Lesson 12: Pericles’ Funeral Oration; On Memorial Day, An Ode to Hearts and Soldiers
In his book, The Heart and the Fist, former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens writes about the Greek conception of phronesis. A kind of practical wisdom (a poor translation, but the closest), phronesis is a bit like a moral compass; it couples the ability to make choices with the knowledge that those choices are worth making. You cannot study it in school; it’s experiential.
Greitens writes: “phronesis allows soldiers to fight well and leaders to rule well.” Today, thinking about soldiers who fight on our behalf, we think of the history of memorials. What do the finest memorials say about the meaning of remembering?
Pericles, on Athenian Soldiers
One text we love is Pericles’ Funeral Oration. It’s got a lot of language, but it ends with a very simple, contemporary concept: we carry the war dead within ourselves.
The speech comes from Thucydides; Pericles is speaking at the end of the first year of the Pelopnnesian War. The Oration is delivered at an annual “funeral” for those who lost their lives fighting.
"So died these men as became Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier issue. And not contented with ideas derived only from words of the advantages which are bound up with the defence of your country, though these would furnish a valuable text to a speaker even before an audience so alive to them as the present, you must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then, when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honour in action that men were enabled to win all this, and that no personal failure in an enterprise could make them consent to deprive their country of their valour, but they laid it at her feet as the most glorious contribution that they could offer. For this offering of their lives made in common by them all they each of them individually received that renown which never grows old, and for a sepulchre, not so much that in which their bones have been deposited, but that noblest of shrines wherein their glory is laid up to be eternally remembered upon every occasion on which deed or story shall call for its commemoration. For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart.”
The Real Tomb Is Our Heart
The tablet that preserves them is our heart. Whether or not we like Pericles’s conception of valor (or of Athens) it's hard not to admire his ideas about how we memorialize. Monuments and speeches are symbols, physical texts of remembrance. For the memory itself we need only soldiers willing fight. In doing so, they grant us the gift of something to memorialize. Pericles—with a little help from Thucydides—reminds us of that gift's power.
Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.