Pericles Speech

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We Have More to Lose Than They Do

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book II.37-46

[37] In Athens, our institutions of government do not follow an example first established somewhere else. Our system is a model for others to follow. It’s a democracy, with political power entrusted to the many rather than a privileged few. In Athens, everyone is equal before the law, and we elect office holders on the basis of merit rather than social class. If a citizen has it in him to serve in high office, coming from a poor family will not bar his way to the top. Connections in high places are not a prerequisite.

The principle of openness to everyone extends to our private lives too. We allow our next-door neighbor to live as he chooses, Pericles-sp-1 (1)and we don’t try to pressure him with disapproving looks. But take note of this: while we are free and open-minded about choices in private life, we are strict about obedience to the law and to lawful authorities. The right of our elected government to rule is something we hold in awe. The laws to protect the downtrodden command our particular respect, as do the unwritten laws of universal humanity, which bring disgrace to a community that allows them to be broken.

[38] The spirit that makes Athens a great city brings benefits to our lives at home and our leisure time. Athenians enjoy games and festivals throughout the year. Our homes are filled with elegant goods and furnishings that entertain and comfort us. It is because Athens is a great city that products from all over the world are available here, along with the things we make and grow ourselves.

[39] Even in military affairs, the Athenian way has its advantages. Our city is open to the world. We don’t expel foreigners, as others do from time to time, fearing they might see something that could give them an advantage in the event of war. We believe that free people — without the need for secret schemes or hidden preparations for war — will rise to the occasion when they are called to defend their freedom. The Spartans rely on harsh training from childhood to instill courage, but experience shows we have as much courage in battle as they do. And here is proof. When the Spartans invade our land, they bring allies. When we have invaded theirs, it has not been so hard for us to overcome their defenders, even though they were fighting for hearth and home. Rather than bringing allies, we divide our forces between a navy and our infantry, which are often sent away on separate missions. No enemy has yet faced all of our forces together. When fortunes of war go against us, the enemy is quick to claim they defeated the power of Athens in a battle. And when they lose, they say it was because they faced our entire military might. In the end, what matters is this: if Athenians living in freedom have what it takes to defend our city, then that is another point for our way of life — which does not call for citizens to toil and train constantly against dangers that are only imagined. If we prove as brave as anyone else when real danger appears, there is all the more reason to praise the way we live and govern ourselves in Athens.

[40] It is part of our culture in Athens to love beauty, but we do not wallow in extravagance. We love knowledge and scholarship, but that has not made us soft. Pericles-sp-2We look at wealth as a means to action rather than as something to show off. There is no shame in admitting you have no money. The only shame is doing nothing to better yourself. Athenians are interested in business but also in public affairs. Even those who devote themselves day and night to business are well-informed about issues of concern to the state, because in Athens a citizen who has nothing to contribute to our democracy is regarded as useless. We believe in civic debate. For us, debate is not a delay to action but a source of clarity and resolve. Others may say they are men of action, being bold out of ignorance. These types become less courageous when they learn about the perils involved. Real courage means taking risks with a full understanding of the dangers and rewards at stake.

Athens gains friends by doing favors in a spirit of generosity, which is exceptional among city-states. This policy works just as it does among individuals. Someone who does you a favor because of the benefit that will come to you is a solid friend, one who desires a feeling of good will between the two of you. In contrast, someone who does you a favor because of a sense of obligation will be less energetic about wishing you to prosper. He is merely paying a debt and hopes to pay no more than he must. Athens is unique in doing favors in a noble-minded way, without calculating the advantage to ourselves. We are confident that the results of a good turn will be good.

[41] I say that Athens is a model for all of Greece, and in any typical Athenian you can see the self-confidence and openness that make us equal to any challenge. Pericles-sp-3This not just boastful talk on a patriotic holiday. The greatness that is in Athenians is on display in the greatness of our city. Among the cities of Greece, ours is the one that rises above and beyond her reputation when put to the test. No enemy defeated in battle by Athens complains they lost to an inferior foe. No territory under Athens’ power can say it is subject to a people unworthy to govern. People in the future will marvel, as they do today, at our accomplishments and the monuments we’ve built. Because of these, we won’t need a Homer to celebrate our glory. Though poetry delights us with impressions of things imagined, it cannot encompass all the facts of magnificent achievement set here before your eyes. We have made every sea and every land open its doors to our daring, and we’ve left lasting evidence of our favor to friends and destruction to our enemies. This Athens before you is the city our fallen soldiers gave their lives for. It is only right that everyone here should accept hardship with a willing heart in the same cause.

[42] My reason for going on so long on this subject, cataloging the virtues of our city, was to show you proofs of the good our soldiers died for — and to show you we have more at stake in this war than the enemy does. I have already laid before you the greatest praise that I can offer in memory of the heroes we honor today. The glory of the sacrifice they made — they and others before them — lives on in the glory of Athens itself. Not many of us are so fortunate as to have our reputations matched so fairly to our deeds.

The death these men met is proof enough of their courage, no matter whether it was their first test in battle or the culmination of long military service. And whatever faults they may have had in their personal lives, it is only right that their valor in service to their country should outshine anything else. They blotted out evil with good and gave more of benefit to the world than they ever did harm. These men did not try to avoid military service when their country called — either for the sake of remaining in a comfortable life or pursuing a poor man’s dream of one more chance at striking it rich. It meant more to them to stand and face their country’s enemy. They understood this choice might lead to the kind of honor we pay them today. They entrusted their fortunes to hope and marched into the action unfolding before their eyes, confident in themselves as Athenians. And when the fatal hour arrived, they thought it better to fight to the end than surrender. They didn’t run away, except from the stain of dishonor. In this way, at a high point that forever defined their lives, they died.

[43] This was how these heroes rose to the occasion of war, finding a greatness in themselves to match the greatness of their country. And all of you who have gathered here today to honor them, you must resolve to draw that same spirit up within yourselves, even while you too hope, as nature requires, that you may survive this war. Pericles-sp-4To feel their courage in yourself, you must look beyond the speeches we make on patriotic holidays, for such speeches tend to rattle on a long time, and you already know the words as well as the speaker does. Instead, you should make it a point to look upon our Athens every day, and love her, seeing that everything good about our way of life has come to us through the courage of citizens who knew their duty. When these soldiers were called to serve, they acted from a high sense of honor, vowing they would not fail their country, whatever their failures may have been before, and they freely offered the noblest sacrifice that was in their power to give. They committed their lives to our country and so earned a fame that is never dimmed but always preserved. Theirs is a monument seen far beyond the marble walls of the sepulcher that houses their bones. That monument is remembrance, which people return to humbly whenever they think on great deeds. The whole world is the sepulcher for heroes, whose names are written in the hearts of all who love honor, within and beyond the borders of a hero’s own country.

Make these fallen soldiers your examples. Know in your own mind that happiness depends on freedom and freedom depends on courage. Pericles-sp-5Put fear aside, as they did, knowing this simple truth: it is not the wretch with nothing to lose but rather the man with all the advantages who has the most reason to put his life on the line. You, the free citizens of Athens, are the ones for whom defeat in this war would mean disaster. And for those who love honor, the humiliation of cowardice would make life afterward too bitter to endure. Death comes to the brave without their knowing it, while they stand with others for the good of their country.

[44] These Athenians met an honorable end, so I will not say to their parents that their loss is to be regretted. Rather I will try to offer comfort. These parents know well enough that the incidents of life are subject to luck and fate. It is in truth a kind of good luck when the moment of a person’s death coincides with their high point of accomplishment and honor, though it leaves their survivors bereft. It is hard for parents to look at it this way, all the more so when they see others who continue to enjoy the blessings that once were theirs. It is not for things we never had that we grieve. We feel grief when something precious that was rightfully ours is taken away. To fill the emptiness, there is one remedy. I’ll speak plainly. The remedy is to have more children, if you are still young enough to do so. Children will erase the pain you feel today, and it will replenish the loss that the city has suffered too. Having children will return you to your place as citizens in the life of Athens — because equality and fairness in a democracy can only exist if all our citizens have the lives of children at stake.

For those who are too old to have more children, there is the consolation of having lived most of your life in possession of its joys, with a lesser time ahead to bear with your loss, comforted by the reputation and respect earned by a soldier’s death. In old age, as our struggles near their end, the greatest satisfactions come not from wealth but from the high regard of those around us.

[45] For those who are not parents but brothers and sons, I admit the road ahead of you will be harder than before. People speak respectfully of the dead, and no matter what kind of success you may achieve, there will be detractors, speaking out of envy, who will say your deeds fell a little short.

To wives, sisters, and daughters, I will give just one bit of advice. There is a glory as well in widowhood, so long as you maintain the reserve and modesty that bespeaks womanly virtue. The woman who provokes the least comment by others will deserve her share in a hero’s reputation.

[46] I come now to the end of my speech, having offered words to accompany the ceremonial actions that honor the dead, as required by our laws and customs. As to the children of these fallen soldiers, the city will provide for their upbringing as a highest form of reward, like a garland, for it is in the character of a great city to offer the most generous acknowledgment of service. It is time now for you to pay your respects individually. When you have finished, depart.

Pericles Questions:

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