June 5, 2022

1. Pericles

I’d like to continue discussing Donald Kagan’s biography of Pericles.

Kagan compares Pericles’ Funeral Oration to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Both were delivered during a war, both honored the war dead. Both Pericles and Lincoln tried to explain what they were fighting for, as a way of honoring the dead, and as a way of inspiring the living to continue the fight.

Pericles says that the Athenians will enjoy glory, immortal fame. Lincoln doesn’t mention glory; his ethics aren’t the ethics of Pericles. Greek ethics, the ethics of glory, have been modified, perhaps by Christianity.

Lincoln may have sought immortal fame, but he didn’t speak of it as openly as Pericles did. Lincoln’s law partner said, “He was always calculating, and always planning ahead. His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” But the desire for glory, like the desire for vengeance, was frowned on by Christianity, which praised meekness, altruism, and the loving heart. Lincoln forswore vengeance in his Second Inaugural: “with malice toward none, with charity for all...” If you sought fame and glory, you kept these desires to yourself, you didn’t admit them openly, as a Greek would have. In the eyes of Christianity, the desire for immortal fame was selfish, was a vice.

But Christian ethics agreed with Greek ethics on one point: the good man would not die. Christianity promised the good man an eternity in heaven, the Greeks promised the good man eternal fame. So while they defined the “good man” in different ways, they agreed that he was beyond the reach of death.

Kagan speaks of, “the most basic spiritual need of all, the need for kleos [glory] and immortality.”1 In my view, Kagan is using the word “spiritual” incorrectly. The word spiritual should be used for the inner life, but fame and immortality, as conceived by the Greeks, relate to public life, not the inner life. Greek spirituality is about the gods, and the gods represent our unconscious/soul; Greek spirituality is about the inner life, it’s not about what people think of you.2

Kagan says that the old Homeric heroes fought for themselves, for their own reputation; they sought excellence, arete. But Pericles doesn’t want people to pursue arete for themselves or their family or their clan or their tribe, he wants them to pursue arete within the framework of the city, the polis. “Devote yourself to the polis,” Pericles seems to say, “and its glory will be your glory.” Kagan writes,

Pericles’ vision was the culmination of a long process whereby the polis had tried to impose its communal, civic values on a society that had always been organized by family, clan, and tribe. The older ethical tradition came chiefly from the Homeric epic, where the esteemed values were those of heroic individuals.

The polis wants every citizen to be involved in public affairs, political and military affairs, but it allows for freedom in private life. In the Funeral Oration, Pericles says, “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.”3

Pericles contrasts Athens with Sparta, which tries to stamp out individuality and privacy. Kagan says that, for the Spartans,

nothing could interfere with the claims of the polis to their loyalty and devotion, so they rejected privacy, imposed a rigid economic equality on the members of the Spartiate class, attenuated the independence of the family and its control of its offspring, and made individual goals entirely subordinate to those of the state. They excluded money, the arts and sciences, philosophy, aesthetic pleasures, and the life of the mind in general, for all these things might foster individualism and detract from devotion to the polis. Their national poet, Tyrtaeus, specifically rejected the Homeric values and replaced them with a single definition of arete: the courage to stand bravely in the ranks of a hoplite phalanx fighting for Sparta.

Athens emphasized reason and free inquiry, and its thinkers were often said to question religion. Sparta, on the other hand, was known for “religious piety.”4

The Spartan system was widely admired, but never copied. It was often admired by aristocrats, who disliked Athenian democracy. “Sparta’s system,” Kagan writes, “appealed especially to aristocrats, such as the young men ‘with the battered ears’ who conversed with Socrates in the gymnasia. And when such philosophers as Plato modeled their utopian regimes on Sparta, they were building on a tradition that viewed its constitution as a standing rebuke to Athenian democracy.”

Plato was attracted to Sparta’s oligarchy. “Although all the men of the Spartiate class were called homoioi (peers), the kings had special privileges, and there was a class of noblemen distinct from the others.... The Spartans imposed a property qualification for participation in public life.”

Both Plato and Aristotle found fault with democracy: “Plato asserted that democracy unjustly ‘distributes a sort of equality to equal and unequal alike,’ and Aristotle later claimed that in democracies justice ‘is the enjoyment of arithmetical equality, and not the enjoyment of proportionate equality on the basis of merit.’”5

Plato saw nothing valuable in democratic individuality, he viewed it as idle whim, meaningless caprice. Democratic man, according to Plato, “lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics.”6 Plato would prefer that the individual be a tool of the state; Kagan speaks of, “Plato’s notion that each man should do the one thing for which he was best suited.”7

In the Funeral Oration, Pericles responds to such criticisms by saying that Athenian democracy doesn’t drag down merit; on the contrary, it invites everyone to pursue excellence. Democracy “opened the competition for excellence and honor to all, removing the accidental barriers imposed in other constitutions and societies.” Everyone is equal before the law, but in the pursuit of public honors, everyone is rewarded according to his merit and reputation. No one is excluded “because of poverty or humble origins.”8

Everyone participates in public life, everyone is involved, everyone is responsible. “Athenian democracy, Pericles asserts, raises all its citizens to the level of noblemen by asking them to take part in political life and so to control their own destiny.” The working-class Athenian isn’t focused on survival, he’s involved in public life, partly because he’s paid for public service. So everyone deals with larger issues than making a living, everyone is ennobled. “Democracy would bring to all the citizens of Athens the advantages heretofore reserved for the well-born few.”9

In the Funeral Oration, Pericles says that Athens should be proud of its tradition of deliberation and debate. “The worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated.”10 Kagan says that thought and debate are important in Pericles’ vision: “Pericles has identified a critical element of his vision for Athens: its commitment to reason and intelligence.”

Here again there was a sharp contrast between Athens and Sparta. In Sparta, “decisions were made by acclamation without debate. The Spartans believed in deeds, not words. [The Spartans] were famous for their brevity and distrust of subtle reasoning.”11 Sparta was a city in the region of Laconia, as Athens was a city in the region of Attica. A person who uses few words is said to be “laconic.”12

The Athenians spent much time debating, but they were also capable of boldness and courage. According to Pericles, Athenian soldiers were as good as Spartan soldiers. In our own time, we see the Ukrainians using their freedom and creativity to defeat the blind obedience of the Russians.

The Funeral Oration is a remarkable work. In a few pages, it tells us much about Pericles’ vision for Athenian democracy — how it differs from the Spartan conception of society, and how it differs from the old Homeric definition of the hero. Pericles says that the free man is involved in public life, involved in debates and decisions, meets dangers with courage, and enjoys the finer things in life. He’s fully alive, fully human, and he’ll share the immortal fame of his city. And here we are, 2500 years later, admiring Athenian democracy and Athenian culture, and thereby proving the truth of Pericles’ words.

Pericles was remarkably successful at inspiring the populace, and setting forth a vision of a good life, shared purpose, high goals. He also translated his vision into immortal works of architecture and sculpture. A great statesman indeed. But he couldn’t avert a war-to-the-death with Sparta and its allies, a war that brought suffering to all Greeks, and led Athens to commit atrocities that tarnished its image.

In Pericles’ time, no building projects had been undertaken for thirty years. The temples destroyed by the Persians still lay in ruins. The Greeks took an oath to allow these ruins “to remain as a memorial to future generations of the sacrilege of the barbarians.”13 I’m reminded of Dresden’s Frauenkirche, which lay in ruins from 1945 to 1990, as a reminder to the people. When the Greeks finally made peace with the Persians, they may have felt that this peace released them from their oath, and they could commence rebuilding.

I thought that the edifices built in Pericles’ day were built on the Acropolis, or in Athens, but Kagan says that temples were built in the furthest corners of Attica. At the southern tip of Attica, at Cape Sunium, a temple to Poseidon was built.

Cape Sunium (now called Cape Sounion)
photo by Adam Carr

Byron visited Sunium around 1810, wrote poetry about it, and apparently carved his name on the base of one of the columns.

But the focus of Pericles’ building efforts was the Parthenon, which celebrated the successful conclusion of the Persian Wars. Its sculptures depicted “scenes of battle between Athenians and Amazons, human beings and wild beasts, Greeks and Trojans.” The Parthenon was “a war memorial celebrating the triumph of Athens over its enemies, civilization over barbarism, and Greeks over Asiatics.”14 Edifices like the Parthenon were the expression of patriotic feelings, and also a stimulus to patriotic feelings. The Parthenon expressed the Athenian idea, as a medieval cathedral expressed Christianity.

The Parthenon

The original focus of Athenian worship wasn’t Athena Parthenos, the warrior goddess, but Athena Polias (“Polias” is from polis, city). Athena Polias was the “goddess of the city.... a goddess of fertility, of agriculture, and of the household.”15 She lived in “the old temple” on the Acropolis, and “she took the form of a statue made of olive wood which according to legend had fallen from heaven, and it was worshiped as the ‘holiest of all things’ even before the demes of Attica had been unified into a single polis.”

Cassandra, a Trojan princess, clutching a wooden statue of Pallas Athena. Note Athena’s spear and shield. This statue was called the palladium. Legend says the statue was carried from Troy to Rome.

Athena Parthenos was an unwed female (“Parthenos” means virgin). She was a warrior goddess, usually depicted wearing a helmet; Kagan compares her to Amazons. In the time of Pericles, Athena Parthenos was displacing Athena Polias. “Athena Parthenos increasingly came to the fore in the public mind as Athens became less dependent on its own agriculture and more involved in foreign commerce and in warfare.” Athena Parthenos was often called Promachos, leading fighter.16

Athena with helmet, spear, and shield

The Parthenon was begun in 447 BC, and completed fifteen years later — that is, it was completed just before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles put his friend Phidias in charge of the project, and Phidias built a gigantic ivory-and-gold statue of Athena; the statue was placed inside the Parthenon.

The sculptures on the outside of the Parthenon depicted traditional subjects, such as the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs; many of these sculptures emphasized the role of Athena. On the inside of the Parthenon, Phidias did something never done before: he depicted ordinary mortals, “the citizens of Athens moving forward in the great Panathenaic procession.... The living human beings depicted on the Parthenon are elevated by association with the immortal gods and heroes.”17 The people could see themselves and their city in the most favorable light possible — a good example of the idea that art glorifies, that the purpose of art is to glorify man and the world, to make life more attractive.

It’s difficult to say whether Pericles’ projects were patriotic or religious or both. He delayed construction on the Erechtheum, the temple to Athena Polias, though it was “the focus of the state’s worship.” Instead of working on the Erechtheum, he built the Propylaea, “a grand entryway to the Acropolis... which was not a religious structure at all.” It may be doubted whether the Parthenon itself is primarily religious; Kagan says, “There is no evidence connecting the building or its statue with cult or ritual.”

Perhaps the Parthenon is humanistic rather than religious. Kagan says it may have been influenced by Pericles’ friend Protagoras. Kagan calls Protagoras an “agnostic,” and Kagan quotes Protagoras: “About the gods I cannot know whether they exist or not or what form they have.”18 In the Parthenon’s Panathenaic procession, the gods appear “distant.” The Parthenon “suggests that the gods are apparent rather than true objects of ritual. [It suggests] that at the center of religion is not the divine per se but the human act of piety.”19

The Athenian people were involved in Pericles’ building projects from start to finish. The people “had to vote for every drachma and obol expended... over a fifteen-year period.... There were countless opportunities for public discussion, which surely continued in private.”20 The whole citizen body was involved in architecture and sculpture, as the whole citizen body watched dramas at the nearby Theater of Dionysos, and heard the poems of Homer recited. There seems to be no distinction between high culture and popular culture.

Pericles’ projects were carried out with public approval and public money. As the orator Demosthenes said a century later, “After [the Athenians] had acquired more wealth than any other Greeks, they spent it all for the sake of honor. [They] left behind their immortal glory as a legacy.” Their glory was in their buildings, even if no poet celebrated the Athenians. As Pericles said in the Funeral Oration, “We are the objects of wonder today and will be in the future. We have no need of a Homer to praise us.”

The Parthenon depicts the Panathenaic procession. Not only Athens, but many members of the Delian League participated in this annual procession. One could argue that the Parthenon celebrates not only Athens, but the Athenian Empire. The Parthenon mixes Doric and Ionic elements, Doric simplicity and Ionic refinement. Athens “claimed and was recognized to be the mother of the Ionian cities on the Aegean islands and coasts that made up a large part of her empire.... Pericles had emphasized this assertion of kinship by requiring the allies to bring a cow and panoply [suit of armor] to the Great Panathenaic Festival, just as Athenian colonies did.”21

Kagan says that the Parthenon had an educational function; Pericles and Protagoras believed in the importance of education. In the Platonic dialogue Protagoras, there’s an emphasis on “the centrality of education for any civilized society.” According to this dialogue, the polis requires that citizens have aidos (reverence) and dike (right, justice). The Parthenon depicted warriors fighting with courage, and it also depicted Athena, who represented wisdom, reason, intelligence. The prevailing mood of the figures was composure, moderation, dignity.

Protagoras was a sophist, a professional teacher; he taught young men rhetoric, politics, etc. He understood (and surely Pericles and Plato also understood) that education takes many forms; one is educated by parents, teachers, books, music, sports. In the Platonic dialogue that bears his name, Protagoras says that one is also educated by “the laws of the state.”

Education is important in any state, but perhaps it’s especially important in a democracy; Kagan says that Protagoras “certainly believed that education in the civic virtues was essential in a democracy.”22 The people must embrace the nation’s idea. “Any successful society... however great its commitment to individual freedom and diversity... needs a code of civic virtue and a general devotion to the common enterprises without which it cannot flourish or survive.” A political leader can’t help but be an educator, and Pericles embraced the role of educator.

Next Pericles

© L. James Hammond 2022
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1. Ch. 7, p. 138 back
2. For more on Greek spirituality, see my discussions of E. R. Dodds. Dodds is a deeper thinker than Kagan. Kagan’s book isn’t remarkable for depth of thought or elegance of style, but it’s a readable introduction to Greek history. In my Realms of Gold, I said that the best introduction to Greek history is The Orient and Greece, by Rostovtzeff (it’s the first volume in a two-volume work called History of the Ancient World). Kagan’s book is a “close second.” back
3. Thucydides, Penguin paperback, p. 145 back
4. p. 146 back
5. p. 142 back
6. Kagan p. 142, quoting Plato’s Republic back
7. p. 144 back
8. p. 143 back
9. p. 145 back
10. Thucydides, Penguin paperback, p. 147 back
11. pp. 145, 146 back
12. An American of my generation associates Attica with the prison riot that took place in Attica, New York, in 1971. New York has many place-names taken from antiquity: Attica, Syracuse, Rome, Utica, Marathon, Ovid, Homer, Romulus, Solon, Cincinnatus, etc. back
13. Ch. 8, p. 153 back
14. p. 154. One of the buildings Pericles built was the Odeum, a music hall near the Acropolis. “Pericles decorated its interior with the spars and masts of captured Persian ships.”(p. 168) back
15. pp. 155, 157 back
16. Promachos is from mach = fight. We saw mach in an earlier issue when I said that symmachia means “fighting together.” American soldiers have an expression similar to promachos; they say that the soldier in front is “walking the point.” back
17. p. 165 back
18. p. 166 back
19. p. 166. Kagan is quoting a scholar named Ira S. Mark. Kagan says that, in the opinion of some Athenians, Pericles should have been more respectful of the gods and of traditional religion. Pericles’ conservative political opponents felt that his temples “verge on impiety,” and “many among the masses” took a similar view.(p. 170)

Kagan says that Sophocles was “a pious traditionalist in religious matters.” In his play Antigone, Sophocles depicted an “intelligent, patriotic leader who is interested only in reason and power,” and a girl who represents “the demands of non-rational, traditional religion.” Does the rational leader represent Pericles? Kagan says that Sophocles takes the side of traditional religion: “Sophocles presents and understands the case for the ruler Creon, but he clearly prefers the one for the girl Antigone. The old religion is not be tampered with or cast aside.”(p. 171)

So there were religious conservatives in Athens. Kagan says they presented a problem for Pericles. These conservatives also presented a problem for philosophers like Socrates, who was executed for impiety. back

20. p. 160 back
21. p. 163. The Panathenaic Festival was held every year. Every fourth year, it was held in an enhanced form; one part of this enhanced form was the Panathenaic Games. back
22. p. 166 back