Although I read many of Plato's dialogues at St. John's College, I had not read Menexenus, in which Aspasia of Miletus is named as a teacher of Socrates. Much of the dialogue consists of a recitation by Socrates of what he calls a speech he overheard from Aspasia.

In Available Means, a portion of the preceding dialogue between Socrates and Menexenus is cut, as is a portion of the speech itself. The translation is by a man, and an old translation. I would guess that because the words recorded are technically from Socrates and the rhetoric in some ways standard for the day, that the editors of the anthology did not want to use a more modern translation or even commission one from a woman. The translation used is available for free online through Project Gutenberg.

In the words of the introduction to the excerpt, the selection "was written by a man, reporting the words of another man, who is reporting yet another man's words but claiming that the words were written by a woman--Aspasia of Miletus" (1). I would add that those words were filtered through yet another man in the act of translation, which is something that had not occurred to the instructor.

Having translated portions of Homer and Plato from Ancient Greek, I know that translators do not always agree. Translation is an art, not a science. Shades of meaning in both the origin and target languages can be lost in translation. A bias towards poetry can produce translations worthy of ridicule (cough Fagles' Oddyssey cough). I had another translation of Menexenus handy, and found that it was quite different in execution though the sentiment was close to the same.

During the second class session, we spent much of our time discussing the introduction to the anthology, however at the end of the class period, the instructor brought up a few ideas regarding it, which I looked upon skeptically. To her, the fact that Aspasia refers to the earth as a mother is a significant rhetorical breakthrough, a feminist slant in a time when women were only a small step above slaves. To me, the Ancient Greek word for earth is female, and, in Greek Mythology, the Earth is the Mother of creation. There is nothing at all radical about calling the land a mother, nor even referring to the city of Athens as a mother, especially considering that its patron god was Athena.

It is not so much the content of the speech, which is called a standard of its type, but the fact that it is attributed to a woman that is important. It is one of the few records that remain from antiquity of a woman rhetor. Instead of seeing her words, we get only a reflection, or a fossil, the impression that she left behind. What kind of information do we usually glean from fossils? Not the life of a person or the body of a creature, but simply the bones - an idea of structure and a proof of existence.

Perhaps that is why the editors chose not to include the entirety of the speech, or spring for a woman translator. The fact of Aspasia is far more important than the words that Plato reports Socrates reproducing for the ears of Menexenus.

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