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“Since we are two alone:” Profaning the Patrios Nomos in Plato's Menexenus

Clifford Robinson

It is often overlooked in discussions of the Menexenus that the ἐπιτάφιος λόγος was originally featured as part of what Thucydides called the πάτριος νόμος (2.34), a public ritual in which the Athenians celebrated their war dead not only with a speech but also with games, spectacular burial, lamentation, and honorary inscription of their names (Jacoby, Loraux). I argue that Socrates’ ironic critique of the funeral oration in general (234c-235c), and his delivery of Aspasia’s oration in particular (236d-249c) profane the civic institution, at once appropriating and undermining the sacred authority of the custom. Far from a minor text in the Platonic corpus, Menexenus addresses the ultimate question concerning Socrates’ life and death: whether his “paideia” and “philosophy” (234a) corrupt the youth, teaching them to neglect the city’s heroes in addition to its gods.

Only one other scholar has read Socrates’ speech in light of funeral oratory’s proper ritual context (Wickkiser). She argues that the separation of Socrates’ speech from its ritual context undermines its power to affect its audience, so that Plato’s text shows the importance of matching speech with deeds, spoken formula with ritual act. Her argument overcomes the separation in the scholarship between literary analysis of the funeral oration (Ziolkowski, Loraux) and archaeological research on the burials (Jacoby, Clairmont, Morris), but it neglects the new context created by the dialogic frame.

I focus upon the context created by Socrates’ chance encounter with Menexenus. The young man, having just departed from the council, seems to Socrates to have chosen a way of life, rejecting philosophy in favor of politics; but Menexenus corrects him, explaining that he will do whatever Socrates thinks is best (234a-b). It is because Menexenus’ life is still undecided that Socrates continues to challenge him. His ridicule of the orator’s authenticity at 234c-235c, where he observes that not inspiration but study, formulaic method, and careful composition produce these speeches, is more than just the mocking of a hallowed civic ritual. It is also an invitation to Menexenus to reconsider his enthusiasm for the political life. But Menexenus remains unconvinced, and it is he that challenges Socrates to put up a speech of his own, if it is truly as easy as he says (235d-236d). Socrates appropriates the funeral oration, in order to oblige Menexenus in this way and to ensure that their dialogue continues.

At this point, Socrates introduces his oration as the “remains” of the speech that Aspasia, an improper author as both a woman and a metic, allegedly wrote for Pericles. Previous scholarship has tended to see Socrates’ crediting Aspasia with authorship of his and Pericles’ speeches as Platonic rivalry with Thucydides’ history (following Dion. Hal. 1027; cf. Bloedow, Huby, Kahn), but the philosopher and the clever woman of Miletus also share in common that they were both tried at Athens for impiety (Ath. XII.533; Plut. Per. 32). That Socrates insists upon Aspasia’s authorship, even when Menexenus refuses to acknowledge her (249d-e), further undermines the solemnity of this speech, beyond the ridicule that Socrates offers in his own voice. That his speech is so competent only further problematizes the act of profanation, since Socrates’ failure to displace the funeral speech from its ritual context would have confirmed the importance of the ritual. His success in delivering a powerful oration culminates in the prosopopoeia of the dead, who are indecently roused from their graves in order to exhort sons and brothers and to console parents and wives who are nowhere to be found (246d-248d). Still, they do have an effect on the audience of this speech, who agrees to continue his pas de deux with Socrates, as long as he can offer such speeches (249e). The effect of his profaned political rhetoric, then, is paradoxically to entice Menexenus further away from politics and further toward Socrates and the philosophical life.

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Philosophical Poetics

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