Menexenus is a Socratic dialogue composed by Plato during his first writing period. It takes up the subject of epideictic rhetoric and in particular funeral orations.

Scenery of the dialogue

The largest part of the work is dedicated to a funeral oration that Aspasia (Pericles’ mistress) had devised and Socrates recites from memory. Two short dialogues are enclosing the oration, and they are played out between Socrates and the young Menexenus. The occasion is provided when Menexenus -on his way back from the agora and specifically the Bouleuterion- chances upon Socrates. The timeframe of the drama is set at 387 B.C. or shortly after. Menexenus was heir to a wealthy and politically prominent lineage. As a dramatic character he also appears in Plato’s Lysis and Phaedo.

Structure and Content

Menexenus can be divided into three parts:

A. In the dense introductory dialogue (234a-236d3), Socrates deploys a comic commentary upon the genre of rhetoric.Socrates satirizes rhetoricfor providing the means of praising Athens, and also thepropensity of the Athenians to yield in the deceptive effect of that praise. Nevertheless, he states his readiness to design a funeral oration himself, or to recite the one Aspasia has entrusted him with.

B. The second part consists in the epitaphios proper, which can also be divided into three parts:

(1) Proem (236d4-249c): The orator (that is Aspasia through the mouth of Socrates) lays out the occasion upon which the speech is delivered, and the parts in which it consists.

(2) First Part (237b3-246a4): Praise for (i) the indigenous heritage of the Athenians (237b3-d2); (ii) their nurture and education (237d2-238b6); (iii) their aristocratic (“along with popular consent”) constitution (238b7-239a5); their war deeds and their external policy, which are dictated by the sole motive and criterion of freedom.

(3) Second Part (246a5-249c): Exhortation and consolation (246a5-249c). The subdivision of this part into two section depends on the speaker: (i) Prosopopoeia (246d=249c). The orator uses this figure of speech in order to place his thoughts into the mouths of the dead heroes. Thus, on the one hand they urge their children to practice in valor, virtue and justice, and on the other they console their parents while advising them to bear their sorrow in moderation, and to take care of their wives and children. Finally, they ask the city to tend to their fathers and brothers. (ii) In conclusion (248d7-249c), the orator himself gives similar advises and congratulates the city for its prudence.

C. In the epilogue of the dialogue, Menexenus expresses his gratitude to whomever put this epitaphios together, and to Socrates for reciting it.

Date of composition

On the speculations that Plato intended to comment on the recently imposed Peace of Anatalcidas, or that the Menexenus functioned as an argument in Plato’s dispute with Isocrates, many scholars place the date of its composition shortly after 387 B.C. Nonetheless, the genuineness of the work as a whole, or just of the complementary dialogical parts, has been impugned mostly by the philological research of the 19th c. The suspicious features of the work lie in the asymmetry in style between the oration proper and the dialogical parts, the lack of a profound philosophical mindset, and the extensive use of rhetoric despite its condemnation in the Gorgias. However, the paternity of the work was not questioned in antiquity, basically because Aristotle refers to it in his Rhetoric (1376b8, 1415b29-31).

Interpretation

The nub of the hermeneutical problem lies with the styleof the oration that Socrates gives forth: is it a serious speech, or is it a parody; or is it a mixture of irony and literality? And what would Plato’s intention be in each case?

Two parametersshape the meaning of the dialogue: For one thing, the association between politics and rhetoric. According to Loraux, the function of the funeral oration extended to the effect of (re)inventing the identity of Athens, and by implication the identity of the citizens. For another, the meticulous similarity that Plato creates between the epitaphios of Socrates/Aspasia and the one of Pericles as it is recreated by Thucydides. The target of this mimesis is Pericles’ oration on the one hand, and the rhetoric as a genre on the other. In connection with these insights, we have to ask about the typical elenctic element that Socrates is accustomed to contributing in any dialogue:is elenchus part of the Menexenus,a work of such a great political importance as the epitaphios init suggests?

In the Menexenus, criticism is veiled in the parodic formulation of the funeral oration; that is,the pretentious utterance, the amplification, and the irony. For all that, the parodic distortion is not entirely negative – and neither is the typical dialectical elenchus of Socrates. In the case of Menexenus, the platonic political ideas, although not overtly expressed, confront the usual portentous theses of rhetoric speeches. These are two examples of parody:

(1) In having the rhetorician dwelling on the events of the Corinthian War and the Peace of Antalcidas (244d-246b), Plato places Socrates and Aspasia in a dramatic date posterior to their historical deaths. This scandalous anachronism exposes the ability of the rhetorician to speak compellingly even of things that he has no personal knowledge. The aim of rhetoric as a genre is not truth, but persuasion.

(2) In his laud of the constitution of Athens (238c7-d8), Socrates/Aspasia uses the term aristocracy. His intention is to expose Pericles by coming out to say what Pericles, in his own epitaphios, only implies. In order to win the favor of his audience, Pericles pronounces that the constitution of Athens is “called a democracy”, but he then goes on to describe it as an aristocracy(History of the Peloponnesian War2.37. 1-2). He explains that public offices are appointed to those who have a reputation for virtue. This last point is taken up, repeated and amplified in Socrates’/Aspasia’s speech to the effect of undercutting reputation as a criterion for virtue. What Plato, ultimately, implies is that even the exercised aristocracy of the Athenian governance is ostensible, and that is because of the cursory election to office of those who are reputed as/appear to be virtuous – from whom one cannot easily excluded the politician and persuasive rhetorician Pericles himself.

Conclusively, the philosophical force of Socrates punctures the pretensions of the (funeral) rhetoric speeches, and undermines the political intentions of their speakers. His usual elenchus is not laid bare, but appears in the guise of parody and aims at its usual effect: the examination of one’s self, and the personal caretaking of one’s soul – whether this be the expectant politician Menexenus, or the Athenian readers of the dialogue.

Author: Ioannis Telios
  • Kahn, C. "Plato's Funeral Oration: The Motive of the Menexenus’." Classical Philology 58:4 (1963)
  • Coventry, L. "Philosophy and Rhetoric in the Menexenus." The Journal of Hellenic Studies 109 (1989)
  • Loraux, N. The Invention of Athens: the Funeral Oration in the Classical City. Cambridge, 1986.
  • Trivigno, F. V. "The Rhetoric of Parody in Plato." Philosophy and Rhetoric 42:1 (2009)
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