Pericles’ Funeral Oration: Athenian Exceptionalism

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The first year of fighting between Athens and Sparta is drawing to a close. As is customary during war, Athens holds a public funeral to both celebrate and mourn their fallen soldiers. Such ceremonies typically featured an oration given by a respected Athenian – with this year’s coming from renowned statesmen Pericles.
Previous orations had focused on celebrating the Athenian military by recounting their trials and accomplishments. Pericles decided to depart from this convention, believing it was no longer novel, nor necessary, “That part of our history which tells of the military achievements which gave us our several possessions, or of the ready valor with which either we or our fathers stemmed the tide of Hellenic or foreign aggression, is a theme too familiar to my hearers for me to dwell upon, and I shall therefore pass it by.” (2.36.4).
Pericles did not wish to simply reiterate what Athens had achieved, but rather he wanted to address how and why Athens achieved. He believed that Athenian politics, culture, and character were more relevant to the deceased soldiers than their ancestor’s military successes. Accordingly, he praised these elements of Athenian society and in the process justified the soldiers’ sacrifice. He spoke “but what was the road by which we reached our position, what the form of government under which our greatness grew, what the national habits out of which it sprang; these are the questions which I may try to solve before I proceed to my eulogy upon these men; since I think this to be a subject upon which on the present occasion a speaker may properly dwell, and to which the whole assemblage, whether citizens or foreigners, may listen with advantage.” (2.36.4).
Pericles proceeds to assert that Athen...

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...proud rationalization of its superiority. Balancing security, happiness, and values, Athens is a shining example of freedom, opportunity and justice. It is a nation that both builds itself on and produces uniquely spirited citizens. The sentiments of Pericles’ truly are reminiscent of modern day American Exceptionalism. “I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian.” (2.41.1).
It is this society that produced many great warriors – and it is this society that many great warriors died to protect and preserve. Thus, those killed deserve many thanks and praise, for they fought with noble intention. As Pericles’ says, “Such is the Athens for which these men, in the assertion of their resolve not to lose her, nobly fought and died. (2.41.5).

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