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.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Saying no is hard. These communication tips make it easy.

You can say 'no' to things, and you should. Do it like this.

Videos
  • Give yourself permission to say "no" to things. Saying yes to everything is a fast way to burn out.
  • Learn to say no in a way that keeps the door of opportunity open: No should never be a one-word answer. Say "No, but I could do this instead," or, "No, but let me connect you to someone who can help."
  • If you really want to say yes but can't manage another commitment, try qualifiers like "yes, if," or "yes, after."
Keep reading Show less

Apparently even NASA is wrong about which planet is closest to Earth

Three scientists publish a paper proving that Mercury, not Venus, is the closest planet to Earth.

Strange Maps
  • Earth is the third planet from the Sun, so our closest neighbor must be planet two or four, right?
  • Wrong! Neither Venus nor Mars is the right answer.
  • Three scientists ran the numbers. In this YouTube video, one of them explains why our nearest neighbor is... Mercury!
Keep reading Show less

Why is 18 the age of adulthood if the brain can take 30 years to mature?

Neuroscience research suggests it might be time to rethink our ideas about when exactly a child becomes an adult.

Mind & Brain
  • Research suggests that most human brains take about 25 years to develop, though these rates can vary among men and women, and among individuals.
  • Although the human brain matures in size during adolescence, important developments within the prefrontal cortex and other regions still take pace well into one's 20s.
  • The findings raise complex ethical questions about the way our criminal justice systems punishes criminals in their late teens and early 20s.
Keep reading Show less