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Dr. Larry Arnn On The Pericles Funeral Oration

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HH: We’re going to talk in a little bit about another great speech by another great war leader, Pericles. And we don’t have many such speeches in the course of Western history, do we?

LA: Well, I don’t know how you mean that. You mean from the ancient world, you mean many like Pericles’ funeral oration?

HH: That’s correct.

LA: Well, the Pericles funeral oration is in some ways parallel to the Gettysburg address. And the Gettysburg address, I think, is better. In a way, the Gettysburg address is more ancient. But the funeral oration is a great piece of oratory.

HH: Now that’s what we call in radio a tease. So we’re not going to go there right away. If you want to know about Pericles’ funeral oration, and you’ve forgotten what you learned, you’re going to have to stick around for the hour, because before we go there, we have to pick up the story. Last week, when we left off in the last Hillsdale dialogue, the Athenians had heard the arguments from the Corcyrans and the Corinthians, and they’d thrown in with the former, Larry Arnn, against the latter. And the latter trod off to Sparta, which convokes an assembly in Book 1, paragraph, I believe, 68 through I guess it will go on through 87. Set this up for people, and explain why this matters so much.

LA: Well, there are these two great powers. You know, remember the geography. Greece is a promontory sticking down into the Mediterranean, and on the left is Italy, and on the right is Turkey. And this war happens around this promontory and the two adjoining seas and the two adjoining lands. And over up to toward the Italy side is where this Corcyra is. And Corinth is dead between Athens and Sparta. And Athens and Sparta, in their very different ways, are the man. They’re the ones who matter in the Greek world. They’ve got the power. Athens has the most. And so when Athens joins against Corinth, grandma, against its child, Corcyra, then but there’s also a grandchild named Epidamnos, a town that’s rebelling against Corcyra, then the only place that the Corinthians can go is to Sparta, because they’re the only ones who can hope to stand up to Athens. And these speeches, and remember about the speeches in Thucydides, that Thucydides writes them. And they might have been this good, but they couldn’t have been better.

HH: Well said.

LA: And the one that I want to read some from today is beautiful, because you have to remember that it’s a proposition of the Greek world that, of classical thought, and a true proposition, in my opinion, that the characters of cities are like the characters of people. And they differ a lot, but that inside a city, the characters of people are powerfully influenced by the laws of the city, by the character of the city. And that means you can recognize an American, and you can recognize an English person. And you can recognize a French person, and so on, and in the East, too, by the regime, or the way they live. And Thucydides very much thinks this way. And one of the recurrent strains between, in classical thought, is between these two greatest of the classical Greek characters, the Athenian character and the Spartan character, two characters which, by the way, cooperated to win the great war with the Persians, and then fell to fighting effectively to destroy classical Greece.

HH: And I assume you’re going to quote the Corinthian ambassador’s characterization of both the Athenians and the Spartans.

LA: That’s correct.

HH: And I used to, just to preface this, I used to read, when I first read this, I used to think that the Americans sounded a lot like the Athenians, but now I think the Chinese do, and that we’re becoming increasingly less like the Athenians of this address. But proceed, please.

LA: Well yeah, don’t be gloomy, yet, because America’s not done. And America is very different. You see, since you raised that question, I’ll expand the point. When you read about nations, and try to understand what moves them, it’s like an inquiry into your own life and what kind of person you want to be. And so when you read these speeches by the Corinthians to the Spartans, and then the Athenians to the Spartans, too, and hear these two regimes characterized, ask yourself which would you want to be like.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And then ask yourself, by the way, about the Chinese. Would you like to be, what is their account of themselves? If you want to understand them, it’s not enough just to follow the news in some superficial way. What do they have to say about themselves? What moves them? When you scratch them, what do you find, because they’re a great people, and there’s something moving them, and the question is, is it a good thing? And if you can understand that about them, it becomes easier to predict their behavior.

HH: And you know, Dr. Arnn, I’ve spent most of the last three days talking about North Korea, China, Japan and the United States. And the great game continues at a much more all-destructive level, if you will. If things go awry here, it would be on a level of destruction far surpassing that in the Peloponnesian war. But it’s the same great game between powers.

LA: It is, and you know, it’s a mystery what’s going on there. And remember what you said about destruction, that if you’re talking about scale, of course, in the modern world, things are on a much bigger scale. But think about what is destroyed. What was destroyed in the Peloponnesian war was the society that produced the Parthenon and Socrates and Aristophanes and Plato, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: And the man who fostered those things was killed in the war, died in the war.

HH: Much was lost. We’ll talk about how it began and how the Corinthians appealed to the Spartans about the Athenians when we return.

— – –

HH: It’s the last hour of the radio week, and this is when we do the Hillsdale Dialogues, a series of conversations with Dr. Larry Arnn or another of the Hillsdale faculty on the great works which animated the West, and which continue to guide it in many respects. We have for the last two weeks, for this, and the next two weeks, talked about The History Of The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, and we are not at a point where the Corinthians have appealed and gone to Sparta, and said join with us and help us thrash these Athenians. And how do they make their case, Dr. Arnn?

LA: They start out by shaming the Spartans, you know, which is quite a thing to do given what the Spartans were. They say you’re so slow, you Spartans, and you always underestimate yourself. And I haven’t read this in the Greek. I do read a little Greek, not much anymore, but it’s actually pitiful. But I could look up and find the word pusillanimous, which small souled, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: So megalup sucae (sp?), the Greek, that was Latin what I just said, but megalup sucae, that’s big-souled, right? And micro sucae, that’s little-souled, because you’ve, and you’ve made terrible mistakes by being slow, because what you’ve done is first of all, after the Persian war, you permitted Themistocles, the great leader of Athens in the Persian war, to build the wall that goes from the city of Athens, which is a few miles inland, down to the sea, to the Peloponnese, the great Athenian port. And you let them build a wall to guard that passageway, and make themselves impregnable to you, because they can always get to their ships. And you were slow to do that. But before that, and this is a violent thing to say to the Spartans, you were so slow to act against the Persians that you let them come.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And that’s just terrible the way you guys are. And remember, they’re talking to the people who led at the battle of Plataea, the great, big land battle where the Persians were defeated, and the people, one of whose kings died with 300 others, at the battle of Thermopylae.

HH: And then they have the temerity to say and we hope this doesn’t offend you.

LA: That’s right, yeah. Sorry, you know, to be so candid. But you’re like this, and because you’re like this, the Athenians are going to overcome you. And that, they know, is what everyone is afraid of. And then there’s this, after they chastise the Spartans in asking for their help, oh please, Spartans, comes to our aid, then they describe the Athenians. And I’m going to read this description, because it’s just lovely. And while you hear this, it’s in Chapter 1-70, ask yourself the question if you would like to be described in these terms.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And there’s some of them you wouldn’t be, but many that you would. And so when you reflect on that, you’re beginning a study of character of what makes a human being right when it’s right. The Athenians, say the Corinthians, are addicted to innovation. And their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution. You have a genius, you, Spartans, have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention. And when forced to act, you never go far enough. They are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment. That means they’re reckless. And then in danger, they are sanguine. That means they’re confident, optimistic, their blood is up. Your want is to attempt less than is justified by your power, to mistrust even what is sanctioned by your judgment, and to fancy that from danger, there is no release. There is promptitude on their side against procrastination on yours. They are never at home. You are most disinclined to leave it. For they hope by their absence to extend their acquisitions. You fear by your advance to endanger what you left behind. They call them cowards, see?

HH: Yeah.

LA: They are swift to follow up a success and slow to recoil from a reverse. Their bodies, they spend ungrudgingly in their country’s cause. Their intellect, they jealously husband to be employed in her service. A scheme unexecuted is with them a positive loss. It’s like the young Winston Churchill, you know. A successful enterprise, a comparative failure. They should have done more, they think, even when they win. The deficiency created by the miscarriage of an undertaking is soon filled up by fresh hopes. For they alone are enabled to call a thing hoped for a thing got, by the speed with which they act upon their resolutions. Now there’s a speech in Henry V, in the Shakespeare play, where the British herald walks in to see the king of France. And he looks at him, and he says what is your message for the king of France, the king of France says to him. And the herald says he comes with his demands. What demands says the king of France. And the herald says your throne. And if it is withheld, what then, he says. He comes in, earthquake and thunder. And if you hide it in your very heart, there he will rake for it. That’s how these Corinthians are explaining these Athenians. They’re coming, they’re coming of a sudden, and you’ll never know where they’re going to pop up. And you sit here in your little place alone.

HH: And at the end of that, the last couple of sentences in paragraph 70, thus they toil on in trouble and danger, the Athenians, all the days of their life, with little opportunity for enjoying, being ever-engaged in getting. Their only idea of a holiday is to do what the occasion demands, and then laborious occupation is less a misfortune than the peace of a quiet life. To describe their character in a word, one might truly say that they were born into the world to take no rest themselves, and to give none to others. Now who’s that sound like, Larry Arnn?

LA: You mean Americans, maybe?

HH: Well, we used to be that way.

LA: Yeah, yeah. But see, you have to think about that for a minute, see, because we’re in the Greek world, right? Socrates is alive at this time. And doesn’t Socrates in the dialogues often call into question characteristics like that? Indeed, it’s a central doctrine of Aristotle, for example, and the Platonic dialogues, that leisure, that is to say at rest, to concentrate on the highest things, is superior to all forms of occupation. And the Athenians are given to occupation, right?

HH: Right.

LA: They’re busy all the time. And Socrates, you know, Socrates senses a fever in the Athenians. And this fever is dangerous to them. And it proves dangerous to them in this war. And so this description of them, and you know, is asks you to think, what kind of person do you want to be, and what kind of city do you want to live in? Now when we read the Pericles funeral oration, we’ll get a much more balanced account of the Athenians, but with many of these same elements in it. And so you can see that’s a set of claims, right? These Athenians are saying we are excellent human beings. This is the way that human beings should be. And be like us, that Pericles prides himself that the rest of Greece are imitators of the Athenians, except these slow, old, perdunkety Spartans.

— – –

HH: Well, the war gets going, because the Corinthians persuade the Spartans to throw in against Athens. And the first year of the war sees casualties. And the Athenians get together to have a funeral for their brave men who have died, and it says in paragraph, Book 2-34, after the bodies had been laid in the earth, a man chosen by the state of approved wisdom and eminent reputation pronounced over them an appropriate eulogy, after which all retire. And it is to that eulogy, Pericles’ funeral oration, Larry Arnn, that we turn to, and I think there was a time when every school child had to read this. That time is gone, and unfortunately so.

LA: Yeah, very much. It’s one of the great speeches in recorded history. And people should know who Pericles was and what’s going on. Pericles is the builder of the Parthenon, the great eruption of classical beauty and learning in the civic side of it. That was Pericles, the great force in Athens for a generation. He lasted a long time, and he was brilliant, and he had a strategy for the war. And already, the strategy is under test, and it is raising huge complaints against him, which come in a few months, come to a crescendo, because his strategy was we’re not going to go on the battlefield against the Spartans. We can’t beat them. No one can. And that means they’re going to march their army up here, and they’re going to ravage all of the land around Athens. They can’t get over the walls, including the wall down to the sea, but they’re going to tear up our farms, and everybody’s going to have to evacuate the farms and come into the city. Well, the farms belonged to rich people, nobles, aristocrats. And the people who work on the farms are going to have to leave their homes and come into the city, and Athens quickly becomes terribly overcrowded, because of course, Archidamus, a Spartan king who was against the war and wanted to wait, however leads the first expedition. And in the first month of the Peloponnesian war, they ravage Attica, the land around Athens. And Athens is overcrowded, and that may be why a plague broke out that devastated Athens and took the life of both of Pericles’ sons, and in the next year, of Pericles himself. But Pericles is unmoved by this until he’s killed by it, and he refuses to give way to the cries that we must send the hoplites out to fight the Spartans. He said that way lies destruction. We will get our food from our colonies by way of your Piraeus, the port, and up into the city protected by our walls, and they’ll never be able to touch us. And as long as Pericles lived, they stuck by that. And most of the war, they stuck by that, too. And so he’s the author of that. And this funeral is the funeral of the first dead. And it’s a funeral at large, public expense, and it’s to honor these dead. And Pericles himself, in this speech, characterizes the Athenians and their character, and what they’re like.

HH: And I want to make sure we don’t run into the break here before, so I’m going to go to the end before we come back and spent eight minutes on it. I’ve got in my hand, Dr. Larry Arnn, a coin given me by the gold star mothers, a couple of whom were here two weeks. You know, it is very difficult to interview, much less orate, to people who have lost their loved ones in war. But Pericles does this with everyone, and he speaks to them directly, to the people who have lost sons and husbands. It’s really quite amazing to think it through.

LA: And he’s, you know, it’s very firm. There is a passage in this where he talks to the women.

HH: Yes.

LA: And if I can find it here…

HH: It’s at the end. Great will be your glory, and not falling short of your natural character, and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among the men whether for good or for bad. Very controversial, I would imagine.

LA: Yeah, yeah, and on the other hand, if I must say anything on the subject of female excellence, to those of you who will now be in widowhood, it will all be comprised in this exhortation. Great will be your glory, not falling short of your natural character, and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among the men, whether for good or for bad. In other words, no whining.

HH: I know, it’s so brusque.

— – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, I’m just going to give you the floor here for, we have an eight minute segment, to just expound on the Pericles funeral oration.

LA: Okay, Pericles explains the Athenians, and the Athenians are very special people, he says. And of course, he’s helped to make them what they are. Our constitutional does not copy the laws of neighboring states. We are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. He says we are a system of popular rule. We favor the many instead of the few. And we favor equal justice. So a principle is equality among the Athenians, just like us, right? We do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they afflict no real harm. That’s a description of freedom.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And in the ancient world, you know, the rule is, and there’s a famous comparison, in the modern world, what the law does not forbid, it permits. In the ancient world, what the law does not permit, it forbids. And you know, the totalitarian states, China, in some of its moods, attempts to reverse that and make that true in the modern world again. But Pericles is saying not in Athens. And yet, he goes on to say we obey the law here. And he says we do that so we’re an equal people, and we leave each other to our own devices. But on the other hand, we serve the state, and we obey the law, and we do it because we are afraid not to do it, he says. We fear. But the laws that we obey include those unwritten laws, and that must mean laws that apply to everyone, you see, and that this is an Athenian creation, the idea that there are such laws, the Socrates line, right? Let us find the good for man. And we obey those laws. And that means that we are worthy by deduction of this imitation, because we are obeying laws that apply to all. We are a model for other cities. And then he says we’re very courageous. Now one thing about this speech is the speech is, it’s very self-congratulatory.

HH: Yes.

LA: Like if you read the Gettysburg address, and I would encourage you to go and read that as you read this, and just note first of all, the themes are very heavily overlapping. But the tone of the Gettysburg address is almost entirely sacrifice and duty. And it’s more tragic than the funeral oration. And that’s an interesting thing, because Lincoln doesn’t make any prediction about the course of the war. But his cause, I argue, our cause, wins that war, whereas Pericles is more confident, and they lose the war, himself, Pericles dead in a few months from this. He even taunts the Spartans. It may be noticed that the Spartans do not invade our country alone, but bring with them all their confederates. But we Athenians advance unsupported into the territory of a neighbor and fighting on a foreign soil usually vanquish with ease men who are defending their own homes.

HH: Yeah, he’s quite the braggart. We cultivate refinement without extravagance, and knowledge without effeminacy. He just, there’s nothing the Athenians don’t do.

LA: Wealth we employ, so we’re, also we’re disciplined, right? We employ wealth for use more than for extravagance, and we’re not ashamed of poverty, only ashamed of struggling against it.

HH: Yeah.

LA: So you know, part of the thing is, aren’t we something? And you won’t find in, I argue, you won’t find in the pages of Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln speeches that are about how we’re the greatest, except that it’s a cause that’s the greatest, and we are honored to be in the service of it. And that’s a different thing, you know. It’s a different attitude. And you could say that Pericles is a more ancient attitude, because honor and pride occupy a different standing in the virtues than they do in the Christian era. But it’s also haughty. Like if you read the response of the Spartans earlier back in 1-73 and 74 to the Corinthians, Archidamus is the first one to respond, and he says we shouldn’t do this…

HH: Right.

LA: …because these guys are hard to beat.

HH: Yup. Let’s go slow.

LA: In other words, his speech sounds like the Corinthians are predicting his speech. And then they surprise everybody by going to war, partly though from fear. Pericles is not moved by fear in this. And see, there are, apart from the arrogance of it, which has a grandeur of its own, they’re beautiful passage in this, too. And I’ll read a couple of them. The love of Athens fills your hearts. And then when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honor and action that men were enabled to win all this, and that no personal failure in an enterprise could make us consent to deprive our country of its valor. But we lay it at the feet of our nation, our most glorious contribution. The heroes have the whole Earth for their tomb. And in lands far from their own, their epitaph declares their death. There is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no monument to preserve it, except that of the heart.

HH: That’s amazing.

LA: Isn’t it beautiful?

HH: Yeah.

LA: Surely to a man of spirit, the degradation of cowardice must be immeasurably more grievous to the unfelt death which strikes him in the midst of his strength and patriotism.

HH: And Dr. Arnn, 30 seconds, comfort, not condolence is what I have to offer up to the parents of the dead. I’m not even sure what that means.

LA: It means fortunate indeed are they who draw for their lot a death so glorious as that which has caused your mourning.

HH: Wow. That is the Periclean funeral oration. When we come back to Thucydides next week with Dr. Arnn, we’re going to talk about something called the Melian dialogue on the Hillsdale dialogues. But go and read it for yourself and read the Gettysburg address at the same time. Dr. Arnn, thank you. The Hillsdale dialogues available at

End of interview.


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