The Greatness of Athens: Pericles’s Funeral Oration

In reading Thucydides, much attention is paid to the many speeches in The History of the Peloponnesian War.  Many philosophers have seen Thucydides providing his own commentary on the nature of philosophy in these speeches – after all, Thucydides wasn’t really present at any of the speeches.  They are recreations by Thucydides where he explores multiple philosophical themes.  We already analyzed three of the speeches in this post, but I wish to explore – in more depth – the importance of Pericles’s Funeral Oration.

Pericles’s Funeral Oration is a simultaneously a eulogy to the dead of Athens, and also why Athens is great and what the honoring of dead represents and should propel the Athenians in doing.  First, Athens is the universal city of motion – the city of “daring, progress, and the arts” as Leo Strauss assessed.  This is seen earlier in Book I, especially during the debate over the declaration of war between Sparta and Athens.

I: Athenian Liberalism

While it is a gross anachronism to call the government of Athens a “liberal” one, ancient Athens nevertheless shared many precepts and principles that would strike the modern as something akin to liberalism and reflecting “liberal values.”  Pericles notes that the Athenian government “does not copy the institutions of [their] neighbors.”  In this he is referring to the monarchial and aristocratic governments that were more common to the nature of the Greek city-states while Athens had become something of a compassionate democracy despite its imperial pretensions and holdings.  Instead of becoming more “authoritarian,” Athens sat as the bright spot of Greece, the “city open to the world” and one in which “everyone is equal before the law.”

Part of the importance of the greatness of Athens was not only the character of its citizens, but the nature and character of its government: which we can say was a form of ancient democracy.  “Our constitution,” he says, “is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.”  Athenian democracy was not a “true” democracy in the same way that Jean Jacques Rousseau claimed that there could never be a true a democracy in Book III of the Social Contract.  Nevertheless, the principle of majority rule, that the citizenry has representation, and that elections are conducted for political offices, are all symptomatic of what we call democracy in political theory.  As Pericles continues, “what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.”  Here, Pericles is describing meritocracy.

Thus, Athenian democracy is meritocratic.  It is of Pericles’s view that the best men of Athens are the meritocratic individuals.  Irrespective of their class lineage, Pericles argues, Athenian democracy allows for the “best and brightest” (in the words of President John F. Kennedy) to rise to positions of public office.

The nature of Athenian democracy has a “trickle down” effect onto the public character of Athens itself.  “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.  And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other.  We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings.”  This is a very telling few sentences as to how Pericles understands the nature of Athenian democracy.  First, we serve the interest of the state.  Second, the “open society” of Athens is one in which all things seem to be permitted in private – and no one should question or condemn such private actions of his fellow citizens.  He even states that the end of this is to not “hurt people’s feelings.” (Safe spaces much?)  Therefore, third, all actions of the citizenry is theoretically permitted as long as they “keep to the [public] law.”

Athenian liberalism is summarized in this sentence, “We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law.”  This is the nature of freedom and toleration in ancient Athens.  Public order must be retained, otherwise chaos ensues.  Therefore, “we keep to the law” in public as he says.  However, the nature of the freedom that comes from this keeping to the public law is that we have absolute freedom in our private lives.  We can do whatever we want in the private and comfort of our own bodies and homes in other words.

Additionally, Pericles notes that the nature of democratic government is one that favors the poor through compassion.  “We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.”  Through Pericles, Thucydides is foreshadowing modern natural right and law as understood by Rousseau.  In Rousseau’s Discourses on Inequality, Rousseau argues that pity is the natural law.  Pity is the fundamental “unwritten law” which is acknowledged in the moral compass of man and those laws erected by the civil magisterium for the protection of the oppressed.  (It is also noteworthy that Pericles notes that it would be shameful to break the law of pity.)

II: The Open City – Athens as the Ancient “Open Society”

From Athenian pity and the politics of democracy, Pericles extols the subsequent greatness of Athens as the “city [that] is open to the world.”  As he says, Athens does not practice deportation of foreigners.  Instead, it welcomes foreigners and foreign trade into its city.  “Then the greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us, so that to us it seems just as natural to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products…and we have no periodical deportations.”

The open city is the city that engages in universal commerce and trade for the purpose of material enjoyment in life.  If material enjoyment is the end to life, then why should we concern with buying and consuming only the products of our own community and city?  If material enjoyment is the end to life, then it follows that one should open up the city to goods and products from foreign lands so that they could be enjoyed by the citizenry just like locally produced goods are.  The open city is the international city.  It is the cosmopolitan city.  The open city, in the words of Karl Popper, is the “open society.”

Furthermore, Pericles contrasts the nature of Athenian openness in education in comparison to the Spartans.  Whereas Spartan education is militaristic and trains for war (or defense of Sparta), Athenian education is open and prepares young adults to be open and tolerant citizens.  “We pass our lives,” he says, “without all these restrictions, and yet are just as ready to face the same dangers as they are.”  Pericles is saying that Athenian education, which is open and non-restrictive, will win the hearts of its students that in its time of need they will come to her defense just as the Spartans do without the need to have gone through a life of restrictive military training and education.  And reaching back to Book I, in which Athenian ingenuity is extolled in the debate between Athens and Sparta over the declaration of war, Athens doesn’t need to train her citizens in the art of war because they are intellectually superior and capable of in the moment ingenuity and pragmatism that evens the odds.

The openness of Athens is two-fold, as Pericles makes clear.  The first is what was hitherto stated.  The second is so that other peoples can emulate the politics of Athens.  “This is one point in which, I think, our city deserves to be admired,” Pericles says after having explained the nature of Athenian democracy and openness to the world.  Athens, then, is the city upon the hill – to borrow a Biblical phrase – the shining light for the rest of the world to admire and emulate.  In other words, all of Greece should become like Athens.

Although not explicitly stated, the embedded esotericism on the contest between virtues is on display here.  Pericles is arguing that openness, pity, compassion, and kindness are the superior virtues to the closed-society, regimented living, and physical training (for war).  Thus, Pericles is esoterically promoting a form of universalism: Athenian democracy, the politics of pity and compassion, and the politics of openness, should be universal.  All cities and all peoples should be like Athens – and perhaps, if this was the case, then there would be “perpetual peace” to borrow a phrase from Immanuel Kant.

Nevertheless, we can draw implications as to the worldview of Athens.  Since it is interested in trade and material benefits for personal enjoyment, we can say that it has embraced “political hedonism” and political materialism in some manner.  (This is especially true when you read the rest of the History, since Athens has universal imperial ambitions stretching from Asia Minor to Sicily and Carthage.)  At the same time, the implications are that humans are essentially bodily pleasing beings who seek material goods (regardless of where they are from) in order to satiate their desire for bodily pleasure.  This also is hinted at in why one shouldn’t “hurt others’s feelings” about their private life choices.

III: From Pity, Compassion, and Openness to Kindness – the Internationalism of Athens

The extension of the politics of pity, compassion, and openness affects Athenian foreign policy according to Pericles.  “We make friends by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them.”  Pericles is not saying that Athens doesn’t accept kindness from others.  What he is saying is the same from Book I.  Athens is the “benevolent empire” that only ever does good to others because it is the compassionate and open city.  The best way to make friends is to be kind to them, but in order to be kind, it has to be in the DNA of the city.  Otherwise that “kindness” is just self-interested political realism.  (Though we should ask ourselves whether or not Athens is engaged in realism and simply veils it through the language of “tolerance” and “kindness.”)

According to Pericles, Athenian kindness to others is what cements international relations better than anything else.  “This makes our friendship all the more reliable, since we want to keep alive the gratitude of those who are in our debts by showing continued good-will to them.”  Even though cities are now in debt to Athens, Athens continues to bestow good-will and kindness to them.  “We are unique in this,” Pericles says, “[w]hen we do kindess to others, we do not do them out of any calculations of profit or loss.”

This touches on the question of whether we think Athenian foreign kindness is selfishly motivated.  The brilliance of Thucydides is on full display in these few sentences.  Thucydides anticipates that the reader would question whether Athenian kindness is really as kind and compassionate as Pericles claims, and to attempt to answer that question, Pericles says that Athenian kindness is wholly motivated from kindness.  That is why Athens is “unique.”  Athenian exceptionalism, then, is not merely the internal nature of Athens, but it is also what Athens does to others!  In other words, Athens is attempting to lift the rest of the world up to it.  In its goodness and kindness to others, those cities and peoples who have been blessed by Athenian compassion will have a new model to emulate.

And this is why Athens is to be loved.  It is unique and noble.  It is the only democratic government in Greece.  It is the only city that is open to the rest of the world.  It is the only city that keeps the public law but allows people to live freely in their private lives.  It is the only city that trains its next generation in openness, and in that liberality, those students will come to its defense in a manner that is superior and stronger than those trained in the art of war in-of-itself.  In other words, freedom is so precious and infectious, that it calls all of its sons and daughters to defend it in its moments of trial and tribulation.  “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 her great was men with the spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to below a certain standard.”  American readers should be struck by the parallels between Thucydidean Athens and American belief in itself.

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