Expanding the Liberty Canon: Pericles and the Funeral Oration

Pericles (495-429 BCE) was one the most remarkable figures of an age of great figures, that is Golden Age Athens, the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in philosophy, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, in tragedy, and so on. The building most associated with Golden Age Athens, the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis (sacred hill at the centre of ancient Athens) was commissioned by Pericles. He was a friend of the philosopher Anaxagoras, sponsored tragic performances, and so was a full part of the city life, apart from his political role.

Pericles was an aristocrat descended from powerful figures in Athenian political history, and though he was associated with furthering Athenian democracy, was respected as a personality of admirable character by critics of democracy like Plato and Aristotle. In the ancient context, democracy means direct decision making by citizens gathered at in an assembly, where they make laws and decide on the major state actions of the time.

For the contemporary critics of democracy, Pericles’ excellence as a character enabled him to ameliorate what they saw as the irrationality and short term thinking of the citizen mass, and İt seems to me there is a kind of groping towards the modern understanding of democracy as the best way of getting the best leaders (of the least bad available) into power through a competitive character testing process. The Athenian city state, like other Greek states of the time was small compared with any modern city, so the political process was very personalised.

As I pointed out with regard to Aristotle, the Greek city states, including Athens, were not ideal with regard to equally of rights by modern standards. A significant part of the population (estimates of the proportion vary) were slaves, or unfree in some way, women had no political rights, and very limited legal rights, and the respect for the right  individuals to be different from, or independent of, majority religious and customary thinking, was very limited by modern standards. However, we have to make some allowance for the times when judging thinkers and give credit to those who made some progress with regard to liberty, however limited they seem by our standards. Our standards came from somewhere and evolved over time, so that we should take some interest and give some respect, with regard to those who something to move thinking in the right direction.

Pericles is different from most people, maybe everyone in this series of posts, because despite his high level of culture he was not a writer, or even a practitioner of philosophical debate like Socrates, who wrote nothing but inspired others to write down what they thought was true to his thought. What we have from Pericles is the record of his life, and most importantly for present purposes, a speech attributed to him by Thucydides (460-395 BCE). That is the historian, usually recorded as the second known historian (in the west) after Herodotus. He was an Athenian aristocrat and army general who wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War after being pushed out of his command role. The war concerned was a thirty year war between Athens and Sparta, which like its closest allies was  located in the Peloponnesus land mass south of Athens. The book is unfinished but is still a classic of history, international relations, and military thought, widely read by students and specialists within those fields. It is a book that should be read by anyone interested in the history of political thought and ideas of liberty, though more because of its importance in adjacent fields rather than its own contribution to political thought.

The exception is the few pages of a speech Pericles apparently made at a funeral of soldiers during the war. We have no way of knowing how far the speech records any words ever uttered by Pericles. Thucydides was and is respected for his commitment to objectivity and reliable evidence, particularly by way of contrast with Herodotus, so it seems plausible that the recorded speech is at least as honest attempt to report what Pericles really thought, given what Thucydides knew about him. The lack of any other record, and the tendency of ancient historians even Thucydides, to report speeches based on what they thought people should have said in certain situations makes it hazardous to presume any further.

Here is a link to the speech. Other versions and postings should be available through an online search for ‘Pericles Funeral Speech’, and the same applies to Thucydides text as a whole.  Anyway, here is a link to the translation by Thomas Hobbes, edited by the nineteenth century English radical William Molesworth, posted at the Online Library of Liberty.

What Pericles (strictly speaking what Thucydides tells us Pericles said, but I will leave that as assumed from now on) argues in his speed is that the fallen soldiers did not just die in the cause of defending their homeland, but an idea of a political system represented by that homeland.  That is, according to Pericles, Athens makes concrete the best principles by which a city can organise itself and people can live together.

Those principles are listed in order to contract Athens with Sparta, in which citizens formed a military aristocracy, and supposedly led an ascetic military life style in every way, according to the strictest morality and with minimal private property. Pericles proclaims that in Athens everyone can share in government and that no one is excluded from office by poverty. Thought poverty is not shameful failure to struggle to overcome poverty is. Everyone can live their life their own way and respects everyone else’s rights in that regard. The Athenians show courage in war which comes from their determination to defend their way of life, not a life time of brutal military discipline. Their courage is even greater than the Spartans and is based on a life that recognises goods and values other than military courage.

The Athenians are not closed off from the world (an implicit contrast with the apparently autarkic Spartans) and enjoy items imported from all countries. They have wealth, but want to use if for great things not just to be rich for its own sake. Their society includes beauty and variety to such an extent that they are educating all of Greece in such things. The Athenians do not need a Homer to glorify their courage in that way, which has its own motivation. The point of the reference to Homer is presumably that the heroes in Homer’s epics are motivated by the glory of war, and the hope of living on in memory and poetry as great warriors. Homer referring of course to the two epic poems attributed to a poet of that name, The Iliad and The Odyssey, in which the idea of war as the means to the greatest possible glory plays a large part. Pericles is presumably saying that the Athenians have more to their lives and the society which they are defending then the desire to achieve status through slaughter in battle. Pericles is still advocating a spirit that might seem brutal to us, in which states celebrate their triumphs over states; as Pericles suggests it is great to be famous for terrible  acts as well as acts of goodness. If we compare Pericles with Homer, we can see some progress.

Pericles of course represented a people of state which turned other Greek states into colonies, and destroyed them if they did not comply, and forced them to pay for its architectural glories, but it is a sad reality that nations in which liberty advanced in some significant respects were often involved at the same time in imperialist and exploitative projects, in which people excluded from moral sympathy and political rights paid a terrible price. We do not need to overlook or excuse the the very considerable faults of Pericles and the ancient Athenians, however, to recognise that they were drawn to ideas which in the course of human history have become applied in universal and inclusive ways.

A brief conclusion to Pericles’ speech endorses one of those inexcusable Athenian attitudes, which is the assumption of women’s inferiority and the desirability of their social invisibility. A major qualification needs to be made to Pericles’ deplorable remarks. He lived with and had children with one of the remarkable women of his time who was certainly not socially invisible, Aspasia (470-400 BCE). She was from the Greek colony in Miletus, western Anatolia and is known through attacks made upon her at the time. There is a lack of definitive evidence about her life, but it seems definite that she had wealth of her own and paid tax. Additionally, it can at least it can be said that she was used to attack Pericles because she was taken as a woman who was too free in her opinions, and led too public a life in which she displayed her considerable culture and intelligence. So even in this area where Pericles’ thoughts are disappointing, the status of women, he may have had a personal influence undercutting the words attributed to him.

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