“The Funeral Oration of Pericles”: An Abridged Version
By Endeavor Greece Jul 14, 2022
Recited at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, by Adrien Brody, on July 14th 2022
Athens, 431 BCE.
Democratic Athens has been at war with oligarchic Sparta for almost a year. No one knows how long the war will last, but winter has come and as is the custom, the Athenians take time to mourn and bury their fallen. The bones of the departed are laid out, for people to bring offerings to their dead. Coffins of cypress wood are carried out on wagons, one coffin for each tribe. One dressed but empty funeral bier is carried for the missing, whose bodies could not be found and recovered. The procession is joined by Athenians and foreigners alike, as the bereaved families come to lament at the grave. The Athenian leader, Pericles, steps forward to deliver the funeral oration before the mourners.
“Before I pass on to the praise of the dead, I should like to point out by what principles of action Athens rose to power, and under what institutions and through what manner of life we reached greatness.
It is true that we are called a democracy, because the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. The law secures equal justice to all alike in their private disputes. The claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, they are preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. And poverty is no barrier to office, if one despite their humble condition has the ability to do some good to the city.
This openness carries on in our private lives. We try not to be distrustful of each other, or to be critical of what gives pleasure to our neighbor. Passing judgment, though perhaps harmless, is unpleasant. When it comes to public matters however, we abide by the law: it is our reverence and respect above all which keeps us obedient to the authorities of the day and to the laws, especially the laws established for the protection of those who were wronged.
Furthermore, as rest from our labors we have provided ourselves with a wealth of recreations for the spirit—games and festivals held throughout the year, and elegantly appointed private houses, giving us the daily pleasures which dispel sorrows.
We differ from our enemies in our approach to military matters. We keep our city open to all, and we never expel foreigners or prevent anyone from observing what they will out of fear that an enemy might see something that would benefit them. We rely less on military preparations and subterfuge and more on our own personal courage in the line of action. And in the matter of education, whereas they from early youth undergo laborious exercises which are to make them war-ready, we live at ease, and yet are equally equipped to face the perils which they face.
We cultivate beauty without extravagance, and intellect without loss of vigor; wealth is for us the gateway to action, not the subject of boastful talk, and while there is no disgrace in the admission of poverty, the real disgrace lies in the failure to take active measures to escape it.
In our city, those who tend to their private endeavors, do so without neglecting their public duty, and regardless of their specific field of work, they all have a good understanding of political affairs. We are all involved in either the formulation or at least the review of policy, thinking that what cripples action is not talk, but rather the failure to thoroughly discuss the policy, before proceeding to the required action. This gives us a combination of daring and deliberation – whereas others draw courage from ignorance, while deliberation makes them idle. True strength of spirit should be attributed to those who have a clear understanding of both suffering and pleasure in life, and who, in spite of that knowledge, do not shrink from danger.
Also in nobility of spirit, we stand in contrast to most, for it is not by being passive, but by being actively generous, that we acquire our friends. And so we confer benefits in good faith, and not upon a calculation of interest.
In summary, I declare that our city can be an example for all, and so too our citizens, self-sufficient individuals, able to adapt and meet most occasions with grace. And this is not boastfulness because of the occasion: the qualities of Athens do not lack for witness, they need no Homer to sing their praises, or encomiast to overstate them. We have dared our way through every sea and land and have seeded the world with everlasting monuments, to both our successes and our failures alike.
This is the city for which these men gave their lives. And it was the qualities of these men and others like them which made our city glorious. And even if some had their faults, they have erased harm by doing good. The rest of us may pray for a safer outcome, but should demand of ourselves a determination against the enemy no less courageous than theirs. Do not simply listen to people telling you at length of all the virtues inherent in resisting the enemy, but rather look day after day on the manifest dynamism of our city, and become her lovers. And when you realize her greatness, reflect that it was such people who made her great, by their daring, by their recognition of what they had to do, and by their pride in doing it. Together they gave their lives, and individually they take as their reward the praise which does not grow old and the most glorious of tombs – not where their bodies lie, but where their fame lives on in every occasion for speech and ceremony, an everlasting memory. The famous have the whole earth as their tomb. Their record is not only the inscription on gravestones in their own land, but in foreign countries too, the unwritten memorial which lives in individual hearts, the remembrance of their spirit rather than their achievement. You should now seek to emulate these people. Realize that happiness is freedom, and freedom is courage.
I have made this speech as custom demands, finding the most suitable words I could. The honor expressed in ceremony has now been paid to those we came to bury. And now it is time to leave, when each of you has made due lament for your own.”
Such was the funeral held in this winter: and with the passing of winter there ended the first year of war.
The “The Funeral Oration of Pericles” was translated by Faliro House Productions.