BMCR 2021.03.21

La musique linguistique de la réminiscence: Le Ménon de Platon entre réinvention cratyléenne de la langue commune et réappropriation de l’ancienne langue parénétique

, La musique linguistique de la réminiscence: Le Ménon de Platon entre réinvention cratyléenne de la langue commune et réappropriation de l'ancienne langue parénétique. Grenoble: Editions Jérôme Millon, 2018. Pp. 144. ISBN 9782841373406. €18,00 (pb).

This short, but sharp and dense book takes its cue from a contribution presented by the author at an international conference on “Platon: citateur. Un example de réappropriation par la philosophie des discours de savoir antérieurs” in March 2017. The overall argument of the work, which is focused on the Menon, is that the sound structure of the language, intended as a succession of sonic (phono-syllabic) unities, carries meaning in itself, and that it is modelled on the parenetic diction employed by Tyrtaeus in his exhortative elegies. As E. J. Bakker puts it in his preface to the book: “below the logico-semantic surface of the philosophical conversation Année detects a subliminal ‘sonic’ system of signification” (p. 5).

The book is organised into 3 chapters, followed by an epilogue, a very brief conclusion, and a rich bibliography.

The first chapter, ‘En guise d’introduction: Le Tyrtée des Lois’, which lays the groundwork for the main claims of the book, argues for the employment in the Laws (1, 630c-d) of Tyrteian parenetic diction—in particular the ‘phonico-syllabic’ element μεν/μην/μον/μν/μαν of fr. 12 W. While the sequence of clusters conveys, in Tyrtaeus’ exhortative elegy, the poem’s pivotal idea of “steadfastness in battle”, it is argued that the same sequence of clusters is used in Socrates’ addresses to Menon to signal “memory”, i.e. what ‘stays in the mind’. More specifically, the first chapter argues that, in the Laws, Plato assimilates Tyrtaeus’ poetry on two levels. Firstly, and most evidently, Tyrtaeus’ verses are used in Book 1 (630c-d) to advance the Athenian’s philosophical argumentation. Secondly, and less patently, two very distinctive Tyrteian traits are appropriated: (a) the creation of phono-syllabic correspondences through the sequences μεν/μην/μον/μν/μαν, the particle μέν and the middle participle ending -μενος; and (b) the quaternary intonation of Tyrtaeus’ distiches (fr. 12 West), which are distinguished by the frequency of middle participles in -μένος/-(ο)μενος. In 630c6-d1, that is, Plato reproduces the Tyrteian structure in four stages, through a phonic anaphor between Τύρταιος and τετάρτη—which constitute the two parts of the phrase—and a double balance between μέν and the participial ending (κεκοσ)μημένη, on the one hand, and between μέντοι and the inversed sequence νάμ (dative δυνάμει, d1), on the other. This first chapter lays out the scope of the work: Année argues that in the Menon the diction of Tyrtaeus’ parenetic elegies is similarly used as response to an internal necessity of the discourse.

The second chapter revolves around the denomination of Menon (Μένων, ‘he who keeps still, who resists with bravery and who persists in his effort’). The significance of the name is underlined in Tyrteian manner through (i) phono-syllabic correspondences of μεν/μην/μον/μν/μαν, the particle μέν and the endings of middle participles; (ii) forms of the verb μανθάνω; (iii) active endings of the first person plural in -μεν; (iv) various cognates of “memory”; and, finally, by (v) a division of the paragraph into four stages (at 70a5-c2), introduced by μέν (πρὸ τοῦ μέν) and followed by series of middle participles ending in -όμενος (cf. Tyrtaeus fr. 12.11-26 West).[1] These phono-syllabic clusters characterise Socrates’ addresses to Menon and pervade the dialogue until 76e9, i.e. right before the theory of reminiscence, which is finally introduced by the optatives περιμείναις and περιμένοιμ᾽ ἄν.[2] According to Année, the language structure here reinforces the pivotal idea of the dialogue: the belief that the acquisition of knowledge is strictly bound to a particular form of memory, and that this demands a constant effort in the dialogical exchange: a shared effort of remembrance among the interlocutors. In other words, the correspondence of phono-syllabic clusters, inspired by Tyrteian diction, reactivates the holistic value of *men– (the Indo-European root of ‘thought’). It creates a parenetic and enchanting link which calls for a different function of memory, ἀνάμνησις. The encouragement to a shared effort of remembering thus functions as the motor of the dialogue and a springboard towards knowledge. Tyrteian diction, Année argues, is used by Plato as support and model for accomplishing this argument. At the end, the meaning of Menon’s name should be found in relation to the language. Menon does not realise that he is indeed “badly named”: he is a Menon that cannot περιμένειν. Even worse, he is incapable of both understanding and using language in ways other than the dangerous conventions which are trending thanks to the sophists.

The third chapter, on συγγηνής language, focuses on the modes of speeches of a language, whose memory is to be considered as culturally embedded. In this perspective, the theory of anamnesis is anticipated, in the Meno, not only by the sonic weaving of the language lying underneath—i.e. the fact that the phono-syllabic clusters suggest the definition of anamnesis before the actual definition is given—but also by additional elements, such as the first Pindaric citation and the religious context evoked by Socrates. This structure allows for a preventative purification of all κακῶς λέγειν and provides a new basis for philosophical discourse. The Menon, as much as the Cratylus, shows the impossibility for humans of accessing any knowledge beyond language, for the simple reason that no thought can be expressed independently from language. The use of συγγηνής language implies, in Année’s interpretation, an elaboration on the old and a founding of a new language, which is modelled on the paraenetic diction of Tyrtaeus. The shadow of Tyrtaeus is felt throughout the dialogue through (i) a four-stage formula (e.g. Men. 97d9-10) whose phonic-syllabic structure recalls a common Tyrteian metrical rhythm and (ii) an indirect allusion to Tyrtaeus, because, even before Pindar—who promises a life of divine joys to the immortal soul—and the Orphic tradition, Tyrtaeus attributes the immortality of the soul to the warrior-citizen. Even though Tyrtaeus is neither quoted nor cited in the dialogue (contrary to other poets, such as Pindar and Theognis), his presence towers over the Menon. It follows thus that Plato takes on the role of ποιητής, a poet in the strict sense of the term, i.e. a “fabricator of language”.

The epilogue draws together the lines of the overall argument and states that anamnesis is fundamentally poietic, in the sense that is based on the work of language. In other words, nothing is taught but everything re-emerges through the patterns of a shared language. This language is in harmony with the natural συγγένεια (i.e. ‘it has ties of kindred’/ ‘it is congenitally affine to’) of souls and of the object of inquiry that they seek. It does not betray itself, and it is a language αὐτὸ καθ’ αὑτό, so to say. Année’s study thus suggests that the appropriation by Plato of the quaternary and parenetic diction of Tyrtaeus in the Menon represents an experimental initiation into the forms of language that guide the interlocutor to another type of memory, through which an innate and unrestrained faculty of knowledge can be accessed. Such a conclusion agrees, to a certain extent, with what is stated in the Philebus—and what is alluded to in the Theaetetus as well—that only the musical and the phonic-grammatic art of Theuth can grant us access to complex knowledge of the world, by understanding the unique link that binds together the endless sonic unities of the human voice, from a musical as well as from a discursive point of view (Phlb. 18c8-9).

The conclusion restores the Menon to its rightful place in the Platonic corpus. Often judged as one of the ‘lesser’ dialogues, the study points out a major compositional element of the work. Année identifies oppositional relationships among the interlocutors of the dialogue: the voice of Menon is contrasted with that of his slave, who is more authentically ‘menon’ than Menon himself; the voice of Socrates with that of Anytos, the ‘anti-Socrates’; and lastly, the voice of Plato by that of Tyrtaeus’ exhortative elegies.

To sum up, Année’s book is an original contribution to the study of the significance of sound in Plato’s dialogues. While Année’s approach—based on a close examination of syllabic clusters—has often been applied to the study of poetic texts (since poetry deals specifically with the sound of language and the creation of rhythmical effects), it has rarely been applied to prose texts such as the Platonic dialogues. The methods employed by Année thus provide a new perspective on the reception of the dialogues. On the one hand, the rhythmical effects form an intrinsic part of the philosophy of language conveyed, meaning that an inclusive analysis of a dialogue cannot overlook them. On the other hand, Année’s demonstration of Plato’s dependence on parenetic language in the Menon suggest that the reception of dialogues might have been similar to that of poetry, i.e. primarily aural. This underlines the exhortative aims of both paranetic poetry and the Platonic dialogue. Furthermore, Année’s study demonstrates Plato’s indebtedness to “song culture”, which might thus represent a fundamental source for the development of his philosophy. Finally, as Bakker points out in his preface, we should probably start wondering about where to place the beginnings of philosophy seen as a ‘parenetic process’.


[1] For the deictic and rhythmic correlation between the particle μέν and -όμενος, see Année 2017, 625–639.

[2] Année devotes a three-page note to the significance of the optative and the high philosophical meaning that the word carries in the Platonic dialogues.