Interesting that, more or less the moment I finish writing a piece for Aeon magazine (due to appear 22nd October) on the use of Pericles’ Funeral Oration on war memorials and in remembrance services for the war dead (the short version: this happens a lot, and is somewhat problematic), David Cameron makes his announcement about plans for the celebration of the centenary of the First World War. Don’t I mean ‘commemoration’ rather than ‘celebration’? I wish I could feel more confident about that. Yes, that’s the word he used, but it’s a pretty odd sort of commemoration:
…a commemoration that captures our national spirit in every corner of the country, from our schools and workplaces, to our town halls and local communities. A commemoration that, like the diamond jubilee celebrations this year, says something about who are as a people.
Yes, he eventually gets round to mentioning the fact that people died – and the mention of 16 million shows that he’s not just talking about the British and their allies – but then he rapidly switches back to the national theme: their “sacrifice” was made for us, and made us what we are today. The notion that the whole thing was a senseless waste of life, exploiting the patriotic feelings of the populations of many nations for the sordid self-interest and over-weening arrogance of their politicians and ruling-classes – a version that is promoted by conservative historians as much as anyone – doesn’t enter the picture. Remembering the dead is an occasion for us to be persuaded to feel good about ourselves as a nation, not an occasion to curse nationalism.
Thucydides hasn’t, to my knowledge, been mentioned yet (so I don’t have to do any hasty re-writing of the article), but it may be only a matter of time. The fact that quotes from the Funeral Oration feature so often on war memorials – like the tradition of war memorials themselves – is very much a product of the first world war. The brilliance of the speech is that it doesn’t just offer appropriate words for honouring the dead, it justifies their sacrifice in defence of the city, and – most importantly – sets them up as a model for everyone else. Pericles makes a persuasive case why everyone should rush to join up when told that freedom and democracy are under threat; this is all the honour anyone could ask for, and only those prepared to fight to defend freedom really deserve to enjoy it.
In the early years of WWI, before anyone thought of constructing war memorials, Pericles’ words were used to justify the war and its casualties. A poster appeared in London buses: “For you now it remains to rival what they have done, and knowing the secret of happiness to be freedom, and the secret of freedom a brave heart, not idly to stand aside from the enemy’s onset”. Different translations of the Oration were issued as pamphlets, such as that of A.E. Zimmern, published in 1916 as The Ideal of Citizenship.
Read in isolation, the words of the speech are self-sufficient, requiring little or no context to render them comprehensible. If this is true in general, it has become the more true today – in general, and for us English in particular.
Modern interpretations, emphasising Thucydides’ sophistication as a writer and analyst, would tend to insist that the context is vital, stopping us from taking Pericles’ words at face value as we see how things actually turned out. But Zimmern was neither the first nor the last to assume that the central meaning of the work can be extracted from its set-piece speeches, without worrying about the tedious narrative sections in between, and to sense a direct connection between Thucydides’ world and his own. As he argued in his paraphrase of Pericles’ argument,
“Through effort and suffering and on many a stricken field we have found out the secret of human power, which is the secret of happiness. Men have guessed at it under many names; but we alone have learnt to know it and to make it at home in our city. And the name we know it by is Freedom, for it has taught us that to serve it is to be free. Do you wonder why it is that alone among mankind (will there ever be another nation which can understand what we mean?) we confer our benefits not on calculations of self-interest, but in the fearless confidence of Freedom?”
It is a trite saying that History is but a repetition. If we, to-day, smile at such high estimate of Athenian work, shall not the generations to come be tempted to a like fine laughter at our assurance that “England entered the war, not on calculations of self-interest but in defence of the inviolable principles of Freedom and the sanctity of Treaties”.
Zimmern introduces thoughts of posterity to enhance Pericles’ credibility – “we know we’re sincere even if we can imagine others mocking this; so we shouldn’t doubt Pericles’ sincerity”. From the perspective of a century later – well, maybe not if you’re David Cameron – the opposite move seems more plausible: our scepticism about the motives of the warring powers in 1914-18 and the way they mobilised their populations should make us properly suspicious of Pericles’ manipulative rhetoric.
“The Funeral Speech, written of a small provincial city in the untried youth of the world, will always find an echo whenever men and nations are living true to themselves.” Hmm. One might suggest, rather, that the Funeral Speech will be echoed whenever politicians are trying to bolster support, regardless of the casualties. This is how you persuade young people to sacrifice themselves for your policies, and persuade their parents and families not just to accept but to celebrate that sacrifice – whether it’s a matter of war or austerity…