Mormonism and Poetic Theory: Joseph Smith and Plato’s Ion

Mormonism’s relationship to literature exemplifies the observations of theorists and critics spanning the Western literary tradition.  What will follow is a selective examination of literary theory in terms of Mormon thought, single-voiced yet dialogic.  What will hopefully emerge is a unified definition for the process of inspiration that has clearly taken place in diverse places and times and has clearly manifested in Mormonism.

I hypothesize that the manner in which Joseph treated literature allows for the idea that he perceived truth as eternally existent, available to all ages; thus, his nonchalance in seeking it everywhere.  Essentially that the truest “edition” of any scripture was had in heaven and had to be continually striven after on earth, hence his editorial approach thereto.  For him, nothing was useful that wasn’t useful; nothing was not susceptible to reworking.



Homer is the best and most divine of poets;[1] with this we could end but mustn’t.  Poetry, rightly pursued, is a divine act, or an avenue into the divine presence.  It has been asserted elsewhere[2] and so, must be mentioned and not belabored here: poetry is prophecy un-institutionalized.  Therefore, weighings and valuations of the poetic endeavor have bearing, that is, yield insight, on the prophetic mode.

Socrates (as Plato gave him to say) describes the relationship of rhapsode to poet in a manner suggestive of the duties of Aaron to Moses.  In response to Moses’ protestations of inarticulacy, Yahweh institutes a provisional system of conveyance:

And thou [Moses] shalt speak unto him [Aaron], and put words in his mouth: and I [Yahweh] will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what ye shall do.[3]

A similar convention is described in Plato’s Ion:

τὸν γὰρ ῥαψῳδὸν ἑρμηνέα δεῖ τοῦ ποιητοῦ τῆς διανοίας γίγνεσθαι τοῖς ἀκούουσι:[4]

(It is necessary the rhapsode become an interpreter of the poet’s thought to the listeners.)[5]

Whether Sidney Rigdon, who participated with the Prophet in the revelatory process,[6] or Parley Pratt, whose publications developed as well as heralded Mormonism,[7] Joseph Smith was also not without his interpreters, so to speak.[8]  Pursuant to the comparison, we note that Ion the rhapsode, Socrates’ fellow dialogist, gleefully reports what personalization he has successfully interwoven in his performance of Homer.

καὶ μὴν ἄξιόν γε ἀκοῦσαι, ὦ Σώκρατες, ὡς εὖ κεκόσμηκα τὸν Ὅμηρον[9]

(It is worthy to hear, Socrates, how well I have beautified Homer.)

Mormonism holds that everything existed spiritually, that is, in the eternal realm, before its entry into the mortal phase; this includes animal and mineral.[10]  Thus, what phenomena we perceive in this life, temporary and ephemeral as it is, had a precedent immortal tenure.  Inclusion in the mortal sphere involves clothing in the temporary; entry therein is therefore a compromise, a dilution of a finer physical constituency.[11]  All inspired literature then, is a composite of human and divine elements.  Plato, via Socrates, would not have one believe that such a combination is possible.[12]  His concern is to differentiate the divine from the human (not that there cannot be interaction, there can).  His contention here is that there cannot be a point of creative intersection or an amalgamation, of divine inspiration with human skill: no joint divine/human ventures.  Plato depicts Socrates countering Ion’s exultation by pointing out his inability to artfully interact with all poetry as an illustration of his theory.

…τέχνῃ καὶ ἐπιστήμῃ περὶ Ὁμήρου λέγειν ἀδύνατος εἶ: εἰ γὰρ τέχνῃ οἷός τε ἦσθα, καὶ περὶ τῶν ἄλλων ποιητῶν ἁπάντων λέγειν οἷός τ᾽ ἂν ἦσθα:[13]

(…You are unable to speak of Homer with skill and knowledge; you could, if you could also speak skillfully concerning all other poets.)

Plato’s insistence on the separation of spiritual and physical, which permeates Christianity,[14] is behind this rebuff.  Joseph Smith’s rejection of that separation is evident in his relationship with scripture, ancient and modern.  This discrepancy is potentially instructive.  So, Plato denies Ion’s Homeric effort because he admittedly could not replicate it in terms of all poets.  This is the eventual result of the binary perspective Plato maintains: either one is inspired and therefore capable of demonstrating inspiration at will or one is not and all is art or skill of varying degree.  Joseph Smith, unhampered by platonic duality, demonstrates the opposite (no pun intended).  On the one hand, he produced scripture at length by means supernatural (an inadequate term), on the other, he pursued linguistic study by means entirely conventional.[15]  Plato’s perspective demands God or man; Josephs calls for God and man, concomitantly.  The platonic perspective is alive today in the difficulty the modern Mormon has in understanding why Joseph seems so inspired in one moment (with a monument like the Book of Mormon) and less so in others (his explanation of the provenance of the papyri he acquired).  Joseph’s inspiration was divine and natural in origin, or only natural, since he made no ontological distinction between the spiritual and the physical; either way, for him, inspired production is the product of a tandem effort by divine and earthly means.[16]  Why the Mormons of today have lapsed into the platonic perspective is too large a question for this essay.[17]

Plato continues to delineate his bifurcate cosmos by suggesting the utter absence of art in Ion; his beautification of Homer is entirely the product of divine inspiration.[18]  Keep in mind it is not divine inspiration that Plato denies but the intermingling of divine with human creative powers.

κοῦφον γὰρ χρῆμα ποιητής ἐστιν καὶ πτηνὸν καὶ ἱερόν, καὶ οὐ πρότερον οἷός τε ποιεῖν πρὶν ἂν ἔνθεός τε γένηται καὶ ἔκφρων καὶ ὁ νοῦς μηκέτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐνῇ: ἕως δ᾽ ἂν τουτὶ ἔχῃ τὸ κτῆμα, ἀδύνατος πᾶς ποιεῖν ἄνθρωπός ἐστιν καὶ χρησμῳδεῖν.[19]

(For a poet is an airy thing, aloft and sacred, and not so ‘til he should become god-filled and un-minded and thought be no longer in him.  Every man, so long as he should have possession of himself, is unable to poetize and prophesy.)

This pronouncement is diametrically opposed to the divine approbation of agency in the Mormon cosmos; at least it would appear to be.  It must be remembered that in Plato’s world supernatural beings were not so cleanly categorized as “good” or “evil.”  While we would balk at the idea of a member of the Godhead accosting someone, the idea of angelic or demonic assault has precedent in Mormonism.[20]  Furthermore, Plato’s assertion that inspired work is only possible by means of divine impartation[21] supports Joseph Smith’s insistence that a prophet is only a prophet when speaking as such;[22] apart from the sanctifying, authoritative source, a poet or prophet imparts human thought.  If that source was learned skill, Plato infers, the speaker/writer would generate writing of a consistent quality.  Again, in the Mormon context, note the varying degrees of cultural and institutional approbation afforded the literary product of Joseph; his writings are not equally valued.

To reinforce his point Plato reports as proof an occasion whereon an individual entirely unacquainted with poetry and composition offered a spontaneous recitation of such caliber as to command and retain popular attention.[23]  Does not this reasoning resemble the well-trod defense of Joseph’s prophethood, that his sorely-felt illiteracy in conjunction with the size, richness, and complexity of the Book of Mormon belies a nineteenth century authorship?  The congruity continues with Plato’s observation that particularly simple individuals are chosen for the reception of divine inspiration, to make the intervention all the more discernible.[24]  Mormonism echoes this principle with commensurate scriptural reference to Joseph in his prophetic capacity as a “weak thing.”[25]

The Ion closes with a restatement of Plato’s original thesis regarding the incompatibility of human and divine will in creative endeavors; at work in a given situation is either human art or divine inspiration.[26]  This insistence on so binary a paradigm is a sharp contrast not only to Mormonism, but to precedent Greek literature; human/divine liminality, meaning a nexus of mortal and godly activity, is rampant in Homer and the dramatists and in what traditional Christendom calls the Incarnation, or the assumption of a mortal body by Christ.

Unconsciously or otherwise, Plato weakens his position that deities and humans do not cooperate creatively.  He describes the human conduits, the receptors of divine will: “ἑρμηνῆς εἰσιν τῶν θεῶν” (They are interpreters of the gods).[27]  Interpretation is a subjective activity that implies conscious participation in the process of constructing meaning with significance that is pertinent to a single perspective.  However much an oversight this may or may not be for Plato’s separation of gods from humankind, it does no violence to what resemblance his literary theory bears to the prophetic mode as contained in Mormonism.[28]

[1] Plat. Ion 530b

[2] See my essay on the Nature of Inspiration, so titled.

[3] Ex. 4:15 (KJV)

[4] Plat. Ion 530c

[5] All translations are my own, unless otherwise noted.

[6] D&C 76, for example.

[7] See Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow, Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp.6-7

[8] Like, Moses, Joseph eventually developed his prophetic voice independent of his early assistants.

[9] Plat. Ion 530d

[10] Moses 3:5, 7

[11] D&C 131:7

[12] Plato’s revulsion at overmuch human/divine interconnectedness, insofar as the imputation of human proclivities to the gods is concerned, crescendos in the Republic.

[13] Plat. Ion 532c

[14] See People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture by Terryl Givens for a literarily informed consideration of this phenomenon and/or Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God (vol. 1) by Blake Ostler for a more philosophically oriented take.

[15] He is unique among modern prophets for, among other things, his vital interest in humane studies.

[16] Please see my essay The Nature of Inspiration for more explication of this perspective.

[17] Perhaps it was the regular infusions of Protestant scholarship Mormon thought took in the early to mid-twentieth century?  James E. Talmage, B.H. Roberts, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Bruce R. McConkie, although not unified in their interpretations of Mormon thought, quite nearly turned in unison to Protestant sources to fill in what gaps they found in Mormonism.

[18] Plat. Ion 533d-e

[19] Plat. Ion 534b

[20] The conversion of Alma the younger involved a forceful angelic catalyst, and the First Vision was preceded by a demonic assailant.

[21] Plat. Ion 534c

[22] HC 5:265

[23] Plat. Ion 534d

[24] Plat. Ion 534e

[25] D&C 124:1

[26] Plat. Ion 542a

[27] Plat. Ion 534e

[28] See my essay The Nature of Inspiration for more explication of human/divine cooperation.