A Lesson from Pericles

One of the most famous speeches of all time, Pericles’s Funeral Oration, gave rise to many of the ideals held dear by our founding fathers.  Later, it inspired portions of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Students world over study it’s text today.  But it seems that in our pop-political celebrity-statesman culture the consideration of pure governance is lost.  We no longer have discourse, we have sound bites.

Pericles's Funeral Oration

I’m no fan of overt sophistry.  Especially when the truth is clear and simple.  But sometimes it takes a sophist to delve deep enough to convey a weighty message through simple words.  Take the Athenian perspective on immigration and foreign policy, for example:

We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality…

Can you imagine?  What advances in science and knowledge could we expect if all nations had this perspective?  The Athenians were convinced that not only was this the proper course of action, despite it’s risks, they expected to benefit greatly from their openness:

…advancement in public life falls to reputations for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit…our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters…at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.

Athens had it’s issues.  But their vision was edenic.  That is what I call hope.  Just something to think about this week :)

My favorite translation of Thucydides’ faithful (more or less) recollection of the oration:

Pericles’s Funeral Oration (Jowett).

2 responses to “A Lesson from Pericles

  1. Everyone always likes to draw parallels between the US and the Roman Empire (of course, that’s been the de facto parallel applied to every subsequent empire, but hey) – but I’ve long believed the Athenian Empire, Delian League, call it what you will, is the far more apt comparison.

    In addition to the whole democracy thing, you also had an empire not of held territory and provinces, but of cultural and economic influence, enforced by naval supremacy.

    Let’s hope we can live closer to this ideal than to the aftermath of Arginusae…

    • Well put sir. I think we can learn a lot from the ancients, but maybe one thing that we should try that is meta-Roman is the implementation of an electoral college made up of a demographically representative sample of citizens. Citizens who are responsible for electing our officials, picked at random and required to learn the issues, then vote on behalf of what they believe best represents their interests. Stops election fundraising, ads, public debates, and ensures an informed electorate. Seems radical, yes, but considering how many people base their decisions on a candidate’s haircut, I’m all for it.

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