BOOK REVIEW: Menexenus by Plato

MenexenusMenexenus by Plato
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

“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: The View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected NonfictionThe View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Not every writer—not even many literary greats—could pull off a book like this. It’s a collection of random speeches, front matter from books (not his own), liner notes, and the occasional eulogy for individuals living and dead. While the book is organized into sections on topics like other authors, comic books, films, and music, it seems that organization derives organically from the topics on which Neil Gaiman is asked to comment–rather than a desire to tighten the book’s theme.

If you’re a Neil Gaiman fanboy/girl, you’ll need no excuse to read anything that he puts out (even though–if that is the case–you’ll probably have read much of this before in separate outings.) So the question is why the rest of us—who may enjoy Gaiman’s writing tremendously but who don’t qualify as fanboys / fangirls—should read this. The reason that it’s worth reading is that Neil Gaiman is funny, has a way of framing ideas that makes them thought-provoking and interesting, and frequently writes quotable bits of text that are essentially brain candy.

The book’s title comes from an essay on Gaiman’s experience attending the Oscars from the upper balcony. As mentioned, the book is divided into thematic sections–ten of them to be precise. The book starts with “Some Things I Believe,” which presents speeches on the virtue of reading, libraries, books, and bookstores. The next section discusses people he has known and worked with—largely writers and graphic artists. Then Gaiman offers thoughts on the nature of science fiction, again mostly through book forwards on seminal works from the genre. There is a section on films and Gaiman’s experience with them—several of his works have been made into films and many others have been considered. The next part is on comic books and the works and artists that influenced Gaiman. The next section bears the title “Introductions and Contradictions” and it offers introductions for various books (not Gaiman’s but those written for other writers.) There’s a musical section about a few recording artists including They Might be Giants, Lou Reed, and—of course—Gaiman’s wife Amanda Palmer. Next, Gaiman presents some introductions and forwards for works of fantasy. One section includes only a solitary entry–a commencement speech entitled “Make Good Art.” The final section is sort of a catchall of essays that includes the title piece and one on events in Syria.

I’d recommend this book for those who enjoy reading (or writing) in the genres for which Gaiman is known. His comments offer interesting insight, and you may learn about some books and authors that you’d never heard of before.

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