BMCR 2019.08.31

Speeches for the Dead: Essays on Plato’s ‘ Menexenus’. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Band 368

, , Speeches for the Dead: Essays on Plato's ' Menexenus'. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Band 368. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. 202. ISBN 9783110570731 €99.95.

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

At the start of Plato’s Menexenus Socrates worries that, if he performs a private recitation of the funeral oration he was taught by Aspasia, Menexenus will laugh at him for looking like an old man still at play.1 That worry and other matters aside, later ancient readers appear to have understood the text of Socrates’ speech as an authentic specimen of an Athenian epitaphios logos. In Cicero’s Orator, Crassus makes the oft-quoted (if puzzling) claim that Plato’s popularis oratio for the war dead is so probata that it is recited every year in Athens (§151). From another corner of first-century Rome, Dionysius of Halicarnassus took Socrates’ funeral oration seriously enough to spend several words disparaging the stylistic failures of its overblown rhetoric ( Dem. 23-30). Among the indirect witnesses, only Plutarch seems to have grasped the game: in reviewing the sources for Aspasia, he emphasizes that, even though Plato’s Menexenus begins in a playful spirit, it does contain material of historical value.2 A version of this appraisal—that Menexenus is in some ways playful, but in others serious and meaningful—motivates most scholarship on the dialogue today. Yet the challenge is not simply one of figuring out which aspects are serious; it is of deciding what “serious” means and what its stakes are.

The essays in Speeches for the Dead, a volume devoted exclusively to topics and problems in the interpretation of Menexenus, seek to uncover the intellectually serious takeaways of the dialogue, largely by presenting readings that account for and reconcile its several manifest oddities. The volume grew out of a 2014 University of Pennsylvania Philosophy Department workshop at which seven of the nine papers were presented (one was commissioned afterward), but the volume’s first chapter is a programmatic reprint of Charles H. Kahn’s influential 1963 article “Plato’s Funeral Oration: The Motive of the Menexenus.

Parker and Robitzsch’s Introduction offers a brief account of the state of the scholarship (Pappas and Zelcer 2015 cover this ground thoroughly and there was no need to reinvent the wheel).3 A panorama of the volume’s essays is structured around five thematic clusters into which the editors see the chapters as falling: (1) Intertextual Approaches; (2) Analyses of Structure; (3) Rhetoric; (4) Parallels between the Menexenus and the Laws; and (5) Social and Political Topics.

Kahn’s reprinted essay further orients the volume by posing five questions at the heart of the “riddle of the Menexenus ”: 1. Why does Socrates say that Aspasia taught him this oration?
2. Why the anachronism? (Socrates died in 399, but his review of history ends with events of 386.)
3. Why does Socrates distort Athenian history?
4. Why did Plato write a funeral oration?
5. Why was the dialogue taken seriously in antiquity?

Each of the subsequent contributions takes up one or more of these questions. Kahn himself tried to unravel the riddle by reading Socrates’ speech against other funeral orations and encomia of Athens (the “intertextual” aspect of his approach). He concluded that the dialogue was conceived as a political pamphlet attacking “the prevalent view of Athenian grandeur and destiny” (26-27).

Mark Zelcer’s chapter, “Reading the Menexenus Intertextually,” returns to Kahn’s questions (1) and (4) in order to make one of the most intriguing arguments in the volume. At the start of the dialogue, Socrates explains that Aspasia composed the speech she taught him in part “by gluing together the leftover bits” (παραλείμματα … συγκολλῶσα, 236b) of the epitaphios logos she had ghostwritten for Pericles. On Zelcer’s reading, Aspasia is the clue to the task set before the reader: if we (re-)weave Socrates’ speech into the Periclean funeral oration, the reconstructed Aspasian “whole” acquires the form of “a standard Platonic dialog,” in which Pericles becomes Socrates’ interlocutor. The character of Menexenus should thus be read as a cypher for Pericles himself. Parts of the argument (e.g. on pp. 40-1) can seem a bit strained, and this reading did not account as much as I would have liked for the prosōpopoeia section of Menexenus, in which Socrates channels the voices of the war dead (should the dead be understood as a distinct “character” in the dialogue?). I did nevertheless admire the boldness and creativity of this lively and, at several turns, persuasive piece.4

In “On the Structure of Plato’s Menexenus,” Jeffrey S. Turner attempts to reconcile the unusual, near-monologic form of Menexenus with Mitchell Miller’s hypothesis that Platonic dialogues consistently follow a four-part structure. Turner casts the standard Athenian patriotic discourse exemplified in the Periclean oration as the “non- philosopher’s claim to knowledge” that, according to Miller’s schema, is first elicited then refuted. It is in the embedded speech of the war dead (246d-248d) that Socrates then “reorients” the discussion (as required by Miller’s model), in this case from the prior focus on ἀνδρεία to a new one on ἀρετή. With the question of virtue now foregrounded, Socrates’ conclusion to the speech and final conversation with Menexenus (248e-249c) serve, as Miller would predict, to return to the question that initially motivated the dialogue: that of “how a funeral speech should relate to Athens’ self-understanding and communal life” (66).

Like Zelcer, Nickolas Pappas sees Socrates’ speech as engaged in conversation with Thucydides’ Pericles. In “Improvisatory Rhetoric in the Menexenus,” he elaborates an argument he had previously made with Zelcer, namely that Socrates’ speech in Menexenus is meant to improve upon the Periclean funeral oration (see the reference in n. 3 above). Here Pappas pursues the question of how Plato set about crafting an improved version and submits that an answer lies in the concept of improvisation. Socrates claims that it is not particularly difficult to improvise (αὐτοσχεδιάζειν) a funeral oration (235d), and that some of the speech which Aspasia taught him was composed by her on the spot (ἐκ τοῦ παραχρῆμα, 236b). As Socrates himself riffs on Periclean themes, he elaborates certain concepts—particularly the importance and nature of education—that Pericles had failed to address. Socrates’ speech thus becomes a lesson in the art and value of “improvisatory philosophical rhetoric” (87). This chapter is best read in tandem with Zelcer’s complementary, if somewhat contradictory, contribution.

The relationship between Menexenus and the Laws anchors the essays by Brian Marrin and Harold Parker. Marrin begins “The Rhetoric of Natural Law in Plato’s Menexenus ” with the observation that “The Menexenus presents Athens as the embodiment of natural law, and so would seem to constitute Plato’s most concrete rebuttal of the Sophists’ antithesis between nature and human convention,” i.e., φύσις and νόμος (91). Plato’s rhetorical intention is to “reframe Athenian political discourse in terms of ‘natural law’” (92): the best laws are those that best match the inherent nature of the people who adopt them. This is a rich and wide-ranging paper that reads Menexenus alongside Critias, Republic, and Laws to explore questions of isonomia, autochthony, stasis, and reconciliation, the last of which Marrin sees as being the “immediate purpose” of Menexenus (109). Socrates’ speech sets out to reconcile not only old divided factions, but Athenian democracy with aristocracy and even Plato with his city.

In “A Strange Migration from the Menexenus to the Laws,” Harold Parker sets out to square Socrates’ claim in his funeral oration that during the reign of Darius “the minds of all humankind were enslaved” (γνῶμαι δεδουλωμέναι ἁπάντων ἀνθρώπων ἦσαν, 240a) with the Athenian’s point in Book ΙII of the Laws that, in the same era, the Athenian demos was, in a way, voluntarily enslaved to the laws (τρόπον τινὰ ἑκὼν ἐδούλευε τοῖς νόμοις, 700a). But whereas “the Persian condition relies upon internalized servitude to a principle of material superiority,” the Athenians “recognize instead the salvific capacity of virtue, its normative superiority to everything the Persians are rich in” (123-4). Both models attest to Plato’s fundamental belief in human agency, “our ability to side with the immaterial over the material” (131). In Menexenus, the Athenian victories at Marathon and Salamis “signify the negation of material supremacy” (133), and that exemplum “dovetails with the very logic of the funeral speech” (134). Parker thus here provides one answer to Kahn’s question (4), “Why did Plato write a funeral oration?”

The final three papers cover what the editors classify as “social and political topics.” In “Does the Political Regime Feed and Rear the Citizens? Trophē in Plato’s Menexenus and his Other Political Dialogues,” Étienne Helmer continues in the vein of the two preceding contributions by seeking to situate Menexenus in other texts from the Platonic corpus, here Statesman, Republic, and, again, Laws. In arguing for the consistency of Plato’s political philosophy across these works, he focuses on the concept of trophē, which “refers to two actions: first, feeding and, second, more broadly, rearing children or animals” (136). On the supplementary evidence of Republic and Laws, Helmer sees trophē in Menexenus as deployed to signify a practical reality, namely “a direct relation between the citizens and their politeia, through the rulers or laws” (150). The “feeding” in this case is an educational project, namely that of rearing the citizens on a “Noble Lie,” the kind of patriotic discourse “necessary for the sake of the city’s unity” and which, in classical Athens, was transmitted largely through the medium of the funeral oration.5

Jan Maximilian Robitzsch returns to Parker’s theme of how Menexenus articulates putatively inherent distinctions between Athenians, Greeks, and “barbarians” in “Ethnic Identity and its Political Consequences in Menexenus.” Socrates gets into the biggest conceptual tangle on the count of non-Athenian Greeks: other Greeks belong to the same φυλή as the Athenians, but he also emphasizes that, unlike other Greek peoples, the Athenians are not μειξοβάρβαροι (245d). Though Menexenus deploys typical Athenian tropes of ethnic superiority, this dialogue shows signs of more intense xenophobia than other contemporary texts.

Like Pappas, Clifford Robinson sees Socratic notions and displays of paideia as central to the dialogue. Unlike Zelcer, his reading depends on our understanding Menexenus to be the historical disciple of Socrates: he adopts S. Sara Monoson’s interpretation that the Menexenus of this dialogue is the same Menexenus present in Lysis and at Socrates’ death in Phaedo.6 Socrates entirely calibrates his funeral oration to the intellectual needs of the young Menexenus, an aristocrat at a crucial crossroads between politics and philosophy. Retracing some of Marrin’s ground, Robinson homes in on Socrates’ attempts to reconcile Athenian democratic and aristocratic principles; the prosōpopoeia section of the fallen πατέρες would be especially poignant if Menexenus himself was a war orphan. Menexenus’ appearance on the list of those present for Socrates’ last conversation at the Athenian desmotērion ( Phaedo 59b) is the ultimate evidence of the choice that he finally made.

Whereas Kahn saw Menexenus, with all of its anachronism, as providing an “almost unique glimpse of Plato as a man with his feet squarely planted in a particular time and place” (27), Robinson’s argument asks that we follow Debra Nails in assigning a dramatic date of 401/400 BCE and reading Socrates’ review of subsequent history as an interpolation. 7 This marks but one of several points on which these collected papers would appear to clash with each other; the contributors attempt to refute each others’ readings. Ultimately I found this variety of viewpoints hugely enriching, but the volume suffers from the contributors’ near total lack of engagement with each others’ essays. These essays, like Menexenus itself, leave the reader in a state of aporia, but here too the route by which she arrives there is generative as well as instructive.

The last section consists in a bibliography of twentieth- and twenty-first-century works—some 120—devoted to interpretation of Menexenus.8 This bibliography does not represent the full extent of works cited; contributors provide full references in footnotes. Those notes are, like the book as a whole, a testament to how differently philosophers, philologists, and cultural historians set about their work; several references I would have expected to see on topics such as the institution of the public funeral and the epitaphios logos, Athenian concepts of autochthony, and Plato’s Laws were absent, as is any discussion of Athenian drama.

There is no index: an index locorum would have been particularly useful.

Particularly in the light of several of the papers’ interest in Aspasia, who taught Socrates his oration but is absent from the “stage” in Menexenus, it is hard to resist pointing out the absence of female contributors from the conversation enacted by this volume.

Authors and titles

Harold Parker and Jan Maximilian Robitzsch, “Introduction”
Charles H. Kahn, “Plato’s Funeral Oration: The Motive of the Menexenus
Mark Zelcer, “Reading the Menexenus Intertextually”
Jeffrey S. Turner, “On the Structure of Plato’s Menexenus
Nickolas Pappas, “Improvisatory Rhetoric in the Menexenus
Brian Marrin, “The Rhetoric of Natural Law in Plato’s Menexenus
Harold Parker, “A Strange Migration from the Menexenus to the Laws
Étienne Helmer, “Does the Political Regime Feed and Rear the Citizens? Trophē in Plato’s Menexenus and his Other Political Dialogues”
Jan Maximilian Robitzsch, “Ethnic Identity and its Political Consequences in the Menexenus
Clifford Robinson, “‘Since We Are Two Alone’: Socratic Paideia in the Menexenus


1. Ἀλλ’ ἴσως μου καταγελάσῃ, ἄν σοι δόξω πρεσβύτης ὢν ἔτι παίζειν, Men. 236c.

2. εἰ καὶ μετὰ παιδιᾶς τὰ πρῶτα γέγραπται, τοσοῦτόν γ’ ἱστορίας ἔνεστιν, Pericles 24.7.

3. Nickolas Pappas and Mark Zelcer, Politics and Philosophy in Plato’s Menexenus: Education and Rhetoric, Myth and History (New York: Routledge, 2015).

4. I would add that Socrates’ claim that Aspasia narrated for him “the kinds of things that ought to be said” (οἷα δέοι λέγειν) in an epitaphios logos (236b) echoes Thucydides’ concern for depicting his characters as saying “what they ought to have said” (τὰ δέοντα … εἰπεῖν) in their circumstances (1.22.1).

5. This reading of funeral orations as vehicles of an Athenian “Noble Lie” is largely anticipated by Kathryn Morgan in her seminal 1998 article “Designer History: Plato’s Atlantis Story and Fourth-Century Ideology,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 118, pp. 101-118 (not cited here).

6. “Remembering Pericles: The Political and Theoretical Import of Plato’s Menexenus,” American Political Science Review 87 (1993), pp. 489-513.

7. The People of Plato: A Prosopography of Plato and Other Socratics (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002), pp. 195-7.

8. To the list we now add Demetra Kasimis’ The Perpetual Immigrant and the Limits of Athenian Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) which offers an interpretation of Menexenus centered on the concept of mimēsis at 139-42.