This article was first published by The Houston Chronicle, and is reprinted here with permission.
It was a moment of political convulsion and public disquiet; a moment of dire pandemic and demagogic politicians; and a moment to grieve for the dead and galvanize the living. It was a speech given by a figure long familiar with governing a nation, just as he was long familiar and respected by those he governed. Yet, it was a moment that took place not just this month in the world’s greatest democracy, but also 2,500 years ago in what was then the world’s greatest democracy.
At first glance, it seems a stretch to compare President Joe Biden’s inaugural speech to his fellow Americans to the famous funeral oration given by Pericles to his fellow Athenians. At second glance, though, we can see how the context of both eras, content of both addresses and character of both speakers bridge the many centuries that divide them.
When Pericles gave his oration in 431 BCE, a long smoldering civil war in the Mediterranean had only just burst into flames. It was not, admittedly, a war that pitted Athenian against Athenian, but it was one, importantly, that set Athens against Sparta. Though very different city-states, their peoples were both fully and equally Greek who, just a few decades earlier, united in the defense of Greece against the invading Persians. It was the fratricidal nature to this war, so unlike the wars against the Persians, that led the historian Thucydides to declare it the “greatest” of all wars.
The occasion for the speech was to mourn the citizen-soldiers of Athens killed in the first year of the war. But it was more than a moment to consecrate the ground on which they had fallen. It was also the moment to celebrate the city and values for which these men had given their lives. For this reason, Pericles does not speak in the first-person singular, but instead in the first-person plural. The constitution of Athens, he declares, makes all of us “equal before the law.” It guarantees a democracy where “power is in the hands of everyone and not a few” which assures that one advances “not by membership to a particular class, but by one’s actual ability.” Even more simply, it is a democracy because while Athenians “are free and tolerant in our private lives, in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect.”
Gazing at the men and women gathered for this solemn moment, Pericles reminds them of the difficult times they face. The crisis had only just begun. But alone of the states we know, he also reminds his audience, Athens “comes to her testing time in a greatness that surpasses what was imagined of her.” If the Athenians continue to love the law and listen to reason, they will prevail. “Taking everything together then,” he announces, “our city is an education to all of Greece.”
Almost 2,500 years later, we heard the powerful echo of Pericles’ words in those of Biden. At the very outset, like Pericles, he proclaimed his triumph was not about him, but about “the cause of democracy.” He pronounced that we had been “tested” as a nation by our own civil war, and that “the American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us but on all of us.” He reminded us of our “uniquely American way — restless, bold, optimistic” — a description that matches the uniquely Athenian qualities praised by Pericles. And, for the first time since the pandemic’s start, he requested a moment of silence to mourn for all of those we had lost.
There are, of course crucial differences. When Pericles spoke, his fellow citizens included neither women nor enslaved people. While women were not considered equal, enslaved people — who built the enduring monuments of Athens — were not considered fully human. When Biden spoke, he did so not just with the first woman and Black vice president behind him, but also a Capitol built by enslaved people and now defended by their freed descendants.
Yet another difference is that pandemic settled on our country a year ago, turning our hospitals into hecatombs. But when Pericles spoke, the plague had not yet exploded over Athens. In the way Thucydides’ arranges his account, the plague — which was probably typhus — follows hard on the heels of Pericles’ speech. Not only does it end his life, but as historians now believe, the plague also ended the age of Athenian greatness. No less than the arrows shot at them by fellow Greeks, the arrows shot at them by Apollo — the mythical explanation of plague — brought the world’s first experiment in democracy to an end.
This has not yet happened to our democracy, inspired in so many ways by the education provided by Athens. But while we gather to make good on Biden’s vow to make America “the leading force for good in the world,” we must also recall his warning that “democracy is a fragile thing.”