Pericles’ Famous Speech


The following speech was given by Pericles, a leader in Athens during the fifth century B.C. after the first year of the Athenian war with Sparta (Peloponnesian War) (430 B.C.).

“Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbors.  It is more a case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else.  Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but the whole people.  When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.  No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty.  And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other.  We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his won 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; but in public affairs, we keep to the law.  This is because it commands our deep respect.

“We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.

“And here is another point.  When our work is over, we are in a position to enjoy all kinds of recreation for our spirits.  There are various kinds of contests and sacrifices regularly throughout the year; in our homes we find a beauty and a good taste which delight us every day and which drive away our cares.  Then the greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us, so that to us it seems just as natural to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products.

“Then there is a great difference between us and our opponents in our attitude towards military security.  Here are some examples: Our city is open to the world, and we have no periodical deportations in order to prevent people observing or finding out secrets which might be of military advantage to the enemy.  This is because we rely, not on secret weapons, but on our own real courage and loyalty…

“Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft.  We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about.  As for poverty, no one need to be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.  Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well…We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all…

“Again, in questions of general good feeling there is a great contrast between us and most other people.  We make friends by doing good to others, not be receiving good from them…We are unique in this.  When we do kindnesses to others, we do not do them out of any calculations of profit or loss: we do them without afterthought, relying on our free liberality.  Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece, and I declare that in my opinion each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility…Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of our empire which we have left.  Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.  We do not need the praises of Homer, or of anyone else whose words may delight us for the moment, but whose estimation of facts will fall short of what is really true.  For our adventurous spirit has forced an entry into every sea and into every land; and everywhere we have left behind us everlasting memorials of good done to our friends or suffering inflicted on our enemies.”

[Taken from “The History of the Peloponnesian War,” by Thucydides (New York: Penguin Books, 1954), 2.35-41; quoted in “The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy,” by Norman Melchert, pp. 41-42.]

Do you think this is an accurate description of Athenian democracy?  Is this a model to follow and should we be striving for such a state as well?  Does anyone know the reaction of James Madison to the idea and practice of Athenian democracy?  Do you agree or disagree with Pericles?  Why or why not?


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