Pericles' Funeral Oration For The 911 Dead

by Manuel García, Jr.

September 6, 2004   


"One's sense of honor is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when one is worn out with age, is not, as the poet said, making money, but having the respect of one's fellow men."
—Thucydides (460-400 BC), from Pericles' Funeral Oration, in History Of The Peloponnesian War

(Swans - September 6, 2004)   It is three years since the attacks of 11 September 2001. What have we learned? What is our vision of ourselves as a nation, as a people, and as individuals? So many answers -- and blank stares -- would be given in response to these questions, and so much confused emotional psycho-political babble gushed out to cover the underlying fears and biases of those responding, that we can be assured the questions are meaningless. That reflects the state of our society today. Consider the answers we might have if Pericles were speaking to us, as the leader of the nation.

"In the same winter the Athenians, following their annual custom, gave a public funeral for those who had been the first to die in the war."

As a stunned and saddened nation buried its dead, after the attacks of 11 September 2001, it asked itself "why?" and questioned its self-confidence and optimism, which had propelled so much of its prosperity. As was the custom "a man chosen by the city for his intellectual gifts and for his general reputation makes an appropriate speech in praise of the dead." In the parallel unrealized history we recount here that man was Pericles and these were his words.

Memorialize Valor With Action

Many have praised our dead on similar occasions in our history, and thought such speeches worthy. I do not agree. These people have shown their valor in action, and I think it would be enough if we proclaimed their glories by actions of comparable valor on our part. Leaving history to judge the courage of the dead on the basis of the uncertain truthfulness of the speeches of the living seems a hazard to both honor and truthfulness, in my view. However, the tradition of such remembrance eulogies is a part of our heritage, and I will endeavor "to meet the wishes and expectations of every one of you."

Ancestral Links

Let me begin by speaking about our ancestors. By their courage and their virtues, they have handed us a free country, and for that deserve our praise. Even moreso do our parents and grandparents deserve our praise, "for to the inheritance they received they added all the empire we have now, and it was not without blood and toil that they handed it down to us of the present generation." We, who are in the prime of our lives, have it in our power to arrange our State so that it is perfectly capable of managing itself in both peace and war. In speaking of this I aim to discuss the spirit in which we face our trials, and the constitution and way of life which makes us great. This is how I shall praise the dead, by recalling the ideals that bind us to them.

What We Believe

Our system of government is an innovation and a model to the rest of the world.

"Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. 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. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other."

"We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect. We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break."

Look At How We Differ From Our Enemies

Consider how we differ from our enemies. Our nation is open to the world, and we do not have periodic deportations because we fear foreigners will have learned secrets of military advantage. "This is because we rely, not on secret weapons, but on our own real courage and loyalty."

Many of our enemies submit their youth to rigorous and restrictive training, to toughen them for battle while providing them with few ideas or a capacity for independent thought, to assure blind obedience. "We pass our lives without all these restrictions, and yet are just as ready to face the same dangers," and to respond with initiative and imagination.

We are always prepared to carry out our own campaigns ourselves, without relying on allies, mercenaries or proxies. We do this because we believe in what we fight for, and we fight for what we believe in. How else can war be justified?

Look At How We Conduct Ourselves

"Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well -- we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all."

We are open about discussing proposed policies, so the best actions can be decided upon with due consideration; we do not allow our policies to be devised by small cliques in secret meetings, and the full weight of ill-considered consequences to be laid on the backs of the people who were kept in ignorance of these schemes. "We do not think there is an incompatibility between words and deeds; the worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated."

"We are capable at the same time of taking risks and of estimating them beforehand. Others are brave out of ignorance; and when they stop to think, they begin to fear. But the man who can most truly be accounted brave is he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come."

Look At How We Treat Others

Consider how we treat others and make friendships around the world. "We make friends by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them." Our friendship is reliable, because we prefer to have others with a continuing sense of gratitude, rather than a growing apprehension of being exploited, or of impending indebtedness should we begin making demands.

"When we do kindnesses to others, we do not do them out of any calculations of profit or loss: we do them without afterthought, relying on our free liberality."

An Example To The World

Taking everything together, our country is an education to the world. "Each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself [and herself] the rightful lord and owner of [their] own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility." They embody the principles, the values and the history of our nation, and in that they are linked to each other as no other people on earth. This is our strength, and we celebrate in the recognition of it.

The power that our country possesses has been won by the qualities of its people, which I have described today. America comes to her testing time with power never dreamed possible. In her case alone will a defeated enemy feel unashamed of failure, for even those who attack us cannot imagine our defeat. "Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of our empire. Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now."

Now It Is Our Turn

This country, this empire, and this power is now in our hands, and it is for us to carry on with it, to employ the magnificent opportunities we have at our disposal, to create the history of our time, and to set the world on its course for future generations -- for the plain fact is that this power rests with us alone. Our principles can only spread throughout the rest of the world, and become the basis of a wider civilization, if we enact them. If we lack the courage of our ancestors, and retreat from our ideals, then we will wither away as a disappointment to ourselves, our ancestors' dreams, and the world's best hopes.

In Praise Of The Dead

Now I come to the praise of the dead. These were ordinary people, as is always the case with the fallen in wars. And yet, they are extraordinary people, because as death sprung upon them in a surprise attack, they each dropped the pettiness that so often clouds daily life, and focused their remaining moments in acts of exceptional daring, kindness, professionalism, and humanity. "They have blotted out evil with good, and done more service to the commonwealth than they ever did harm in their private lives."

"As for success or failure, they left that in the doubtful hands of Hope, and when the reality of battle was before their faces, they put their trust in their own selves. So they fled from the reproaches of men, abiding with life and limb the brunt of battle; and, in a small moment of time, the climax of their lives, a culmination of glory, not of fear, were swept away from us."

"We who remain behind may hope to be spared their fate, but must resolve to keep the same daring spirit against the foe."

A Living Memorial

The memorial for our dead will be our actions in response to the challenges the world throws at us. Do you imagine, given the price they paid and the valor they displayed, that they would want that memorial to be anything less than our best efforts and our ideals in action?

Our nation is that memorial. The laws we make, the policies we take, the way we treat each other, the way we stride out into the world, all of that is our memorial. The way we exhibit ourselves in our sporting festivals and artistic events, these too are memorials for our Nine Eleven dead. What is it that animates us and which we express in our strivings and personal victories? That is our memorial. Is it to be the cheap and tawdry, the penurious and pecuniary, the fearful, prejudicial and ignorant?; or is it to be the courage, imagination and expansiveness of adventurous people animated by humane and affirming ideals?

Just as in their final moments all pettiness was burned away from the Nine Eleven dead by the clarity of their realizations -- they had only moments to secure fulfillment for a lifetime -- so must the selfish small-minded attitudes that drain human spirit among us be burned away from the living web we share as a nation. We are the memorial of the Nine Eleven dead. What kind of people do we want to be? What kind of people do you think they would want us to be? "Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous."

Some among you will say, 'what fine pretty words, but our country is hardly such a paragon,' because you see disparities between our reality and our stated ideals. Of course, who with any sense of honesty doesn't see these flaws?, and that is where we must focus our efforts. For if we are a people comfortable with truth, and animated by the ideals I have spoken of today, then the removal of these blemishes is simply a task to be accomplished with dispatch and efficiency. If we hew to our democratic ideals we cannot help but to evolve along the noblest and most humane of paths. "Where the rewards of valor are greatest, there you will find the best and bravest spirits among the people."

Pericles, having finished his address, the people each mourned for their dear ones and then returned to their lives.

Thucydides And His History

Thucydides was an Athenian who achieved the rank of general in the early years of the Peloponnesian War, between Athens and Sparta during 431-404 BC. After suffering a defeat in Macedonia, he was exiled for twenty years, dying a few years after his return to Athens. He devoted his time to writing a detailed contemporary account of the war, applying a passion for accuracy and a contempt for myth and romance that was of revolutionary modernity in its time, and remains a model to this day. Thucydides' writing, which at first seems such dry and dullingly detailed prose, can work on the imagination in such a compelling way that his work has been passed down to succeeding generations for two and a half millennia, fully justifying his own assessment of it: "My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last for ever."

Pericles' Funeral Oration, delivered in 431 BC, is a reconstruction penned by Thucydides. There is a vast scholarly literature on the achievements and limitations of Thucydides' work, and investigations into his techniques. Some of this is described in the introductory essays, explanatory notes, appendices and bibliography of the English translation of Thucydides used for this article:

Thucydides, History Of The Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner (in 1954, revised 1972), with an Introduction and appendices by M. I. Finley (in 1972), published by Penguin Books, ISBN-0-14-04.4039-9.

I recommend this book without reservation; all the quotations in this article are from it. I fell under its spell in the chapter on the "Civil War in Corcyra 427," in which I learned more about the Bosnian War of 1992-1995, within a half dozen pages, than I did from four years of reporting by major TV and print media. The impact of truth stated clearly can reach out from 2,400 years in the past and strike a lightning bolt of insight today.


The speech I have had Pericles deliver, in honor of our Nine Eleven dead, will seem filled with anachronisms to modern American readers. When my Pericles jars you with a phrase that seems at odds with today, consider whether this discrepancy is an actual difference, or if it is simply the shock of hearing facts we repress today -- such as empire -- being opening acknowledged. As an example, consider the place of women, how much is different and how much is the same?

In our time, speaking the truth is a revolutionary act. Take it.

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Manuel García, Jr. is a graduate aerospace engineer, working as a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He did underground nuclear testing between 1978 and 1992. He is concerned with employee rights and unionization at the nuclear weapons labs, and the larger issue of their social costs. Otherwise, he is an amateur poet who is fascinated by the physics of fluids, zen sensibility, and the impact of truth.

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Published September 6, 2004
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