It seems to me, reading Pericles’ funeral oration (431 BC), that it clearly provided the inspiration for Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Pericles begins by dismissing his own speechmaking ability: "[I]t is hard to speak properly upon a subject where it is even difficult to convince your hearers that you are speaking the truth." That reminded me of Lincoln’s "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here."
Pericles then dwells on what we might call "Athenian exceptionalism": "Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves." A bit later, he adds, "In short, I would say that as a city we are the school of Hellas." This brought to mind Lincoln’s beginning, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."
Most striking of all, both speeches conclude by challenging the living to live up to the standard set by the fallen. "So dies these men as became Athenians," says Pericles. "You, their survivors, must determine to have as unaltering a resolution in the field." I think Lincoln expresses that thought better: "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
(After writing this I did some quick Googling and saw that the comparison between the two speeches is apparently a major theme of Garry Wills’ book on the Gettysburg Address. So clearly I am not the first to come across this.) I knew that Lincoln was into Shakespeare and the King James Bible, but I hadn’t realized he also absorbed the Greeks.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tags: Diplomacy, Europe, History, International Relations, Military, North America
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Pericles’s Funeral Oration And Greek Society
Pericles’s funeral oration was given to honor the soldiers lost in war by commemorating the military accomplishments of the Athens government and to distinguish the roles of men and women in Athens society. Pericles’s speech was given in 430 B.C.E at the end of the first year of war. He then died a year late in 429 B.C.E. Pericles’ Funeral Oration is included in Thucydides’ writing titled History of the Peloponnesian War.
Pericles gave a few reasons for giving this funeral oration. The main purpose Pericles gave his speech was to praise the Athenian war dead. For example, in the speech he states, “When men’s deeds have been brave, they should be honored in deed only and with such honor as this public funeral”. He goes on to explain in the speech that a friend of the dead who knows all the facts is more likely to think that the words of the speaker are not good enough or do not meet their expectations. Although a listener that does not know the dead will be envious of anything that surpasses his own powers or knowledge. He gives reasoning for this in the speech by stating, “Mankind are tolerant of the praises of others so long as each hearer thinks he can do as well or nearly as well himself, but, when the speaker rises above him, jealousy is aroused and he begins to be incredulous”. His speech was also meant to be a tribute to the city of Athens and the way of life there. Pericles wanted to convince the people of Athens that their city is worth dying for. To do this he talks about the ancestors and how their land has been passed down from generation to generation.
Athens government and military is considerably different from their neighbors. According to Pericles, Athens government is not a copy of our neighbors, but an example for them to look at. It is easily noticed how superior Pericles considers Athens to be to its neighbors. Most Greek city states were ruled by a small elite group, also known as an aristocratic oligarchy (cite text book). Pericles explains that the Athens government is a democracy because the administration is in the hands of many and not just a few people. This will cause the government to have equal justices exist for all people. This is confirmed by Pericles stating, “When a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as a reward of merit”. This means that a citizen has to earn their privileges, they don’t just get things because of who they are in society. Athens not only takes pride in their government, but is also very proud of their military. Athens considers their military training to be better that their enemies in many ways. The people never try to hide...
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