Plato's Dialogues: Menexenus

If you’re wondering how I managed to write up another post on Plato’s dialogues so quickly after the last one, the answer is that this is Menexenus, which is both very short (twelve pages in the Bollingen Series edition), and because it’s not quite like Plato’s other work. It begins with Socrates meeting an acquaintance, Menexenus, who is on his way back from the Agora. There is to be a public funeral soon, so a speaker must be chosen for the occasion. Menexenus mentions the short amount of time speakers have to prepare for these things, but Socrates points out that such speeches are often ready-made and easy for a decent orator to compose quickly. It’s also not difficult to win the audience’s approval, since this genre of speech typically involves praising the deceased and the city he came from. As Socrates puts it:

SOCRATES: The speakers praise [the deceased] for what he has done and for what he has not done—that is the beauty of them—and they steal away our souls with their embellished words; in every conceivable form they praise the city; and they praise those who died in war, and all our ancestors who went before us; and they praise ourselves also who are still alive, until I feel quite elevated by their laudations, and I stand listening to their words, Menexenus, and become enchanted by them, and all in a moment I imagine myself to have become a greater and nobler and finer man than I was before. […]
MENEXENUS: You are always making fun of the rhetoricians, Socrates; this time, however, I am inclined to think that the speaker who is chosen will not have much to say, for he has been called upon to speak at a moment’s notice, and he will be compelled almost to improvise.
SOCRATES: But why, my friend, should he not have plenty to say? Every rhetorician has speeches ready made; nor is there any difficulty in improvising that sort of stuff. Had the orator to praise Athenians among Peloponnesians, or Peloponnesians among Athenians, he must be a good rhetorician who could succeed and gain credit. But there is no difficulty in a man’s winning applause when he is contending for fame among the persons whom he is praising.

Few, I think, would dispute that last point especially.

In any case, after some pressing from Menexenus, Socrates demonstrates that he can give such an oration himself, by delivering one (allegedly) composed by Aspasia, which takes up almost all of the rest of the dialogue. The unusual form, and relative lack of philosophical interest or insight, is one reason why some critics have doubted whether this work is really Plato’s. I doubt that this oration is meant to be taken at face value; in fact, given the context I assume it’s essentially a parody of the rhetoricians whom, as Menexenus says, Socrates is always making fun of. The historical errors and oversights in the speech would have been obvious to any contemporary reader of Plato’s, and are also pointed out by modern translators and critics. For example, as Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns say in their introduction to the dialogue, “The Peloponnesian War is described at length without so much as a hint that the Spartans were the victors.” Despite these doubts, though, Aristotle lists Menexenus as one of Plato’s works, and my understanding is that most critics do follow him on this.

So, is there anything of interest here? Sure, despite being self-consciously jingoistic, there’s nothing wrong in appealing to an audience’s patriotism, and there are a few things worth pointing out. One line that stood out to me was this, spoken in the person of those who died in the Greco-Persian Wars:

Sons, the event proves that your fathers were brave men; for we might have lived dishonourably, but have preferred to die honourably rather than bring you and your children into disgrace, and rather than dishonour our own fathers and forefathers; considering that life is not life to one who is a dishonour to his race, and that to such a one neither men nor Gods are friendly, either while he is on the earth or after death in the world below.

It reminds me of the first two lines of A. E. Housman’s famous poem on the First World War, “Here dead we lie because we did not choose / To live and shame the land from which we sprung.” Of course, Plato’s purpose here doesn’t allow the reflective second half, though I don’t think Plato or Socrates would have objected to it, “Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose; / But young men think it is, and we were young.”

Well, that’s really all I have on this one. Up next is Parmenides.