On Reviving Plato’s and Shelley’s ‘Enthusiasm’

By Gerry Therrien

Here is a transcript of Gerry Therrien lecture as the epilogue to the RTF symposium “Rediscovering the Lost Art of Statecraft.” It is a must see/read!

At our Wednesday Evening Reading Club, back in February, we read Michael Billington’s article on ‘The Deconstructionist Assault on China’s Cultural Optimism’, and in the article, he compared the Chinese character ‘Ren’ to the Greek word ‘Agape’.  And at that reading, Dr. Quan Le agreed with Billington’s translation, and Quan said that Ren should also be thought of as Enthusiasm.  I would recommend watching Quan’s class on ‘Plato and Confucius, Spiritual Brothers and Philosopher Kings Living at the Two Ends of the World Island’.

I remembered having read Plato’s dialogues where he talked about enthusiasm, and so I reread those dialogues, and this is one attempt to discuss enthusiasm by visiting two other symposiums – by Plato and by Percy Shelley.

Plato you should know, from watching Cynthia’s class on ‘Plato’s fight against the Temple of Apollo at Delphi’.

The English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, has an interesting connection to America, that I’d like to point out.  His grandfather, Bysshe Shelley, was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1731, and lived for a while in the United States, before his parents moved back to England.  Many years later, in 1806, he would become Sir Bysshe Shelley, the Baronet of Castle Goring.  Percy’s father, Timothy Shelley, was an elected member of Parliament for West Sussex when Percy was born in 1792. 

Although Percy may have stood to inherit his grandfather’s baronetcy and perhaps his father’s seat in parliament, nonetheless, Percy’s views concerning the republican experiment in the United States can be seen in this quote from his poem ‘Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century’, that he wrote in 1817.

Shelley’s poem of a revolution in ideas was suppressed by the publishers and had to be revised, by removing 27 cancelled pages and adding a new title ‘The Revolt of Islam’ which had nothing to do with Islam, but the tyrant was modelled upon an Ottoman Sultan, with no resemblance to a British monarch, in orderto pass the censors.

“… There is a People mighty in its youth,
     A land beyond the Oceans of the West,      
Where, though with rudest rites, Freedom and Truth
     Are worshipped; from a glorious Mother’s breast,
Who, since high Athens fell, among the rest
     Sate like the Queen of Nations, but in woe,
By inbred monsters outraged and oppressed,          
     Turns to her chainless child for succour now,
     It draws the milk of Power in Wisdom’s fullest flow.

That land is like an Eagle, whose young gaze
     Feeds on the noontide beam, whose golden plume
Floats moveless on the storm, and in the blaze
     Of sunrise gleams when Earth is wrapped in gloom;
An epitaph of glory for the tomb
     Of murdered Europe may thy fame be made,
Great People! as the sands shalt thou become;
     Thy growth is swift as morn, when night must fade;        
     The multitudinous Earth shall sleep beneath thy shade.

Yes, in the desert there is built a home
     For Freedom. Genius is made strong to rear
The monuments of man beneath the dome
     Of a new Heaven; myriads assemble there,
Whom the proud lords of man, in rage or fear,
     Drive from their wasted homes: the boon I pray
Is this – that Cythna shall be convoyed there –
     Nay, start not at the name – America
! …”

Laon speaks of a land where Freedom and Truth are worshipped, of the power in Wisdom’s fullest flow; of an eagle floating moveless, when Earth is wrapped in gloom; of murdered Europe where proud lords, in rage or fear, drive people from their wasted homes.  He is offering to surrender himself to the Sultan’s police, in order to allow Cythna to escape to America.  It should be noted that Shelley wrote this defence of America a few years after the ending of the War of 1812, between the United Kingdom and the United States! 

Now, not only was Shelley a republican, by his support for the idea of the republic in America, but he was also a republican by his understanding and agreement with Plato’s ‘Republic’.

In ‘The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley’, his friend and fellow student Thomas Hogg writes about their early years together at Oxford.

It seems laughable, but it is true, that our knowledge of Plato was derived solely from Dacier’s translation of a few of the dialogues, and from an English version of that French translation; we had never attempted a single sentence in the Greek.  Since that time, however, I believe, few of our countrymen have read the golden works of that majestic philosopher in the original language more frequently and more carefully than ourselves; and few, if any, with more profit than Shelley.  Although the source, whence flowed our earliest taste of the divine philosophy, was scanty and turbid, the draught was not the less grateful to our lips: our zeal in some measure atoned for our poverty.  Shelley was never weary of reading, or of listening to me whilst I read, passages from the dialogues contained in this collection, and especially from the ‘Phaedo’, and he was vehemently excited by the striking doctrines which Socrates unfolds …

In 1818, the same year that the Platonic republican Shelley re-wrote ‘The Revolt of Islam’, he left England, never to return, and he travelled to Italy where he entered into an amazingly productive period of his writing – many of his best poems (To a Skylark & Ode to the West Wind), the political play ‘Swellfoot the Tyrant’ and the poem ‘Mask of Anarchy’ – known for its idea of non-violence (as often quoted by Mahatma Gandhi), and also ‘Peter Bell the Third’ that criticized William Wordsworth and made fun of Immanuel Kant. 

He wrote ‘Prometheus Unbound’ (as an attempt to finish the lost 2nd part after Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound), and did his own translations of Plato’s dialogues, the ‘Ion’ and the ‘Symposium’, and continuing in that creative burst, he wrote an essay ‘In Defence of Poetry’ in 1821, one year before he died.

In this essay ‘In Defence of Poetry’, Shelley considers Plato to be a poet, a sort of ‘philosopher-poet’; just as Shelley also considers Shakespeare, Dante and Milton to be – “philosophers of the very loftiest power”.

He has quite a comprehensive idea of a poet that –

Poets … are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers, who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true, that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion …”

He ended this essay with –

The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry.  At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature …

“Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. 

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

To understand what Shelley means by ‘partial apprehension of the invisible world’ and by ‘unapprehended inspiration’, we’re going to look at a trilogy of Plato’s dialogues – the Ion, Phaedrus and Symposium – without discussing in detail the whole dialogue, but using a few key passages (like cherry-picking), to demonstrate a point.  But, I would recommend that people read the dialogues on their own, for a better and fuller understanding

First, in the ‘Ion’ dialogue, (using Shelley’s translation published in 1840), Socrates is congratulating Ion, the rhapsodist, for winning the chief prize in the ‘trial of skill of the Muse’s art’.  Socrates is envious of the rhapsodists, who are conversant in the works of many excellent poets, especially of Homer – who Socrates calls ‘the best and most divine’, and who learn, not merely his verses, but also his meaning.  Socrates asks Ion if, as well as being a master at explaining Homer, he is also a master at explaining Hesiod and Archilochus.  But Io replies, no, that his powers were confined only to Homer. 

Socrates and Ion now begin a discussion of art (whether the art of painting, or sculpting, or music, or of poetry) – that if someone is able to understand this art, then their way of considering and criticizing all the professors of this art, and their judgement in every case, would depend on the principles of this art; and that if he can know which compositions excel, that he can also know which compositions do not excel.  Socrates reasons that it was because Ion wasn’t capable of explaining Homer ‘on the principles of art, or from real science’, and that his ability must come from some ‘divine power’. 

Some people think that Socrates is making fun of Ion, because he can’t explain what makes Homer better than other poets, and that he simply doesn’t know anything about poetry.  But Socrates does not do that, as he really wants to know why Ion falls asleep whenever another poet is being recited or talked about, but is totally engaged when Homer is being talked of, and Ion wins all the competitions for reciting and explaining Homer.  Socrates wishes to know from where Ion gets his inspiration.

I will tell you, O Ion, what appears to me to be the cause of this inequality of power.  It is that you are not master of any art for the illustration of Homer, but it is a divine influence which moves you, like that which resides in the stone called Magnet … For not only does this stone possess the power of attracting iron rings, but it can communicate to them the power of attracting other rings; so that you may see sometimes a long chain of rings and other iron substances attached and suspended one to the other by this influence.  And as the power of the stone circulates through all the links of this series and attaches each to each, so the Muse communicating through those whom she has first inspired, to all others capable of sharing in the inspiration the influence of that first enthusiasm, creates a chain and a succession.  For the authors of those great poems which we admire do not attain to excellence through the rules of any art, but they utter their beautiful melodies of verse in a state of inspiration and, as it were, possessed by a spirit not their own.

            Socrates is saying that ‘one who wants to be a poet, must deal with inspiration, not logical reason’; that true poets do not compose verse according to the rules of art (like the medicinal art or the gymnastic art; or as an artificer or an architect) i.e. art that is based on the understanding of physical principles; BUT that the Muse inspires poets through a ‘divine impulse’ – inspiring others (like a magnet) to form a chain of ‘divine enthusiasts’. 

We need to better understand what this ‘divine impulse’ of the Muse is, that can inspire us.

Portrait of Thomas Taylor by Thomas Lawrence, 1812 (National Gallery of Canada)

This portrait of Thomas Taylor, for some reason, hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa.  In Canada!

The first English translation of Plato’s complete dialogues and letters was published in 1804, by Thomas Taylor.

In 1792 (the year that Percy Shelley was born), Taylor published his first translation of one of Plato’s dialogues – the Phaedrus dialogue.

Second, in the ‘Phaedrus’ dialogue (using the translation by Taylor), Socrates and Phaedrus are talking about ‘love’, when Socrates is ‘agitated by the fury of the Nymphs’ and he realizes that so far, their discourses have been foolish and impious – as if they sounded like ‘men educated in ships’.                                         

Socrates is referring to book 6 in the Republic, where he talks about a ship, where the pilot is deaf and half-blind, and so the sailors imagine that each of them should be the pilot, though they never learned the art, though they claim that the art itself cannot be taught and that the true pilot is only a star-gazer, is insignificant and isn’t profitable to them. – that’s ‘men educated in ships’.

Again, Socrates is ‘agitated by the fury of the Nymphs’ and he realizes that their talk has been foolish and impious.  To understand the ‘fury of the Nymphs’ (the Erinyes) please watch the class given by Dr. Petro on the trilogy of Aeschylus, ‘How Tragedy Can Heal Society: The Oresteia as Political Therapy’ – how, through Athena, the Erinyes were changed from the seekers of justice through vengeance (blood for blood) into the ‘kindly ones’ of a new compassionate form of justice.  We also saw this new kind of justice in Matt’s class ‘The Principle of Westphalia and the Birth of International Law’.

Having been agitated by the Erinyes, Socrates now presents a new ‘metaphorical’ oration, saying that –

the greatest goods are produced for us through mania, and are assigned to us by a divine gift

‘such of the ancients as gave names to things, did not consider mania as either base or disgraceful …

but as something beneficial, when it subsists through a divine allotment.

Some people, however, translate ‘mania’ as madness or insanity, but Socrates sees it as something beneficial.  Kepler calls it ‘inspired frenzy’.

For the predicting prophetess at Delphi, and the priestess in Dodona, have, when insane procured many advantages, both privately and publicly, to the Greeks; but when they have been in a prudent state, they have been the cause of very trifling benefits, or indeed of none at all.”

One mania, as employed by the predicting prophetess and priestess, is called prophecy or (by the moderns) ‘mantic’.

Indeed the investigations of futurity, by prudent men, which take place through birds, and a variety of other tokens, as proceeding from the dianoetic part through human intelligence, they denominated intellect and intellective opinion.”

A second mania, used by prudent men investigating the future through omens, is called (by the moderns) ‘augury’.

But the third species is a possession and mania descending from the Muses, which receiving a soul tender and solitary, rouses and agitates it with Bacchic fury, according to odes and other species of poetry; in consequence of which, by adorning the infinite actions of antiquity, it becomes the means of instructing posterity.

But he who approaches to the poetic gates without the mania of the Muses, persuading himself that he can become a poet, in a manner perfectly from art alone, will, both as to himself and his poetry, be imperfect; since the poetry which is produced by prudence vanishes before that which is the progeny of mania …

It must now be shown by us that a mania of this kind was sent by the gods, for the purpose of producing the greatest felicity …”

This third type of mania, that descends from the Muse, is poetic enthusiasm.  Socrates is distinguishing poetry that merely excites our senses and that is imperfect, from poetry that inspires our souls, that instructs posterity, and produces the greatest happiness. 

Socrates then further discusses this third mania with a metaphor about the soul –

Let it then be similar to the kindred power of a winged chariot and charioteer.  All the horses and chariots of the gods are indeed good, and composed from things good; but those of other natures are mixed.  And, in the first place, our principal part governs the reins of its two-yoked car.  In the next place, one of the horses is good and beautiful, and is composed from things of this kind, but the other is of a contrary nature, and is composed of contrary qualities: and on this account our course is necessarily difficult and hard.”

While the horses and chariots of the gods proceed with easy motion, those of the other natures proceed with difficulty and labour.  Socrates is alluding to the idea that our souls, the other natures, are both mortal and immortal.  Zeus leads this divine procession, followed by the army of gods and daemons and the other souls. 

But those who are denominated immortals, when they arrive at the summit, proceeding beyond the extremity of heaven, stand on its back: and while they are established in this eminence, the circumference carries then around, and they behold what the region beyond the heavens contains.

But, with respect to other souls … (it) is disturbed by the course of the horses, and scarcely obtains the vision of perfect realities.  But the other souls at one time raise, and at another time depress, the head of the charioteer: and, through the violence of the horses, they partly see indeed, and are partly destitute of vision.

Only the gods can reach the extremity of heaven and ‘behold what the region beyond heaven contains’, while the other souls, going up and down, see only a glimpse of this place of perfect reality.  And through the tumult, contest and perspiration, of trying but being unable to accomplish this vision, the other souls must depart, and they fall again to the earth, to inform the body of men – being placed in different ranks or orders, according to the amount and duration of their perception of that vision of divine reality.

The soul which has seen the most, informs ‘the body of a philosopher, or of one desirous of beauty, or of a musician, or of one devoted to love’, and this philosopher, this lover of beauty, will become filled with a kind of mania, ‘a divine enthusiasm’.

“the means by which any one, on perceiving a portion of terrene beauty, from their soul’s reminiscence of that which is true, may recover his wings, and, when he has recovered them, may struggle to fly away.”

This enthusiasm, therefore, is, of all enthusiasms, the best … and he who is under the influence of this mania when he loves beautiful objects, is denominated a lover.”

            The soul of a philosopher, or a poet, when it is filled by this ‘divine enthusiasm’, becomes a lover of beauty.  So, what is this love of beauty? 

            Third, in the ‘Symposium’ dialogue (using the Shelley translation), a gathering of Athenians are giving orations to ‘Love’, when Socrates, in his turn, talks of his being examined and lectured by the prophetess, Diotima, who showed that Love was not a god, but a daemon!  (In many of the dialogues, Socrates speaks of his daemon.)

We shouldn’t be confused by today’s use of the word ‘demon’, meaning something that is bad, like an evil spirit.  Socrates speaks of ‘daemons’ as something that is good – that would be more comparable to an angel, and perhaps your particular daemon to your guardian angel, or as being your Muse, or your conscience.

“… he is neither mortal nor immortal, but something intermediate … A great daemon, Socrates; and everything daemoniacal holds an intermediate place between what is divine and what is mortal … He interprets and makes a communication between divine and human things, conveying the prayers and sacrifices of men to the Gods, and communicating the commands and directions concerning the mode of worship most pleasing to them, from Gods to men.  He fills up that intermediate space between these two classes of beings, so as to bind together, by his own power, the whole universe of things … These daemons are, indeed, many and various, and one of them is Love.”

            Socrates then shows how philosophy is an intermediate state between ignorance and wisdom (he says wisdom is one of the most beautiful of all things), so since Love thirsts for the beautiful, Love is a philosopher.

“The case stands thus – no God philosophises or desires to become wise, for he is wise; nor, if there exist any other being who is wise, does he philosophise.  Nor do the ignorant philosophise, for they desire not to become wise; for this is the evil of ignorance, that he who has neither intelligence, nor virtue, nor delicacy of sentiment, imagines that he possesses all those things sufficiently.  He seeks not, therefore, that possession, of whose want he is not aware.”

“Who, then, O Diotima,’ I inquired, ‘are philosophers, if they are neither the ignorant nor the wise?”

“It is evident, even to a child, that they are those intermediate persons, among whom is Love.  For Wisdom is one of the most beautiful of all things; Love is that which thirsts for the beautiful, so that Love is of necessity a philosopher, philosophy being an intermediate state between ignorance and wisdom.

Socrates isn’t talking about the ‘so-called’ philosophers at that time – the sophists – that only use their rules (their axioms and their postulates) in their ‘uninspired’ search for knowledge, that Socrates liked to ridicule and point out the flaws and inconsistencies in their arguments.  No, Socrates is talking about the philosopher-poets and their ‘divinely-inspired’ search for knowledge.

Socrates asks that, if all this is true, then of this philosopher, Love, what advantages does he afford to men?  Diotima asks ‘why is Love the love of beautiful things?’ and answers ‘for we select a particular species of love, and apply to it distinctively, the appellation of that which is universal’, and she gives, as an example, poetry.

“Poetry; which is a general name signifying every cause whereby anything proceeds from that which is not, into that which is; so that the exercise of every inventive art is poetry, and all such artists poets.  Yet they are not called poets, but distinguished by other names; and one portion or species of poetry, that which has relation to music and rhythm, is divided from all others, and known by the name belonging to all.  For this is alone properly called poetry, and those who exercise the art of this species of poetry, poets.”

“So with respect to Love.  Love is indeed universally all that earnest desire for the possession of happiness and that which is good; the greatest and the subtlest love, and which inhabits the heart of every living being; but those who seek this object through the acquirement of wealth or the exercise of the gymnastic arts, or philosophy, are not said to love, nor are called lovers: one species alone is called love, and those alone are said to be lovers, and to love, who seek the attainment of the universal desire through one species of love, which is particularly distinguished by the name belonging to the whole … but love nothing but that which is good.”

For Socrates, poetry isn’t something to meditate upon or to admire, without a purpose – like staring at one’s belly-button to try to learn about naval intelligence – but Socrates says that the purpose, the cause, the principle, the ‘reason’ for this divine enthusiasm is the ‘Good’.

“Can we then simply affirm that men love that which is good? … What, then, must we not add, that, in addition to loving that which is good, they love that it should be present to themselves? … And not merely that it should be present, but that it should ever be present? … Love, then, is collectively the desire in men that good should be for ever present to them.”

            Socrates is saying that this love of the good, also has in addition, a desire for the ever presence of the good.  Because, as Socrates earlier had said, love is a daemon, a philosopher – it’s intermediate between wisdom and ignorance, intermediate between immortal and mortal – and so it’s not perfect, but it’s always trying to become more perfectable, to become better, and therefore this love of the good, or ‘agape’, needs this desire for the good, that we’ll call ‘hope’.  So, our enthusiasm to do good, (our Ren) is both a love and a hope for the Good.

            We saw this love and hope of the good in Sam Labrier’s class on ‘A City on a Hill and Winthrop’s Grand Design’ where he talked about Cotton Mather, and his book ‘Essays to do Good’ written in 1710.

“It is an invaluable honour to do good; it is an incomparable pleasure.  A man must look upon himself as dignified and gratified by God, when an Opportunity to do good is put into his hands.  He must embrace it with rapture, as enabling him directly to answer the great end of his being.

For Cotton Mather, his idea of rapture was enthusiasm, enthusiasm to do good.  And, as we saw in Sam’s class, this enthusiasm had a profound impact on Benjamin Franklin and on the ideals for the American Revolution.

I’m reminded of a gathering I attended once, to celebrate the birthday of Dr. King (Dr. Martin Luther King), and Rev. James Bevel was speaking.  [for those of you unfamiliar with James Bevel, watch the movie ‘Selma’, the march from Selma to Montgomery, and the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge – that bridge was named after the founder of the KKK in Alabama.  In the movie, Bevel always wore farmer’s coveralls.]

And Rev. Bevel was explaining that if God put us on this earth, not to only have fun but to do good, then God must truly love this generation, for look at all the work He’s given us, all that needs to be done in the world today – all the opportunity for us to do good.  Then he spoke about how Dr. King is the best example of the idea that the real work that we do in life, happens after we have died – well I just about fell off my chair when he said that, because it really got me thinking, that those ideas that we leave behind can continue to do work – to do good, by inspiring some of those who come after us (just like Plato’s metaphor of the magnet of enthusiasm, in the ‘Ion’).

Lastly, I want to give an example from a recent discovery.

105,000 year old calcite crystals discovered in an ancient rock shelter in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert.

On April 1st, an article appeared in all the major world press, of the announcement of an archeological discovery that was made at an ancient rock shelter at Ga-Mohana Hill in the Kalahari Basin in the Republic of South Africa – by a team led by Dr. Jayne Wilkins (a Canadian).  The finds of stone tools, animal bones and other signs of human occupation – were dated to 105,000 years ago, and also, they included the discovery of twenty-two small white calcite crystals. 

But the big question was, why were these crystals found at this site?  They weren’t used for tools or for any practical purpose, for example, to help get a meal or to find water.  But Dr. Wilkins suggested, or guessed, that these crystals were likely kept for the same reason that people are attracted to crystals today, for their visual beauty – that 100,000 years ago one of our ancestors kept these crystals because they looked beautiful – I loved that idea. 

And I’d like to thank that doctor for finding those crystals, but I also wish I could thank that person who left them, so long ago, for us to find, because it should remind us of how our enthusiasm can change us – from being like ‘hunters and gatherers’ of practical pleasure, to becoming like ‘explorers and discoverers’ of beauty.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and Glaucon (Plato’s older brother) discuss whether to allow poets in the republic.  Now, we should propose that ifour poets are able use this enthusiasm, to give us a glimpse of true beauty, of true wisdom and of true happiness, then we shall allow those poets into our republic – I think that we should allow Shelley and Plato into our republic. 

And, if our poets are able to use this enthusiasm to inspire the citizens of our republic to do good, then I think that we could make an addition to Shelley’s famous last sentence in his Defence of Poetry, where he said that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’perhaps, we could change it to this:

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of enthusiasm of the world”.

Subscribe to our Telegram channel at: t.me/RisingTideFoundation.


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

One Comment Add yours

  1. Bob Herrschaft says:

    May your daemon keep inspiring you, Gerry!

Leave a Reply to Bob HerrschaftCancel reply