Anytus and the Rhetoric of Abuse in Plato’s Apology and Meno
Håkan Tell, Dartmouth College
Coextensive with the referral to the divine authority of Apollo is, very appropriately, the emphasis on the truthfulness of Socrates’ account. Socrates is obliged to tell the truth (δεῖ γὰρ πρὸς ὑμᾶς τἀληθῆ λέγειν, 22a2) and this obligation is owed as much to his service to the god as to his own claim to σοφία. The untruthful account of the prosecutors is thus tied to the untruthful expressions of διαβολή, while the Socratic truth is matched with the true account of the prosecutors’ real grievance. Finally, if Socrates is only following the god’s command when exposing the Athenians’ false claim to wisdom, then the Athenians’ misguided anger and desire to silence him by death leave them in the ominous role of someone waging an ill-advised war against the divine will.
Besides the importance of abuse as an educational tool to teach children self-control (σωφροσύνη), we also learn from this passage that it is crucial not to go too far when dishing out abuse nor to overreact when being an object of abuse. The latter seems especially significant and, lest the situation get out of control, one could always request that the abuse stop. Aristotle, in his discussion of εὐτραπελία, “wittiness,” in Magna Moralia (1.30.2), seems to capture perfectly the quality that the Spartans sought to inculcate in their young:
Though both passages emphasize the desirability of being able both to give and take abuse without excess, it seems that it is only the overly aggressive response to abuse that poses a real concern. It is only by abstaining from excessive behavior that social cohesion can be maintained, and this is a quality that requires training and habituation. Indeed, in the Rhetoric, Aristotle writes that wittiness is well-bred insolence (εὐτραπελία πεπαιδευμένη ὕβρις ἐστίν, 1389b), that is, without mediation through a properly educated disposition, mockery is simply insolence. This is also stressed in a passage from Xenophon’s Cyropaideia (5.2.18), where the behavior of Cyrus’ soldiers is described in admiring terms.  They are said to engage in abuse (ἔσκωπτον) and jest (ἔπαιζον) while abstaining from insolence (ἅ τε ἔπαιζον ὡς πολὺ μὲν ὕβρεως ἀπῆν) and disgraceful behavior (πολὺ δὲ τοῦ αἰσχρόν τι ποιεῖν), when abusing, and from responding angrily (πολὺ δὲ τοῦ χαλεπαίνεσθαι πρὸς ἀλλήλους), when being abused. Appropriate behavior in an invective context thus puts a premium on anger management, a quality that Plutarch ascribes to the Athenian people:
Mockery could easily spiral out of control, as witness the destructive sequence chronicled by Epicharmus (fr. 148, Kaibel) that started with a sacrifice, proceeded to a feast, drinks and mockery (μῶκος), which then deteriorated into swinish behavior (ὑανία), lawsuit and judgment (δίκα and καταδίκα), shackles, and finally damages (ζαμία). Lysias (3.43), too, talks about how frequent are the bodily injuries contracted from brawls (ὅσοι … μαχόμενοι ἕλκος ἔλαβον) resulting from abuse (λοιδορίας)—and, one may assume, lawsuits in their wake.  εὐτραπελία, “wittiness,” then, was a highly touted ideal, but there are many examples when what seemed like innocent mockery took a life of its own and turned into destructive aggressiveness.
Socrates thus imputes as the reason for Anytus’ hatred against him the comment he made about the upbringing of his son. The prophecy about the son’s subsequent depravity, on the other hand, is uttered only after Socrates had been condemned to death and can thus not be construed as the reason for Anytus’ pre-trial anger in the Meno, which is set several years before Socrates’ trial, in 402 BCE. 
Diogenes Laertius (2.38), when mentioning Anytus’ sorry figure in the Meno, says that he could not stand being mocked by Socrates (οὗτος [Ἄνυτος] γὰρ οὐ φέρων τὸν ὑπὸ Σωκράτους χλευασμὸν) and so first stirred up the people around Aristophanes against him, and then persuaded Meletus to bring a charge of impiety and corrupting the youth. From these testimonia, we can draw two conclusions: 1) that Anytus interpreted Socrates’ remark about the education of his son as reported in Xenophon’s Apology as an insult, to which he responded with anger; and 2) that he felt personally insulted—and not just vicariously offended that Socrates slandered celebrated Athenian statesmen. Furthermore, the insult reported in Xenophon has to be chronologically prior and be seen as informing the passage in the Meno.