Pericles’ Funeral Oration was recorded, in an edited version, by Thucydides in book two of his History of the Peloponnesian War. The speech was delivered at the end of the first year of the war with Sparta – around 430 BC. It was an Athenian custom of the time to hold an annual commemorative event to honor those who had fallen in battle during the previous year. A paragraph from it is below.
Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.
Note that the great statesman refers to the Athenian democracy. It was a democracy which excluded women from the franchise and which contained thousands of slaves. Thus, by the standard that now prevails we should immediately set out to destroy what remains of the Parthenon, paint over The School of Athens, and purge our museums of all classical antiquities. But also consider that you are reading words that have endured for two and a half millennia. Where will Critical Race Theory and Modern Monetary Theory along with the rest of the cultural graffiti that deface our public spaces be in the 46th century? Pericles assertion that equal justice is applied to all while advancement to positions of authority is the reward of merit would be met with howls of offended derision by today’s arbiters of fashion and education, if any of them bothered to read the ancient text.
Pericles compounds the outrage by asserting that poverty is not an obstacle to a successful life. And even worse, he claims that there are laws both written and unwritten that are respected by the virtuous and enforced on transgressors. Here he anticipates Hayek by 24 centuries when he notes the importance of rules of behavior that fasten the ties of society though not explicitly stated.
There are fools in very epoch. Athens was littered with them as are we today. Aristophanes never lacked for material based on daily Athenian life. Politicians were as feckless then as now. Athens built a mighty empire in less than the span of a single life and as rapidly lost it as the consequence of a foolish war poorly executed. Their artistic triumphs outlasted their brief political dominance. Aristophanes’ best material was aimed at politicians and philosophers. Even Socrates was not spared. In The Clouds he was caricatured as as a petty thief, a fraud and a sophist with a specious interest in physical speculations.
Were the playwright around today he would be inundated with a surfeit of material. Our clerisy, being the product of a crippled education, is terrified of imminent extinction from either evil spirits or malign physical forces set in motion by inadequate propitiation to the gods. Language has them in the toils of Medusa’s hairdresser. Their understanding of economics is beneath that of a toddler. They hate the country to which they have nominally sworn allegiance. Everywhere they glance is deadly wind, rain, fire, and plague. Their solutions to both the real and persistent problems of mankind as well as the ones they have invented or exaggerated requires magical expiation.
Craziness is never gone; it may be subdued for a while, but it always returns like a locust cycle. The current version is at the mania level. It’s entirely Marxist – Groucho, not Karl though he’s also in the mix. It’s the Groucho of, “Who are you going to believe? Me or your own eyes.” Elite opinion posits views so lunatic that refutation is not the remedy; commitment to a mental institution would be a solution were the loonies not in charge of them. The same mental derelicts run the academy, the media, and what’s laughably termed higher education. They’re also having a go at K through 12. While hallucinatory mentation is everywhere it seems most virulent in the English speaking parts of the globe. Why the language of Shakespeare, Milton, and the bible has become the tongue of the confused, demented, and authoritarian is a mystery worthy of the Sanctuary of Eleusis.
Pericles’ depiction of rights, responsibilities, and duties has lasted through the centuries because it conforms to the verities of human behavior. That it was the product of a flawed society in no way diminishes its value. All human societies are flawed. Imperfect execution does not stain the always out of reach ideal. Father Time, The Invincible, will soon put a stop to the insomniac nonsense that offends repose. The complete text of Pericles’ speech is below.