The Menexenus is a brief dialogue that has come down to us as Platonic, though it is considered apocryphal in some traditions. However, Aristotle cites the text in several instances, perhaps confirming its authenticity. It shares kinship with Thucydides’s famous “funeral oration speech” delivered by Pericles in Book II of his text on the Peloponnesian War.
Socrates spots Menexenus (not to be confused with Socrates’s own son also named Menexenus) as he is coming from the Athenian Council. The discussion was regarding a public funeral for a war hero, which Socrates calls a “noble thing” because it recalls beautiful things and makes those who are listening ‘imagine themselves as higher and better than they are.’ This Menexenus also appears in the Lysis as well as the Phaedo dialogues.
In the same way that Socrates recalls and repeats a speech of Diotima in the Symposium, he recalls and repeats a funeral oration by Aspasia, the woman rumored to be the lover and intellectual counterpart to Pericles. It is believed that she birthed a child with Pericles. In speaking to Menexenus, Socrates recalls a time when he made a friend -or a “mistress”- in Aspasia, the rhetorician. For just yesterday, Socrates had heard Aspasia composing her funeral oration speech, from pieces of Pericles’s famous speech, which Socrates claims Aspasia had initially written, as well.
In the speech, Socrates’s Aspasia divides honorable things between speeches and deeds. Since those who have passed have committed their noble deeds, the only thing that remains is to provide a tribute to them in speech, “for noble words are a memorial and a crown of noble actions.” These words honor the dead and also admonish the living: first she praises the dead’s birth (their fathers and families), then their nurture and education (rearing), and lastly a praise of their noble actions. She closes the funeral oration speech with an imagined plea from the dead, prior to their death, to pursue honor and friendship.
A funeral oration speech speaks to both the particular concerns of a city, such as its people who sacrifice their lives, and also to a universal vision of ‘mankind.’ Those who have sacrificed their lives for their compatriots provide the ultimate demonstration of Aristotle’s “friendship” and “affinity” which holds together a city striving toward justice. The sacrifice is at the heart of the tension between the city and man. Thus, so that the wounds and sacrifices of those who died are not forgotten now or in the future, there is need of honorary and noble speeches, so that their sacrifices of life and body for the sake of the city are not lost on future generations. Speeches are more enduring than deeds.
Plato does not provide a ‘critique’ or a praise of oratory in the Menexenus, but rather the dialogue demonstrates the political tool of rhetoric -how it may be used to affect an audience. On the one hand, Socrates employs the use of a surely fictitious conversation with a respected person of noble connections, Aspasia, and he provides her rhetoric to Menexenus (thus removing blame from himself) and in the course of that speech, Aspasia calls to mind favorable historical recollections for the Athenians of their glorious victories over Persia during the war. She also removes a certain degree of connection between herself and the speech by citing other surely fictitious quotes from those whom she is honoring prior to their deaths. Rhetoric is the clever tool of the politician. It can be used to appeal to the masses, if the speaker presents a fabled view of themselves as excessively humble, and it can also appeal to higher audiences by giving particular power and honor to the past -a vision of things that have happened that is either wholly or partly fabricated.
The dialogue closes with Socrates promising to repeat other speeches from Aspasia’s in the future, at the request of Menexenus. He asks Menexenus to keep Socrates’s name secret when explaining the origination of the speech.
For this reading I used the Loeb edition with a translation by Irish clergyman and classicist, R.G. Bury.