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Oswego philosophy faculty member’s book reconsiders work of Plato

OSWEGO — A new book co-authored by Mark Zelcer of SUNY Oswego’s philosophy department aims to elevate one of Plato’s overlooked works to greater recognition.

“Politics and Philosophy in Plato’s ‘Menexenus'” — co-written with Nickolas Pappas, Zelcer’s former boss and mentor at City College of New York — finds hidden gems in a work that many modern philosophers and critics have disregarded, considering it a parody and a lesser work of one of the world’s most important thinkers.

Mark Zelcer of SUNY Oswego's philosophy department co-authored "Politics and Philosophy in Plato's 'Menexenus,'" which promotes greater recognition for an often-overlooked work. In the philosophy department office in the Marano Campus Center, Zelcer is joined by the bust of the Greek philosopher Socrates -- who appears as a character in "Menexenus."
Mark Zelcer of SUNY Oswego’s philosophy department co-authored “Politics and Philosophy in Plato’s ‘Menexenus,'” which promotes greater recognition for an often-overlooked work. In the philosophy department office in the Marano Campus Center, Zelcer is joined by the bust of the Greek philosopher Socrates — who appears as a character in “Menexenus.”

Plato’s dialogue is a targeted critique of a famous public funeral oration delivered by Pericles, when the renowned Athenian statesman and orator commemorated the first year of the Peloponnesian War, which ran from 431 to 404 B.C.

Pericles’ rousing speech is commonly seen as integral to keeping Athens in what would become a disastrous war for the prosperous, productive and proud city against its Spartan foes, Zelcer said.

The fictional “Menexenus,” penned a generation later by Plato, features Socrates delivering to the title character a funeral oration he attributes to Aspasia, an intellectual and companion of Pericles, which clearly references the original speech.

“Plato is showing that a philosopher can give a better speech than a politician could,” Zelcer explained, and that perhaps a more philosophical, as opposed to populist, speech could have helped Athens avoid the ruinous effects of the conflict.

“The Peloponnesian War was Athens’ Vietnam,” Zelcer said. “It was a civil war that killed a lot of Athenians and drained their treasury. Plato thought that this fighting among themselves –fighting with other Greeks — ruined what Athens should have been.”

The product of nearly a decade of on-and-off analysis of Plato’s other works, ancient Greek history and Greek mythology, Pappas and Zelcer’s book — the only full-length English-language publication on this topic, Zelcer said — argues for greater respect and recognition for a text that adds new dimensions to Plato’s standing as the prominent intellectual of his time.

Plato’s patterns

“We really feel we discovered some patterns that shed light on a lot of his other theories,” Zelcer said. “We think we picked up a lot of motifs others haven’t.”

Zelcer explained that “Menexenus” complements two of Plato’s famous theories, notably seen in “The Republic,” on how both cities and people find justice when their internal component parts work together. In “Menexenus,” Plato adds a third level: justice in the world, which is only attained when the various people across the globe fulfill their responsibilities and work in harmony, Zelcer said.

That the envisioned speech comes from a woman, unusual in the culture of the time, contributed to some observers viewing it as parody, but Zelcer noted that Aspasia’s connection to Pericles cleverly “serves as a glue” connecting Pericles’ speech and “Menexenus.”

Plato’s text also touches on one of his key themes: the responsibility of leaders to be educators who improve their society, instead of serving self-interests.

“Leaders aren’t just there to take charge, they are there to improve the city,” Zelcer said of Plato’s attitude toward civic leadership. “He seemed to be dissatisfied with Pericles’ ability to make Athens a better place.”

When studied in a modern world dominated by sound bites, attack ads and pundits, it’s hard to imagine anybody who could create a critique of this impact and importance.

Yet “Menexenus” was a remarkable text, Zelcer said, because it showed the most influential and transcendent philosopher of his time weighing in on a political issue that transformed the course of history.

While the book, published by Routledge, provides a comprehensive background to Plato and his philosophy, Zelcer thinks it also provides lessons across several disciplines, including history, political thought, rhetoric and communications.