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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BOOK REVIEW: Lysis by Plato

LysisLysis by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This early Socratic dialogue addresses friendship and love — philia to the Greeks. In it, Socrates questions Lysis and Menexenus (two young friends) on the basis of friendship, whether it can be unrequited, and whether like or different individuals are better matched. The interrogation of Lysis illuminates Socrates view of the basis of friendship, wisdom. He questions Lysis about those things the boy’s parents won’t allow him to do, and those things for which they’d seek him out, ultimately suggesting that one’s wisdom is what attracts others to one, as friend or otherwise.

Later, Socrates questions Menexenus about whether the good befriend the good or are better suited to befriend the neutral individual. [The presumption that the bad are friends to no one takes them out all equations.] Socrates, with Menexenus’ consent, briefly concludes that friendships develop best between good and neutral individuals, but the dialogue ends with Socrates being skeptical of his own conclusion – perhaps feeling the weight of problems that a listener might contemplate (e.g. the idea that there are good, bad, and neutral people – rather than all of us being a melting pot of good, bad, and ugly.)

It’s not dissatisfying that the dialogue ends without an answer. Its value lies in triggering readers to contemplate the question. For my part, I considered the poor analogy between how people view relationships between doctor and patient, versus between friend and friend. The doctor isn’t put off by a patient seeking a practical benefit from them (improved health,) but many a friendship has died from one side seeking personal gains. [And yet, I still draw no conclusion because clearly there is some benefit each half of a friendship perceives, if not one as coldly rational a Socrates describes.)

This dialogue is worth a read to trigger contemplation of friendship.

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