Analysis of Pericles: Funeral Oration
Though the exact words of Pericles' famous and influential Funeral Oration during the Autumn of 430 B.C are unknown, it's purpose, meaning, and eloquence was captured by his good friend Thucydides. Speeches such as Pericles' were traditionally given annually to honor the many who fell during Athens' many wars and campaigns against other countries. Though many Athenians were training in public speaking and oration, it must be emphasized that Pericles' speech held a great degree of weight given the current war against the Peloponnesians and Pericles' status as General (and henceforth leader during wartime) of the City-State of Athens.
Before reading Pericles' speech, it is crucial that one understands who Pericles was, and what he meant to Athens. Athenian statesmen were extremely well educated in all fields, no matter what position they held in the city, meaning that though he was serving in the military as a general, Pericles was well versed and educated in politics, societal matters, arts, drama, and culture. Though such a broad education was common amongst Athenian men, Pericles was said to excel compared to most such that Thucydides referred to him as “The first citizen of Athens.”
Defining accomplishments in Pericles' career as a Statesman include ostracizing (exiling) rich political opponent Cimon and eventually winning him over, ruling Athens for thirty years, gathering the funds to beautify the Acropolis and Parthenon, and of course the monumental speech about to be analyzed. The speech was his last great work, as shortly afterward he lost his power, served in the military, and died of both depression at seeing his sons and wife perish, and the plague.
Pericles had two lovers in his time, the first's name is unknown, but it is known that he divorced her and offered her to another man. During their time together they had two sons named Paralus and Xanthippus, both of whom died of the plague shortly before Pericles did. It is known, however, that the second was named Aspasia of Miletus. He took her to live with him as a mistress though they were never formally married, a decision which damaged Pericles' reputation greatly given his support of a law which deemed that children without two Athenian parents could not be granted citizenship in Athens. Towards the end of his life he had this law changed for the sake of his third and final son (with Aspasia), Pericles the Younger.
The Funeral Oration was an annual event given to commemorate all of those who had died throughout the year in service of the Athenian military. Though not included with Thucydides' translation of Pericles' particular speech, a list of all the fallen was usually recited as a part of the speech, and the bodies of the fallen were cleaned and put on display around a massive memorial to fallen Athenians before burial. Though usually a mournful or lamenting speech, Pericles broke the mold and attempted to use the speech to win the good graces of the people by promoting his personal values and those of Athenian society, tucked in between his memorial of the soldiers and degradation of his enemies. The move worked, after Pericles lost his power he was reinstated as commander of the military for a year before death.
Pericles' Funeral Oration can be compared to several more modern speeches, most notably Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Both of them heavily promote a sense of nationalism in the surviving listeners, both commend the brave sacrifices of soldiers living and dead, and both invoke a deep sense of sorrow while simultaneously setting up feelings of national pride and faith in the societies and audiences they were meant for. Though the speeches are not outlined in the same way, they have much in common and it's very possible that Pericles was an inspiration for Lincoln.
Before actually critiquing the speech, it must be noted that crediting Pericles himself with any actual figures of speech seems unfair as the best “translations” we have actually interpretations of the speech derived from the memory of Thucydides, written in such a way that the main points were all communicated, and finally translated into English several times by separate linguists. Though strong themes and meanings concerning the building of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos (which will be the main focus of this critique) can likely be attributed to Pericles, instances of eloquence and enchanting wordplay likely fall to Thucydides. This isn't to say that Pericles was not capable of wordplay as an accomplished politician and supporter of literature, just that the manuscript used today is Thucydides' interpretation of the speech.
Pericles opens his speech with stoicism and respect, honoring the ancestors of Athens. "I shall begin with our ancestors,” he begins, “it is both just and proper that they should have the honour of the first mention on an occasion like the present. They dwelt in the country without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valour.” (Par. 2) In mentioning the ancestors of the Athenians, Pericles builds strong ethos with his audience. The Athenians were a humble society considering their status as the most civilized society on Earth at the time, especially when compared to their neighbors and enemies such as the Spartans, and they were very respectful towards those who had built, fought for, and won the city they lived in.
One way of looking at Pericles' ancestor reference could be as a build up to his next point, the role Athens plays to the rest of Greece. Perhaps he meant to reference the development of the Athenian government and the role the ancestors served in creating it. Regardless, his next point is just that: Athens is a great and noble city which serves as a template or inspiration for all others as the first true democracy.
"Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours 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.” (Par. 3)
This is not all that Pericles praises, he goes on to praise the might and skill of the Athenian army and navy. He speaks of how open and free they are, how accepting of foreigners they can be, and how in spite of their easygoing, pleasure centered lifestyle, they maintain the strongest military in Greece. He talks about how the Athenians are feared across the land, and how enemies exaggerate their power when they fall to Athens, and exaggerate more so when Athens falls to increase their own reputation. Athens, is a nutshell, was difficult to contend with. In this paragraph, towards the end, Thucydides employs slight parallelism when Pericles speaks of Athens' reputation amongst other armies, and the Athenian spirit which drives them.
Pericles segways away from the military now, heading for Athenian character and personal ability. “In generosity we are equally singular, acquiring our friends by conferring, not by receiving, favours.” (Par. 6) The claimed kind, favor oriented nature of Athens highlighted here must have been a point of pride for the people. It certainly contrasts against the stark, militaristic nature of the Spartans and the indulgent Persian Empire. This line surely earned praise from Pericles' audience, not simply because of his Athenian audience, but the honor it gave to the dead Athenian soldiers. The line is not meant to apply to the listeners exclusively, but the dead soldiers as well earning him credibility with their families and friends.
At this point Pericles concludes, for the most part, his glorification of Athenian culture. "In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas (Greece), while I doubt if 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. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits proves.” (Par. 7) In English it may seem as though assonance is being used here, but this is likely simply a product of the translation and not an intentional affect on Pericles or Thucydides' parts. What it is, however, is a deft stab at Aristotle's three appeals, giving purpose and meaning to Pericles' recent onslaught of compliments. It's easy to imagine Pericles' voice rising passionately, starting with “And that this...” and ending on a very high note with extra emphasis on the word “proves,” pausing for a moment to allow listeners to nod appreciatively, clap, or simply contemplate his words. In addition, he ties all of his compliments together as if they were all one logical argument explaining Athenian superiority. His final word on the topic was not, as he pointed out, a simple boast. He proved it with all of his speech so far. Finally, Pericles holds authority and credibility in Athens as a general. If there is anyone who should be praising Athens, it is he.
Finally he gets to the point of the speech: paying tribute to his fallen soldiers. As a Greek living in Athens, Pericles is not one to avoid dramatism, rather he embraces it fully as would be expected of him. Lines such as “the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her,” and “none of these [soldiers] 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.” (Par. 8) The last line shows parallelism once again (on Thucydides part, of course), making the speech easy to understand, allowing the audience to digest the content more easily.
Pericles chooses to end his speech on an unexpected note, however. He does not mourn the fallen soldiers, not does he offer condolences to their families, as he states in the fourth to last paragraph. The lost lives are not something to be mourned, he says, as men can potentially die at any point in time. “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.” (Par. 9) All men are going to die anyway, he says in a nutshell, we should count ourselves fortunate that these men chose to die in such a way as to make a sacrifice for their city and people. Instead Pericles offers them comfort in the fact that their lives were not lost in vain as were so many heart attack victims, drunkards, accidental fall victims, and executed criminals. This is what a memorial speech is meant to be: The fallen soldiers chose to die as heroes, and should be honored for it.
As many great memorial speeches do (could it be that Pericles himself started this tradition?) a word of encouragement is offered to the survivors and families of the fallen.
"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.” (Par. 10)
With this he takes his abrupt leave. He cooly informs the people that the families and children of the lost will be compensated, and curtly exits. As I shall now.