Foreigners as Liberators: Education and Cultural Diversity in Plato’s Menexenus
Rebecca LeMoine, Florida Atlantic University
Though in recent decades many democratic governments have adopted rhetoric and policies promoting cultural diversity, political leaders, citizens, and scholars are increasingly questioning the ideal of a culturally heterogeneous democracy. The predominant concerns are that cultural difference erodes national identity and threatens the moral values essential to a healthy democracy. This article turns to ancient Greek philosopher Plato for a virtue-based defense of cultural diversity, that is, a defense of cultural diversity as good for the moral education of democratic citizens. Challenging traditional interpretations of Plato as an opponent of cultural diversity, Rebecca LeMoine argues that while Plato’s Menexenus features Socrates delivering a mock funeral oration that glorifies Athens’ exclusion of foreigners, when readers play along with Socrates’ exhortation to imagine the oration through the voice of its alleged author Aspasia, Pericles’ foreign mistress, the oration becomes ironic or dissonant. Through this, Plato shows that foreigners can act as gadflies, liberating citizens from the intellectual hubris that occasions democracy’s fall into tyranny. In reminding readers of Socrates’ death, the dialogue warns, however, that fear of education may prevent democratic citizens from appreciating the role of cultural diversity in cultivating the virtue of Socratic wisdom.