Regardless of our political affiliations, I think we have to admit our country, our wonderful democracy is today facing some serious problems. These include the very controversial Iraq war, our record national deficit, lack of medical national health care for millions of our elderly and needy, and since September 11th in various quarters clear threats to our civil liberties.
In his memorable inaugural address President Bush did not mention any of our problems. He spoke mainly of bringing freedom and democracy to the whole world which is an admirable goal, but that lofty goal and our problems require an inspiration, a leadership and a talent which in many ways is sadly lacking in our present administration.
Those of us, especially including our present leaders who wish to help could do worse than to turn for instruction and inspiration to the grand and successful story of Pericles and his city, where once against tremendous odds democracy and freedom triumphant and has served as a model for democracy for centuries to all the world.
Churchill once said that Greek ideas and Greek independence can help us today not only in facing the duties of the moment but in the deepening and expanding the range and the meaning of democracy and citizenship, liberty and law which would seem to be the chief political tact before mankind today. During two world wars London buses carried posters that displayed excerpts of Pericles’ funeral oration. The people who chose the posters believed that the words of Pericles asking Athenians to stand fast against the Spartans had contemporary meaning for citizens of a modern liberal commercial democracy.
Now about the life of Pericles and his philosophy, Herodotus tells the story (about 494 B.C.) about the pregnant Agarisyte, daughter of Hippocrates, dreamed she gave birth to a lion. In a few days, she presented her husband, Xanthippus with a son whom they named Pericles who was to become one of the wisest statesmen and leaders in ancient and modern history.
Pericles left no letters or memoirs or any writing whatsoever. But we have an excellent account of Pericles’ life and career from Plutarch. Plutarch was more of a moralist than a historian and he liked to write about the personal life of his subjects which in this case is of special contemporary value and interest.
At the time of Pericles, historians tell us, man’s reliance upon his unaided intellectual capacity has rarely or even been so paramount. “Man is the measure of all things, of the being of things that are, of the non-being of things that are not?” Man is not trivial, a mere bit of dust, in the vast cosmic order, such that his passion was a thing of no account. Pericles put man in the same race as the gods, a creature capable of extraordinary achievements and Pericles’ life proved his philosophy. Above all, Pericles’ extraordinary self-reliance gave him strength if he was wrong in his personal or political life to admit it, and he became Greece’s number one hero and statesmen. He lived with the philosophy that if a man is strong and brave enough to admit mistakes however devastating here indeed was a strong and brave man.
Pericles long tenure as a political leader permitted him to aim at goals that went far beyond the immediate concerns that fully occupy most politicians and statesmen. Both his words and deeds reveal that he was one of those rare individuals who do not merely accept the conditions of the world they find but try to shape it to an image in their own minds. The evidence is unmistakable that Pericles had such a vision for his city and that he tried to bring it into being. He saw the opportunity to create the greatest political community the world had ever known, one that would fulfil man’s strongest and deepest passions glory and immortality. The satisfaction of these passions normally implies extraordinary inequality, yet Pericles believed they could be achieved by the citizens of a democracy based on legal and political equality. At the same time, he intended to create a quality of life never before known, one that would allow men to pursue their private interests but also enable them to seek the highest goals by placing their interests at the service of a city that fostered and relied upon reason for its greatness.
Aside from his philosophy and character as a man and statesman, Pericles is known of course for the diplomatic initiations that averted a full sad Peloponnesian war and conclude a peace that lasted an intended 30 years. And it was during this time, now called the Periclean Age that work commenced on the Parthenon a symbol par excellence of the Periclean Age, and here was the beginning or the glory that was Greece and all it has inspired for mankind.
It has been aptly said that “Great men have two lives, one which occurs while they work on this earth; a second begins the day of their death and continues as long as their ideas and conceptions remain powerful.” This was also true of Pericles. Like many great leaders he left a dangerous vacuum which no one could fill. Athenian politics quickly reverted to the antagonistic character of former times, as the leading men of Athens competed for the position of Pericles had left vacant. Lacking his unique eminence, however, they competed in a manner more typical of democratic contests by seeking new ways to please and flatter the voters.
Much of what I have written above is based on my friend Robert Garland’s fine book Daily Life of the Ancient Greek and Donald Kagen’s excellent authoritative book Pericles and the Birth of Democracy. As both of these authors strongly maintain, never has the story of the world’s first democracy had more to say to us than now. I’ve sent copies of both books to the White House hoping President Bush and his speechwriter and advisors read them.