Questions to consider while reading:
- What, according to Pericles, distinguishes a democracy from other governmental systems?
- How does the Athenian attitude differ from the Spartan?
- How does the democracy of the United States measure up to the Athenian ideal?
- Would Pericles praise the ‘American Empire’ for having the same qualities as the Athenian Empire?
- What makes a man or woman “worthy of his city” today?
DEFINITION OF THE POLIS
The Athenians, following their annual custom, gave a public funeral for those who had been the first to die in the war. There is a funeral procession in which coffins of cyprus wood are carried on wagons. When the bones have been laid in the the earth, a man chosen by the city for his intellectual gifts and for his general reputation makes an appropriate speech in praise of the dead. This is the procedure at these burials, and all through the war, when the time came to do so, the Athenians followed this ancient custom. Now at the burial of those who were the first to fall in the war, Pericles was chosen to make the speech. When the moment arrived, he came forward from the tomb, and standing on a high platform, so that he might be heard by as many people as possible in the crowd, spoke as follows:
“Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbors. It is more the case of our being a model to others than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitutioin is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of a whole people. 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 a 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 upset with our next door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of dark looks that hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives, but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it demands our respect.
“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 law which it is an acknowledged shame to break.
“And here is another point. When our work is over, we are in a position to enjoy all kinds of recreation for our spirits. There are various kinds of contests and sacrifices regularly throughout the year; in our own homes we find a beauty and good taste which delights us every day and which drive away our cares. Then the greatness of our city bring sit about that all the good things from all over the world flow into us, so that to us it seems just as natural to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products.
“Again in questions of general good feeling, there is a great contrast between us and most other people. We make friends by doing good to others, not be receiving good from them. This makes our friendship all the more reliable, since we want to keep alive the gratitude of those who are in our debt by showing continued goodwill to them. We are unique in this. When we do kindnesses to others, we do not do them out of any calculations of profit or loss. Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece, and I declare that in my opinion each single on of our citizens, in all aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person and do so with exceptional grace and versatility. And to show that this is no empty boasting for the present occasion, but a real fact, you have only to consider the power which our city possesses and which has been won by those very qualities which I have mentioned. Athens, alone of the states we know, proves even greater than the expectations. in her case no subject can complain of being governed by people unfit for their responsibilities. Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of our empire which we have left. Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now. We do not need the praises of a Homer, whose words may delight us but whose grasp of th efacts may fall short of what is true. For our adventurous spirit has brought us into every sea and land — and everywhere we have left behind us everlasting memorials of good done to our friends or suffering inflicted on our enemies.
“This, then, is the kind of city for which these men nobly fought and nobly died. It is only natural that every one of us who survive them should be willing to undergo hardships in her service. And it was for this reason that I have spoken at such length about our city, because I wanted to make it clear that for us there is more at stake than there is for others who lack our advantages. I have sung the praises of the city, but it was the courage and gallantry of these men and of the people like them which made her splendid.
“To me it it seems that the death of these men shows us the meaning of manliness in its most elemental form. Some of them no doubt had their faults, but what we ought to remember first i stheir gallant conduct against the enemy in defense of their native land. They have blotted out evil with good and done more service to the commonwealth than they ever did harm in their private lives. No one of these men weakened because he wanted to go on enjoying his wealth: no one put off his task in the hope that he might live to one day grow rich. As for success or failure, they left that in the doubtful hands of hope, and when the reality of battle was before their faces, they put their trust in their own selves. In the fighting, they thought it more honorable to stand their ground and suffer death than to give in and save their lives. So they moved beyond reproach, and during a small moment of time during the brunt of battle were swept away from us.
“So they were, these men, worthy of their city. We who remain behind may hope to be spared their fate but must resolve to keep the same spirit against the foe. I could tall you long stories about what is to be gained from defeating the enemy. What I prefer is that you fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she really is, and fall in love with her.”