Pericles’ Funeral Oration: Athenian Exceptionalism Essay

1401 words - 6 pages

The first year of fighting between Athens and Sparta is drawing to a close. As is customary during war, Athens holds a public funeral to both celebrate and mourn their fallen soldiers. Such ceremonies typically featured an oration given by a respected Athenian – with this year’s coming from renowned statesmen Pericles.
Previous orations had focused on celebrating the Athenian military by recounting their trials and accomplishments. Pericles decided to depart from this convention, believing it was no longer novel, nor necessary, “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 ...view middle of the document...

Though he speaks with much more eloquence and superior rhetoric, the content of Pericles’ argument is strikingly similar to that of modern-day American politicians.
Pericles takes time to laud democracy as a form of government. He believes the division of political power equally amongst citizens inevitably leads to laws that benefit the Athenian people as a whole. This in turn increase overall equality, and by extension, social mobility. Such a government is a just government in the eyes of Pericles, and thus, a shining example of Athenian superiority. “[Athens’] administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.” (2.37.1).
Though a democratic government is great in theory, without educated and capable voters it’s potentially inefficient and incompetent. However, Athenian democracy thrives due to an informed public. Accordingly, so does the society it governs. “Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.” (20.40.2)
It is clear – the Athenian political system derives its unique greatness from the people it governs. The aforementioned values of equality, freedom, and justice which the government displays proudly are rooted within the Athenian public and culture. “The freedom which 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, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty.” (2.37.2)
What is even more remarkable about Athenian culture and those within it is that they do not abuse the freedom they possess out of a healthy respect for law. “But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.” (2.37.2-3).
To summarize so far;...

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