Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.03.21
Stavros Tsitsidiris, Platons Menexenos: Einleitung, Text und Kommentar. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Bd. 107. Stuttgart and Leipzig: Teubner, 1998. Pp. 429. ISBN 3-519-07656-X. DM 148.
Reviewed by Fernando Oreja, Technische Universität Berlin (firstname.lastname@example.org.TU-Berlin.de)
Word count: 1486 words
This book will be welcome to all those searching for an extremely detailed work on the state of research and the history of interpretations of Plato's Menexenos. The author is a Greek scholar and this book is the revised version of his German dissertation from 1995. Aside from indexes and bibliography,1 it consists of an introduction (pp. 21-102), a new edition of the Greek text (no translation is offered) of the Menexenos by Plato (103-125), and a commentary of 300 pages (119-419), which in proportion to the 15 pages of the dialog in the Stephanus edition is very extensive. The introduction handles almost all of the problems raised by the short text and discusses almost all of the questions related to its interpretation. In it T. successively examines questions about authenticity (21-41), dating (41-52), structure (52-63), "sense and meaning" (63-92) and the textual tradition (92-102). For his edition of the Greek text T. has revised and newly collated the three most important existing manuscripts (T, W and F), which he examined both from microfilms and from photographs. His commentary is not only thorough, exhaustive and meticulous, but always well-informed and instructive both on philological and historical matters. I do not believe that any future work dealing with the Mx. will be able to disregard the present study. Even for those who do not share many of its conclusions (including myself), T.'s work will become an indispensable reference in the same category as the already classic books of Th. Berndt (De Ironia Menexeni Platonici. Münster 1881) and of R. Clavaud (Le Ménèxene de Platon et la rhétorique de son temps. Paris 1980).
The Mx. consists of an independent epitaphios for the Athenians killed in battle framed by a very short dialog. The text opens with Menexenos coming from the Bouleuterion and meeting Socrates. Menexenos tells him about the deliberations for electing a rhetor for an epitaphios held annually. Socrates makes some criticisms about the epitaphios genre: in such speeches the state, the dead and even the living citizens are praised in an undifferentiated way (234c1 ff.); such speeches bewitch the souls of the listeners (γοητεύουσιν ἡμῶν τὰς ψυχάς: 235a2; b1 ff.) and they are in addition very easily composed. Afterwards, recalling a speech heard once by Aspasia, Socrates himself delivers an epitaphios as demonstration. After ending his recitation, Menexenos and Socrates exchange some courtesies and say goodbye. The epitaphios itself is a very sophisticated piece of rhetoric, filled with figures of thought and diction and with a clear traditional structure, in many points (but not in all) similar to other public funeral orations handed down to us, such as the famous one held by Pericles (also a student of Aspasia) in Thucydides. One can differentiate four parts in it (cf. T. on p. 60-61): an introduction setting the disposition of the speech; a praise (ἔπαινος) dealing with the origins of Athens, the Athenian constitution and Athenian history from the Persian Wars until the Peace of the Kings (386 BC); an admonition (παραῖνεσις) and consolation by those killed in war in a famous personification full of serious moral thoughts, and lastly a short epilog.
A tremendous amount of philological and historical criticism about the Mx. has arisen since the 19th century. It is surprising that such a little work could give rise to so much polemic. But a closer approach confirms that it is in no way an exaggeration to say that the Menexenos is in many respects one of the most enigmatic of Plato's writings. The overall theme is rhetoric (here specifically funeral rhetoric), an issue whose criticism and philosophic analysis constitutes a leitmotiv of the Platonic Corpus. For that reason the Mx. appears as an enigma at first, for in the short work, apart from the few quoted comments by Socrates at the beginning, the expected philosophical consideration or theoretical elaboration is missing. It also isn't clear at the end what Plato pretended to achieve with it or what is the adequate perspective for a proper interpretation of the Socratic epitaphios itself. It seems obvious that the well-known Platonic theoretical considerations concerning the λόγος as an instrument for achieving the truth, without forgetting its improper use by rhetoricians and sophists, must in some way be working in the background. According to this hypothesis the interpretation should show what function the text has in relation to that principal Platonic thought concerning the nature of the λόγος. Thus, considering the epitaphios as a piece of Socratic irony or a parody would be the more obvious perspective for a reading. But the complications of the work are much more far-reaching and even that begins to be doubtful as soon as other circumstances come under consideration. The structural unity of the Mx. and the relation of the dialog part to the epitaphios itself has been one of the most discussed problems -- and not without (internal and external) grounds. Related to this, doubts about the authenticity -- be it the authenticity of the dialog part alone or of the whole work -- are missing only in recent times. Even when the the Platonic authorship of the whole work is accepted, there are still some good reasons to think that the framing dialog was composed later than the epitaphios, as has been often maintained. The many anachronisms and inaccuracies in the text are not a small part of the problem. In that context T.'s study takes a valuable and interesting position.
It is possible to summarise T.'s main thesis and interpretative strategy in a few words: The Mx. is Platonic in its integrity and has a clear structural unity (it was conceived and composed as a whole, all its parts belong together and all of them have an unequivocal function). From this starting point T. tries to give, often successfully, a positive explanation for the peculiarities and disturbing elements. Some anachronisms are to be interpreted not as a sign of inauthenticity, but as Plato's way of erasing Socratic authorship; anachronisms are indeed a 'Platonic speciality'. Finally, many of the imprecisions and historical inaccuracies in the epitaphios are only apparent: some are to be explained as determined by the epitaphios genre itself and as an expression of what T. calls the 'official version' of the history of Athens. His final interpretation of the epitaphios not as a satire nor as a popular speech (a 'Volksrede') but as a pastiche caps his overall strategy for understanding the text, being in itself very interesting not only for its originality but also for the hermeneutic aspects upon which it rests. But despite its perspicuity and plausibility, such an interpretation cannot be considered as convincing and final.
Without claiming complete security for it T. dates the dialog to the year 386 (cf. pp. 41-52). His external reason is the actuality of the epitaphios after the Corinthian war (about 395-87); in no case is the dialog a satire of the Panegyric of Isocrates (about 386).
After having thoroughly questioned the several interpretations of the dialog as a satire, a parody and a popular speech, T. proposes placing the Mx. in the category of the pastiche. Interpreting the speech as a pastiche means that it is neither a serious speech (Plato would have covered his serious thoughts in the form of a popular speech, criticized in the framing dialog -- as Willamowitz believes), nor a pure παίγνιον, or a satire, or a specimen ironiae mimicae (Berndt). The pastiche is an imitation of a genre which doesn't necessarily serve parodying purposes. And here, as much as in other Platonic works, the borders between humour and seriousness aren't clearly defined. One will find here explicitly serious Platonic opinions beside subtle, parodic ones. That being so, T. himself must finally accept the conclusion that the purpose of the epitaphios wasn't the confirmation of the critics of the genre as expressed by Socrates in the framing dialog.
There are 47 preserved Mss. of the Mx. (5 with only the epitaphios, 6 with only different passages); Burnet and T. both collated for their editions the 3 most important ones (the 'Hauptzeugen': T,W,F). Bekker analyzed 12 more Mss. of the secondaries and Stallbaum 11 more. There are also 23 Mss. (+3 'Hauptzeugen') that have been partially or completely collated.
It is important to note that often Burnet's information about F isn't accurate (he used the collation by J. Král), and that T's lecture often diverges from that of Méridier (cf. pp. 93-95, n. 181)
The commentary is principally guided by a philological and historical interest. It is very long and exhaustive, commenting almost on each word. It can in no way be read straight through but is to be taken rather as a reference for a careful reading. One will find there interesting information about formal peculiarities of the diction, about parallel passages and lexicographic and stylistic observations, as well as a great amount of historical data and historical explanations regarding events and persons.
1. A misleading bibliography, by the way: Under 'Literatur und Abkürzungsverzeichnis', 'II. 2. Übrige Literatur' are listed only the studies that are being quoted with abbreviations. But T. quotes much more and refers to many other works, especially research of the 19th century. It is a pity that the considerable amount of research discussed hasn't been accounted for in an orderly manner.