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(2006-11-07 13:39:58)
分类: Forever Classic

An Introduction to Pericles’ Funeral Oration


Thucydides did not belong to the generations of Empire builders. He was born just after them, and his personal memory went no further back than the peace of 445. So he shared the ideas of the age with his older contemporaries, but in a less instinctive fashion. Like them, he knew that he was living in great times. But, more thoughtful than they, he desired to record them; for he knew, as they knew if they ever lay awake thinking, that this glory could not last and that posterity would be glad to read of it. But he little suspected how brief the blossom would be, or that, in his own short lifetime, he would yet see autumn and midwinter.

Yet it was in midwinter, when the Long Walls had been dismantled and the Acropolis had housed a Spartan garrison, that he wrote his eulogy of the city in the form (what form could be more appropriate?) of a speech over her noble dead. It is not, of course, the speech which Pericles delivered, or even, as the speaker hints, the kind of speech usually given on such occasions. There is too little in it about noble ancestors, and too much about the present day. But there is no reason to doubt that Thucudides had heard his hero speak, most probably more than once, over the city’s fallen soldiers, and could recall in after years among his most sacred recollections, “the cadence of his voice, the movement of his hand,” and the solemn hush of the vast audience, broken only by “the sobbing of some mother of the dead.” We may feel with confidence that he has given us, with the added colour of his own experience, not merely the inner thought but much of the language of Pericles. So that here we can listen, as in all fine works of interpretation, to two great spirits at once; and when we have learnt to use our ears we can sometimes hear them both, Pericles’ voice coming through, a little faint and thin after the lapse of years, above the deep tones of the historian.

The speech is written, if ever writing was, “not in ink but in blood.” For with Thucydides, more perhaps than with any other great writer, there is not a word but tells. “You must read and mark him line by line till you can read between the lines as clearly as in them. There are few thinkers with so many ideas brooding in the background.” All great art is like a ghost seeking to express more than it can utter and beckoning to regions beyond. This is as true in history, which deals with nations, as in poetry or any more personal art. That is why 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, whether in the trenches of Mukden or in the cemetery of Gettysburg. Pericles and Abraham Lincoln were not very much alike. But common needs beget a common language; and great statesmen, like great poets, speak to one another from peak to peak.   


Chosen from Zimmern, The Greek Commonwealth













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