Feed on

The only memory I have of my $100,000+ education is a small seminar I took with the then President of the College, Peter Pouncey. I was totally lost and clueless about much of anything we read and discussed. But I knew it was important stuff. Indeed, my most vivid memory was a class where we were discussing Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and President Pouncey was describing practice of honoring the fallen war dead with a grand oration. The most famous of these is the oration delivered by Pericles, a statesmen and military general in the Athenian city-state. He decided to read the entire speech to the class, and about 1/3 of the way through he started welling up, and by the end he was practically inconsolably emotional about it. At the time I was just puzzled. Now I can see a little bit better. Here are a few snippets.

What was the road by which we reached our position, what the form of government under which our greatness grew, what the national habits out of which it sprang?…

Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.

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.

And we have not forgotten to provide for our weary spirits many relaxations from toil; we have regular games and sacrifices throughout the year; our homes are beautiful and elegant; and the delight which we daily feel in all these things helps to banish sorrow. Because of the greatness of our city the fruits of the whole earth flow in upon us; so that we enjoy the goods of other countries as freely as our own.

Our city is thrown open to the world, though and we never expel a foreigner and prevent him from seeing or learning anything of which the secret if revealed to an enemy might profit him. We rely not upon management or trickery, but upon our own hearts and hands.

For we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act, and of acting, too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but hesitate upon reflection … In doing good, again, we are unlike others; we make our friends by conferring, not by receiving favors.

Of course, there’s plenty to take issue with in the oration, but I’m not in the mood to delve into that today.

Leave a Reply