Plot: Very different from Plato’s other Socratic dialogues, Menexenus provides no philosophic debate, but consists largely of a funeral speech to honour the war dead of Athens repeated by Socrates to his young friend Menexenus. Socrates claims he overheard the speech, which was written and given by Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles, although Menexenus seems to have doubts over the likelihood of this.
The speech begins by praising the Land which gave birth and nourishment to these noble dead, and has now received them back in her soil. It then praises the political system of democracy which made them good citizens, and provided equality of birth and station to them all, with only wisdom being an honourable distinction between them. There is a lengthy praise of their ancestral war heroes that fought and died at Marathon, Platea, Saramis and other famous battles, which also summarises very briefly the history of the major wars and conflicts between Athens, Persia and Sparta and the other Peloponnesian states, partly covered by Thucydides’ Histories, and the civil war in Athens and the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants, up to 394 BC (five years after Socrates’ death!)
The speech is largely a work of patriotism, extolling Athenians to aim for even greater glory, as much as consolation for the bereaved, and ends with reassurance that the City of Athens will always honour those who died bravely for her, and protect the families left behind.
For once, my copy was not a Penguin edition, but a volume in the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series (sounds rather grand, doesn’t it?) edited by Malcolm Schofield and translated by Tom Griffith, containing the texts of Gorgias, Menexenus and Protagoras (ISBN 9780521837293)
While the speech was far easier to read and follow than the philosophical dialogues, the most enjoyable part of Menexenus was at the beginning in the conversation where Socrates makes a gentle mockery of funeral speeches and orators and the supposed impact they have on him.
“There are certainly plenty of reasons why being killed in battle looks like a good move. You get a fine, imposing funeral, even if you die a pauper; you get praised, even if you’re a nobody, by wise men speaking not just off the cuff, but after lengthy preparation of what they are to say. So fulsome is their praise – invariably crediting you both with qualities you possess and with qualities you don’t possess, and using the finest language to embellish it all that they cast a spell over our souls …. to fill me with feelings of my own nobility. I stand there entranced each time, as I listen, and I feel that I have suddenly become taller, more noble, and more good-looking…. it’s not until three or four days later that I come to my senses and realise where I actually am” pages 117-118.
Socrates would not have received such public ovation at his funeral, which may be the point Plato is subtly making here?
“They acted as guides and teachers to the rest of Greece, the lesson being that the power of the Persians was not irresistible, that all the numbers in the world, and all the wealth in the world, are no match for courage” page 125
“And for all in his life to turn out in accordance with his wishes is, for a mortal man, no easy matter” page 133
Personal rating: Edges into a 5 on the strength of the lines I quoted above, and to be honest, its brevity and comprehensibility.
Next : May as well finish the volume with Protagoras, another Plato dialogue featuring Socrates. Perhaps the 4th century BC should be known as the Socratic century?