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Thucydides – The Oration of Pericles



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Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons; although usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation of reflection. But the palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger. In generosity we are equally singular, acquiring our friends by conferring not by receiving favors. Yet, of course, the doer of the favor is the firmer friend of the two, in order by continued kindness to keep the recipient in his debt; while the debtor feels less keenly from the very consciousness that the return he makes will be a payment, not a free gift. And it is only the Athenians who, fearless of consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency, but in the confidence of liberality.

Thucydides (??????????), History of the Peloponnesian War bk 2, ch 40 (Pericles’ Funeral Oration)(ca. 405 BCE)

The funeral oration can be seen as the answer to a simple and perpetually recurring question, namely “Why do we fight?” In the Homeric age the answer might have been for glory and booty, and in the more poetic notion of the hero. The less literary and more historically realistic reason may have been simpler: soldiers fought because their masters required it of them. The novelty of this oration is that it provides an answer from the perspective of a democratic state, and it does this 2400 years ago.

It’s easy to be critical of the Pericles that Thucydides presents us. He was a cunning political leader, a general, intent on peddling a bill of goods to the Athenian people—war against Sparta and its allies. In fact we now know that much of the oration consists of a response to criticisms that the Spartan king had leveled at the Athenians—they were lawless and lack discipline, their government was inefficient and bordered on chaotic, they wasted too much time on pointless talking and theorizing, and perhaps the sharpest blow—that they arrogantly disrespected the laws and customs of the larger Hellenic community, which is to say, international law.

In fact, for all their brilliance and promise, the Athenians were remarkably short-sighted. They conducted their war effort with a heavy hand, as Thucydides best chronicles in the famous Melian dialogue (bk v, ch 17), probably the single most aggressively misinterpreted section of his history. In Pericles’s last speech (bk ii, 63) he candidly acknowledges the attitude other Greeks had towards Athens: “your empire has become a tyranny.” That had severe consequences for Athens in the war. City-states and islands flocked to the Spartan alliance, outraged by the arrogance and lawlessness of the Athenians, as demonstrated by their wanton destruction of neutral Melos. The tide of the war turned decisively. Things did not work out well for Athens. Yet throughout this period, Athens was the envy of the Hellenic world—looked to almost despairingly for leadership. In the end the foolish military exploits of the Athenians led not simply to their own doom, but to the eclipsed role of the Hellenic world as a whole. A factious Greece, riven by conflict, never realized its potential as a political actor in the Mediterranean world.

Still, the speech is filed with wonderful lines about the value of democratic life—the importance of education, arts and literature, or the notion of debate and argument as parts of an essential path to good decisions, for instance. For Homer, there was a fundamental divide between the “doers of deeds” and the “speakers of words.” Only the former could be heroic. For Thucydides a process of democratic debate was an accepted part of civic life, and deliberation and debate were the essential forerunners to war-making. And Thucydides presents a complex and balanced notion of democratic equality—there is equality before the law, but advancement is achieved by those with the skills best suited to the needs of the state. The words of this oration are archaic to the ears of a contemporary audience, certainly. Some aspects seem haughty and unwise. But the vision of a democratic society and of service for its preservation shines through with inspiration, even for a modern reader.

The German architect and painter Leo von Klenze was a leading figure of Neoclassicism. Accompanying Otto von Wittelsbach to Athens, he proposed the reconstruction of the city using architectural models of antiquity updated with modern engineering technique. He was particularly fascinated by the Athenian Acropolis as it was reconstructed in the era of Pericles. As the leader of Athens and the administrator of the massive treasury it assembled from the Delian Alliance, Pericles decided to convert these funds–raised for defense–to the reconstruction of the Acropolis. The Propylaea, the Parthenon and the golden statue of Athena, sculpted by Pericles’ friend, Phidias, were commissioned by him at extravagant expense. Klenze captures the Periclean Acropolis in this painting from 1846. But he recreated many of these masterpieces in stone as well, in buildings in Munich in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Listen to the fourth movement of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C Minor (1887) in a performance by the World Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Carlo Maria Giulini. This work is an exploration of the heroic and tragic, menacing and celebratory in turn, with a development so complex that it seems almost a symphony within a symphony. It needs to be experienced in a concert hall to appreciate its full effect—and particularly the walls of sound that Bruckner brings down on the listener. There is no denying the influence of Wagner in this music, and also the strangely military-heroic elements that sound throughout it, sometimes darkly and sometimes gloriously. While Bruckner dedicated the work to Emperor Franz Joseph and provided contemporary program notes, there is much to suggest that Bruckner’s inspiration for the work is drawn heavily on Greek notions of the heroic, especially the works of Pericles’s contemporary, Aeschylus.

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