BMCR 2023.04.31

Plato. Menexenus

, Plato. Menexenus. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. 202. ISBN 9781108730563



David Sansone’s edition of Plato’s Menexenus is a welcome addition to Cambridge University Press’s long line of Greek and Latin Classics. The series’ primary audience is described as “undergraduate and graduate students of either language.” While these groups will certainly benefit from this volume, so will more advanced scholars. Sansone’s scriptio plena text of the dialogue is largely that of Tsitsiridis.[1] The introduction (39 pp.) considers the dialogue in relation to historical events, literary genre, and Platonic philosophy. Highlights include its succinct treatment of the patrios nomos and epitaphios logos and the relationship of Menexenus to other Platonic works explicitly dealing with rhetoric, namely Gorgias, Euthydemus, and Phaedrus. It ably tackles the important questions of authenticity (genuine until proven otherwise), date (“mid to late 380s,” p. 15), anachronism, and style. It also explores briefly the dialogue’s characters, manuscript tradition, and reception in antiquity and beyond. A substantial (122 pp.) commentary follows, along with an extensive bibliography (8 pp.) and pair of indices (General; Greek Words).

This edition of the Menexenus is accessible, insightful, and deeply informed by scholarship. As commentator and interpreter, Sansone ranges adeptly between older and recent work on the dialogue. (His views are naturally informed by his own previous work on drama and rhetoric, philology and Plato.) The volume repays both casual consultation and consideration in toto. Appropriately for a work on rhetoric, Sansone’s own inflections subtly infuse the writing; wit and humor surface frequently (see, e.g., his horsing around on p. 89). But his criticism of “‘alternative facts’” (p. 124) and straightforward avowal that “genuine educator[s]” long to be “surpassed” (p. 164) by their students remind us of rhetoric’s profoundly serious dimensions. Sansone wants us to engage Socrates’ speech and the genre to which it belongs critically, as all too few previous audiences (beginning with Menexenus himself) have done. He encourages us to look past the piece’s polished prose, long praised, and grapple with its relationship to traditional philosophical concerns like wisdom and virtue. If after reading this commentary we spend three or four days admiring Menexenus’ charms, we will have failed Plato (and Sansone). Given the importance of dialectic to Plato, it is worth noting that this commentary traces its origins to the discussions of a Greek reading group at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (p. ix).

According to Sansone, the Menexenus offers an unusual interpretive challenge, “deliberately present[ing] un-Platonic ideas in an un-Platonic style” (p.13). In surveying attested and surviving specimens from Pericles in 439 to Hyperides in 322, Sansone makes the case that other epitaphioi (especially those of Lysias and Demosthenes) also diverge stylistically from their authors’ corpora. And he uses the undisputed authenticity of Hyperides’ to claim that “ancient authors were capable of adapting their styles to the exigencies of the genre in ways that can confound the judgment of even the most accomplished of philologists” (p. 11). Of equal or greater importance are the differences of substance: the speech Socrates recites in Menexenus deviates fundamentally from his principles and practice elsewhere in Plato. Especially noteworthy are: Menexenus’ lack of interest in the soul; its severing of rhetoric and language in general from the search for wisdom; its depiction of education as a matter of memorization prompted by ambition and propelled by beatings; its portrait of a Socrates who asks no questions. Sansone reads these gaps in light of the text’s great anachronism, its reference to the Peace of Antalcidas of 386 BCE (245e). (This agreement postdated the death of Socrates by a dozen years.) He considers equally implausible Socrates’ ascription of the speech he recites to Aspasia. In addition to the likelihood that she too was already dead, she was a foreign woman with a decidedly sexual reputation; Plato “cannot have expected his readers to ignore the most salient feature of [her] curriculum vitae” (p. 28). These anomalies bracket a host of lesser historical infidelities regarding, e.g., the soil of Attica (p. 104), the defeat of the Sicilian Expedition (p. 140), the Thirty and their aftermath (p. 146). Sansone concludes that Plato intends us to view Socrates’ speech as “a sample of rhetoric . . . of the specious sort that distorts and falsifies” (p. 17). And he wants us to recognize that all such speeches, including that of Menexenus, are clichés cobbled together by the equivalent of banausic laborers. Put differently, Plato “reveal[s] the shallowness of a rhetoric that seeks to make its audience feel that it has been transported to the Isles of the Blessed (235c4) by obscuring the truth behind a veil of pretty words and clever phrases in the manner of a poet” (p. 114).

Within this overall framework, Sansone offers consistently useful observations for those engaging the dialogue on multiple levels. Those interested in Menexenus as a reservoir of Athenian civic ideology will find solid discussions of equality, autochthony, and the unity of the polis. Sansone is skilled at pointing out what epitaphioi elide (the distinction between hoplites and sailors, p. 127) or omit (the lot, p. 109). He is alert to anti-democratic aspects of the genre, such as the way its speakers are chosen (p. 82) and historical victories ranked (p. 127). And he touches on important historical questions, including whether spectators could attend meetings of the boule (p. 64) and whether the city presented suits of hoplite armor to the orphans of nonhoplite fathers (p. 175). Readers interested in matters oratorical will find Sansone invaluable: he counts syllables, diagrams sentences, notes parallel participles, remarks on rhymes, and identifies clausulae. (Those who, like this reviewer, need a refresher on the relationship between nu ephelkystikon and Blass’ Law are encouraged to consult p. 94.)

Sansone offers a powerful analysis of what has traditionally been regarded as the most innovative and beautiful section of Socrates’ speech, where the speaker places his exhortation to the living in the mouths of the dead (246d1-248d6). Plato “seems to be going out of his way to signal the superficiality of the sentiments by freighting the passage with a conspicuous profusion of vocabulary having to do with appearance, reputation, and attractiveness” (p. 160). Sansone juxtaposes the Socrates of Plato’s Apology with the Socrates of Menexenus. “The former refuses to abandon his commitment . . . to his mission, which involves engaging and questioning Athenian citizens one by one until their discomfort leads them to improve their lives; the latter takes as his point of departure what his assembled audience already believes and ratifies those beliefs by embellishing his speech with beautiful words and phrases” (p. 159).

Another virtue of Sansone’s commentary is its detailed attention to grammar. The “advanced undergraduates and graduate students” targeted by the Cambridge series will find helpful his  numerous remarks on particles, verb tenses, indirect statement, and the accusative absolute. They will likewise benefit from his clear explication of figures of speech, sometimes accompanied with literary flourishes from Shakespeare. The commentary could also serve as an introduction to the complexities of textual transmission. Sansone offers a brief survey of the manuscripts most important for Menexenus (T from ca. 950; W from the 11th century; F from the 13th or 14th century), discussing divergences, defending preferred readings, and offering the occasional emendation. The remaining cruces he highlights could serve as valuable points of entry for class discussions and assignments.

Sansone’s commentary also excels at placing Menexenus in regular contact with the present. One way it does so is by noting en passant the dialogue’s reception, not just by Aristotle, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Cicero, but by figures as various as Keats, Mary Shelley, and the Nazis. It is also enriched by perspectives drawn from anthropology and cultural studies. For instance, Sansone gives full weight to Socrates’ claim that he would strip and dance naked before Menexenus if asked (236d1): “this is an extraordinary statement, particularly after S. and M. [sic!] have just been using vocabulary appropriate to the exchange of sexual favors (c6 and 11)” (p. 91). Socrates proceeds to “gratif[y]” (p. 91) Menexenus with his oration attributed to Aspasia. According to Sansone, Plato’s point is to link the praise one hears at funeral orations with the “seductive dancing with which hetairai enlivened symposia” (p. 91).

Sansone’s Menexenus constitutes an intelligent, learned, and welcome attempt to take a dialogue often considered peripheral and return it to the center of Plato’s philosophical concerns. In this as in other ways, it succeeds admirably.



[1] S. Tsitsiridis, Platons Menexenos: Einleitung, Text, und Kommentar, Stuttgart, 1998.