Political rhetoric and Socratic philosophy
This dissertation offers an interpretation of two shorter Platonic dialogues, the Crito and the Menexenus. This may seem at first a strange pairing. The Crito is one of the most famous Platonic dialogues, having generated an enormous amount of commentary. The Menexenus attracts little attention and is sometimes written off as spurious. However, the pairing of the two is illuminating and a primary task of this study is to show how and why this is so. The guiding philosophic interest will be the explication of two key elements of Socratic political philosophy that feature strongly in both dialogues: Socrates’ view of citizenship and political obligation, on the one hand, and his understanding and use of political rhetoric, on the other. The close relation of these two issues is reflected in the common structure and literary features that the Menexenus and Crito share, which in turn suggest, in their own ways, a connection with the death of Socrates. The Crito depicts Socrates accepting the death penalty. The Menexenus presents a counterfactual ‘Socrates’ who evaded the death penalty by abstaining from public philosophical examination. The problem of political obligation may be stated as follows: What is it about a political community that generates in the citizen an obligation to obey its laws? What might inspire the citizen to willingly lay down his own life? In attempting to answer this question, political theorists have examined various properties of a political community that might explain its authority. Some important proposals of that sort make an appearance in these two dialogues, but there is a problem: they crop up in the context of a piece of rhetoric Socrates delivers in someone else’s name. Speaking in the voice of the personified Laws of Athens, or his alleged rhetoric teacher Aspasia, Socrates implicitly disclaims, in interesting and complicated ways, his endorsement of the ideas his speeches present. This dissertation aims to demonstrate how the arguments about political authority and citizens’ obligations must be interpreted in light of Socrates’ understanding of political rhetoric and how it should be used by a philosopher.