Saturday, August 2, 2008

Civilization Review: Thucydides, "Pericles' Funeral Oration"

All references and quotations are from:

Thucydides. "Pericles' Funeral Oration." History of the Peloponnesian War. Trans. Rex Warner. New York: Penguin, 1954. 143-151.

The text citations are in the standard book-chapter format for the work. "Pericles' Funeral Oration" covers Book Two, Chapters 34-46 in the History. A reference to Book Two, Chapter 34 would be indicated by (2.34).

"Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now" (2.41). Pericles says this of Athens in his famous funeral oration, an eight-page passage in Thucydides' sprawling History of the Peloponnesian War. When I was growing up in the 1980s, my teachers and others treated Pericles' descriptions of Athens in the fifth century BCE as a portrait of the civic ideal. Periclean Athens, I was taught, embodied the virtues that the United States strove to live up to: the esteem for democratic government, the universal involvement of the citizenry in government decision-making, the good neighbor approach to foreign policy, the esteem for both individual rights and responsibility to the community, as well as the equality of all citizens, regardless of wealth or social standing.

We've fallen so far from those ideals of late. The U.S. is effectively run by a petulant, childish dictator who was imposed on the people by a quintet of corrupt or compromised judges; he then saw his reign extended through slander and fear-mongering since voter deference to incumbency could not be counted on. A Congress clearly elected to check his excesses for the remainder of his tenure seems to capitulate at every opportunity. Less than half the nation's citizenry can be expected to vote in any given election. Taxes are treated with resentment while bridges and other infrastructure collapse, and a substantial percentage of the population goes without such basic needs as adequate health care. People do whatever they can to avoid even minor communal demands such as jury duty. The country is seen as an obstreperous, self-centered bully by other nations, many of whom feel a sense of schadenfreude as the country squanders its wealth in a war our leader lied us into, and who will not end our involvement simply for the sake of his overweening sense of vanity. And the centuries-old laws meant to protect the people from the excesses of authoritarian government are treated as an inconvenience to be breached at will, and those expected to defend the sanctity of those laws more often than not lend their imprimatur to the violation.

Athens seems to have disappeared as an ideal in the collective consciousness. Self-centered individualism and disdain for the commons, as celebrated by the novelist Ayn Rand and given intellectual justification by such thinkers as Robert Nozick, are the order of the day. And thanks to the film 300, director Zack Snyder's stupid and obscenely violent adaptation of Frank Miller's somewhat milder graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylæ, Sparta has replaced Athens as the ancient city most looked on with admiration. Stubbornness masked as resolve and courage, contempt for diplomacy, violence as the first and only option in disputes, propensity for trash talk--these are the new ideals.

However, rereading the "Funeral Oration" is an edifying experience. Pericles' rhetoric, as presented by Thucydides, is so powerful and eloquent. And like all great speeches, it is a metonymy for real-life circumstances, not abstract platitudes of hope and idealism. Some examples:

When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. (2.37)

We regard wealth as something properly to be used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashame to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it. (2.40)

Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics--this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all. (2.40)

When we do kindnesses to others, we do not do them out of any calculations of profit and loss: we do them without afterthought, relying on our free liberality. (2.41)

What I would prefer is that you should fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she really is, and should fall in love with her. When you realize her greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to fall below a certain standard. If they ever failed in an enterprise, they made up their minds that at any rate the city should not find their courage lacking to her, and they gave to her the best contribution that they could. (2.43)

One's sense of honour is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when one is worn out with age, is not, as the poet said, making money, but having the respect of one's fellow men. (2.44)

One must first remember one's ideals in order to regain them. Pericles (and Thucydides) remind us of what we have lost, and what we must take back. With an emphasis always on the practical.

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