Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Menexenus (Part II)

The Plot

Socrates opens the dialogue by asking whether Menexenus is coming from the agora, and Menexenus replies that he was coming from the Council Chamber. Socrates remarks that Menexenus must be giving up his philosophy so that he can rule old men like Socrates. Menexenus responds that he will only seek office if Socrates gives him permission -- the real reason why he was there is that the Council was looking for someone to give the epitaphios or funeral oration for the war-dead. Socrates remarks that dying in battle seems to have some advantages, since you get a nice funeral, even if you are poor, and you get to be eulogized by experts with praise whether you merit it or not. These experts enchant people, praising not only the war-dead but the living as well, so that those who listen think of themselves as even better than they did before. Socrates drily remarks that it often takes him three days after such speeches to remember that he doesn't live in the Isles of the Blessed.

Menexenus recognizes this as mockery of rhetors and orators, but he remarks that in this case it might be quite difficult, since it is so last-minute. Socrates dismisses this, saying that these speeches are always made long before, and even if they weren't, they are not difficult to make up off the top of your head: it's easy to praise the Athenians if your audience is the Athenians. Menexenus asks him if he thinks he could deliver such a speech. Socrates remarks that there's nothing surprising as his ability, since he happens to have a very good teacher of oratory, Aspasia. Just yesterday Aspasia declaimed a funeral oration herself, and went through it with Socrates, making up some of it off the top of her head, and pasting in things she had come up when writing Pericles' funeral oration. Menexenus wants to hear it, and Socrates gives it.

After the speech, Menexenus is clearly convinced that Socrates just made the speech up himself, and says he is grateful to Socrates for the speech. Socrates responds that if Menexenus doesn't give him away, he'll pass on many others of Aspasia's speeches. Menexenus says he won't, and Socrates ends with a promise to pass the speeches on.

The Thought

Understanding the Aspasian speech requires, I think, recognition of two principles:

(1) The Fragments Principle: Socrates suggests that Aspasia made her funeral oration out of "bits and pieces", some of which were extemporized and some culled from parts left out of Pericles' Funeral Oration (236b). So we should not see the Oration as a unified entity, but something stitched together.

(2) The Greatest City Principle: Consistently throughout the speech, things that were done by the Greeks as a whole are attributed to Athens alone; or things that were done well by other cities are attributed to Athens even if Athens really opposed them. Everything Athens does is said to be for a purely altruistic motive, and this is treated as obvious. Athens is never really defeated; disasters and failures are mostly another city's fault; and so forth. Athens is the center of the world.

These principles are not always applied in the same way, so should not be regarded as mechanical rules. Sometimes they are applied very subtly -- a slight spinning of the facts, an introduction of an inconvenient truth Pericles left out, or the quiet dropping of something he said. Sometimes they take the form of egregious falsehoods (for instance, the Oration falsely claims that Athens could not reinforce the Syracusan expedition because of the distance, when it actually did reinforce it early on, and only toward the end could not because it was at war with Sparta again). Sometimes they take the form of obvious contradictions (for instance, it is claimed in separate places that Athens won the Peloponnesian War and that she lost it, because that's the only way to make Athens the hero in all the major events in that period; and the Oration insists that the Athenians would never betray Greeks to barbarians but just a few lines later talks about how the Athenians helped the Persians beat the Spartans). Sometimes they take the form of truths that are treated with the wrong valence (for instance, when it is said enthusiastically that Athenians were to fight for the freedom of all Greeks by fighting Greeks, or more broadly when the fairly reasonable moral drawn at the end is treated as if it were the obvious conclusion of the history that went before, whereas they don't fit together at all). This means the Oration really requires a very close analysis that I probably don't really have the expertise to do and couldn't easily put here if I did. But here are some things that become quite notable just by brief comparison of the Oration with other speeches and with historical accounts.

(1) Contrary to Pericles' emphasis on deeds rather than words, Aspasia says that "it is by means of speech finely spoken that deeds nobly done gain for their doers from the hearers the meed of memory and renown" (236e)

(2) Contrary to Pericles, but like Lysias and Isocrates, Aspasia emphasizes the autochthony of the Athenians, and discusses it at far greater length than they do. She attributes to Attica the origin of grains (which has the problem that Attica is not a particularly great place to grow them!), which Athens freely shared, and gave them gods to be tutors and mentors.

(3) Aspasia denies what everyone else claims, that Athens is a democracy; instead she is an aristocracy supported by popular approval. Like Pericles she claims that Athens makes the wise rulers.

(4) She mentions in passing the same mythological exploits as Lysias. She does so in order to talk about deeds that have fallen in oblivion and that nobody talks about -- which turns out to be the always-mentioned topic of the Persian War!

(5) She skips the great Spartan feat of the Persian War, Thermopylae, in order to talk about Marathon; an egregious lapse given that she suggests that at Marathon Athens showed all the other Greeks that the Persians were not invincible.

(6) She falsely claims that the Battle of Tanagra in the First Peloponnesian War was indecisive -- while Athens fought well, it was a Spartan victory -- and claims that Athens was fighting for the freedom of Boeotians, whereas the Spartans were actually the ones fighting to preserve the freedom of the Boeotians from Athens.

(7) Athens held the Spartans at Sphacteria hostage and threatened to execute them if Sparta invaded, while also backing raids into Spartan territory; Aspasia claims instead that Athens gave them back and made peace.

(8) Aspasia claims that the Athenians "deemed that against their fellow Greeks it was right to wage war only up to the point of victory, and not to wreck the whole Greek community for the sake of a city's private grudge, but to wage war to the death against the barbarians" (242d), which is similar to claims made by Isocrates; she will show Athens doing the exact opposite by the end of the speech, forgiving the barbarians and trying to destroy Greek cities.

(9) The Oration underplays the disaster of the Syracusan expedition, as noted above, and claims, utterly implausibly, that not only the Athenians comported themselves with prudence (phronesis) and virtue (arete), but that they were praised even more by their enemies than their friends. But the claim (dubious, and certainly not Plato's own view, given his other allusions to the event) that Athens went to Sicily only to protect the freedom of Leontini is extant elsewhere, and probably was a common claim.

(10) The way the description of the end of the Peloponnesian War is structured, it makes it sound like Athens won the war, instead of lost, and then only had a civil war after peace. What's more it's described as nearly peaceful, due to "a firm friendship founded on community of race", happening almost entirely by misfortune, when it was in fact notoriously bloody.

(11) The Corinthian War (which, of course, occurred after Socrates' death) is misleadingly treated as if Athens's allies, including the Persians (who, contrary to the claims of the Oration, were not in any fear of Sparta and were simply practicing their usual policy of dividing the Greek cities), begged her for help, whereas it was instigated by Thebes with the support of Athens and expanded from there. But some of the other features of the war are technically correct, although described tendentiously, which makes me wonder if part of the point of the dialogue is to attack common Athenian views of the Corinthian War.

(12) Despite all this mendacity -- and I am sure I have not caught all of even the worst instances -- the moral drawn at the end when the audience is addressed with the lessons to learn from the history seems in itself to be more straight. It just doesn't seem to fit with any of what went before.

  Additional Remarks

* It has to be deliberate that Plato has Socrates attributing Pericles' Funeral Oration, which sums up the self-understanding of the Athenian Empire, to Aspasia, who was a foreigner from Miletus, particularly given that Socrates emphasizes that she was from Miletus at the end of this Oration. Perhaps the idea is that the Funeral Oration of Pericles is not a summary of the golden age of Athens; it is the summary of the un-Athenian aberrations, the deviations from Athenian tradition (notice how swiftly Pericles passes over Athenian history), by which she came within a hair's breadth of collapsing completely.

* Despite my emphasizing some of the falsehoods, it is worth keeping in mind that every single thing done in the Oration is the kind of thing regularly done in funeral orations of this kind: truncated histories, exaggerated claims, convenient omissions, passing off blame on others. Notice how often Socrates repeats the standard commonplace of epitaphioi that Athens always fights for the freedom of others, for instance: 239b, 242a, 242b, 244e, 245a.

* The Menexenus ends up being something like a black comedy on political manipulation, like the movie, Wag the Dog:


Quotations are from W. R. M. Lamb's translation at the Perseus Project.

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