Somewhere toward the middle of The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Moral Stories, William Bennett has included “The Funeral Oration of Pericles” from Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War. To Bennett (or to his ghostwriter), this “speech reminds participants of democracy two and a half millennia later that the character of the state is determined by the virtues of individual citizens”; it is a paean to civic virtue and teaches the importance of citizen responsibility.
If you remember the speech from school days, you probably recall it as a nice piece of oratory in praise of the soldiers, sailors, and marines killed in the first year of the war. Rereading it in Bennett’s book does evoke an uplifting feeling. But you have to grow up sometime, and it is useful to ponder what Bennett does not pose: whether Pericles represents the highest ideal of democratic leadership or a general societal illness that was then infecting Athens.
It is true that during the Age of Pericles (mid-fifth century B.C.), “the Athenian empire reached full development militarily, commercially, and culturally.” Militarily, development meant becoming the hegemon of an alliance system forged to fight the Persians from c. 490-448 B.C. Or, to use the blunter terms of Pericles himself, “what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go unsafe.” This military development allowed the Athenians to control the sea lines of communication in their thalassic world, bully allies who were in arrears on their dues, and use the riches of their far flung holdings to build public gymnasia and theaters for the people who manned the ships. The essence of her commercial development was the use of sea power to satisfy the desires of the masses.
Culturally, in the years between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, Athens grew up. During the Persian Wars, the Athenians were motivated by fear of their enemies, friendship for each other, and devotion to the gods, and they defined justice as the painful process of finding righteousness in difficult circumstances. By the time of Pericles, the rustic simplicity of Athens had been replaced by a cosmopolitanism motivated by fear, honor, and interest. Justice now became submission of the weaker to the stronger. Pericles, the head of state, must take some credit for this major change. What shall we think of him?
In Gorgias, the old realpolitiker Callicles asks Socrates whether he has not heard that Themistocles, Cimon, Miltiades, and Pericles were all good men. Socrates replies:
Yes, Callicles, they were good men, if as you said at first, true virtue consists only in the satisfaction of our own desires and those of others; but if not, and if, as were afterwards compelled to be acknowledged, the satisfaction of some desires makes us better, and of others, worse, and we ought to gratify the one and not the other, and there is an art in distinguishing them—can you tell me of any of these statesmen who did distinguish them?
Callicles: No, indeed I cannot.
Socrates then confronts Callicles with the observation that Pericles and the other “great” statesmen were the real authors of Athens’ calamities. If they are to be praised for building harbors, docks. walls, and revenues, let them be so. But they likewise are to be damned for “leaving no room for justice and temperance” and causing the “swollen and ulcerated condition of the State.”
Did Pericles in his funeral oration give Athens’ citizens a genuine picture of civic virtue and citizen responsibility or a facade to justify their greed? William Bennett’s editing of the speech leaves out a key segment that demonstrates how prepared Pericles is to substitute the order of human power for the power of the gods. In this section Pericles calls Athens the “school of all Hellas” whose renown is so great that her assailants have no occasion to blush when beaten, and even her subjects do not question her title to rule. The Athenians’ pathos is at its peak here, as Pericles makes a desperate attempt to reconcile necessity with justice. But he cannot stop with this equation. Pericles seems compelled to take the fatal step that turns his speech into an assault on the order of the gods:
The admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our panegyrist, or others of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere . . . have left imperishable monuments of evil and of good behind us.
Homer and the others of his craft represent what we might call the “Order of Zeus,” the poetic and philosophic articulation of the spiritual experiences of the Hellenes from Homer through Hesiod to Plato, as the truth of the myth becomes the truth of the philosopher. In contemporary terms, the Athens of Pericles has reached that point where there are two strata of thought, each contending for the soul of the city. One, represented by Socrates, recognizes that the Homeric myth no longer is authoritative, but must be replaced by the theology toward which the myth had always pointed. The other, represented by Pericles, would be called the “fact/value dichotomy.” “Truth” is determined by the methodology of physical science, whereas “justice,” “love,” “right,” and “beauty” would be demoted to “feelings about values” which are neither true or false but relative to time, place, and culture. The conclusion of all this is that justice is the advantage of the stronger.
The formulation of this is found in the objections to justice of Glaucon and Adeimantus in Book II of Plato’s Republic. Briefly stated, their argument is that justice is merely a convention; that we do just things against our will; that the just man suffers while the seemingly just man prospers; and that since there are no gods, we should be as “unjust” as we can. In Pericles’ speech, this formulation banishes the poets and celebrates what the stronger have done (“imperishable monuments”). In the field of pragmatic action, the ultimate logic of the funeral oration is reached in the Melian Dialogue some 15 years later. In response to the Melians’ accusation that the Athenians’ threat to destroy them is unjust, the Athenian representatives answer:
Right as the world goes, is in question only between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. . . . Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can.
The Periclean pathos finally becomes incarnate in the slaughter of the Melians, an island people who only wanted to remain neutral. Xenophon tells us that the Athenians became so hated by the rest of Hellas that, after the naval defeat of Athens at Aegospotami in 404 B.C., only a Spartan veto prevented the victorious coalition from butchering the Athenians in retaliation for what Athens had done at Melos.
Mr. Bennett tells us that during the Age of Pericles, “Athenian democracy flourished.” According to a political tract included in the works of Xenophon, this meant that Pericles allowed Athens to “let the worst people be better than the good.” The “Old Oligarch” who wrote The Constitution of the Athenians did not like the Athenian democracy but praised its leaders for preserving it so well. Under Pericles, considerations of power became more important than considerations of piety and justice, so it was only natural to let the poor and the masses have more than the high-born and wealthy “for the reason that it is the people who man the ships and impart strength to the city; the steersman, the boatswains, the sub-boatswains, the look-out officers, and the shipwrights—these are the ones who impart strength to the city far more than the hoplites, the high-born, and the good men.” We can imagine that Pericles’ audience was not unaware that he made their wealth, theater-going, and public gaming possible. Pericles, in turn, knew that his power was unassailable as long as he controlled the Piraeus, the seaport suburb and hub of Athenian democracy where the masses on which he based his power dwelled.
Plato’s Republic begins on a prescient note, as Socrates and Glaucon go down to the Piraeus to see a festival. Down in the Piraeus, they will find freedom—the kind of freedom without virtue nurtured by Pericles. There Socrates will form a little society of friends at a dinner party. The friends will learn the message that could save Athens: God is without fault; our problems are of our own making. That message of genuine citizen responsibility and civic virtue will be unheeded.
What, then, are we to make of Mr. Bennett’s portrait of Pericles? One possibility is that he is merely reiterating Thucydides’ view of the man. Thucydides thought that Athens’ troubles came when leaders less skillful than Pericles took the helm. Under Gleon and Alcibiades the Periclean rapier-like strategy of indirection and limit became a bludgeon that brought down the Athenian house. Our discussion of Socrates revealed that it took a person with “deepseeing,” with genuine insight into the etiology and cure of the sickness that the Periclean confusion of power with virtue and of pride with the will of the Gods caused, to put the blame where it really lay—in the architects of Athenian impiety and imperialism. Thucydides, like Bennett, simply lacked the conceptual tools of a Plato to diagnose what was occurring. Thucydides used the medical notion of a disease to analyze the war, but, in his hands, it was not much more than a metaphor to record the upheaval that was convulsing Hellas. A Socrates or Plato could be more like a real doctor—a practitioner who could recognize and treat illnesses of the spirit.
Almost simultaneously with the publication of The Book of Virtues, Garry Wills came out with his own interpretation of Pericles in Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders. In this very entertaining book. Wills raises the “Periclean type of leadership” to something like an ideal type. Franklin Roosevelt is Periclean—”here, at last, is a ruler who can, by sheer mastery, impose his views on the multitude.” Adlai Stevenson was a man who “believed in the Periclean’ ideal of leadership—that a man should be above the pressures of the multitude, telling people uncomfortable truths.” Unfortunately, from Wills’ perspective, Stevenson did not have the “right stuff” to find a common bond with the American people.
Perhaps the publication of these two books with remarkably similar views of Pericles is sheer coincidence. Bennett’s portrayal of the Athenian statesman will appeal to neoconservatives, who equate American power and worldwide commitments with virtue or “values.” As such, they are admiring the real value that Pericles is promoting. Rather than the virtue of responsibility, Pericles is celebrating the Spartan virtue of “savage valor”: the ability to stand the sight of bloody slaughter and thus achieve a kind of immortality through one’s reputation (“imperishable monuments”). If this is the national character neoconservatives are promoting, the republic is indeed dead.
A more disturbing query concerns the capability for “deep-seeing” that seems common to both Bennett’s and Wills’ books. As we have seen, even Thucydides was unable to perform the type of operation that would have resulted in Socrates’ verdict on Pericles. The “scientific” method of Thucydides did not reach into the deepest recesses of the soul, where the womb of politics is found.
Is the appearance of The Book of Virtues and Certain Trumpets a symptom of a similar powerful disturbance in our own culture, which our elites feel but cannot ultimately understand? As Eric Voegelin writes, the process of moral corruption spreads from the public to the private sphere. It “begins with habituation to unjust action in affairs of state and ends with the dissolution of honesty, loyalty, and shame in personal relations.” In Homer’s Iliad, the heads of Mycenaean civilization are rotten; in the Odyssey, the fish has rotted from the head down. Is the United States somewhere in that process—with no one with the deep-seeing to tell us?