The reason is clear, Justin. No one could miss it. You see, you don’t speak about Homer from any training or study. If you were a student of music theory, on the other hand, you could talk about all songwriters, because there’s such a thing as the art of songwriting, as a whole.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“And for any subject that you can master, there’s some art of it, considered as a whole. Do you want me to explain what I mean?”
Justin mugged for the crowd.
“Yeah, you do that, Socrates. I like to hear you talk, all wise and whatnot.”
The crowd laughed as Socrates pretended to look shocked.
“What, me wise? I wish! It’s you pop stars and actors and songwriters who are wise. I’m just an average Joe, too dumb to know better than to tell the truth all the time. Even that question I just asked you, look how dull and easy it is. Anyone could understand it. I’m only asking if you don’t use the same knowledge all the way through when you master any pursuit?”
Justin looked confused again.
“For instance, making music videos, that’s a career, isn’t it?”
“And there are many people who make videos, good and bad.”
“Have you ever known anyone who can show you what makes a good video when one person does it, but not when another person does? Someone who falls asleep when other people’s music videos are on, and has nothing to say, but when that one director’s work comes on, he’s suddenly wide awake and paying attention and telling you all about it, have you ever known anyone like that?
“Or what about directing movies? Have you ever known someone who can tell you all about Martin Scoresdaily and can explain every little nuance of his movies, but whenever he sees a film by Cupula, or Wood E. Alan or Spike Yee, he just sleeps though the whole thing?”
“Nah, Socrates. That would be pretty silly.”
“And further,” Socrates continued mercilessly, “you’ve never known any music lover, who knows about guitar, or drums or saxophone, or singing, who can explain to you all about Bruno Mercury or Robin Thin, but doesn’t know how to say anything at all about Justin Beaver, the pop star from Vancouver, and can’t tell at all whether he’s singing well or badly. You don’t know anyone like that.”
“Okay, enough already, Socrates, you got me. All I can say is this: I know Homer’s songs, better than anyone else. I can sing them better than anyone else, and I understand them better too. But I don’t know anything about those other songwriters.”
“Exactly, Justin, and I’m going to tell you why that is. As I said before, understanding Homer isn’t a skill you learned. It’s a gift from God. You are drawn to Homer just like a metal ring is drawn to a magnet. And when the ring is touching the magnet, it also gets magnetized, so it can pull in other metal rings. You can create a whole long metal chain that way, but the attractive power in all of it comes from the magnet. In the same way, a truly inspired songwriter can create a long chain of people, including the singer and who knows how many fans.
“You must know that no songwriter, if she is really good, does it by following rules out of some book. Instead, she creates in a spirit of inspiration, a fit of madness! She sings like a person possessed, and that’s how she creates her most beautiful songs. The same goes for lyricists as well as for great musicians. Have you ever been to one of those old Pentecostal churches and seen one of the congregants catch the Holy Spirit? That’s exactly what happens to a songwriter, and they themselves will tell you. If you ever hear a songwriter tell you about his inspiration, he’ll tell you he plucks the notes and lyrics straight out of the heavens, and carries them safe back to the earth, just like a little old honey bee carrying nectar back to the hive. I tell you truly, a songwriter is an angelic being, and cannot write a note until he becomes inspired and loses his wits.
“That’s why, as long as a songwriter is in her right mind, she can’t write songs. Therefore since it’s not by skill that she writes, but only by a divine gift, each songwriter is able to write only the songs that God puts in her heart. One writes love songs, the other sings about the beauty of nature. One writes music that makes you want to get up and dance, the other writes songs that make you want to sit down and weep. Each one is worthless at writing the songs of the other. You see, it’s not skill that makes them able to write, it’s the power from above. You can see this very easily, since if they had the knowledge to write one type of song, they could write any type of song. That’s why God takes away their wits when he wants to speak through them, just as he does for a truly good preacher, so that we who hear them would know that it’s not them who give us the gift of these songs, it is God, and God alone that gives them voice.
“The best proof of what I’m saying is Little Jimmy, the famous one-hit-wonder. He never wrote a single song worth hearing, except for one, and that’s the one everyone is still singing today, the most beautiful song ever written, and he himself says it was a ‘gift from God.’ That’s God showing us in the most clear way possible that these immortal songs aren’t human at all, that they aren’t even from human beings, but are divine and from heaven, that songwriters are nothing more than God’s representatives on earth, taken over by the spirit from above. To show us that, God deliberately gave us the most beautiful song through the most worthless songwriter. Don’t you think so, Justin?”
Justin grinned and shrugged.
“Yeah Socrates, you got it right. It ain’t nothing but a gift from God.”
Cheers and applause.
“And you pop stars too, you interpret what the songwriters write.”
“So you’re like the representatives’ representative.”
Socrates held up one hand.
“All right then, wait just a minute. Tell me true, just between you and me. When you’re performing on stage, and the fans are screaming and then you sing about lost love, or always being true, or rocking the party, or the pain in your heart, are you in your right mind or out of it? Don’t you forget you’re up on a stage, and think you’re actually walking along a beach, or singing to your lover or whatever else is going on in the song?”
“Man, Socrates, it’s like you know my life, man! I can’t tell you nothing! Look, when I sing a sad song, I got tears running down my cheeks. When I sing about something scary, I get frightened. It’s straight up like I’m living that.”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about Justin. Can we really say a singer is in his right mind if he’s playing a festival or a concert, and he’s got a sharp suit on, or even some kind of fancy costume but he’s crying, or if he’s filled with fear even though he’s surrounded by his fans and no one is wishing him any kind of harm? Is that really what a sane man does?”
Justin laughed and the audience did too.
“Nah, Socrates, not when you put it like that.”
“And I’m sure you know, Justin, you have that same effect on your fans too, don’t you?”
“Yeah, Socrates, you know it! When they shine the lights out in the audience and I look at the crowd I see them crying right along with me. But you know Socrates, at times like that, I can’t get too carried away. If they start crying I’m laughing on the inside as I take their money, but if I get too carried away and they start laughing at me, I’ll have to cry for real –at all the money I’m going to lose!”
A few people in the audience laughed at Justin’s joke, but only in an offended-sounding way. Socrates quickly moved to fill up the dead air.
“And remember when we were talking about that chain of metal rings attached to the magnet? The fan, Justin, is the last ring. The middle ring is you, the pop star, and the magnet is the songwriter. But ultimately the power comes from God, who sends the power out through the songwriter in the first place. And just as if it hung from that magnet, there’s an enormous chain of backup dancers and dance teachers and vocal coaches and so forth attached onto the rings on the sides. One pop star is magnetized by one songwriter, another by another. One is attached to Dr Lukewarm, another to Bull Weathers, and a great many are magnetized by Homer himself. You are one of them, Justin, a ring attached to Homer. When anyone sings a song by another songwriter you fall asleep, you don’t know what to say, but all you have to do is hear one note by Homer and you’re awake and on fire.”
“It’s not what you know about Homer that allows you to speak about Homer, it’s because God gave you that gift. That’s how it is with all those dancers who look like poetry in motion when the right song comes on, but have two left feet when the music changes. You’re exactly like them. Give you a song to sing by Homer, and no one can do it better, but mention any other songwriter and you’re lost. It’s not a skill, it’s not something out of a book, it’s divine madness and nothing else.”
Justin scratched his head.
“Back up a moment, Socrates. What you said sounds good, but I don’t think it’s really like that. I mean, if I talk about Homer, I don’t think I sound crazy or out of my head. You should hear me and then you’d change your mind.”
“I do want to hear you, Justin.”
“But first, another question:”
“Which one of Homer’s themes do you speak well about? I can’t believe you have them all mastered.”
Justin puffed out his skinny chest.
“Yeah Socrates, all of them. Every single one.”
“What, even topics you don’t know anything about, even though Homer writes about them?”
Justin sounded insulted when he replied.
“Well for instance, Homer has a famous song about a race car driver. Let me see if I can remember it. It goes a little something like…”
“Nah Socrates, step back, I got this. You know I remember it.”
“All right then. Do the part where Dale Lionheart Sr. tells Dale Lionheart Jr. how to win the race at Daytona.”
Justin reached behind the chair and came up with a microphone in his hand. The crowd went wild as the lights dimmed and a spotlight came up on him, and the music swelled in the background.
You got to drive boy, drive that car
Faster than nobody never drove it before
Over to the left pass the driver on the right
You got to let him know you came to win this fight!
But boy, watch yourself on that curve
Don’t be too reckless, but just don’t lose your nerve
Right to the edge like you might hit the rail
Just as Justin was about to hit the chorus, Socrates abruptly signaled the band to cut the music and turned the lights back on, thus sparking a near riot among the audience.
“Perfect, perfect, Justin, that’s exactly the part I was talking about. That’s enough for right now.”
Justin looked like he didn’t know what had just happened to him, as Socrates took away his microphone and guided him firmly back to his seat.
“So, back to my point. Who can judge whether Homer knows racing or not, a doctor, or a race car driver?”
Justin looked truly annoyed.
“Duh, Socrates, a race car driver.”
“Because he’s mastered his craft, or some other reason.”
“Because he’s mastered it.”
“So we might say that God has given each profession its own base of knowledge. The things you learn from a computer engineer, you won’t learn them from a pharmacist.”
“And the things you learn from a doctor, you won’t learn from an architect.”
“And so for every other profession too. What you learn by studying one career, you won’t learn from another. And most of these careers are very different from one another.”
“And the difference lies in the fact that they have different bases of knowledge. That’s how we know they aren’t really the same career. Isn’t that how you tell the difference?”
“For if two careers have the same knowledge base, in what way are they different? Knowing one means knowing the other. If you’re in computers, and I’m in IT, it’s really the same thing.
“Then answer me this. Isn’t it the same across the board? One career teaches you one set of knowledge, and a different one, if it really is different, must teach you things that are not the same.”
“Yeah, whatever, that’s right.”
Socrates made a great show of looking puzzled and scratching his head.
“But wait –then doesn’t that mean that a person who hasn’t mastered a certain career won’t be a good judge of the things specific to that career?”
Justin looked justifiably nervous.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“But in that case,” Socrates pressed on, “who will know better if Homer is writing correctly about driving race cars in that song you sang so beautifully? You, or a race car driver?”
“A race car driver.”
“Because you’re a singer, not a driver?”
“And the profession of a singer is different from that of a driver?”
“So then, the knowledge of a singer is also different from that of a driver.”
“But what about Homer’s other great song, the one about mixing cough syrup with alcohol. How does it go?”
Here Socrates warbled a few lines in a rough scratchy voice, while Justin grimaced in obvious pain.
She mixed that syrup with that drink
That syrup with that drink
That sizzurp with that drizzy
That syrup with that drink
“So who can tell us if that’s a good prescription or not? A pharmacist or a pop star?”
Through gritted teeth, Justin choked out the answer.
“Or what about that other hit number:
She dove down to the bottom of the sea
Down to the bottom of the sea
With a net in her hand, and a frying pan
To bring back a little fishie for me
“Who would know if that’s a good way of putting it? A fisherman or a pop star?”
“All right Socrates, I get it. The fisherman, obviously.”
“And what if you were interviewing me, instead of the other way around, and you asked me ‘Socrates, since you’re investigating different careers in the songs of Homer, can you please tell me which songs relate to the matters that a preacher ought to know best?’ Quick as a wink I would say, ‘Of course Justin, it’s those good old gospel numbers, and then I’d sing them for you like this:’
Here Socrates grabbed the microphone he had taken from Justin, and came out from behind the desk, as the lights dimmed and the music started up. The spotlight came up like before, but there was a notable lack of cheers or applause from the audience.
Don’t listen to the devil in the darkness
Don’t let the flames burn your feet
I can hear the ghosts way down in the depths of hell
Say “Repent! Repent! Repent!”
Here Socrates broke into a few ill-advised dance moves before launching into a whole other song.
My soul flies the sky like an eagle
My sin lies in the dust like a snake
Don’t let the snake kill the eagle
That’s the biggest damn mistake you could make
“I would claim those are songs for a preacher to listen to and judge,” Socrates said, as he returned, seemingly reluctantly to his desk. “He is the one who knows if they teach us well or badly.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re sure right, Socrates.”
That’s what Justin said with his lips, but his eyes were pleading “Whatever, just please don’t sing again!”
“Well, you know, you’re giving out some great answers too, buddy. And since you’re on a roll, go ahead and tell me –now that I’ve already done all the hard work for you of picking out the songs of Homer that relate to a race car driver, or a pharmacist or a fisherman or a preacher –tell me something very easy, tell me which of his songs relate to a pop star, the songs a pop star should be able to judge better than anyone else.
“That is easy, Socrates. My answer is ‘all of them.’”
“That can’t be your answer, Justin. Or have you forgotten what you just told me?”
“Why, what did I tell you?”
“Don’t you remember? You said a pop star’s career was not the same as a race car driver’s.”
“Yeah, I said that.”
“And you said people with different careers are masters of different knowledge.”
“So a pop star’s career can’t encompass all knowledge, and neither can a pop star himself.”
“That’s not what I meant, Socrates.”
“Good, then you agree that a pop star knows only some things, not all things?”
“In that case, what does a pop star know best?”
“He knows –he knows how to inspire people.”
“Great answer. So then, if you were playing on a cruise ship, and the ship started to sink, and they were looking for someone to inspire the people not to panic, they should look to you?”
“I’d hope the captain would be the one to…”
“And if you were visiting a hospital, you should be the one to talk to someone who just found out they had a terminal disease?”
“Well, maybe his doctor should…”
“And if you were on that reality show, ‘The Cow Whisperer’, you would know better than Caesar Salud how to calm down the cattle?”
“That’s not what I…”
“Or if you went on ‘America’s Next Hot Model,’ you’d know how best to inspire the girls to walk that catwalk?”
“Of course not, but…”
“Or if you were on the front lines of a battle, you’d know just what a general should say to inspire his troops?”
“Nuh— I mean yes! That’s exactly the kind of thing I do know. Not to boast, but I’ve sung about a hundred patriotic songs at army bases.”
“Really? So you mean that your job is just the same as being a general?”
“I didn’t say that, Socrates, I said I certainly know how a general ought to talk.”
“That’s amazing, Justin. But maybe that means you’re secretly a general and a pop star at the same time.”
Justin and Socrates both shrugged, as the audience laughed.
“It’s possible, Justin. Supposing you were a great horseman and a pretty good guitar player too, we wouldn’t be surprised if you knew the right horses to bet on at the Derby, right? But on the other hand, even if that were the case, which would it be that taught you all about horses? Would it be the riding that you did, or the guitar playing?”
“And if you could tell a vintage Fender Stratocaster from a Telecaster, that would be because of playing guitar, not because of being a rider, right?”
“So in that case, given that you know how to do the job of a general, inspiring the troops and so forth, is it because you’re a general, or because you’re a pop star?”
“There’s no difference.”
Socrates pulled a pair thick, black-rimmed glasses out of his drawer. He made a great show of putting them on, examining Justin carefully, pushing them down his nose, and examining him again.
“Really, Justin? Are you sure about that? Is being a general the same career as being a pop star?”
“Yes,” said Justin, defiantly.
“So every great pop singer turns out to also be a great general?”
“Yeah, sounds about right.”
Socrates paused to look mischievously at the audience.
“And every great general, then, must also be a great pop star?”
“Nah, Socrates! Those fools can’t sing.”
“But it does work the other way around.”
“And aren’t you the best pop star in America, Justin?”
“Yeah, Socrates, I sure as hell am.”
“But you’re a general too? The best in America?”
“Sure thing, Socrates. I learned it all from the songs I sing.”
Socrates leaned his chair so far back, he was in danger of toppling over, before allowing it to fall back forward.
“Then why, Justin, in the name of all that’s holy, aren’t you commanding the Armed Forces? Unless I’m mistaken we’re still fighting a war somewhere over in the Middle East. You think America needs you as a pop star more than it needs you as a general?”
Justin looked at the audience as if to say “hey, get a load of this guy.”
“I’m Canadian, Socrates, you guys don’t want me.”
“Justin, you’re too much! I should have known you’d have a quick answer. But in that case, what about General Lopez?”
“A three-star general, born in Mexico. Or Admiral Singh and General Yee? Neither of them were born in the United States, and it hasn’t hampered their advancement. Do you really think we Americans are so prejudiced we would pass over Justin Beaver, the country’s greatest living general just because he was born north of the border? Aren’t we and Canada allies, from way back in history?”
Justin didn’t answer. He just sat staring, as if he was just waiting for the interview to end.
“But you, Justin, you know you’re lying to my face if you want to tell me that what connects you with the music of Homer is your mastery of the art of singing. You claimed you were a font of knowledge about Homer, you even promised me a full demonstration, but you haven’t shown me a thing! You aren’t even willing to tell me what the skills of a pop star are, even though I’ve been practically begging you all night. You’re a chameleon, Justin. Just when I think I’ve got you pinned down, you shift your colors. Now you’re even going so far as to call yourself a general, just so you can avoid letting me in on your store of Homeric wisdom. If you are truly a master of the pop star’s art, and if you truly are a font of knowledge on Homer, then you’ve done me wrong, Justin.”
Socrates paused for effect.
“But maybe, just maybe, there’s a better way to look at it. Maybe you aren’t a master of your art at all, you’re just a conduit of a divine spirit passed to you through Homer’s music, so that you can sing it, and seem to understand it, and explain it, but without actually knowing a single thing about it. Right? So then tell me, Justin, how then do you wish me to think of you? As someone doing me wrong, or as the keeper of a divine gift?”
“That’s not much of a choice, Socrates. It’s a lot cooler to be divine.”
“Then that’s exactly how I’ll think of you, Justin, in the coolest possible way, not as some mere craftsman toiling away at his craft, but as the divine Justin Beaver.”
Cheers, applause, cut to commercial.
From Daily Nous