03 September 2018

Realism and the pelvic issues, part 9: A good day for a Funeral Oration

One of the Platonic dialogues I really ought to have referred back to more frequently (as I have here and here) over the past year, is the Funeral Oration. It is a particularly fitting dialogue for our day and age; being a satirical imprecation of the selective memory and distortion of reality inherent to patriotic political rhetoric, of which we have seen a particularly egregious example in recent days, in the form – fittingly enough – of a funeral. Particularly in connexion with the Phædrus (where through the orations of Lysias and Socrates we are treated to the ironic connexions, both false and true, between rhetoric and erōs), the Funeral Oration provides us with a singularly apposite mirror for our the state of our collective souls.

The connexions between the Funeral Oration and the erotic urge are hard to miss; Plato practically bludgeons us over the head with them. For one thing, Menexenus here makes his second appearance as a major character of the Dialogues after the Lysis, a dialogue which is entirely about love. Though the love spoken of there is the harmonious and friendly philos rather than the febrile madness of erōs, we should not ignore the setting of the Lysis: Socrates is speaking in the palæstra to a bevy of ‘beautiful youths’ showing off the good form and skill of their bodies, and there is a definite homoerotic tinge to the questions of ‘like’ and ‘unlike’ in a discussion about male friendship. Particularly important is that Menexenus leaves the scene ahead of the critical questions about love to take part in a sacrifice (cf. Cephalus at the beginning of the Republic!!); and returns at the close of the discussion, after the question of friendship has been explored to its aporetic conclusion.

Secondly, Plato has Socrates give credit for his satire on Athenian patriotism to a courtezan, Aspasia the lover of Pericles, who never appears in the dialogue herself; and the analogical idea buried within this attribution is that this kind of ‘patriotic’ rhetoric is to truth what prostitution is to love. (Note also the misogynist barb Menexenus throws at Socrates about Aspasia at the end; Socrates’ irony is completely lost on him.) One is tempted to draw parallels to the Phædrus here, about the relationship between rhetoric and erōs: Lysias presents himself to Phædrus – in the form of a written speech! – as a ‘non-lover’ who is to be preferred to the lover, and uses various techniques of sophistry to prove his point. Socrates, on the other hand, first tries to outdo Lysias at his own game in decrying the disadvantages of love with various disingenuous arguments (throwing his cloak over his head in the process), before repenting of his blasphemy against erōs and sincerely embarking on a higher discourse on the nature of the soul – and finally redirecting the conversation with Phædrus into the nature of oratory (!!) and its relationship to writing.

Like the never personally-appearing Lysias in the Phædrus and the elusive Cephalus in the Republic, Menexenus absents himself from the key point of the dialogue about love in the Lysis. Thus, the Funeral Oration isn’t really that much of a dialogue, properly speaking. Not having been ‘initiated’ into the questions of friendship, Menexenus is not capable of engaging Socrates on behalf of anything higher than rhetoric after the style of Lysias; thus, the rather perfunctory conversation between Socrates and Menexenus really only serves the purpose of bookending this satire of oratory.

Likewise, our public-intellectual caste, also being ‘ever strangers’ to philosophy, therefore engages only in the search for a rhetoric that gives the appearance of truth. The funeral orations of this past week confirm, more than anything else, that we are committed not to the remembered truths of what has happened in our country since Vietnam, but rather to a fictionalised reminder of Vietnam, and everything since, parallel to that the Athenians told themselves about their rôle in the Persian Wars, which Plato lampoons in this Dialogue. Plato rightly detests just such manipulative uses of political rhetoric – calling it a form of ‘flattery’, as in the Gorgias. The Theuth of our day, by the way, is no longer a scribbler on scrolls; he sits in the director’s chair, choreographs the firefights, makes up the set, guides the cameras, orchestrates the soundtrack to be suitably maudlin. And just as Athenians were capable of praising themselves to the skies for their own virtue even as they were subjugating their neighbours, descending into tyranny and letting civil blood in successive civil wars, somehow we Americans are still capable of pretending that a war of imperial subjugation waged on false pretenses in what had been French Indochina, had anything remotely to do with the defence of liberty here or abroad.

This pretense cannot be addressed with any appeal to rationality or facts. Facts no longer matter (if indeed they ever have), even to the people who loudly mourn the passing of their relevance. No: the delusion that there was anything the least bit ‘honourable’ or ‘decent’ about dropping seven million tonnes of explosives on Southeast Asian farmers, or about any of the conflicts we’ve started since, must instead be explained by a certain erotic drive coupled with a form of psychological repression. It is not an accident that, in the Dialogues and particularly in the Phædrus, rhetoric is so closely wrapped up with erotic desire.

It is surprisingly difficult to think of the American casus belli in Vietnam, or of American self-justification in the Cold War more generally, without referring parenthetically to Dr Strangelove and the sexual paranoias of Brigadier-General Jack D Ripper. As John Grant puts it: ‘We all know how Truman, Eisenhower and the rest had to keep the commie yellow peril in check lest—what?—they invade California? Fluoridate our water? Destroy our vital bodily fluids?’ There is indeed more than a hint of sexual insecurity underscoring the urge to ‘do something’ on the world stage to prove the potency of our… uh… ideals, that simply didn’t go away in 1970, or with the fall of the Berlin Wall. If anything, the triumph of the sexual revolutionaries of the Vietnam Era seems only to have accelerated our penchant for war and ‘humanitarian intervention’ abroad – the confluence of the Second Balkan War and the Lewinsky scandal under the first boomer administration attests this almost perfectly, reprised in a rather pathetic way most recently with all the due honour and decency of leers at Ariana Grande’s behind. Looks like poor old Allan Bloom really did have the last laugh.

Plato himself doesn’t really offer us a way out of this cul de sac, at least not in the Funeral Oration itself. Menexenus and Socrates part ways, seemingly without Menexenus being made any the wiser – Socrates offers only to continue his tutelage in rhetoric. For erōs to be teachable, it must be directed in some degree outward, toward truth. For the orator in love with himself, desiring either a status of prominence and glory for himself, or for a collective self-definition that does only selective honour to the truth, Socratic philosophy can only do so much to ‘seduce’ him away from Lysias, the Sophists and ‘naked’ rhetoric. And so the funeral oration itself, though it should be a ‘teachable’ moment for a public desiring truth and meaning, in fact becomes only a moment of self-indulgent vanity for the same public, and a moment pregnant with tragicomic ironies for the philosopher.

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