Athens is a major Greek city-state in European history. It was a great center of cultural and intellectual development, and thus home to philosophers. Socrates and Pericles, two of these philosophers, had polarizing opinions about the city-state and its citizens. While Pericles chooses to praise the Athenian citizen, Socrates criticizes Athens’ people. Pericles gave his opinion at a funeral during the first battles of the Peloponnesian War, while Socrates gave his during the trial that ultimately led to his death.
The Athenian city-state has become a model for today’s systems of government and a hearth for western philosophy, so Pericles’ opinion seems to be the one that is more accurate.
Pericles starts his speech talking about the Athenian tradition of praising members of the city-state at their funeral. He observes that the speaker of the oration has the impossible task of satisfying the associates of the dead.
He states “it is hard to speak properly upon a subject where it is even difficult to convince your hearers that you are speaking the truth,” (Pericles’ Funeral Oration, Thucydides) and discusses the different people in attendance who must be satisfied with the speech.
According to Pericles, the speaker needs to please friends and strangers, with both parties having opposite needs. On one hand, the friends want to hear the dead glorified in all walks of his life, while the stranger will have trouble believing some of it and think that the speech is using hyperbole.
However, he says that it is tradition, so the speaker must go forth anyway. Pericles then moves on to speak about the ancestors of his city-state. He says that they handed down the country free of charge out of valor, and that their fathers added to their inheritance to build an empire. After this, he moves onto the Athenian structure of government. He praises Athens as the originator of democracy, claiming that they did not borrow anything from neighboring city-states, and that others have taken on the Athenian style of government.
According to Pericles, an essential piece of information on Athenian government is that “they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life” (Pericles’ Funeral Oration, Thucydides).
In other words, it doesn’t matter what your social rank is, if you are a citizen of Athens, you have a right (and duty) to serve in the government. This is known as a direct democracy today, and it is where we, citizens of the United States, took inspiration for our current system of government. Pericles is right to praise the city-state in this regard, as its legacy still has effect on the world millenniums after its time. Socrates, however, wasn’t as keen on democracy. Socrates, a critic of Athenian society, is also known as a critic of democracy. Athens is a democracy, a city in which the many are the dominant power in politics, and it can therefore be expected to have all the vices of the many” (“Socrates’ criticism of democracy,” Encyclopedia Britannica). Socrates claims that he did not want to take part in government because he feared imprisonment or death, which eventually became his fate. Socrates’ problem with democracy was his concern with the citizens who run the democracy. He feared that democracy had “all the vices of the many,” but what if the people’s vices aren’t that bad, or if the people don’t allow their vices to get in the way of objective decision-making?
Socrates believed that people are incapable of running a democracy because of the vices of the many, and that is the flaw with that system of government. This train of thought is important in today’s world, as we do not have the purer, direct form of democracy. Instead, we have an indirect democracy, where we vote for our decision makers: men of sound character, as opposed to everybody voting on decisions. During Socrates’ trial, he is charged for corrupting the youth, disregarding the deities of the city-state, and bringing in his own beliefs. He is found guilty by a slim margin, and he then suggests his punishment to be a fine.
The jury then sentences him to death, a fate that he accepts. In Greek society, a man’s loyalty to his city-state was great enough for him to believe that he owed the city-state his life (Socrates was no different). Socrates then offers one last criticism to those that voted against him. He says “if you think that by killing men you can avoid the accuser censuring your lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves” (“Apology,” Plato: translated by Benjamin Jowett).
Here, he advises his accusers that getting rid of the critic is the wrong solution to the problem. Instead, one should improve himself so that the critic will leave him alone. This shows that Socrates’ concern with democracy is with the character flaw of the Athenian citizen. What makes Athens so important in today’s society is its relevance to our governments. We took principles from their direct democracy and applied them to our modern system, thus recognizing Pericles right for praising the Athenian for this feat.
Socrates also had a validity in recognizing that the vices of people do become a part of government. This has been taken into account as citizens today have a more limited role in government (as opposed to the direct role Athenians had). Both philosophers had valid points to their arguments, but Pericles’ praise is the one that seems more in line with history. The Athenians had the right idea. Socrates, however, alerted later civilizations to correct what he feared as democracy’s great flaw.
Plato. “The Internet Classics Archive | Apology by Plato. The Internet Classics Archive | Apology by Plato. N. p. , n. d. Web. 19 Sept. 2012. . “Socrates (Greek Philosopher) : Socrates’ Criticism of Democracy. ” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n. d. Web. 19 Sept. 2012. . Thucydides. “Ancient History Sourcebook: Thucydides (c. 460/455-c. 399 BCE): Pericles’ Funeral Oration from the Peloponnesian War (Book 2. 34-46). ” Internet History Sourcebooks. Fordham University, n. d. Web. 19 Sept. 2012. . “A Take On the Pericles’ and Socrates’ views on Athenian Society” By: MenSa Smith September 18, 2012 History 113, Section E
Cite this A Take on the Pericles’ and Socrates’ Views on Athenian Society
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