Pericles Funeral Oration Compared T. The Metaphysical Environment of Athens Term Paper

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Athenian Democracy in Ancient Greece -- Pericles' Funeral Oration during the Peloponnesian War

One of the great symbols of Athens, a symbol that is popular even in the Greece of today, is the olive tree. The olive tree is a hardy plant, both useful and humble. The tree is also the source of bounty and richness, even in the midst of difficulties. Olive trees have been burned during wartime, chopped up for kindling, and even attacked by insects as Mother Nature turns against these plants. Still, the trees as a species have always been able to survive in the harsh environment of Attica, even if they lose some of their mighty numbers.

Likewise, the fragile democracy of Athens, rooted in a harsh climate and beset on all sides by both foreign powers (called barbarians by the Greeks) and the constant threat of inter-state warfare poised by the other Greek states, was a seemingly impossible ideal that managed to flourish, against all odds. Athens, Pericles stated in his famous funeral oration, Athens stood as a beacon of democracy, and even though many Greeks had died, and would die, fighting for this ideal, the ideal would still live on, even if some were lost to the war. Unfortunately, of course, Athens lost this war to Sparta -- however, Pericles sentiments reminds a modern reader that until the Peloponnesian War began to bring the classical era to a close, Athens offered a unique system of government and view of the human (male) person that still informs our democracy today.

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Pericles' funeral oration stands as one of the most memorable rhetorical tribute to Athenian democratic ideals still extant today. The general confirms to his audience that he knows how the physical and metaphysical environment has taxed the wills of those still living in Attica. Ordinary Athenians were suffering Spartan onslaughts, the loss of loved ones, and the threat of disease. Still, Pericles said that the strongest beliefs ideals and people would survive, against all apparent odds, because of the personal investiture in democracy all of the people of Athens possessed, in contrast to a totalitarian regime, where individuals fought only for the glory of a king.

TOPIC: Term Paper on Pericles Funeral Oration Compared T. The Metaphysical Environment of Athens Assignment

The book The World of Athens: an Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture begins with the Persian Wars, a time when Greece fought as one against a rival power that had oppressed it for many years. (62) These wars were crucial in Athenian self-definition, as free Greeks fought against the tyrants. Pericles himself refers to the military exploits and the energy with which the Greeks drove back the barbarians, a long and familiar tale, in his preamble to his funeral oration to the dead Peloponnesian War's Athenian casualties. (56) After the Persian War's unity, the Greek city-states began to separate culturally, even more than before. The rocky, mountainous divisions in the land made travel difficult between different city-states and created the differences in political systems that became so marked during the 5th century B.C.E. (63)

Athenian democracy, Pericles stated, in contrast to Sparta, did not strive to copy the government of its neighbors, nor quake in fear of barbarian or Greek tyranny, but instead strove to shine as a moral and political an example to these other political systems. Athens was a democracy because the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few, and people had choice how to live their lives. (56) Athens was an open system of government, and Pericles stated that such self-governance made its military superior to that of Athens' adversaries, even to Sparta's highly secretive society of military discipline and oligarchy, because such a life of service was compulsory, rather than chosen as in Athens.

Athens also had the courage, Pericles stated, to learn from other peoples and ways of life. He praised his city for its desire to be intellectually open to the world's ideas, and proud of its accomplishments, yet never quick to cast out another Greek or foreign visitor for fear that he might see or learn something secret about the land. This was, of course, common practice in Sparta, who feared that their enemies might learn something valuable. Pericles uses this as another example of what Sparta might consider foolish or overly open behavior was actually a sign of Athenian confidence and strength. (57)

In the structure of his speech, Pericles first begins by speaking about the Athenians' ancestors, both the Athenian's dim and distant ones and the immediately preceding generation who had given their lives for the city, and the spirit of Athens, which did not seek out war, although it did not shirk from fighting. Alone, Pericles states that Athenians strove to do good to its neighbors not upon what he calls a "a calculation of interest," but in the confidence of freedom and in a frank and fearless spirit. He eulogizes the state as a whole, and praises the parents of the dead soldiers who have given their lives for Athens. (193; 56-61)

Next, Pericles shifts his focus to the character of the men who died. He states that the dead men, despite being ordinary men, were not mercenaries spurred on by wealth, or blind military soldiers eager to die in battle like the ideal Spartans praised their warriors for emulating, rather these men, though "none of them put off the evil day in the hope, natural to poverty, that a man, though poor, may one day become rich. But, deeming that the punishment of their enemies was sweeter than any of these things, and that they could fall in no nobler cause, they determined at the hazard of their lives to be honorably avenged, and to leave the rest." (56-61) Democracy and the 'Athenian way' in other words, was worth fighting for, unlike other ways of government in Greece, and it was worth dying for, even in the hearts of men who were not at the highest economic echelons of Athenian society.

Thus Pericles also mourns the ordinariness of the men who died as well as their glory. He openly admits that some of them were poor. Also, Athenian society, unlike Spartan society, never encouraged its men to constantly prepare for battle, thus making an ideal out of war. Pericles says such constant readiness for the worst fate a man can face is foolish because then soldiers, when the real test comes, are not fresh for combat. Athenians live in a pure, democratic, and good society that is open to all, and ruled by the many, regardless of birth, rather than the few, who enjoy their lives of liberty in peace, and fight to the death when that liberty is threatened. When the ordinary men of Athens are called to fight they are like boys Solon speaks of in another context that yoke themselves to a cart to take their mother to town, and then die, showing a willingness in Hellenic society to necessity of shouldering burdens, without being overly zealous for combat, or to give up one's life unless it is necessary.

In some ways, Pericles, own political career stands as testimony to Athenian ideals. For example, owed this leader influence with the common people in large part to his oratorical skills, and his ability to speak persuasively to the masses, rather than his high birth or even his considerable skills as a general. (205) He was admired, although it should be remembered it is "quite wrong to regard Pericles as the uncrowned king of Athens. On the other hand, he did exercise extraordinary and almost unparalleled ascendancy over the" government and the administration of the war. But he did so as a result of his persuasive abilities, not because he was able to harness more political power than others. (211)

Athenian government is thus equated with the Athenian… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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