Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Menexenus - Socrates Dancing Naked

There are few readers of Plato who take much delight in the strange little work entitled Menexenus. Among the works attributed to Plato it stands out as especially enigmatic and unusual. Rather than a dialogue, it is a long recitation by Socrates, uninterrupted, of a patriotic Periclean funeral oration. Its purpose and its place in Plato's writings is disputed on every point. Except as an extant example of the genre of Athenian funeral orations, it is largely uninteresting with no obvious philosophical merit.  The present writer, however, regards it as a delight and has a particular attachment to it. This follows from his doctoral work on Plato's Timaeus. He found that the Athenian patriotic mythology that underpins the cosmology presented in Timaeus is presented clearly and directly in the Menexenus and there are important themes common to the two works. He is inclined, therefore, to think that there is a deeper purpose to the Menexenus than at first appears. Although, having said that, he is fully aware of the great difficulties that the work presents. In this sense it is delightful just as a conundrum. If it is not profound, it is certainly intriguing. We might think of it as one of Plato's puzzles. 

Some of the difficulties concerning the Menexenus, with other notes, are presented below:

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Firstly, its authenticity should be regarded as doubtful. In large measure it depends upon notices in Aristotle. The present author has a policy of not reading Plato through Aristotle and rejecting claims where only Aristotle makes them. Without corroboration from other sources, we are right to doubt that Plato was the author of this work. XIXth century scholars regularly questioned its authenticity, but not so scholars of the XXth century. The difference is explained by a shift in perceived connections between Plato and Aristotle. On the whole, the present author is with the XIXth century scholars on this and resists Aristotelean readings of Plato. 

There are, all the same, no counter traditions indicating another provenance have come down to us, and we must admit that the wider Platonic tradition has always regarded the work as by Plato himself. The fact that it is a strange work that seems entirely at odds with the rest of the Platonic corpus must count in favour of its authenticity: the tradition is unlikely to have adopted such a strange work unless it was strongly attested. 

Secondly, it commits blatant anachronisms of a glaring kind. How is this to be explained? Socrates, in the funeral oration he recites - which he says was taught to him by Aspasia, the famed mistress of Pericles - refers to events that happened some thirteen years after his death and after the death of Aspasia much longer. Plato is otherwise careful never to cross temporal verisimilitude: in the Menexenus it is shameless. There seems to be deliberate and systematic distortion of historical chronology. What is to be made of this? There is no chance it has been done in error - a slip of the stylus. So it must be by design. But what design? (Some have gone so far as to suggest that the Socrates we meet here is, in fact, a ghost.) 

This last point reflects, perhaps, the view of al-Farabi, the Mahometan Platonist, who, in his scheme, imagines that Plato wrote the Menexenus last of all at the end of his life. Its theme is death - it is a funeral oration. It is therefore the ultimate dialogue. Perhaps it reflects Plato coming demise in old age, and perhaps the Socrates of the dialogue is speaking from the dead. Or perhaps Socrates here - more than anywhere else - represents Plato himself. It is intriguing that al-Farabi places the Menexenus last among Plato's works. Its chronological position in the dialogues is widely disputed. For al-Farabi it was Plato's last word. This affords it an unusual prominence. The usual tendency is to bury it among the "middle dialogues" so-called where it will be least conspicuous and hopefully not cause too much trouble. 

Regarding the content itself, the question immediately arises: to what extent is it parody? There is no agreement about how to read the work. Some regard it as parodic while others regard it as serious. Some - it is a view with which the present writer is in sympathy - suppose it is both. 

This problem is compounded because there is no clear purpose to attributing the oration to Aspasia, and then the problems concerning the identity and character of Aspasia are themselves doubly confounding. Socrates says that he had Aspasia as a teacher. What are we to make of this report? Aspasia is an enigma. On the strength of this report she is, like Diotima, depicted as a wise philosopher-ess, a female patron of Athen's seers. (See the picture at the head of this page.) More commonly, though, she is presented as a prostitute, emblematic of sensuality, and in a famous incident Socrates is said to have dragged Alcibiades from her embrace back to the life of philosophy, the 'House of Aspasia' being synonymous with a den of sensuality, as shown below:

Most every reader concedes that there is irony in Socrates' words. "Here is a speech I learned from Aspasia..." But at whose expense? What is the point of the irony? The conventions of Platonic irony very often promote disagreement among his readers. No instance of it is more widely disputed than this. There is irony, certainly, when Socrates proclaims that Aspasia taught him formal rhetoric, but no one can agree on the shape and object of the irony. This means that there are numerous entirely divergent ways to read the text. 

Who cannot detect irony in Socrates' speech at the outset of the dialogue?

O Menexenus! Death in battle is certainly in many respects a noble thing. The dead man gets a fine and costly funeral, although he may have been poor, and an elaborate speech is made over him by a wise man who has long ago prepared what he has to say, although he who is praised may not have been good for much. 

The speakers praise him for what he has done and for what he has not done - that is the beauty of them - and they steal away our souls with their embellished words; in every conceivable form they praise the city; and they praise those who died in war, and all our ancestors who went before us; and they praise ourselves also who are still alive, until I feel quite elevated by their laudations, and I stand listening to their words, Menexenus, and become enchanted by them, and all in a moment I imagine myself to have become a greater and nobler and finer man than I was before...

And if, as often happens, there are any foreigners who accompany me to the speech, I become suddenly conscious of having a sort of triumph over them, and they seem to experience a corresponding feeling of admiration at me, and at the greatness of the city, which appears to them, when they are under the influence of the speaker, more wonderful than ever. This consciousness of dignity lasts me more than three days, and not until the fourth or fifth day do I come to my senses and know where I am; in the meantime I have been living in the Islands of the Blest.

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As well as this, being patriotic in nature, the funeral oration has political implications, and so the work is important in determining Plato's political views and ideals. Parody and irony may change the political implications of the work quite dramatically. Is it a lampooning of the pretentious over-blown jingoism typical of Athenian political oration? Is it designed to expose the hypocrisy of the Athenian political class and especially the democracy that executed Socrates and scorned philosophy? Is it a critique of the use of historical appeal in Athenian political speeches? Is it a satire of political rhetoric in general? 

These are all possibilities. But it is also possible that the core of the work is of serious intent. On a simple reading it is patriotic in tone and adds weight to the view that Plato was, in all essential respects, a loyal and patriotic Athenian, an Athenian aristocrat himself, and the work is serious on that level rather than anti-Athenian in any sense.

As for the oration, whose speech is it really? Plato gives it to Socrates who in turn attributes it to Aspasia, whereas in tone and content it would not seem likely to belong to either of them. Very likely it was a separate composition and Plato has worked it into a framework featuring Socrates and then the distancing to Aspasia. The work bears comparison to Pericle's extant Funeral Oration found in Thucidydes History of the Peloponnesian War.

Yet, as we see in the passage quoted above, Socrates charges that such orations bewitch the hearer into a state of revery (semnos) - "living in the Islands of the Blest" - drunk on words. Is the Menexenus intended as a type of counter-charm, an inoculation, against the potency of political oration? 

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These difficulties would seem to be intractable. Even the most basic questions about the work are hotly contested. We can despair at this, or rejoice. It seems that it is only through the agency of a global view, which is to say in the context of Plato as a whole, that one can settle upon any particular reading of the Menexenus. Everything depends upon how one sees Plato in general. For the present author, though, this is a measure of the work's genius and is among the internal points of evidence that must count for its authenticity. In its own way it is a masterpiece. Who but Plato could compose such a perfectly obscure enigma? 

Even so, and in the face of such conundrums, this reader maintains that every work of Plato has a key. He draws attention to the following exchange at the beginning of the dialogue:

MENEXENUS: Then why will you not rehearse what she said?

SOCRATES: Because I am afraid that my mistress may be angry with me if I publish her speech.

MENEXENUS: Nay, Socrates, let us have the speech, whether Aspasia's or any one else's, no matter. I hope that you will oblige me.

SOCRATES: But I am afraid that you will laugh at me if I continue the games of youth in old age.

MENEXENUS: Far otherwise, Socrates; let us by all means have the speech.

SOCRATES: Truly I have such a disposition to oblige you, that if you bid me dance naked I should not like to refuse, since we are alone. Listen then: If I remember rightly, she began as follows, with the mention of the dead:

Two motifs appear in this exchange that are significant for understanding the oration that follows. Nothing - let us insist - is accidental in Plato. Every detail is important. It is often the seemingly odd and insignificant details, easily overlooked, that offer the keys that will open up the secrets of a Platonic dialogue.  In this case, we have, firstly, the "games of youth in old age" motif, and secondly, the "dancing naked" motif. Both, no doubt, are playful, but it is the play in Plato that often reveals most. 

Regarding the youth/age motif, it appears here but also it other crucial points in Platonic dialogues and everywhere it serves to introduce a certain body of material that includes, for example, the myth in the Politicus which is introduced by the device: "Listen, then, to a tale which a child would love to hear; and you are not too old for childish amusement..." Thus the oration in the Menexenus is placed in this category of material. It will be found that this material is on common themes and among them is the doctrine of autochthony, a central theme in the oration. The heart of the oration, which is really quite beautiful, is the following:

And first as to their birth. Their ancestors were not strangers, nor are these their descendants sojourners only, whose fathers have come from another country; but they are the children of the soil, dwelling and living in their own land. And the country which brought them up is not like other countries, a stepmother to her children, but their own true mother; she bore them and nourished them and received them, and in her bosom they now repose. It is meet and right, therefore, that we should begin by praising the land which is their mother, and that will be a way of praising their noble birth.

The country is worthy to be praised, not only by us, but by all mankind; first, and above all, as being dear to the Gods. This is proved by the strife and contention of the Gods respecting her. And ought not the country which the Gods praise to be praised by all mankind? The second
praise which may be fairly claimed by her, is that at the time when the whole earth was sending forth and creating diverse animals, tame and wild, she our mother was free and pure from savage monsters, and out of all animals selected and brought forth man, who is superior to the rest in understanding, and alone has justice and religion.

And a great proof that she brought forth the common ancestors of us and of the departed, is that she provided the means of support for her offspring. For as a woman proves her motherhood by giving milk to her young ones (and she who has no fountain of milk is not a mother), so did this our land prove that she was the mother of men, for in those days she alone and first of all brought forth wheat and barley for human food, which is the best and noblest sustenance for man, whom she regarded as her true offspring. And these are truer proofs of motherhood in a country than in a woman, for the woman in her conception and generation is but the imitation of the earth, and not the earth of the woman. And of the fruit of the earth she gave a plenteous supply, not only to her own, but to others also; and afterwards she made the olive to spring up to be a boon to her children, and to help them in their toils. And when she had herself nursed them and brought them up to manhood, she gave them Gods to be their rulers and teachers, whose names are well known, and need not now be repeated. They are the Gods who first ordered our lives, and instructed us in the arts for the supply of our daily needs, and taught us the acquisition and use of arms for the defence of the country.

Thus born into the world and thus educated, the ancestors of the departed lived and made themselves a government...

This reader detects no direct satire in this account but rather a formula to which Plato returns in many forms. Compare the Politicus myth (which cosmologizes the Athenian autochthons) and the prologue to the Timaeus/Critias ensemble and its apparent connections with the Republic. In these structures - which extend across dialogues - first citizens are created and born (from the earth), then educated, then create government. All of this is under the auspices of Athena, goddess of wisdom and patroness of philosophy. Plato is a patriotic Athenian, but his patriotism is, as it were, esoteric. This is the main point that the present writer wants to bring to the study of Plato. Throughout his works he reveals certain "secret" aspects of the Athenian cultus. The Menexenus is among these works, although its first purpose is to provide a measure of common (exoteric) patriotism. 

As for the motif of Socrates "dancing naked", it should be understood in this "esoteric" sense and should be counted as a significant signal rather than merely a passing comment in jest. In the Aspasian oration we have Socrates "dancing naked". We meet Socrates in many moods and many modes in the dialogues of Plato: here he dances naked for us. Whatever this metaphor might mean, it signals that the Menexenus is, in fact, a very important and revealing work, a dance of words but one in which the real nature of the Platonic Socrates is revealed unclothed. 


Harper McAlpine Black

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