Sunday, November 22, 2009

Courage - Pericles' funeral speech

I am reading Donald Kagan’s book The Peloponnesian War which tells the story of the long death struggle between Sparta and Athens and their respective allies in the fifth century BC. It is a gripping read as is Livy’s tale of the similar struggle to come between Rome and Carthage (see Roman fortitude). The participants are evenly matched: Sparta is the greatest military power on land, but Athens is the greatest military power on the sea. (In this the war resembles the struggle between Napoleonic France and maritime Britain).

Athens is fortunate in having a great leader in the form of Pericles, ‘son of Xanthippus (a victorious general in the Persian war), the leading man in Athens at that time, and the ablest in speech and in action.’ From Thucydides, a historian and participant in the war, we learn that Pericles’ teacher, Anaxagoras, had instilled in him

…a lofty spirit and an elevated mode of speech, free from the vulgar and knavish tricks of mob-orators, but also a composed countenance that never gave way to laughter, a dignity of carriage and restraint in the arrangement of his clothing which no emotion was allowed to disturb while he was speaking, a voice that was evenly controlled, and all the other characteristics of this sort which so impressed his hearers.

Pericles persuades the Athenians that if they avoid a decisive land battle but wait patiently behind their city walls, relying on supply from the sea which they control, Sparta will realise that they are powerless and will sue for peace. It is a wise strategy but it goes against the grain of the time, especially with the impetuous young. When a Spartan army lays waste the bountiful Athenian countryside while the Athenians watch from the walls, Pericles has to (bravely) bear their accusations of timidity and cowardice. Only he can hold the Athenians in check from certain disaster.

And yet there were times when they were sorely vexed with him, and then he tightened the reins and forced them into the way of their advantage with a master's hand, for all the world like a wise physician, who treats a complicated disease of long standing occasionally with harmless indulgences to please his patient, and occasionally, too, with caustics and bitter drugs which work salvation. For whereas all sorts of distempers, as was to be expected, were rife in a rabble which possessed such a vast empire, he alone was so endowed by nature that he could manage each one of these cases suitably, and more than anything else he used the people's hopes and fears, like rudders, so to speak, giving timely check to their arrogance, and allaying and comforting their despair. Plutarch

Pericles holds back the Athenians from doing what the Spartans want them to do: come out and fight a decisive battle on their terms - on land - where they are the stronger. In this wise but ungrateful and unpopular task he reminds us of Fabius Maximus who, after Rome’s crushing defeat at Cannae, refuses all battle with the seemingly invincible Hannibal. He only shadows him with his army, a constant threat to be guarded against, letting the advantage of time in favour of the Romans do its work. (This resemblance was clear to Plutarch also: I found that he pairs Pericles and Fabius Maximus together in his Parallel Lives, see here).

Pericles bides his time and events prove him right. When funeral rights are held for those who have perished in the first year of war, the Athenians call upon him to give the eulogy as their foremost leader. His speech is not only a eulogy to the fallen Athenian brave but to all brave men. It is a tribute to courage, which puts something higher, something more important, above personal interest and personal safety: freedom and the common good.

You must every day look upon the power of your city and become her lovers, and when you have understood her greatness consider that the men who achieved it were brave and honourable and knew what was necessary when the time came for action. If they ever failed in some attempt, they were determined that, at least, their city should not be deprived of their courage and gave her the most beautiful of all offerings. For they gave their lives for the common good and thereby won for themselves the praise that never grows old and the most distinguished of all graves, not those in which they lie, but where their glory remains in eternal memory, always there at the right time to inspire speech and action. For the whole world is the burial place for brave men; not only does the epitaph inscribed on monuments in their native country commemorate them, but in lands not their own the unwritten memory; more of their spirit even than of what they have done, lives on within each person. Now it is for you to emulate them; knowing that happiness requires freedom and freedom requires courage, do not shrink from the dangers of war.


Courage is what preserves our liberty, safety, life, and our homes and parents, our country and children. Courage comprises all things. Plautus

So, as you go into battle, remember your ancestors and remember your descendants. Tacitus

Happy the man who ventures boldly to defend what he holds dear. Ovid

So when the crisis is upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a tough and stalwart antagonist... that you may prove a victor at the Great Games. Epictetus

Things never go so well that one should have no fear, and never so ill that one should have no hope. Turkish proverb

To persevere, trusting in what hopes he has, is courage. The coward despairs. Euripedes

It is the bold man who every time does best, at home or abroad. Homer

In times of stress, be bold and valiant. Horace

In difficult situations, when hope seems feeble, the boldest plans are safest. Livy

He shall fare well who confronts circumstances aright. Plutarch

Image: Discurso funebre Pericles by Von Folz, from Wikipedia

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Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

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