BOOK REVIEW: Menexenus by Plato

MenexenusMenexenus by Plato
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Menexenus” is unique among the Socratic dialogues in that there is very little dialogue and a great deal of speech. (“Phaedrus” has a couple of short speeches in it, but they inform the philosophical discussion.) “Menexenus” does begin and end with a dialogue between Menexenus and Socrates. In the opening niceties, Menexenus reveals that there has been a disruption in finding someone to make a funeral speech. Socrates replies that it shouldn’t be hard, anyone – even he – could deliver such a speech. While Socrates usually takes care to display humility, one must remember that he tends to be unimpressed with rhetoricians who use pretty words to be convincing without having philosophical understanding to withstand close scrutiny or questioning.

Socrates says that he has been taught by Aspasia, and learned a speech from her that would easily do the job. Menexenus insists upon hearing it. Socrates is reluctant because he has not been granted permission from Aspasia to deliver her speech, but – ultimately – he agrees to deliver the speech – just between the two of them. The speech proposes that the virtue of those who passed in service of the state is only as great as the state that they served, and thus jingoistic praise of Athens’ fine qualities is unleased. There is also discussion of the importance of moderation and composure.

The end dialogue involves Menexenus praising the speech, and [with more than a little misogyny] especially in light of its composition by a woman. I didn’t find this as beneficial a read as most of the Socratic dialogues. It doesn’t provide the same kind of food for thought, but is more a lesson in how to build a rousing funeral oration. That said, there is something to be learned about rhetoric.

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