Set during the time period of the Peloponnesian War, when the Greek city state of Athens’ existence was challenged by a conflict with the Greek city state of Sparta, Perikles’ Funeral Oration can be understood as a sincere attempt to bolster patriotic morale by citing the innovations of Athenian political and cultural life, and thus underscoring the reasons why Athens should be defended. Yet it would be a mistake to consider the text as merely a form of propaganda, encouraging jingoistic objectives to overcome Sparta in the war: Perikles’ reasoning gives the reader (or listener) a logical series of arguments as to why Athens should be considered a historically significant state.
In this respect, what truly sets Perikles’ argument apart for the uniqueness of Athens is that he underlies the importance of Athens’ political structure of democracy as crucial to what makes Athens great. Hence, Perikles states that “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.” What Perkiles underscores here is the uniqueness of the democratic political system in this time period, and it is the uniqueness of this vision that should be defended. Athens is a creative and innovative political state, which at once possesses a distinct ethical foundation, and that is a commitment to the rule of the many, that is, to a form of life in which all citizens participate in the political process and thus in their own political futures.
Arguably, it is this point that is most crucial to Perikles’ oration, since he also argues that Athens should be defended because of a historical veneration of its ancestors: this is common to pagan religions and the cult of ancestor worship, for example, Shintoism. In this regard, however, the relevance of Pericles’ text to contemporary America is this same value placed on the democratic process. For according to political rhetoric the uniqueness of America, much like the uniqueness of Athens, is explained in terms of commitments to democracy. Accordingly, a basic political orientation extends from Athens to America. Certainly, it is debatable if such democracy and the rule of the many truly applies to the contemporary United States. This ideal is often conflicted with the realities of a limited political system dominated by two political parties who have very little difference in terms of foreign policy and even its differences in domestic policy do not appear to be entirely radical. This would seem to imply a hegemony at the heart of the system; when one adds in the fact that financial elites control much of America, the rule of the many seems to be a myth. Nevertheless, the ideal remains intact, and this democratic ideal can be used within the current framework to foster change in a more democratic direction within the United States: in this regard, the commitment to the democratic life as something like a base political principle is shared by both the contemporary U.S. and Ancient Athens as described by Perikles.
Word count without quotes: 480