The Rhetoric of Parody in Plato's Menexenus
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The Rhetoric of Parody in Plato's Menexenus

In Plato's Menexenus, Socrates spends nearly the entire dialogue reciting an epitaphios logos, or funeral oration, that he claims was taught to him by Aspasia, Pericles' mistress. Three difficulties confront the interpreter of this dialogue. First, commentators have puzzled over how to understand the intention of Socrates' funeral oration (see Clavaud 1980, 17–77).1 Some insist that it is parodic, performing an essentially critical function (e.g., Loraux 1986); while others claim that it is serious, in particular as an expression of Plato's political ideal (e.g., Kahn 1963).2 Adherents on both sides seem to think that the options are mutually exclusive.3 Second, commentators have had difficulty understanding why Plato would have Socrates attribute his entire oration to Aspasia (e.g., Coventry 1989, 3; Pownall 2004, 60). Most agree that this move is ironic and that it has something to do with the alleged target of the dialogue's criticism. But scholars have differed over whether the Aspasia reference is meant to implicate Pericles' funeral oration (Monoson 1998), rhetoric in general (Pownall 2004), Athens (Loraux 1986), or even Aeschines (Clavaud 1980).4 Third, scholars have struggled to make sense of the dialogue's "deliberate and fantastic anachronism" (Dodds 1990, 24). In the funeral oration, Socrates relates the history of Athens up to the King's Peace in 386 B.C., a full thirteen years after he has died. This problem has generated the least consensus, with some scholars restricting their analysis [End Page 29] to dating considerations (e.g., Dodds 1990) and at least one speculating that Socrates speaks in this dialogue as a ghost (Rosenstock 1994).5

It is the contention of this article that, by understanding the rhetoric of parody in the Menexenus, one can resolve these difficulties and come to a coherent and unified understanding of the philosophical intentions of the dialogue.6 More specifically, I will show that the anachronism is a consequence of a particular parodic strategy, that of amplification; that the dialogue's parody targets not only Pericles' funeral oration in particular but funeral oratory, rhetoric, and Athens as well; and that the parody has serious philosophical implications.7 Further, I claim that the serious philosophical content is both critical and constructive. Plato subverts the civic identity and understanding of virtue encouraged by the genre of funeral oration, and he challenges its praise-based model of political discourse. At the same time, Plato's parodic criticism is not entirely negative, for it relies on alternative paradigms of civic identity, virtue, and political discourse.

I. The Rhetoric of Parody

Before turning to the Menexenus itself, I want to clarify what I mean by parody. For a working definition, I suggest that parody is "an imitation that distorts a target text, author, or genre."8 In order to make some general observations about the rhetoric of parody, I will look briefly at an exemplar of parody from Aristophanes' Frogs. I do so for three reasons: to display two strategies of parodic distortion, to show that parody can have multiple targets, and to argue that parody can have both serious and complex intentions.9

In the Frogs (1331–63), Aristophanes uses at least two techniques of parodic distortion, inversion and amplification, in his extended parody of Euripides' monodies or single-actor odes.10 Parodic inversion, broadly speaking, upsets or overturns the target text by distorting the original in a way that reverses the stylistic effect or semantic intention. Parodic amplification hones in on one aspect of the target text and amplifies it to absurdity, often exposing its artificiality as a literary trope.

The parodic scene features a woman who awakens, hysterical and terrified, from a god-sent dream, which has conveyed disturbing news. We find in this passage a particular kind of parodic inversion: bathos, the unexpected introduction of the vulgar, ordinary, or mundane, which undermines an otherwise somber tone.11 Consider the following excerpt:

Attendants, set alight a lamp for me,Collect the dew of rivers in pitchers [End Page 30] And heat the water,So that I may wash away the god-sent dream.Oh god of the sea...