Nor is this possessed condition associated with idiosyncrasy in thePhaedrus. On the contrary. To account for the madness of loveSocrates describes an otherworldly existence in which souls rideacross the top of heaven enjoying direct visions of the Forms(247c–d). After falling into bodily existence a soul responds tobeauty more avidly than it does to any other qualities for which thereare Forms. Accordingly it happens that a beautiful sight, like that ofa lovely human form, inspires the turn toward philosophizing as a justlaw or a self-controlled action do not.
When introducing the Phaedrus's major speech onerôs (244a–250d), Socrates defines desirous loveas a species of mania, madness, in a context that comments onphilosophy and poetry with an aside about mimêsis a fewpages later. Although other sections of the Phaedrus arerelevant to Platonic aesthetics, this is the only part directly aboutinspiration.
Associating beauty with inspiration suggests that poetry born of(another kind of) inspiration might also have philosophical worth. Butbefore welcoming the lost sheep Plato back to the poetry-loving fold,recognize the Phaedrus's qualifying remarks about whichpoetry one may now prize. It cannot be imitative. When Socrates rankshuman souls depending on how much otherworldly being they saw beforefalling into bodily form—philosophers come in first on thisranking—the poet or other mimêtikos occupiessixth place out of nine (248e).
The cause behind inspiration is unimpeachable, for it begins in thedivine realm. Is that a realm of Forms? The Phaedrus comesclosest to saying so, both by associating the gods with Forms(247c–e), and by rooting inspired love in recollection (251a).But this falls short of showing that the poets' divine madnesslikewise originates among objects of greater reality. It might, butdoes not have to.
References to magic serve poorly as explanations but they bespeak theneed for explanation. Plato sees that some power must be drawingpeople to give up both knowledge and the taste for knowledge. But whatis striking about this deus ex machina that explains poetry'sattractiveness is what it does not say. In other dialoguesthe magic of poetry is attributed to one version or another of divineinspiration. Odd that the Republic makes no reference toinspiration when dialogues as different as the Apology andthe Laws mention it and the Ion and thePhaedrus spell out how it works. Odder still, Plato almostnever cites imitation and divine inspiration together (the loneexception Laws 719c), as if to say that the two areincompatible accounts of poetry. Will inspiration play a roleancillary to imitation, or do the two approaches to poetry havenothing to do with one another?
But even given these qualifications the reader should know how to tellwhat is beautiful from what is kalon. To begin with the twoterms are commonly applied to different items. They have overlappingbut distinct ranges of application. A passage in Plato may speak of aface or body that someone finds kalon, or for that matter astatue, a spoon, a tree, or a grassy place to rest (Phaedrus230b). Then “beautiful” makes a natural equivalent to theGreek adjective, certainly sounding less stilted than thealternatives. Even here, however, it is telling that Plato far moreoften uses kalon for a face or body than for works of art andnatural scenery. As far as unambiguous beauties are concerned, he hasa smaller set in mind than we do (Kosman 2010).
The Ion says less about poetry's divine origins than thePhaedrus, certainly nothing that requires an interpreter todiscover Forms within the Muse's magnetism. Laws 682a andMeno 99c–d credit the inspired condition with theproduction of truths, even in poetry. Neither passage describes thetruths about Forms that philosophical dialectic would lead to, butthat might be asking too much. Let it suffice that inspirationoriginates in some truth.
The translations of the Symposium and the Phaedrus, by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, are engaging with accessible introductions.