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Source Analysis: Plato Menexenus

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Apr. 9th, 2007 | 01:16 am
posted by: cmoore929 in democracy105w

In Menexenus, Plato illustrates the art of funeral oration and its function in society. In the dialogue between Socrates and a young man Menexenus, Socrates is compelled to recite an oration composed by a woman Aspasia. The speech, in typical funeral oratory fashion, is skillfully written to appeal to the emotions of the audience. This oration revisits the myriad of battles fought by Athenians and pays homage to the men who lost their lives defending the city.

Apart from paying the respect to the dead, the oration also functions as a speech where Athens as a whole can be celebrated. The soldiers who died are in essence a microcosm of the character of Athens, whereas men will surrender their lives to protect the city-state and the ideals it represents. I think this especially reveals itself in the way Plato personifies Athens. Athens is presented as a compassionate woman who mothers countrymen’s children and is gracious even to the weak. It is this personification and the overall praise of Athens which suggest there are other elements at work underneath these commemorative funeral orations.

In Menexenus there are discernable elements of rhetoric and propaganda within the text. Socrates states in the dialogue that those who perform funeral orations instill a sense of greatness in the minds of the audience. “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.” So it is apparent that these speeches also serve a purpose in improving the morale and virtue of the audience. “A word is needed which will duly praise the dead and gently admonish the living, exhorting the brethren and descendants of the departed to imitate their virtue.”

Furthermore, the orations possess significance as mechanisms of propaganda, especially, in the representation of the fallen soldier. The soldier is “nurtured by the government” and thus protector of democracy. So in funeral oration, what is perceived to be a “commemoration” can be molded into a picture of the verbal propaganda where increased support for the government and unity can be conveyed to the audience.

Funeral orations, as demonstrated by Plato, have a dual nature. Ostensibly, the speeches are used to praise the dead. But also, they are rhetorical tools which can facilitate in communicating certain feelings to the audience while simultaneously steering them away from other certain negative emotions.

How, if at all, is Plato criticizing the practice of funeral oration?
Do you think funeral orations made a significant impact within the realm of rhetoric?

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