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Socrates against ancestor worship

This is a chapter from my book Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

“For that man is best prepared for life who makes all that concern his welfare depend upon himself…he it is that is temperate, he it is that is courageous and wise”247e-2488a
Plato, Menexenus

As absurd as it may sound that someone can feel proud for things he hasn’t himself accomplished, it is, however, comforting for those who are thusly made to not be able to hold the responsibility of their lives in their own hands, trying to justify an existence they themselves, in the end, deem worthless. These well-known blinded readers of glorified forefathers, with their perpetually frown faces and their big offset, settle as a mere annoyance as they demand the interest of loans they never gave, exploiting a superiority they didn’t earn, in the name of their own insufficiencies.

To them, ancient Greece is not history; it is a conscience they appropriate without knowing it, while they indulge in anachronistic mockery –“when we were building the Parthenon they were eating bananas on trees”. Besides, truth is not important for the ancestor worshipper, only admiration and pride that accompany even a reference to one of “the great ones of antiquity”, or a military achievement of our warmongering past. If one would take these people seriously he might think that in ancient Greece every last farmer was reciting Homer or writing his own Republic, and every last Greek boy would kill in battle dozens of deferred “barbarians” before coming of age.

But, ancient Greece too had its own antiquity and its own ancestor worshipers, who Socrates taunted with the same muscle he used against the sophists and all those who thought they knew what they couldn’t have known or those who lived the unexamined life. This is why his Epitaph (funeral oration) is submersed in a derisive disposition, saying everything an Athenian would like to hear in an encomium of Athens, ignoring the discomforting truth that embarrasses those who prefer to fantasize about an unblemished past rather than learning from the mistakes and the failures of those who preceded them. Besides, Epitaphs, as A.E. Taylor comments, belonged to the rhetorical genre called “epideictic” (flamboyant, flashy, ostentatious); created with an artificial elevation of diction and the use of verbal ornaments avoided in political speaking and in courts. They were therefore also appropriate for an attempt to satirize the patriotic reading of history, as well as to succumb to it.

Before he even starts his speech, Socrates mocks the genre of Epitaph itself, by saying to Menexenus[1] that it effectively satisfies the audience “saying about each one the merits he has and doesn’t have”235a, so much that it makes death in battle welcome by turning it into an opportunity to be buried with honors and grandiose, even if the victim is poor.

Πηγή: Γιάννης Γαίτης
Yannis Gaitis (photo)

“You, Socrates, are always ironic towards rhetoricians”, says Menexenus, but the philosopher continues to firstly flatter the dead ones’ bloodline. The first praises are addressed to their ancestors and everything the dead of the war owe to them. “They have become virtuous because they are born of virtuous men”237a. The ancestors are described as natives “that did not come from another place” even if, in reality, the Athenians were immigrants from faraway places (Pelasgia, Ionia etc.). As we said, truth is of little importance compared to the foundation of genealogical superiority or, even more, the pride traced on the earth itself, on which both ancestors and descendants walked. “This land is worthy of praise from all humans…my words are confirmed by the gods’ altercation and judgement of it”237c-d, he says referring to the discord between Athena and Poseidon on who will prevail in the city, with Athena winning.

This land alone “in those times” -the primordial, mythical times- gave birth to men, in the time when the rest of the Earth was inhabited merely by animals and wild beasts (something like the Parthenon and the bananas quip). The earth itself is “stable and healthy and by nature” hostile to the others, the barbarians[2] who didn’t adulterate the pure Greeks through “barbaric admixtures”, and only by law can become Greeks while they are by nature, and always will remain, barbarians245c-d. What can be more natural than a people creating enemies even when there aren’t any, since the effort itself of defining historical identity can only be made through the juxtaposition to some other. The concept of the other is necessarily invented to vindicate the dissimilitude of the inventor, where the differentiation of ‘our own’ with ‘theirs’ must be absolute and clear (“the other cities were created by men of every kind and by anomalous elements, resulting in anomalous polities”238e). But the other must also be hostile, since one cannot love something without hating its opposite. The pride for the familiar demands contempt for the foreign.

After the age of the gods, the lies carry on in the age of the heroes. Here, everything is permitted and everything is excused. The Greeks are made heroes, the Athenians even more, while the others are made to be indestructible monsters, so that a possible victory might become a superhuman feat, and any defeat a completely understandable and expected mishap of fate, or the result of treason.

Along these lines, when the almighty Persians anchored in Eretria, “they stood from one sea to the other, joined hands and passed though the whole area, to report to the king that no one had gotten away”240b-c. The obvious exaggeration of the enemy’s strength and numbers functions as proof of the Greeks’ bravery in their victory. And so, the Greek victory in the battle of Marathon punishes the pride “of the entire Asia”, and shows that even Persians are not invincible, and that “the greater numbers and the greatest wealth submit to courage”240d. “What manner of men those were”240d… On the other hand, the battle of Thermopylae is suppressed from the speech, as its glory belongs not to the Athenians but to Spartans and Thespians.

«Ο πωλών επί πιστώσει» του Λευτέρη Γιακουμάκη, 2010
Lefteris Yakoumakis, “Salesman on debt”, 2010 (photo)

On the Peloponnesian War, the envy towards Athens is given as its cause; the reason to envy Athens being the glory of the city and the happiness of her citizens. Athens is referred to as the target of all other Greeks but, as we know, in reality it was only the Spartans and their allies that fought her, while the real reason of the war was, of course not envy but the opposable colonial forces, with the occasion of occupying Epidamnos. The Sicilian Campaign, in particular, is presented as an effort to liberate the oppressed Leontinians (who were indeed bonded in friendly ties with the Athenians), while it is obvious that with the seizure of Sicily, Athens would be getting naval power without precedent, obtaining access to new lands, new ports and new commercial routes throughout the Mediterranean.

But the audience of an Epitaph wants to hear of its city’s excellence, and if it so happens that she was shamed by defeats or retreats, it must have been due to her virtue and grandeur. “But if someone wanted to justly accuse our city for something, only by saying this would he accuse rightly, that it is always too compassionate and willing to defend the weak”244e. From other Platonic dialogues we know that both Plato’s and Socrates’ views on these matters were actually more reasonable.

With an astounding sophistry Socrates claims, on the one hand, that the Athenians “prevailed” in the Peloponnesian War against the Spartan league and, on the other, that they were defeated, though “by our own differences, not by others; because we are still undefeated by them”243d. History says otherwise –in the Sicilian Campaign the Athenian fleet was destroyed and the defeat in the war cost Athens her walls and marked the age of her decline. The defeat of Athens is rephrased as predominance, as quickly as compassion was previously reduced from a virtue to a defect.

The lies, the exaggerations and the boastings continue unrestrained. Plato contributes creatively (and brilliantly) in the satire, by placing Socrates delivering a speech that narrates episodes of Athenian history years after his teacher’s death in 399 BC. The Peace of Antalcidas of 387 BC among the Persians and the Greek cities ended the Corinthian War. Athens was forced to sign a treaty due to dire circumstances, since she found herself momentarily weak against her enemies, resulting in loss of lands. For the needs of the Epitaph, of course, “only us, we did not dare neither to relinquish Greeks nor to give vows”245c. The Athenians, he says, simply stopped fighting, and the enemies happily stopped too. However many men were lost in the battle of Nemea, is a loss credited to treason by Corinthians.

Lastly, the descendants ought to be inspired from the courage of their ancestors and live in such a way so that they will not shame them, because whoever shames his ancestors “is not considered a friend by any man or god, neither on the earth nor below it when he dies”246d.

For him who believes he is something important there is nothing more disgraceful than to present himself to be honored not for himself but because of the glory of his ancestors247b, he says at the end of his speech, when the lies are over, aiming to motivate the young men who might be listening to the speech by giving them advice for the future, as was usual in an Epitaph.


Plato – Menexenus (or funeral oration)


[1] Menexenus had the same name as Socrates’ son and was the child of a respected family. He also appears if Lysis and Phaedo. Menexenus was written and takes place after 387 BC, the year that ended the Corinthian War, the dead of which are honored in Socrates’ Epitaph.

[2] In ancient Greek, the word “barbarian” meant the one who speaks a different language. It wasn’t until centuries later that the word obtained its current meaning (both in Greek and English).

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