Today is the first day of my class on The Urban Context. One of our first readings is Pericles’ Funeral Oration from Thucycidides, The Peloponnesian War. It’s the year 431 in Athens. The Peloponesian War–a war between Athens (and its empire) and neighboring city-state, Sparta, is just beginning. Every year, it is the custom in Athens to have a public funeral for its fallen war heroes, not unlike our Memorial Day. A leading citizen of Athens is gives the oration, and in 431, it is Pericles, an Athenian general. Pericles is no dummy, if his position and this oration are any indicators. As a seasoned general, Pericles knows that the Spartan League is unbelievably dangerous, and that funeral would be just the first of many in what would be a long and ugly ordeal for his people.
Of course, as any funeral narrator would, Pericles praises the fallen for their courage and their sacrifice. But more importantly to our purposes, he praises Athens herself. In so doing, he lays out a vision for what a great city is and why it was worth dying for:
Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.
Liberty, toleration, the rule of law, social and economic mobility, and equality under the law. Now, we know that Pericles’ equality among citizens is not the sort of the equality we’d like to see today that includes people besides “Athenian-born males”, but we’re talking 431 BCE here. My ancient relatives were hitting each other over the head with clubs and wiping their mouths on the family yak then, so I won’t throw any elbows.
Today’s New York Times has a story today on how Athens, with its 18 percent unemployment rate, no longer offers much economic opportunity to Greek’s young people, so they are moving back to the countryside to try their hand at their family farms. For somebody like me, who left a rural state for opportunities in the urban US decades ago, the story is a mix of bitter and sweet. One can only cheer these young folks on:
Beyond the numbers, the impulse to return to Greece’s rural roots itself represents a telling new tendency since the onset of the crisis — a turning inward, a quiet kind of national pride in response to the overall gloom. Dimitris Kaloupis, who left his job as a construction worker 20 years ago during the boom years and now is a full-time farmer in Volissos, raises his own animals and vegetables and runs a local tavern. He said he thought Greece could handle this crisis, as it had many others.
“We invented civilization, and we’ll take it back,” Mr. Kaloupis said over a lunch of stewed lamb that he raised himself. If the Greek economy really plummets beyond repair, “I will take the rock in my hand and squeeze it, and from the water that comes out of it, I’ll make pilaf to feed my daughter. We’ll manage.”