Created 1998-01-22; Modified 1998-01-22
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One of the founding moments of world civilization. From Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War


Pericles: The Funeral Oration

Most of my predecessors have praised him who made the law mandating this funeral oration, telling us that it is good that this be delivered at the burial of those who fell. But I should have thought that the worth had displayed itself in deeds should be rewarded and honored by deeds such as this public funeral. I would have wished that the reputations of brave men were not placed into peril at the mouth of a single individual, to stand or fall according as he spoke well or ill.

For it is hard to speak properly where it is difficult to convince your hearers that you are speaking truth. On the one hand, the friend who is familiar with every fact may think that some point has not been set forth with the fullness it deserves; on the other, he who is a stranger may be led by envy to suspect exaggeration if he hears about anything higher than his own nature. Men can endure the praise of others only as long as they can persuade themselves that they could have equalled the actions praised: after this point comes envy, and with it incredulity.

However, since our ancestors have stamped this custom with their approval, it is my duty to obey the law and to try to satisfy your wishes and opinions as best I can.

I shall begin with our ancestors: it is just and proper that they should be honored by the first mention on this occasion. They dwelt in this country uninterrupted from generation to generation. They handed it down free to us today by their valor.

If our more remote ancestors deserve praise, much more so do our own fathers, who added to their inheritance the empire we now possess and who spared no pains to leave their acquisitions to us. Last, few parts of our dominion have not been augmented by those of us still vigorous and alive. And we have furnished our mother country everything necessary for her to depend on her own resources for war or for peace.

The history of our victories which gave us our dominion and of the bravery with which we and our fathers stemmed Hellenic or foreign aggression is a theme too familiar to my hearers, so I shall pass it by. But by what road did we reach our high position? Under what constitution did our greatness grow? Out of which national habits did it spring? These are questions which I may try to answer before I proceed to to praise those who fell because this is a subject proper for the present occasion and to which all, whether citizens or foreigners, may listen with advantage.

Our constitution does not copy our neighbors. We are instead a pattern to others. Our administration favours the many instead of the few: this is why it is called "democracy." Our laws afford equal justice to all. Advancement in public life follows from a reputation for capacity rather than social standing. Social class is not allowed to interfere with merit. Nor does poverty bar the way: a man able to serve the state is not hobbled by obscurity.

The freedom we enjoy in our government extends also to ordinary life. Far from exercising jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbors for doing what they like--or even to indulge in offensive and injurious looks which inflict no positive penalty. But this tolerance in our private life does not make us lawless citizens. Fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws--particularly those that protect the injured--whether they are on the statute book or belong to that code of unwritten laws that cannot be broken without disgrace.

Further, we provide means for the mind to refresh itself. We celebrate games and sacrifices year round. The elegance of our private establishments is a daily source of pleasure, and helps to banish the spleen. The magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbor: to the Athenians the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as the fruits of our own land.

In our military policy there too we are different from our antagonists. We open our city to the world. We never exclude foreigners from learning or observing, even though the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality. We trust less in system and policy than in the native spirit of our citizens. In education--where our rivals from their very cradles seek "manliness" by painful discipline--here at Athens we live as we please, and yet are just as ready as our antagonists to encounter every danger.

In proof of this note that the Lacedaemonians do not invade our country alone but bring with them all their allies. By contrast, we Athenians advance unsupported into enemy territory and--fighting upon foreign soil--usually vanquish with ease those who are defending their homes. Our united force has never yet been encountered by any enemy, for we have to man our ships and dispatch our citizens by land upon a hundred different expeditions. Whenever an enemy engages some fraction of our strength, a success against a mere detachment is magnified into a victory over our whole nation, and a defeat by a small detachment into a reverse suffered at the hands of our entire people.

Yet with habits not of labor but of ease, and with courage not artificial but natural, we are still willing to encounter danger. We have the double advantage of escaping hardships in anticipation of danger, and yet of facing hardships in the hour of need as fearlessly as those always suffer them.

Nor are these the only points to admire in our city. We cultivate refinement without extravagance. We cultivate knowledge without effeminacy. We employ wealth for use, not for show. We place the real disgrace not in the fact of poverty but in the declining of the struggle against it.

Our public men have their private affairs to attend to in addition to politics. Our ordinary citizens--occupied with the pursuits of industry--are still good judges of public matters. Unlike any other nation, we regard those who take no part in these public duties not as lacking ambition but as useless. We Athenians are able to judge even if we cannot originate. Instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think debate an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.

Thus in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons. The prize of courage goes most justly to those who know best both hardship and pleasure, and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger. In generosity we are equally singular: we acquire our friends by conferring, not by receiving, favors.

Yet, of course, the doer of the favor is the firmer friend of the two, hoping by continued kindness to keep the recipient in his debt. By contrast the debtor feels that the return he makes will be a payment, not a free gift. Only the Athenians, fearless of consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency but in the confidence of liberality.

In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas. I doubt if the rest of 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. That this is no mere boast made in occasion but a plain matter of fact is proven by the power our state has acquired. Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation. Athens alone gives her assailants no excuse to be ashamed by whom they have been dfeated, and gives her subjects no excuse to question the merit of her title to rule.

Rather, the present and succeeding ages will admire us, for we have shown our power by mighty proofs. Far from needing a Homer to praise us--or some other whose poems charm for the moment only and melt at the touch of fact--we have forced every sea and land to be the scene of our great deeds. Everywhere, whether for evil or for good, we have left imperishable monuments behind.

Such is the Athens for which these men, resolved not to lose her, nobly fought and died. May every one of their survivors be ready to suffer so in her cause.

If I have dwelt at length upon our character of our country, it is to show that what we have at stake in this struggle is not the same as those who have no such blessings to lose. It is to show that the praise of these men is testified by definite proofs. That praise is now largely complete, for the Athens that I celebrate is only what their heroism--and the heroism of those like them--have made of her. These men's fame is equal to their deserts. And if a test of their worth is needed, it found in their closing scene, and this not only in cases in which it set the final seal upon their merit, but also in those in which it gave the first intimation of their having any.

For there is justice in the claim that steadfastness in his country's battles should be as a cloak to cover a man's other imperfections; since the good action has blotted out the bad, and his merit as a citizen more than outweighed his demerits as an individual. But none of these 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, to make sure of their vengeance, and to let their wishes wait; and while committing to hope the uncertainty of final success, in the business before them they thought fit to act boldly and trust in themselves. Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonour, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, escaped, not from their fear, but from their glory.

So died these men as became Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier issue. And not contented with ideas derived only from words of the advantages which are bound up with the defence of your country, though these would furnish a valuable text to a speaker even before an audience so alive to them as the present, you must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then, when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honour in action that men were enabled to win all this, and that no personal failure in an enterprise could make them consent to deprive their country of their valour, but they laid it at her feet as the most glorious contribution that they could offer. For this offering of their lives made in common by them all they each of them individually received that renown which never grows old, and for a sepulchre, not so much that in which their bones have been deposited, but that noblest of shrines wherein their glory is laid up to be eternally remembered upon every occasion on which deed or story shall call for its commemoration. For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart. These take as your model and, judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valour, never decline the dangers of war. For it is not the miserable that would most justly be unsparing of their lives; these have nothing to hope for: it is rather they to whom continued life may bring reverses as yet unknown, and to whom a fall, if it came, would be most tremendous in its consequences. And surely, to a man of spirit, the degradation of cowardice must be immeasurably more grievous than the unfelt death which strikes him in the midst of his strength and patriotism!

Comfort, therefore, not condolence, is what I have to offer to the parents of the dead who may be here. Numberless are the chances to which, as they know, the life of man is subject; but fortunate indeed are they who draw for their lot a death so glorious as that which has caused your mourning, and to whom life has been so exactly measured as to terminate in the happiness in which it has been passed. Still I know that this is a hard saying, especially when those are in question of whom you will constantly be reminded by seeing in the homes of others blessings of which once you also boasted: for grief is felt not so much for the want of what we have never known, as for the loss of that to which we have been long accustomed. Yet you who are still of an age to beget children must bear up in the hope of having others in their stead; not only will they help you to forget those whom you have lost, but will be to the state at once a reinforcement and a security; for never can a fair or just policy be expected of the citizen who does not, like his fellows, bring to the decision the interests and apprehensions of a father. While those of you who have passed your prime must congratulate yourselves with the thought that the best part of your life was fortunate, and that the brief span that remains will be cheered by the fame of the departed. For it is only the love of honour that never grows old; and honour it is, not gain, as some would have it, that rejoices the heart of age and helplessness.

Turning to the sons or brothers of the dead, I see an arduous struggle before you. When a man is gone, all are wont to praise him, and should your merit be ever so transcendent, you will still find it difficult not merely to overtake, but even to approach their renown. The living have envy to contend with, while those who are no longer in our path are honoured with a goodwill into which rivalry does not enter. On the other hand, if I must say anything on the subject of female excellence to those of you who will now be in widowhood, it will be all comprised in this brief exhortation. Great will be your glory in not falling short of your natural character; and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among the men, whether for good or for bad.

My task is now finished. I have performed it to the best of my ability, and in word, at least, the requirements of the law are now satisfied. If deeds be in question, those who are here interred have received part of their honours already, and for the rest, their children will be brought up till manhood at the public expense: the state thus offers a valuable prize, as the garland of victory in this race of valour, for the reward both of those who have fallen and their survivors. And where the rewards for merit are greatest, there are found the best citizens.

And now that you have brought to a close your lamentations for your relatives, you may depart.