Breaking with our tradition of meeting at the Hops House behind the Museum, the group gathered in the San Antonio Museum of Art auditorium for this evening’s seminar, Tuesday February 6th, to hear one of our participants, Abraham Callahan, offer a reading of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, which is found in Book 2 of the Peloponnesian War.

Summary of 2.35-46:  

Pericles delivered the speech a year after the outbreak of the war, in commemoration of the dead.  Pericles opens his speech with a concern about two different parties of listeners. The first, the fallen’s friend, will feel that the speech will lack in sufficient detail of the fallen to praise him adequately – and would feel the memory of the fallen is wronged. The second group, strangers to the fallen who do not know them personally, will feel envy in hearing praise of someone else. Pericles’ approach, then, is to focus on the city of Athens – instead of the particular fallen men –  and particular the character of Athenian people and life, to which all would look in common. This approach enables him then to turn to the families of those they left behind and everyone else, to invite them to look to the common good they all have a share in, and to appeal to a sense of sacrifice to that commonweal, a source of strength in the struggle they were facing.

Opening Question:

 Following upon last week’s reading, given the important question that has arisen for us in those early groups of speeches – the question about the standards of justice or calculations of expediency – what do we make of Pericles’ speech? Does he seem to advocate either side? 


The first few moments of discussion always begin with a sorting though of our impressions of the reading. This is actually a very useful period in the process of discussion – we have the opportunity settle in and to put into words various impressions, and so begin to organize them. This allows us to connect the conversation to the text, to compare other people’s impressions of the text with their own, and finally help the ’emerging text’ come to light for the conversation.

Many people found themselves reacting strongly to the reading. It is difficult not to be moved by many moments in the speech – and, for some of us, some lines even arouse a certain antipathy.  A highlight of the early stage of discussion was a spontaneous reading of the Gettysburg Address, which someone had brought to the gathering. The Address is short enough, so we asked this person to read it – and subsequently we spent a few moments comparing the two, discussing what sort of things might be appropriate for such occasions as a commemoration and encomium to the fallen war dead.

After we sorted through our impressions of the speech, the conversation began to converge around this paragraph containing the following line:

Unlike any other nation, we regard the citizen who take no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, and we are able to judge proposals  even if we cannot originate them; instead of looking on discussion  as a stumbling block the way of a action  we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. (2.40)

Reflecting together on this curious passage, someone raised the concern about dissent or disagreement.  Would disagreement have been possible against Pericles’ speech? Suppose the truly wise action is not to act at all in a particular situation, namely one that would be unjust?  Some thought that discussion may need to be stumbling-block to action under certain circumstances.

In this context, Socrates might come to mind for those who had participated in the Fall’s Plato seminar. Despite his legendary moment of bravery in war, Socrates avoided public life, and preferred to talk to people in private instead.  According to Pericles’ (or Athens’) standard, one would conclude that Socrates was quite useless.  The resentment aroused by Socrates’ questioning later in his life: was it rooted in this way of thinking about the relationship between action, deliberation and discussion? Does Pericles’ standpoint oppose philosophy as Socrates lived it?  

Returning to the opening question, Pericles says moments later:  

 It is only the Athenians who, fearless of the consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency but in the confidence of liberality (2.40)

What we find curious here is that Pericles does not oppose justice to calculations of expediency, but liberality or freedom as the alternative.  How does he understand freedom?

Penetrating further down along these lines:

Take these as your model, judging happiness to the the fruit of freedom, and freedom of valor, never decline the dangers of war. (2.43)

In Pericle’s understanding, freedom, or liberality, as we see it here, is not rooted in justice, nor even law, but valor.

What, then, is valor, in Pericles’ understanding – that it should be the root of both freedom and human happiness – and seem to stand apart from justice?

Pericles does not appear to agree with the Corinthian view that the Athenians are coldly calculating in favor of self-interest and expediency. He seems, rather, to pose an alternative, which, as we have seen, looks easily distinguishable from a standard of virtue, nobility and justice.  It is this alternative we have to try to understand, as well as to see how it stands up to the test of experience Thucydides exhibits in his work. 

Next week: The Melian Dialogue 5.84-116




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