Remembrance in the Menexenus
Plato was not a member of the Greatest Generation, the generation that fought two great wars, the generation of Pericles and Themistocles, Thucydides and Nicias, and even of Socrates. But he’s old enough to remember them. He knows from his youth what Athens was like at its peak, fortified and overflowing with wealth and prestige. But by the time he reached adulthood, the Delian league had evaporated, Sparta had torn down the long walls and dismantled Athens’ ships. Athens was a mere shadow of what it once was. And Athenians paid the price, including wealthy aristocrats like Plato. By all accounts, they were a lesser generation. They weren’t as bold or just or wealthy. They didn’t have the prestige that their fathers commanded. They were sorely lacking in resources and in opportunity. And they had to struggle with all this in the shadow of the Greatest Generation that preceded them.
We too, as I write, are faced with the same. And today we are asked to Remember. We are asked to remember the sacrifices of that Greatest Generation in its battle against tyrannical forces abroad so that we might grow and live in free and prosperous nations. Our forefathers failed. Plato’s forefathers so too.
So how shall we Remember? What, truly, do we owe to the Greatest Generation? In Plato’s Menexenus, he gives us an answer.
The Menexenus consists of two major sections: an introductory conversation between Socrates and Menexenus, then Aspasia’s speech. Aspasia’s speech takes up the bulk of the dialogue and can itself be broken into two, separated by the words of the war dead themselves. That Aspasia’s speech has these two parts is important for understanding its point and Plato’s. It is the ironic contrast between them that gives the speech its force.
Socrates begins the dialogue thus: “Whence comes Menexenus?” Menexenus gives an answer—the Council Chamber—but this is not all whence Menexenus comes. He comes also from Athens, and from Athens’ brave ancestors. The first part of Aspasia’s speech concerns the former; the second part the latter. She begins with a history of Athens from the Persian Wars through the Peloponnesian War to the war against Corinth that the speech is memorialising. The major thread is easy to see: Athens was a powerful and noble polis who fought for the freedom of the Greeks first against barbarians, second against Greeks. Freedom is the object, no matter the enemy. Sometimes the tree of Liberty need be watered and all that. But so far so passé. Plato means to provoke with Aspasia’s speech. He does that in the second part, with the speech of the war dead.
These war dead are of Plato’s generation. They live in the shadow of their fathers who fought in the Peloponnesian War, and their gradfathers who fought the Persians. They begin by addressing their sons: “Sons,” they say, “our present condition shows that you are born of courageous fathers.” This is no hyperbole. But their virtue has a reason. It is from their own virtue that they mean to exhort their sons, their fathers, and their city to virtue. They say that they “believe that no one who brings disrepute on his own family truly lives at all,” for “he has no friends, man or god, on Earth or below it.” They continue:
You must remember our words and do everything in partnership with valor, without which all possessions and all actions are shameful and base . . . When sundered from the noble and just, even knowledge most certainly cannot be wisdom but seems rogue and villainous. Endeavour, therefore, for all time from the first to the last to surpass–most fervently, in merit and in worth–we who came before. And if you fail, if we stand above you, ennobled and great, our victory is truly our most shameful defeat. But if you overcome, this defeat is then our joyous victory.
The condition for virtue, for success in the universe, is to make one’s progeny better, to hand off the reins of one’s country and one’s name to someone better, stronger, smarter. Failure is disaster: it is profound, universal loneliness, lacking friends among man and god while one lives or after one has died. This sentiment is repeated in Plato with some frequency, such as in the Lysis with regards to friendship, and the Gorgias on the responsibilities of political leaders. But here, it takes a different, more sombre tone. For as the war dead go on to say while consoling their fathers and mothers still living, “That mortal man has everything in his life turn out as he wishes is no easy feat.” One’s success is all but beyond effect. For all a man’s best efforts, for all his toil and his pain, he may never accomplish anything of any value whatever.
And as Plato’s generation makes clear, exactly this happened in the history of Athens. The Greatest Generation of Athens was powerless to stop the decline of their city and the welfare of their children. And so too was the fate of these men being memorialised by Aspasia’s speech. The decline and fall of Athens was imminent and unavoidable. The present condition of Athens reveals something quite different than that Athenians were sons of courageous men. The war dead themselves must believe themselves to be shameful. They have not improved their city; they have been conquered by it and left it debased and wicked. Athens’ great heroes have all been failures.
So we return once again: what, truly, do we owe those men who fought and sacrificed for our city? What is the purpose of our Remembrance? Now we return to the first part of Aspasia’s speech. For as it stands, Aspasia has demonstrated the courage of the Athenian war dead and revoked it at once. We stand then at a crossroads. Is the Greatest Generation truly great, virtuous, courageous, or are they debased and corrupt? Truly, they are both. As Aspasia makes clear at the beginning, the Greatest Generation fought, and died, for what was right. Mistakes they may have made, but for everything to turn out is no easy feat. What makes courage, what makes virtue, is not to succeed: it is to know when and for what to fight. The Athenian Greatest Generation fought the Persians and the Spartans. Our own fought the Nazis. The Corinthian war dead too fought for freedom. And what will we do—will we fight Republicans?
So what do we owe to the Greatest Generation, these brave men who fought but failed to preserve our freedom? What do we owe them? Forgiveness. We owe them forgiveness for their vices and their inadequacies. We owe them the knowledge that despite their failures, they still have friends amongst gods and men.
 Plato, Menexenus, 246d. All translations are my own.
 Ibidem, 246d-247a
 Ibidem, 247d