Saturday, February 4, 2012

I Survived The Peloponnesian War

Thucydides (460 BC – 395 BC) was a Greek historian whose greatest work, The History of the Peloponnesian War, described the conflict between Athens and Sparta to the year 411 BC.

The History of the Peloponnesian War is more than just a record of military buildup and engagement. The Perisan War (499 BC – 449 BC), recounted by Herodotus, ushered in the brief full flowering of culture and society in Athens. That golden period ended with the prolonged Peloponnesian War, and Sparta’s eventual supremacy over Athens.

The most obvious and interesting device employed by Thucydides is the inclusion of long formal speeches, literary reconstructions of pivotal events in the war. In point-counterpoint format, opposing sides made their cases, which were often decided by a popular vote among those who had heard the orations. Democracy, in all its fallibility, set the course of history in regards to mutual defense pacts and similar decisions facing the competing parties of the Hellenic realm.

Pericles' Funeral Oration

The best known of these speeches is the funeral oration of Pericles. It was customary for an Athenian leader to deliver such an address at ceremonies held for the war dead. Some scholars call this oration, as presented by Thucydides, a eulogy for Athens as well.

Pericles celebrated the great achievements of Athens, and set the context for the empire that Athens had built (and would soon lose). Some words from Perciles, via Thucydides:

"That part of our history which tells of the military achievements which gave us our several possessions, or of the ready valor with which either we or our fathers stemmed the tide of Hellenic or foreign aggression, is a theme too familiar to my hearers for me to dwell upon, and I shall therefore pass it by. [Instead, Perciles would focus on] the road by which we reached our position, the form of government under which our greatness grew, and the national habits out of which it sprang.”

Pericles was among the early to so clearly articulate the ideal of “equal justice under law” – a phrase now displayed over the entrance to the US Supreme Court.

"If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences...if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes..."

"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..."

"...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 Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger."

"In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas; while I doubt if the world can produce a man, who where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility as the Athenian."

"...for the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her...none of these men allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger. No, holding that vengeance upon their enemies was more to be desired than any personal blessings, and reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk... Thus, choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonor..."

"Therefore, having judged that to be happy means to be free, and to be free means to be brave, do not shy away from the risks of war.”

Civil War historian Garry Wills has noted parallels between the funeral oration of Perciles, and the Gettysburg Address of Abraham Lincoln:

Lincoln's speech, like Pericles', begins with an acknowledgment of revered predecessors: "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent..."; Lincoln, like Pericles, then praises the uniqueness of the State's commitment to democracy: "..a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal...government of the people, by the people, and for the people..."; Lincoln, like Pericles, addresses the difficulties faced by a speaker on such an occasion, "...we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground"; Lincoln, like Pericles, exhorts the survivors to emulate the deeds of the dead, "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the great task remaining before us"; and finally, Lincoln, like Pericles, contrasts the efficacy of words and deeds, "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract...The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." It is uncertain to what degree Lincoln was directly influenced by Pericles' Funeral Oration. Wills never claims that Lincoln drew on it as a source, though Edward Everett, who delivered a lengthy oration at the same ceremony at Gettysburg, began by describing the "Athenian example".

Now that I have started reading Plato, and The Republic in particular, I see how Thucydides is a good lead-in to Plato's portrayals of Socrates engaged in dialogues on the challenges and ingredients of successful self-governance.

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