Does She or Doesn't She:
Questions of Attribution in Plato's Menexenus

As you can see from the title, this is an invitation to ambiguity and equivocation. When the Clairol company ran a big ad campaign sporting this very question as a slogan while showing suave, polished women with hair colors ranging from auburn, to ash, to strawberry blonde, the ostensible meaning of the message was whether the portrayed beauties use Clairol products to achieve the fashionable hues of the color of their hair. The underlying actual meaning, the 'hypokeimenon' in Greek parlance, lies in the double-entendre the question generates to the tittering merriment of the brilliant ad's unwary beholders. Does not the question induce a mental somersault from quizzing the proclivities for sexual enjoyment to the more tantalizing issue of marital fidelity? The alluring images of women combine with the slogan's lure to persuade, i.e. convince by means of language, the one and the many benefits of Clairol products and exercise a statistically significant influence over human behavior: turn people into customers. Mostly people in semiotics will bother to puzzle over the techniques by which an ad succeeds, and which combination of psycho-linguistic and iconic strategies are brought into play. But it is quite clear that the question "does she or doesn't she?" is not raised to be answered, but is rhetorical. It is simply raised to produce mental space for the interplay of ambiguities between the various layers of possible meanings to be energized. This contemporary and commercial use of rhetoric, however, appears a bit crude when compared to ancient masterpieces of the art, the MENEXENUS being a case in point.

In the opening scene of the satirical dialogue, we find Socrates running into the young and ambitious Menexenus on his way home from a meeting in the Council Chambers of the Athenian National Assembly where the choice of an appropriate speaker for an upcoming, but otherwise unspecified Funeral Oration had been heatedly discussed. This opening gambit permits Socrates to step into a dual role: his traditional one as teacher and critic, and a new one -- excepting the Symposium -- as entertainer, in fact a Milesian street-corner story-teller who makes his living by getting people to give him a copper in exchange for a "golden story." (The Milesians had a most lively jongleur tradition to which Apuleius in the "Golden Ass" testifies. Incidentally, Aspasia, the speechmaker and story-teller Socrates is about to quote, comes from Miletus and is referred to as 'Aspasia the Milesian'.) Socrates and Menexenus briefly talk politics and after Socrates has satisfied himself that his pupil would not run for office without first asking his advice, he launches into an ironically twisted expose of the nature of political oratory: its tricks, its power of intoxication and delusion, its profound amorality. Though it may indeed be sweet to die for the greater glory of the fatherland in open battle, ought one not to ask if the cause of war is just and the defense of one's state's values right?- The tone of the verbal exchange between the two men stays light in spite, or perhaps because, of the moral gravity of the matters under discussion, when in a stylistic sleight of hand Socrates switches roles and offers to tell Menexenus from memory the story of Aspasia, I. e. the speech she is said to have prepared the day before in anticipation of the Assembly's request for a Funeral Oration. The telling of the speech, Socrates insists, must be off the record, and the set-up of the occasion resembles farce.

The speech itself is a model of eloquence and conforms to the norms for the ideal funeral oration of classical times. Starting with the eulogy, it provides lavish praise for the fallen heroes and moves to admonishing the living to laudable conduct in the emotion-charged exhortation. Valor, fearlessness, glory are invoked with disciplined passion. Words of comfort are added to console the bereft families, promising them all possible help and support on behalf of the city-state's government to ease their burden. Then, abruptly, the crowd is dismissed.- The speech is grandiloquent and conventional in its predictable appeals to patriotic sentiment and civic pride. Its formal perfection cannot conceal its hollow, insincere nature, but it succeeds only too well in puffing up people's self-esteem with flattery and other not-so-noble lies. Worst of all, the speech appeals to a collective sense of 'shared destiny', inculcating hate and contempt for strangers and enemies alike. Plato, in writing this speech attributed by Socrates to Aspasia, uses a great many phrases, even entire passages, from Pericles' Funeral Oration, an oration that was presumably ghost-written by Aspasia, in 431 B. C. Pericles pronounced it on behalf of the first group of men who died in battle in the Peloponnesian War, as it is reported by Thucydides in Book Two of his History. (The verb "reported" is used to leave the question open whether Thucydides recorded, or invented the speech.)

Our original question, does she, or doesn't she, I. e. did Socrates speak the truth when he ascribed the speech to Aspasia, mistress of Pericles, teacher of Socrates, friend of Anaxagoras, and mistress of Athens in eloquence and political rhetoric, cannot be answered with any certainty. Neither can the even more intriguing query: does Aspasia really mean what she is said to say in the speech, or is this flow of words a technique of controlling the crowd in crisis while staying in power on top? So, why bother? Well, by raising the question in the first place you generate the pretext, or invitation, i.e. the mental space in the language of the introduction, to open up an inquiry into the Menexenus' real purpose. Entertainment, although part of Plato's stratagems, is quite insufficient; the real intent must be presumed to be pedagogical and aim, a little bit like the Clairol ad, at 'behavior modification'. It is a dialogue that is regarded as authentic, i.e. Plato's authorship is not in dispute, yet it does not fit the pattern. R. E. Allen comments that this dialogue "is a stumbling block to students of ancient philosophy and a scandal to historians." He does not address the question what the Menexenus might mean to feminists who may easily see in the Socratic attribution an insult to Aspasia since she is, after all, portrayed as an exponent of 'base rhetoric', that is to say quite simply political propaganda. (James Thurber dealt with this subject in a way that rivals the Menexenus' mixture of farcical hilarity and moral earnestness in his essay "A Very Proper Gander".) Is the attribution, according to a less ideological scenario, perhaps a simple attention-getting device? Or a pedagogic one, permitting the mind to achieve an ironic distancing conducive to collected reflection and promoting a clearer awareness of the power of language and the moral problems that arise from this insight?

Ever since the Greeks discovered the human mind as a paramount power and agency, and ever since they invented democratic politics, a discovery and an invention that belongs together, they have been alerted to and conflicted over the simple fact that the power of persuasion cannot be controlled. The power to persuade the many, to sway the crowd, yields enormous force and danger in the life of the polis. Who can protect the city-state from tyranny when rhetoric is handy for the would-be tyrant's use as a main tool in his ascent to power? Thucydides' formula for the Athenian democracy was "an aristocracy ruling with the consent of the multitude", a description used by Aspasia in her Menexenus speech. Yet the formula, though at times accurate, was inherently fragile and forever threatened by the convulsions of Athenian political life. Class warfare is not an invention of modern times but was the daily reality of classical Athens. Furthermore, the 'tribe' of the sophists, i.e. the intellectuals who maintained that "man is the measure of all things" sold their exquisite oratorical-rhetorical-eristic-disputational skills, honed in political and forensic wars-with-words, to anybody who could pay, regardless of the use the skill may be put. The spoken and the written word, courtesy of the sophists, turned into an acid in which the old order of aristocratic hereditary privilege, already quite curtailed by Solon's democratic reforms, rapidly dissolved. In the resulting battles of ascendancy three principles clashed over who should be entitled to rule: oligarchic hereditary succession, ascension of demagogues and mobocrats leading to tyranny; installation of statesmen whose knowledge and virtue, their ARETE, would render them fit to rule and resist the corruptions of power. Plato marshaled his genius as thinker and writer in support of the latter.

The Menexenus, together with the Meno, Phaedrus, Gorgias, and the Symposium, is part of Plato's middle dialogues, written between the philosopher's first and second voyage to Syracuse in 387 and 367 BC In all these writings it is Plato's goal to find the measure that would cure the sickness of the human soul. Her sickness shows in the tyrant's pleonexia, or insatiable insensate greed, and the common man's akrasia, the lack of control over appetites. Pleonexia and akrasia combine to rend the polis' civic cosmos, to split the body politic into warring factions, make civil war endemic, and prevent ruler and ruled alike from living a life worth living. Athens, instead of fulfilling her mission of being the teacher of Hellas in excellence of body and mind, was in deep trouble and disarray. Aspasia's speech glorifies a ruthless nationalism (in the double meaning of patriotism and imperialism) that for Socrates and Plato could not be but a perversion of the very values undergirding Athens' true greatness. To understand the 'message' of the Menexenus, the message for which the double-entendre about Aspasia's speech is put into play, it helps to see the dialogue as a companion piece to the Symposium. There we find Socrates again as 'entertainer', relating a speech. Again a speech attributed to a woman. Her name is Diotima. She taught Socrates, and through him all his disciples, the nature and purpose of love. By making the Idea of Beauty the point of destination for human desire and attachment, the lust for domination is transformed and human energy freed up to be employed in continuous service to truth-abiding creativity. By contrast, in Aspasia's speech, we are tricked into a phonily self-inflating identification with the crowd in the frenzy of nationalist glorification. The measure is lost and demonic powers break loose. The point that carries this comparison between the speeches of Diotima and Aspasia home is made when one reads the Menexenus not as a critique of Aspasia, but as a critique of political rhetoric as used by historians, Thucydides in particular, as the fathers of nationalist lies. (It was Herodotus who carried the title 'father of lies', not Thucydides, but, in the Menexenus, Thucydides is the unmentioned target.) Here, in the Menexenus, Plato uses farce, or a technique of comedy, to stake out the claim for philosophy as superior language practice for the promotion of virtue. It is the philosopher who pursues true knowledge and reaps from this pursuit the kind of moral excellence which saves us from the despair over history's cruel futility. The attribution of the oration to Aspasia is a stylistic and heuristic device Plato uses to illuminate the necessity to learn to distinguish and choose between giving one's love and allegiance to the pursuit of knowledge, the Idea, or wasting one's love and allegiance on the pursuit of idols: Aspasia's speech becomes a warning for those who can read to heed.