Pericles’s famous funeral oration is, without a doubt, one of the greatest speeches passed down in history, yet there is dispute as to the true meaning of democracy put forth. Most believe that Pericles was praising Athenian democracy, yet some claim that he was, in fact, downplaying the importance of democracy. If Pericles was applauding Athenian democracy, it was in an effort to rouse the spirit of the people, to convince them that the sacrifices were worthy. However, if Pericles was drawing a line between the democratic and aristocratic features of the Athenian constitution, then it was done so with the intent to harvest talent. By applauding Athenian democracy, citizens would feel a sense of inclusion in their love for Athens and strive to protect their city. On the other hand, by dividing democracy and aristocracy, theoretically, Pericles would also be able to “create the impression that the democracy is an aristocracy of talent.” Overall, while there is reason to believe that Pericles praised a mixed constitution, it is more plausible that the oration was purely praising Athenian democracy.
One reason as to why Pericles praised Athenian democracy was to inspire citizens to continue to defend Athens-to rouse up the spirit of the people. With the situation of the Peloponnesian War looking grim, a gifted speaker was almost desperately needed to raise the morale. “Our system of government…being a model to others…” Pericles places Athens in a superior position compared to the rest of the world, and specifically, their enemy-Sparta. “There is a great difference between us and our opponents, in our attitude towards military security.” He forces the people to realize the juxtaposition between Athens, where the people are carefree, and Sparta, where the focus on military endeavors takes over all aspects of life. However, he continues to emphasize that this does not make Athens inferior to Sparta at all-in fact it gives Athenians advantages in many ways. “Discuss the spirit in which we faced our trials and also our constitution and the way of life which has made us great.” By highlighting the various ways in which Athens excels over Sparta concerning not only military proficiency but also regarding individual satisfaction and happiness, Pericles demonstrates that Athens is the pinnacle of perfection and that every citizen should be willing to fight to protect the essence of democracy.
In addition, Pericles paints Athenian democracy in a positive light to honor the dead and prove to the people that they died for a good cause. “These men have shown themselves valiant in action, and it would be enough, I think, for their glories to be proclaimed in action…” Through the use of syntax and diction, Pericles points out the gallant and glorious men who have died in the war, essentially saying that they died for a just cause. He believes, and tries to convince the audience, too, that their lifestyle is vastly superior to Sparta’s, and that it is worth dying for. Furthermore, he believes that even those who have lost a loved one in the war should be honored, as seen by his comments towards the elderly and the bereaved. “One’s sense of honor is the only thing that does not grow old”. He tells the elderly that although they have lost their children, they should be honored that they died in the line of combat to protect Athenian democracy. “All the same, those of you who are of the right age must bear up and take comfort in the thought of having more children.” He also tells those who are young to continue to produce children in order to supply Athens with more fighting force if necessary. Thus, Pericles fundamentally believes that no sacrifice is too small for the sake of keeping democracy safe.
Furthermore, Pericles attempts to convince the Athenians that death is preferable to dishonor and that an honorable sacrifice will be looked upon with reverence. He calls for those who are well off to join the battle, knowing that they will be the least likely to throw away their good fortune. “But this is good fortune for men to end their lives with honor…”. His choice of words convince the Athenians to fight for their democracy and the city they love. “The people who have the most excuse for despising death are not the wretched and unfortunate…but those who run the risk of a complete reversal in their lives…” Also, Pericles attempts to convince the citizens that there should be no fear of death if one already has an honorable life, as they would be forever respected after their death. Thus, he is saying that those who are healthy and able should be rejoiced in fighting for democracy.
One might argue that Pericles was praising a mixed constitution that involved both Athenian democracy and an aristocracy. After all, throughout the speech, he seems to refer to only those who are well off, never mentioning those who are not citizens or even the poor. When mentioning those who should go off to war, he says that only those who are well off should not be afraid of dying; the unfortunate in life should be fearful of death, as they cannot improve their circumstances. Furthermore, there is also a sense of inequality regarding election to office in that “everyone is not as good as his neighbor”. Last but not least, he continually praises the advantages Athenian democracy holds over Sparta, but only those who are citizens enjoy the full benefits of that democracy, not to mention that a limited part of the population were citizens.
Although it is true that Pericles seems to refer to only those who are well off in society, he includes everyone by continuously saying that those who are patriots and love Athens will fight for the city. Although those who were not citizens would not love the city as much as those who were, the overwhelming sense of patriotism would ensure that even those who were not citizens would be swept along. Secondly, even those who were not citizens had relatives-husbands, sons, and fathers who were, and that alone would convince them to love the democratic Athens as well.
One might also say that Pericles’s view of democracy isn’t exactly a democracy in the sense that it establishes a patriarchal society. When he refers to women, he says that they should stay at home and take care of the house. “And the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men”. Not only does he talk about them at only the very end of his speech, but he also seems to give them a menial task, while giving the glory and honor to the men. Furthermore, women were not included as citizens in Athens, which would further destroy the idea of a democracy.
Despite seemingly promoting a patriarchy, Pericles does his utmost to include women in the higher plan. By sending all the men off to war, only the elderly and women are left back at home. The task of keeping the home is not an easy one, and this tremendous responsibility is heaped upon the shoulders of the women. Even though women were not citizens, the fact that they had a greater responsibility at home could cover their lack of political opportunities. The separation of tasks and roles in society was critical in the development of Athenian democracy.
In conclusion, the view of democracy that Pericles puts forth in his funeral oration is flawed and outdated. Although Pericles himself seemed to firmly believe in the advantages of Athenian democracy to the point that he advocated it as the flawless system of government, there were minute flaws that contrast it to today’s democracy. Despite the extremely limited citizen population in Athens, Pericles overflows with patriotism, leading one to contrast it to the United States today. Pericles proclaimed “We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it.” These democratic values eventually led up to modern society.