Let’s take an objective look at Pericles defense of democracy and separate political rhetoric and the occasion of a funeral from the reality of the Athenian Polis in 431 B.C. It was a stirring speech, designed to honor the dead and motivate the living in a time of war – a war that would last another twenty-seven years.
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.
The Athenian Polis was a balance between branches of a government -- Archons, Council of 500 and Assembly. The Archons were the “wise men” elected from the aristocratic class for one year. The Council of 500 were chosen by lot from nominees of the people and also served for one year. The Assembly was made up of all male citizens. The council introduced new laws which were voted on by the assembly, while the archons acted as government administrators. This system was designed to allow broad participation and prevent the accumulation of power.
The court system was made up of non-professionals organized to facilitate fair trials of accused citizens. Common citizens served as jurors and members of the appeals court.
Did Pericles correctly describe Athenian society? Yes, if we’re speaking of the rights of citizens. I would say its as accurate as labeling the United States as a democracy. Not all citizens and classes are satisfied with their political system at any one time, but when the many classes can be balanced in a way that creates stability, it becomes successful.
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. And to show that this is no empty boasting for the present occasion, but real tangible fact, you have only to consider the power which our city possesses and which has been won by those very qualities which I have mentioned. Athens, alone of the states we know, comes to her testing time in a greatness that surpasses what was imagined of her. In her case, and in her case alone, no invading enemy is ashamed at being defeated, and no subject can complain of being governed by people unfit for their responsibilities. 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 a 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.
Pericles is right to say that Athens exceeded what was expected of her, because they knew they had gone where no political system had gone before. They had created a complex agrarian society with citizen participation in government and laws to protect the people.
Two caveats apply here, however. Pericles ignores the might of Sparta during a time when the two Poleis were at war. He derides the unique Spartan oligarchy which, in fact, was successful as a rival political system. Secondly, he hides Athenian imperialism under the cloak of “adventurous spirit.” Imperialism was a direct cause of the Peloponnesian War which Athens would lose.
What I would prefer is that you should fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she realty is, and should fall in love with her. When you realize her greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to live below a certain standard. If they ever failed in an enterprise, they made up their minds that at any rate the city should not find their courage lacking to her, and they gave to her the best contribution that they could. They gave her their lives, to her and to all of us, and for their own selves they won praises that never grow old.
These statements reflect the confidence and pride of Athens. That pride supported free thinkers who moved the culture forward and the soldiers that defended her.
I couldn’t help thinking of the colonial spirit used to describe the early United States. People came to North America because of their adventurous spirit. The west was settled by the same motivation. Sadly, much of this spirit has been compromised in the post-modern world as we dumb it down for the sake of socialist ideals. The Athenians would point out that we are tearing down, block by block, that which made us great – liberty.
For famous men have the whole earth as their memorial: it is not only the inscriptions on their graves in their own country that mark diem out; no, in foreign lands also, not in any visible form but in people's hearts, their memory abides and grows. It is for you to try to be like them. Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.”
Pericles made the point that wars are a part of life and having the courage to fight and win is the only guarantee of freedom. This is another way of stating that which made Athens excel – it was a society that provided the freedom and encouragement to be seek happiness through pursuing one’s interests. A philosopher could be a philosopher, and was encouraged in the effort, rather than being a goods producer. When people are allowed to uses the tools they are born with, rather than being stifled by economics, they contribute more to the advancement of their culture.