“For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart. These take as your model and, judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valor, never decline the dangers of war.”
These are the words of the Athenian leader Pericles in what is called his Funeral Oration. This speech is one of the most famous in history and still has a message for soldiers and Americans on Thanksgiving Day. Pericles and Athens were in a long war against the Spartans, and he started his speech by praising the actions of their ancestors which “handed [our heritage] down in liberty through their valor.” He praised their free government, noble character, virtues, and their commitment to democracy. He recognized the hardships that the present generation faced, but then gave the people of Athens command for them to “be no less daring” than the heroes that came before and to “try to be like these men…realize that happiness lies in liberty, and liberty in valor, and do not hold back from the dangers of war.”
This is where the honor and praise come in. Many people believe that Lincoln’s speech followed the same pattern at Gettysburg. Lincoln praised the foundation of liberty established “four score and seven years ago.” He praised the people’s commitment to “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He acknowledged the dead at Gettysburg but said that no words can dedicate the ground where men died for freedom and concluded “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
These speeches are moving, and use a memorial for the dead to remind the remaining people of the principles for which the dead had fought and to motivate the living to work harder in defense of their system of government. We should bask in their great words and appreciate the message today. That includes paying attention to the warning in those words as well. Immediately after the funeral oration, Thucydides described the descent of a plague on Athens. There are some natural justifications for this such as the overcrowding and potential for communicable diseases that comes with an influx of refugees. But the rhetorical strategy is even more poignant. Because Thucydides contrasts all of the high-minded rhetoric about freedom, noble character and virtue, and shows how that immediately disappeared in less than a year due to the pressures of what modern audiences would just call “real life.” He writes: “The great lawlessness that grew everywhere in the city began with this disease…[and the people] dared to do freely things they would have hidden before… And so, because they thought their lives and their property were equally ephemeral, they justified seeking quick satisfaction in easy pleasures. As for doing what had been considered noble, no one was eager to take any further pains for this, because they thought it uncertain whether they should die or not before they achieved it.”
As I’ve described before, the commitment to freedom and nobility seems rather frail when we consider the average tenor of conversations on Twitter, the anger in our rhetoric, the praise for attention grabbing, shallow hot takes over reasoned assessment, and the actual violence that now seems fairly normal. A typical day online matches Thucydides description of civil war very well:
“Ill-considered boldness was counted as loyal manliness; prudent hesitation was held to be cowardice in disguise, and moderation merely the cloak of an unmanly nature. A mind that could grasp the good of the whole was considered wholly lazy. Sudden fury was accepted as part of manly valor, while plotting for one’s own security was though a reasonable excuse for delaying action. A man who started a quarrel was always to be trusted, while one who opposed him was under suspicion.”
During this Thanksgiving it is important to remember the courage and sacrifice of the Pilgrims and those that have fought and died in our wars. But it is even more important to remember their words of caution. Talking about liberty and freedom is easy, but actually producing a civil and noble society is difficult. All of our talk about brave and noble souls fighting for freedom often vanishes in a bubbling cauldron of rancor and blithe finger-pointing. So if we really understand the words and warnings of those famous speeches we might consider unfollowing Trump’s Twitter account, or at least suggesting he tone it down, turning off the TV, biting our tongues when we feel like lashing out, and perhaps actually doing something noble this Thanksgiving instead of just talking about it.