Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Robin Lane Fox: Why Pericles Matters



Thanks to the reader who pointed me in the direction of Robin Lane Fox’s lecture Why Pericles Matters, which was recently given at Royal Holloway College, here in London. (You can see the lecture here if your computer is up to it but, if like mine, it’s not, I did manage to extract the audio and you can listen to it above).

In his lecture, Lane Fox tells us why the life, deeds and ideas of Pericles, the great Athenian statesman – or ‘the Zeus of the human pantheon of Athens’, according to Hegel – continue to matter to modern societies. Naturally, Lane Fox pays closest attention to Pericles’ funeral oration, as recalled by Thucydides, in which Pericles, on the occasion of the internment of those Athenian soldiers who fell in the early skirmishes of the war against Sparta, presents his idealised view of Athens and its citizens. It’s an oration that, for Cornelius Castoriadis is ‘the most important political monument of political thought I have ever read’, though for its detractors is an odious expression of collectivism, nationalism, militarism and totalitarianism. And, indeed, it is to these critics that Lane Fox addresses his defence of Pericles.

Lane Fox starts by telling us that Pericles’ funeral oration matters because Pericles attaches no religious meaning or connotations to the Athenian war dead being commemorated. There is no mention of gods, martyrdom or paradise. These battlefield deaths are afforded no sacred significance and there is no religious comfort – of an afterlife, for example – that Pericles can offer to the grieving relatives.

Pericles and his funeral oration also matter, Lane Fox says, because of the radical democratic ethos represented. When Pericles speaks to the gathered citizenry, he speaks not as a monarch or president might, not as the leader of an elite or vanguard, not as a general or commander-in-chief, not even as a representative, but as one citizen to another, as an equal. Indeed, Athens is its citizens; and its citizens are Athens. The relationship is symbiotic. One does not dominate or exist separately from the other.

For Athenians to be so enamoured and engaged with their city – and for Athenians to make the best decisions on issues that ranged from the mundane to the momentous – required an unceasing dedication to education and culture – to paideia; and in his funeral oration, Pericles indicates that, in Athens, paideia is intended to prepare its citizens for civic life and public duty by inculcating in them a love of beauty – without this implying ostentation; and a love of wisdom – without this implying softness, or neglect of martial skills.

As such, for Pericles, according to Lane Fox, Athens and the Athenian way of life promoted arts, festivals and athletic games; championed thought and debate, enquiry and innovation; expected versatility not uniformity from its citizens; and, though adorned with resplendent civic buildings, recommended modesty at home and in the display of private wealth. In short, Lane Fox says, Periclean Athens matters because it promotes individual freedom but, at the same time, is vigourously communitarian. The individual who wanted to live outside the community, or disparaged civic life, was not the epitome of freedom, as he is in some modern ideologies, but an idiot (ἰδιώτης), a useless and inept character, with nothing worthwhile to offer or say.

For further discussion on Why Pericles Matters, go here and here.

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