Briefly Noted: Plato’s “Menexenus”

The dialogue this is a commentary on is reasonably short – a copy with section numbers is here if you’re interested. The translation quoted below is Jowett’s.

The Menexenus ends with Socrates promising to tell more grand political orations to a young up-and-coming politician if the latter will not reveal to the source that he is giving the speeches away. The secret pact for the future between a philosopher and a youth is forged because of what is explicitly political; the source of Socrates’ funerary oration in the Menexenus itself is Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles of whom Socrates not unsubtly hints is responsible for the funeral oration of Pericles himself. It is curious that the Menexenus is so hopeful: not only is the central event of the dialogue a speech marking death, but Socrates tells of events that occurred only after his death (Bruell 202). The dialogue is entirely imaginary; the character Menexenus was discussed in the Lysis, where he was much younger and said to have promise; one of the issues here is the legacy of philosophy as opposed to history (201). But that legacy involves a dependence on the historians – not just Thucydides, from whom we get the Funeral Oration of Pericles that the dialogue is a comment on, but also Xenophon’s historical depiction of Socrates. In Xenophon’s Symposium, Socrates defends philosophizing outright against the man from Syracuse at a most playful moment (Symposium VII:2 – VIII:1), and the very playful beginning of this dialogue – Socrates jokes that Aspasia beat him if he didn’t recite the lines she dictated correctly (236b-c) – indicates that Socrates is perhaps most forthright in a sense here.

We see Xenophon and Thucydides being cited in terms of philosophical content at the opening of the speech – the beginning is an announcement that “There is a tribute of deeds and words” (236d). For Xenophon, what is crucial to know are deeds, speeches, and what men silently deliberate. For Thucydides, a preoccupation with words tends to ignore the fundamental importance of deeds: if one knows how others acted, one can reconstruct the speeches they gave to others or themselves to a reasonable degree. Now Pericles opens his own Funeral Oration with a questioning of the ancestral law requiring a eulogy: great deeds can only be rewarded properly by other great deeds, such as the very elaborate funeral given at the occasion. Speech, according to Pericles, is potentially dangerous to the truth of actions; it makes the truth a battleground, and if people hear of too much greatness, they become envious and incredulous (Thucydides 2.35). Pericles is not opening himself to a charge of undermining his own speech necessarily: the ancestors were not perfect in creating this law, but he will make the most of the opportunity and create something significantly better. After all, his generation is greater than those before: the military achievements of the past do not even need to be mentioned for the present purpose (2.36).

Socrates’/Aspasia’s speech is of immediate contrast. Words matter: “noble words are a memorial and a crown of noble actions, which are given to the doers of them by the hearers. A word is needed which will duly praise the dead and gently admonish the living, exhorting the brethren and descendants of the departed to imitate their virtue, and consoling their fathers and mothers and the survivors, if any, who may chance to be alive of the previous generation” (236e). Logos connects the living and the dead, nothing less: through logos is fulfillment of nature (“imitate… virtue”) as well as a sense of wholeness (“consoling”). An even greater implication is how we know those who have departed at all. One has to wonder if this is a shadow of philosophy – in loving wisdom, do words end up fusing “what is” and “what is not?” More importantly, for our purposes: the ancestral is not dismissed in Socrates’/Aspasia’s speech; in order to know how someone is good, one must account for their good fathers and ancestors. If Pericles is dismissive of the ancestral – the basis of justice in any given political order – for the sake of empire and glory, it seems like the movement of the speech in the Menexenus is from nobility and glory to piety and justice. We get a hint of this with the regress of ancestors: it turns out the most important ancestor for Socrates is the earth – the country from which Athenians are sprung, who of course is a goddess and discussion of which requires an accounting of gods and men toward her.

Bruell points out something most curious about all of this: facts which Pericles stays silent on, facts which discuss the unjust acquisition of empire by the Athenians, are distorted by Socrates perhaps in order to exhort the Athenians to virtue and justice (Bruell 208). This is a notion of prudence completely alien to us: we want everyone to swallow the hard, bitter truth all at once on any given issue. The fact that each time we make someone else eat what is bitter we conveniently ignore what we ourselves are avoiding is lost on us; I don’t think it is a coincidence Socrates speaks of civil strife in his speech, and cannot praise those involved in it at all, even though he can praise a number of other suspect deeds (243e – 244b). Socrates appeals to the “veritable tie of blood” creating “among them a friendship as of kinsmen, faithful not in word only, but in deed” as making the civil war fairly mild. Still, he asks for remembrance of those who died and how they died, and prayer for their reconciliation and gratefulness for the reconciliation among Athenians now. The link between between untruth and justice we have discussed before (law gets its strength primarily from its age); the link between untruth and fraternity is perhaps more related to piety than we assume.

Obviously, there’s a lot more in the dialogue than the points which we have touched on briefly; it is recommended because it does not shy away from the most pressing issues at the foundation of politics. One of those issues is the relation of family, honor and the city (209). Socrates ends the speech with two addresses of fathers going to war: to their sons, they speak as if already dead; to their parents, they speak as those about to die. They warn their sons about an honorless life: “life is not life to one who is a dishonor 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” (246d). To their parents, they say “the gods have heard the chief part of their [their parents’] prayers, for they prayed, not that their children might live forever, but that they might be brave and renowned” (247d). The sons are told virtue is necessary to get anything out of wealth, beauty, strength and knowledge (246e – 247a); the fathers alone are told that happiness resides in having one’s life “ordered for the best” simply: temperance, courage and wisdom are displayed in remembering a proverb and accepting loss as one would gain (248a). The city is dependent on the family in the most critical way: if one of the problems of law is that its punitive aspects reflect human nature negatively, and its positive aspects shape man into something that doesn’t grasp his potential appropriately, we can see how the family works with that tension. The sons are threatened with punishment but are aiming to achieve and secure goods; the parents are exhorted to bear loss nobly but understand virtues which lend themselves to preservation. Perhaps law as a practical matter finds coherence within the scope of the family, i.e. “who one is” and “who one can relate to” (want to be). As a purely theoretical matter or purely individual matter, it can contradict itself in the most basic way: witness the typical discussion about Hobbesian sovereignty and the right of self-preservation.

References

Bruell, Christopher. On the Socratic Education: An Introduction to the Shorter Platonic Dialogues. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.

Leave a Comment