Monday, May 30, 2011

In Memoriam

A few things that have been ricocheting through my brain the last few days:

1.) I was glad that people took some interest in my earlier post about the state of American Democracy and my suggestion toward improving it. I should like to state that imposing qualifications for voting in federal elections isn't exactly a cause I plan to lobby for -- just an idea I wanted to toss out there. Thank you for your input, whether you concurred or criticized.
Ultimately, I think a nation is only as good as its people. The simplest and most effective way of making a better America is making better Americans -- and this doesn't just mean making smarter Americans, though that would be a large part of it.

2.) My friend James recently embarked upon a personal mission to learn Morse Code, and asked if I wanted to try to pick it up as well, thereby helping him learn better by way of collaboration. Sadly, I have way too much else on my plate at the moment moment to pile on another such commitment, but thought the very least I could do was give him something to decode as an exercise. So I found a less-famous speech by Abraham Lincoln (given at the White House four days after the conclusion of the Battle of Gettysburg, and nearly four and a half months before the Gettysburg Address), ran it through a Morse Code translator, and sent it over for him to translate.
I found the speech here, in a small online collection of Lincoln's public addresses. Once you start reading a few, it's hard to stop. America's helm has regularly been manned by generals, businessmen, lawyers, schoolteachers (more than you'd think, actually), governors, and diplomats, but to the best of my knowledge, Lincoln was our only poet President. Reading the Gettysburg address makes me wish we still lived in an America whose heads of state could compose their public speeches in the manner of bards instead of advertisers.

3.) Since finishing Dragons of Eden, Siddhartha, and Typee, I've begun plowing through Xenophon's Anabasis: the story of the ten-thousand Greek mercenaries stranded in the middle of a hostile Persia after their employer's attempt at a coup came to a bloody failure.
I am a fiend for the Greeks, and I don't just mean the pop mythology. The histories, the dramas, the philosophical inquiries -- one lifetime just isn't enough to read and dissect it all. Albert Einstein once said: how can [anyone] stay away from the Greeks? I have always been far more interested in them than in science. (Of course, it was the Greeks who practically invented the concept of coming to an objective understanding of the world via empirical observation and testing, so it is hard to appreciate science without appreciating the Greeks.) In any event, old Al Onestone's tastes are as good as his intuition.
The old Greek texts, translated into English, often have a dry taste -- I can only assume they are much more musical in their original language -- but translation has little bearing on the music of the ideas expresses. (I believe Ezra Pound used the term "logopoeia" to refer to the aesthetic beauty of ideas in poetics, but I'm saying this without ever having read much Pound. This will be remedied after I finish Xenophon.) This was, after all, a culture in which the ability to present a soundly-reasoned and eloquent argument was not only supremely prized, but practically required of its upright citizens. (Somewhere in Thucydides, a statesman remarks that attending political debates was practically a leisure activity to the Athenian populace, since the speeches were always so impressive.) This standard evinces itself in all the Classical Greek texts, and makes any subject they cover a positive joy to read.

4.) It's Memorial Day. This is a holiday I take somewhat seriously: both of my grandfathers served in the Navy during World War II. (My paternal grandfather was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed; my maternal grandfather landed on the beaches during Operation Overlord.) My being, for the most part, anti-war has no bearing on my respect for the military; there is no more of a paradox in this than in the concurrent necessities of being strong and being peaceful.

5.) And so the topics of American Democracy, political oration, the Greeks, and Memorial Day all converge here, at our reading selection for the week: the funeral speech of the Athenian statesman Pericles, taken in its entirety from History of the Peloponnesian Wars (as translated by Rex Warner). One of the reasons for my sharing it is that I can't think of any immediate acquaintances who have actually read the damn thing. I suppose it's not surprising, what with public education redesignating the Classics as ancillary lessons to be breezed through if any time remains after ten months of state test preparation, but it's also a great shame, since the speech is not only one of the most important moments in the textual history of Western Civilization, but a brilliant composition and the kind of public address Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama would be hard-pressed to match.
As usual, I ask that you please spare some time to read this in its entirety. Yes, it is a few pages long. Yes, it will probably take five to ten minutes to finish -- but if you're already just idly browsing the Internet, chances are what you'd be reading or watching instead won't be nearly as good or memorable. (You know in your heart of hearts that this is true.) As you read, I would ask that you consider the myths and truths of Pericles's Athens*, the myths and truths of our America, and think about the places where all possible pairings of the four intersect.

In the same winter the Athenians, following their annual custom, gave a public funeral for those had been first to die in the war. These funerals are held in the following way: two days before the ceremony the bones of the fallen are brought and put in a tent which has been erected, and people make whatever offerings they wish to their own dead. Then there is a funeral procession in which coffins of cypress wood are carried on wagons. There is one coffin for each tribe, which contains the bones of members of that tribe. One empty bier is decorated and carried in the procession: this is for the missing, whose bodies could not be recovered. Everyone who wishes to, both citizens and foreigners, can join in the procession, and the women who are related to the dead are there to make their laments at the tomb. The bones are laid in the public burial-place, which is in the most beautiful quarter outside the city walls. Here the Athenians always bury those who have fallen in war. The only except is those who died at Marathon, who, because their achievement was considered absolutely astounding, were buried on the battlefield itself.

When the bones have been laid in the earth, a man chosen by the city for his intellectual gifts and for his general reputation makes an appropriate speech in praise of the dead, and after the speech all depart. This is the procedure at these burials, and all through the war, when the time came to do so, the Athenians followed this ancient custom. Now, at the burial of those who were first to fall in the war, Pericles, the son of Xanthippus, was chosen to make the speech. When the moment arrived, he came forward from the tomb and, standing on a high platform, so that he might be heard by as many people as possible in the crowd, he spoke as follows:

"Many of those who have spoken here in the past have praised the institution of this speech at the close of our ceremony. It seemed to them a mark of honour to our soldiers who have fallen in a war that a speech should be made over them. I do not agree. These men have shown themselves valiant in action, and it would be enough, I think, for their glories to be proclaimed in action, as you have just seen it down at this funeral organized by the state. Our belief in the courage and manliness of so many should not be hazarded on the goodness or badness of one man's speech. Then it is not easy to speak with a proper sense of balance, when a man's listeners find it difficult to believe in the truth of what one is saying. The man who knows the facts and loves the dead may well think that an oration tells less than what he knows and what he would like to hear: others who do knot know so much and may feel envy for the dead, and think the orator over-praises them, when he speaks of exploits that are beyond their own capacities. Praise of other people is tolerable only up to a certain point, the point where one still believes that one could do oneself some of the things one is hearing about. Once you get beyond this point, you find people becoming jealous and incredulous. However, the fact is that this institution was set up and approved by our forefathers, and it is my duty to follow the tradition and do my best to meet the wishes and expectations of every one of you.

"I shall being by speaking about our ancestors, since it is only right and proper on such an occasion to pay them the honor of recalling what they did. In this land of ours there have always been the same people living from generation to generation up till now, and they, by their courage and their virtues, have handed it on to us, a free country. They certainly deserve our praise. Even more so do our fathers deserve it. For to the inheritance they had received they added all the empire we have now, and it was not without blood and toil that they handed it down to us of the present generation. And then we ourselves, assembled here today, who are mostly in the prime of life, have, in most directions, added to the power of our empire and have organized our state in such a way that it is perfectly well able to look after itself both in peace and in war.

"I have no wish to make a long speech on subjects familiar to you all: so I shall say nothing about the warlike deeds by which we acquired our power or the battles in which we or our fathers gallantly resisted our enemies, Greek or foreign. What I want to do is, in the first place, to discuss the spirit in which we faced our trials and also our constitution and the way of life which has made us great. After that I shall speak in praise of the dead, believing that this kind of speech is not inappropriate to the present occasion, and that this whole assembly, of citizens and foreigners, may listen to it with advantage.

"Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbors. It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect.

"We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.

"And here is another point. When our work is over, we are in a position to enjoy all kinds of recreation for our spirits. There are various kinds of contests and sacrifices regularly throughout the year; in our own homes we find a beauty and a good taste which delight us every day and which drive away our cares. Then the greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us, so that to us it seems just as natural to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products.

"Then there is a great difference between us and our opponents, in our attitude towards military security. Here are some examples: our city is open to the world, and we have no periodical deportations in order to prevent people observing or finding out secrets which might be of military advantage to the enemy. This is because we rely, not on secret weapons, but on our own real courage and loyalty. There is a difference, too, in our educational systems. The Spartans, from their earliest boyhood, are submitted to the most laborious training in courage; we pass or lives without all these restrictions, and yet are just as ready to face the same dangers as they are. Here is a proof of this: when the Spartans invade our land, they do not come by themselves, but bring all their allies with them; whereas we, when we launch an attack abroad, do the job by ourselves, and, though fighting on foreign soil, do not often fail to defeat opponents who are fighting for their own hearths and homes. As a matter of fact none of our enemies has ever yet been confronted with our total strength, because we have to divide our attention between our navy and the many missions on which our troops are sent on land. Yet, if our enemies engage a detachment of our forces and defeat it, they give themselves credit for having thrown back our entire army; or, if they lose, they claim that they were beaten by us in full strength. There are certain advantages, I think, in our way of meeting danger voluntarily, with an easy mind, instead of with a laborious training, with natural rather than state-induced courage. We do not have to spend our time practicing to meet sufferings which are still in the future; and when they are actually upon us we show ourselves just as brave as the others who are always in strict training. This is one point, I think, in which our city deserves to be admired. There are also others:

"Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need to ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own businesses are extremely well-informed on general politics — this a peculiarity of ours; we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all. We Athenians, in our own persons, take our decisions on policy or submit them to proper discussions, for we do not think that there is an incompatibility between words and deeds; the worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated. And this is another point where we differ from other people. We are capable at the same time of taking risks and of estimating them before hand. Others are brave out of ignorance; and, when they stop to think, they begin to fear. But the man who can most truly be accounted brave is he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.

"Again in questions of general good feeling there is a great contrast between us and most other people. We make friends by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them. This makes our friendship all the more reliable, since we want to keep alive the gratitude of those who are in our debt by showing continued good will to them: whereas the feelings of one who owes us something lack the same enthusiasm, since he knows that, when he repays our kindness, it will be more like paying back a debt than giving kindness spontaneously. We are unique in this. When we do kindnesses to others, we do not do them out of any calculations of profit or loss: we do them without afterthought, relying on our free liberality. Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece, and I declare that in my opinion each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility. And to show this is no empty boasting for the present occasion, but real tangible fact, you have only to consider the power which our city possesses and which has been won by these very qualities which I have mentioned. Athens, alone of the states we know, comes to her testing time in a greatness that surpasses what was imagined of her. In her case, and in her case alone, no invading enemy is ashamed at being defeated, and no subject can complain of being governed by people unfit for their responsibilities. Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of our empire which we have left. Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now. We do not need the praises of a Homer, or of anyone else whose words may delight us for the moment, but whose estimation of facts will fall short of what is really true. For our adventurous spirit has forced an entry into every sea and into every land; and everywhere we have left behind us everlasting memorials of good done to our friends or suffering inflicted on our enemies.
"This, then, is the kind of city for which these men, who could not bear the thought of losing her, nobly fought and nobly died. It is only natural that every one of us who survive them should be willing to undergo hardships in her service. And it was for this reason that I have spoken at such length about our city, because I wanted to make it clear that for us there is more at stake than there is for others who lack our advantages; also I wanted my words of praise for the dead to be set in the bright light of evidence. And now the most important of these words has been spoken. I have sung the praises of our city; but it was the courage and gallantry of these men, and of people like them, which made her splendid. Nor would you find it true in the case of many of the Greeks, as it is true of them, that no words can do more than justice to their deeds.
"To me it seems that the consummation which has overtaken these men show us the meaning of manliness in its first revelation and in its final proof. Some of them, no doubt, had their faults; but what we ought to remember first is their gallant conduct against the enemy in defence of their native land. They have blotted out evil with good, and done more service to the commonwealth than they ever did harm in their private lives. No one of these men weakened because he wanted to go on enjoying his wealth: no one put off the awful day in the hope that he might live to escape his poverty and grow rich. More to be desired than such things, they chose to check the enemy's pride. This, to them, was a risk most glorious, and they accepted it, willing to strike down the enemy and relinquish everything else. As for success or failure, they left that in the doubtful hands of Hope, and when the reality of battle was before their faces, they put their trust in their own selves. In the fighting, they thought it more honourable to stand their ground and suffer death than to give in and save their lives. So they fled from the reproaches of men, abiding with life and limb the brunt of battle; and, in a small moment of time, the climax of their lives, a culmination of glory, not of fear, were swept away from us.
"So and such they were, these men worthy of their city. We who remain behind may hope to be spared their fate, but must resolve to keep the same daring spirit against the foe. It is not simply a question of estimating the advantages in theory. I could tell you a long story (and you know it as well as I do) about what is to be gained by beating the enemy back. What I would prefer is that you should fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she really is, and should fall in love with her. When you realize her greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to fall below a certain standard. If they ever failed in an enterprise, they made up their minds that at any rate the city should not find their courage lacking to her, and they gave to her the best contribution that they could. They gave her their lives, to her and to all of us, and for their own selves they won praises that never grow old, the most splendid of sepulchres not the sepulchre in which their bodies are laid, but where their glory remains eternal in men's minds, always there on the right occasion to stir others to speech or to action. For famous men have the whole earth as their memorial: it is not only the inscriptions on their graves in their own country that mark them out; no, in foreign lands also, not in any visible form but in people's hearts, their memory abides and grows. It is for you to try to be like them. Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous. Let there be no relaxation in face of the perils of the war. The people who have most excuse for despising death are not the wretched and unfortunate, who have no hope of doing well for themselves, but those who run the risk of a complete reversal in their lives, and who would feel the difference most intensely, if things went wrong for them. Any intelligent man would find a humiliation caused by his own slackness more painful to bear than death, when death comes to him unperceived, in battle, and in the confidence of his patriotism.
"For these reasons I shall not commiserate with those parents of the dead, who are present here. Instead I shall try to comfort them. They are well aware that they have grown up in a world where there are many changes and chances. But this is good fortune for men to end their lives with honour, as these have done, and for you honourable to lament them: their life was set to a measure where death and happiness went hand in hand. I know that it is difficult to convince you of this. When you see other people happy you will often be reminded of what used to make you happy too. One does not feel sad at not having some good thing which is outside one's experience: real grief is felt at the loss of something which one is used to. All the same, those of you who are of the right age must bear up and take comfort in the thought of having more children. In your own homes these new children will prevent you from brooding over those who are no more, and they will be a help to the city, too, both in filling the empty places, and in assuring her security. For it is impossible for a man to put forward fair and honest views about our affairs if he has not, like everyone else, children whose lives may be at stake. As for those of you who are now too old to have children, I would ask you to count as gain the greater part of your life, in which you have been happy, and remember that what remains is not long, and let your hearts be lifted up at the thought of the fair fame of the dead. One's sense of honour is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when one is worn out with age, is not, as the poet said, making money, but having the respect of one's fellow men.

"As for those of you here who are sons or brothers of the dead, I can see a hard struggle in front of you. Everyone always speaks well of the dead, and, even if you rise to the greatest heights of heroism, it will be a hard thing for you to get the reputation of having come near, let alone equalled, their standard. When one is alive, one is always liable to the jealousy of one's competitors, but when one is out of the way, the honour one receives is sincere and unchallenged.
"Perhaps I should say a word or two on the duties of women to those among you who are now widowed. I can say all I have to say in a short word of advice. Your great glory is not to be inferior to what God has made you, and the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticizing you. I have now, as the law demanded, said what I had to say. For the time being our offerings to the dead have been made, and for the future their children will be supported at the public expense by the city, until they come of age. This is the crown and prize which she offers, both to the dead and to their children, for the ordeals which they have faced. Where the rewards of valour are the greatest, there you will find also the best and bravest spirits among the people. And now, when you have mourned for your dear ones, you must depart."

* It should be mentioned, for anyone with a less than working knowledge of Greek civilization, that at this point Athens was an imperial power that had conquered virtually all of Greece except for Sparta and its allies; Sparta in fact won subjugated cities to their side in the war by promising to liberate them from Athenian tyranny. (Of course, it also had a strange tendency to prop up oligarchic governments friendly to the Spartan interest in the cities it "liberated.") Athens was prone to demagoguery, broke truces and engaged in unprovoked advances for the sake of its own gain, and wasn't above slaughtering entire cities as an example to others. Does this make Pericles's praises of its accomplishments and virtues any less true?


  1. I don't have anything appropriate to say in response.

    But here's some typos:
    have organized our state is such -> in such
    exceptional grace and (repeated)
    wonders at us know -> now

    Thanks for the interesting read.

  2. D'oh. Fixed. I only had to type out a few sections (most of the text is reproduced on various academic sites), but it seems I wasn't paying as much attention as I should have.

    And you're very welcome!