Plato on dithyramb as diēgēsis

2016.09.22 | By Marco Romani Mistretta

The opening of the Iliad (I.01.12–42) is famously paraphrased in narrative form by Socrates in Plato’s Republic 3, 393d–394a. The paraphrase is meant to illustrate Plato’s distinction between purely ‘diegetic’ and ‘mimetic’ forms of poetic production.

Dionysos and sileni. Attic red-figured cup interior, circa 480 BCE. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol, own work, 2007-05-25) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Dionysos and sileni. Attic red-figured cup interior, circa 480 BCE. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol, own work, 2007-05-25) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

 

The opening of the Iliad (I.01.12–42) is famously paraphrased in narrative form by Socrates in Plato’s Republic 3, 393d–394a. The paraphrase is meant to illustrate Plato’s distinction between purely ‘diegetic’ and ‘mimetic’ forms of poetic production. Even though Plato’s main concern is less with literary theory than with the moral and educational implications of poetic production, the distinction between ‘mimetic’ and narrative poetry is here exemplified by specific genres (Republic 3, 394b–c).

Whereas tragedy and comedy fall under the category of μίμησις, and epic is based on a mixture of both ‘systems’ (δι’ ἀμφοτέρων), the paramount example of pure διήγησις is offered by dithyramb (Republic 3, 394c3). Socrates presents dithyramb as a form of narration carried out ‘through an account’ (δι’ ἀπαγγελίας) on the part of the poet himself, as opposed to the mimetic-dramatic identification of the poet with his characters. Plato’s mention of dithyramb in this passage of the Republic is very problematic and deserves further investigation.

Quite apart from the fact that Plato seems to ‘ignore’ the eminently mimetic role of the dithyrambic chorus (Peponi 2013: 358), and that dithyramb itself had already become a markedly dramatic — and therefore ‘mimetic’ — genre at the time in which the Republic was written (cf. [Aristotle] Problems 19.15, 918b), one can ask in what sense it can be called a ‘diegetic’ genre par excellence (μάλιστά που), given that, most probably, it was never exclusively narrative. Plato’s view of dithyramb as eminently ‘non-mimetic’ is all the more striking if contrasted with Aristotle’s well-known theory whereby tragedy itself originates ‘from those who lead the dithyramb’ (Poetics 1449a10–11).

It is worth noting that, in Aristotle’s formulation, the use of the verb ἐξάρχειν hints at the dynamics of an individual performer leading into a choral act of singing and dancing. The same terminology is found in Archilochus’ F 120 (West), in which the speaker hints at a markedly choral performance (Nagy 2009: 217–218). Archilochus’ persona loquens, ‘thunderstruck with wine’, claims to be able to lead the song of Dionysus, the god whose birth is accompanied by a thunderbolt (cf. Laws 3, 700b5, where Plato mentions the ‘birth of Dionysus’ as part of the content of dithyramb; see further Griffith 2013: 65n72).

It seems likely that, in Republic 3, 394c3, Plato neglects the choral aspect of dithyramb because — in accordance with his aesthetic and ethico-political rejection of the ‘new dithyramb’ — his main model is the solo performer (the ἐξάρχων) typical of the genre’s early stages, rather than the choral performance as a whole. The dithyrambic form par excellence is, for Plato, the ‘narrative’ performance characterizing the early instances of the genre, in opposition to its more recent developments. The ἐξάρχων of early dithyramb, far from being a ‘lyric poet’ in the melic sense of the term, is rather an individual singer who performs and ‘teaches’ a song capable of interpreting the religious occasion. Similarly, Archilochus’ persona loquens is a ‘teacher’ (of the chorus), whose poetry is transmitted and preserved in the context of the hero cult of Archilochus himself (Nagy 2008: 263).

In this connection, it is important to observe that Plato’s Socrates often seems to understand his role as that of a dithyrambic ἐξάρχων: his own dialectical ‘performance’ is assimilated to a dithyramb at Hippias Maior 292c7, and his use of ‘dithyrambs’ is opposed to that of ἔπη at Phaedrus 241e2. In the Phaedrus, epic poetry figures as an even more ‘enthusiastic’ type of poetic praise than dithyramb itself, which is also mentioned as a ‘manic’ form of poetry at 238d3 (without any trace of its ‘narrative’ character).

 

Bibliography

Griffith, M. 2013. “Cretan Harmonies and Universal Morals. Early Music and Migrations of Wisdom in Plato’s Laws.” In A.E. Peponi (ed.), Performance and Culture in Plato’s Laws. Cambridge. 15–66

Nagy, G. 2009. Homer the Classic. Washington DC.

Nagy, G. 2008 “Convergences and divergences between god and hero in the Mnesiepes Inscription of Paros.” In D. Katsonopoulou, I. Petropoulos, and S. Katsarou (eds.), Archilochus and his Age. Paros II. Athens. 259–265.

Peponi, A.E. 2013. “Dithyramb in Greek Thought. The Problem of Choral Mimesis.” In B. Kowalzig and P. Wilson (eds.), Dithyramb in Context. Oxford. 352–367.

 

 



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