I haven’t read the famous funeral oration delivered by Pericles to the people of Athens since I was an impressionable teenager at Laurel High School who thought almost everything my World History teacher taught was worth learning, but I decided, this year, at the culmination of my Vietnam unit, to teach it after speeches by Martin Luther King and Richard Nixon about the war.
Pericles, who led the Athenians during the Golden Age that saw the city come to its fullest intellectual and military power, delivered his funeral oration to celebrate Athenians who died in the defense of their city in the war against Sparta and offered a stirring speech commending the people of Athens and the values that guided the city-state. It’s an incredible speech that ranges from a love letter to his city (“you must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day-to-day, till love of her fills your hearts”), advice to grieving parents (“you who are still of an age to beget children must bear up in the hope of having others in their stead”).
Most of all, though, it’s a speech about a city Pericles knew would be saved by its faith and its institutions, a city that would not let itself be ruled by fear nor bound by walls to keep the world out.
Contrasting Athens with other cities, Pericles said:
We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.
It’s hard not to appreciate just how much Pericles differs from the leader of our country today, a man so ruled by paranoia fed by cable news channels, that he believes our society can only be protected when it’s closed off from the rest of the world. In his somewhat less soaring rhetoric:
The only weakness is they go to a wall and then they go around the wall. They go around the wall and in. Okay? That’s what it is. It’s very simple. And a big majority of the big drugs — the big drug loads — don’t go through ports of entry. They can’t go through ports of entry. You can’t take big loads because you have people — we have some very capable people; the Border Patrol, law enforcement — looking.
You can’t take human traffic — women and girls — you can’t take them through ports of entry. You can’t have them tied up in the backseat of a car or a truck or a van. They open the door. They look. They can’t see three women with tape on their mouth or three women whose hands are tied.
They go through areas where you have no wall. Everybody knows that. Nancy knows it. Chuck knows it. They all know it. It’s all a big lie. It’s a big con game.
There are so many reasons to oppose this President’s immigration policies, whether it’s the inhumane permanent separation of children from their parents, increased restrictions on students hoping to come to the US to study, or the outright bigotry of his ban on Muslims coming to the U.S., but what’s perhaps not been discussed enough is the weakness Trump’s restrictions project to the rest of the world.
For all Trump’s bluster and unearned bravado, his calls for a border wall, calls echoed by sycophants like Greg Gianforte and Steve Daines, do not show American strength; they are the pathetic statements of a person who doesn’t see the promise of American greatness, but who is so wracked with fear that he’ll lead our nation into decline as we turn away the migrants and dreamers who see this country as their best hope for a brighter future.
Read what Pericles had to say. It’s only four pages long—more, certainly than the total number of pages read by the current President during his term in office—and goes a long way towards describing what makes a great nation: actual achievement and not empty boasts, faith in the civic institutions that guarantee equality under the law, and a belief that openness is a measure of our strength.
As Pericles notes in his speech, great nations don’t need anyone to sing their praises, great nations, when tested great nations rise to a level “greater than [their] reputation.” Let’s not let Trump’s fear undermine who we are or who we can be.