The Noble Life: On Plutarch’s “Pericles”

Quotes are from John Dryden’s translation, published by Modern Library but available online for free. The biography is about 30 pages long.

It seems strange to call Pericles noble, given that to become the leading man in Athens, he displaced the aristocracy and bullied the oligarchy that remained. Pericles’ legacy is undoubtedly one of unleashing populist forces, but given his skillful management of the people and (relatively) gentle treatment of political enemies, should we not call him noble? Ultimately, the distinction between Pericles and Cimon, the latter representing the height of aristocratic Athens, is that the former was noble simply, whereas the latter was noble and in a sense pious (cf. Strauss, “Preliminary Observations on the Gods in Thucydides’ Work”).

It may be easier to call Pericles immoderate: the populace thought him full of hubris, although he was continent. But this only leads to the obvious line of inquiry that Plutarch wants us to pursue. For apparently no reason, the name “Socrates” is dropped into the narrative, and key parts of the life of Pericles mirror that of Socrates.

1. Before we compare Pericles and Socrates, we should make the strongest case for why any of us might want to examine Pericles, or even be like Pericles. Plutarch speaks of his “mind and upright temper and demeanour, and… [the] capacity to bear the cross-grained humours of [his] fellow-citizens and colleagues in office, which made [him] both most useful and serviceable to the interests of [his] country.”

Now if we want to know where Pericles got his “mind and upright temper and demeanour” from, it came from a “lofty and, as they call it, up-in-the-air sort of thought.” He went beyond what was “natural,” getting

…elevation of purpose and dignity of language, raised far above the base and dishonest buffooneries of mob eloquence, but, besides this, a composure of countenance, and a serenity and calmness in all his movements, which no occurrence whilst he was speaking could disturb, a sustained and even tone of voice, and various other advantages of a similar kind, which produced the greatest effect on his hearers.

To not put a too-fine point on it, Plutarch offers the following story:

Once, after being reviled and ill-spoken of all day long in his own hearing by some vile and abandoned fellow in the open market-place, where he was engaged in the despatch of some urgent affair, he continued his business in perfect silence, and in the evening returned home composedly, the man still dogging him at the heels, and pelting him all the way with abuse and foul language; and stepping into his house, it being by this time dark, he ordered one of his servants to take a light, and to go along with the man and see him safe home.

So alright, his manners were perfect, so perfect that they translated into incredible patience, gentleness, and mesmerizing political rhetoric (of which we have nearly nothing left, save what Thucydides says his Funeral Oration “basically” said). So what? What did he do?

2. To obtain power, he sided with the people’s party against the oligarchic/aristocratic parties. Now the best of the aristocrats, Cimon, gave much to the poor, “inviting every day some one or other of the citizens that was in want to supper, and bestowing clothes on the aged people, and breaking down the hedges and enclosures of his grounds, that all that would might freely gather what fruit they pleased.”

Pericles had an idea to combat Cimon’s sharing of private wealth:

Aristotle states… [Pericles] turned to the distribution of the public moneys; and in a short time having bought the people over, what with moneys allowed for shows and for service on juries, and what with other forms of pay and largess, he made use of them against the council of Areopagus…

The Areopagus, to grossly oversimplify – the power and setup of all these institutions differ significantly – was regarded like the House of Lords; the Ecclesia, the full assembly of the male population, is how the House of Commons would be esteemed today, esp. after the Areopagus, not coincidentally in Pericles’ time, had been rendered toothless. From the Ecclesia we get all the fun stories of recalling generals to stand trial even while they’re in the middle of a campaign.

Having been generous with wealth that wasn’t his, and securing an entire city with it, Pericles embraced an ambitious imperial project. To do this, he turned allies into subjects. There was a common fund the allies had for their defense: Athens under Pericles took the money and said “they were in no way obliged to give any account of those moneys… so long as they maintained their [Athens and the allies] defence, and kept off the barbarians from attacking them.” Pericles sent Athenians as colonists, military aid and even provisional rulers to all the “allies,” while sending out large numbers of them out on galleys to learn seamanship for 8 months at a time. The money was going into building a powerful navy and an army that controlled strategic points, to be sure, and nascent democratic movements abroad were helped.

But the money also went into massive public works that gave employment to numerous Athenians in the arts, so they didn’t feel left out. The Parthenon, the chapel at Eleusis, the entrances to the Acropolis, tons of statuary and friezes and walls all were funded with other people’s money:

Pericles’ works are especially admired, as having been made quickly, to last long. For every particular piece of his work was immediately, even at that time, for its beauty and elegance, antique: and yet in its vigour and freshness looks to this day as if it were just executed. There is a sort of bloom of newness upon those works of his, preserving them from the touch of time, as if they had some perennial spirit and undying vitality mingled in the composition of them.

An ambitious imperial project has enormous costs, of course, but it isn’t clear that Athens ever really paid the price because of Pericles. In fact, under Pericles, there were plenty of successful campaigns, a consolidating of the empire, and some charges laid against the Spartans towards whom Pericles urged war were exactly correct. The charge that Sparta, then the leading power in Greece, wasn’t taking its role in keeping the Greeks united and free against the Persians seriously turned out to be exactly right. Sparta only won the war against Athens, long after Pericles died, with Persian help. Athens near the end also sought that help, but by that point had decayed severely. What is stunning about Pericles, Plutarch never fails to remind us, is how gracious he is compared to the run of the mill viciousness of Athenian politics.

3. We have made the case for Pericles simply, with some reservations. Now we will embark on another line of thought, presenting another side entirely. In our day and age, just getting someone to list reservations is considered “the other side.”

The most glaring non-reference to Socrates occurs in a discussion of Pericles’ education:

But he that saw most of Pericles, and furnished him most especially with a weight and grandeur of sense, superior to all arts of popularity, and in general gave him his elevation and sublimity of purpose and of character, was Anaxagoras of Clazomenae; whom the men of those times called by the name of Nous, that is, mind, or intelligence, whether in admiration of the great and extraordinary gift he had displayed for the science of nature, or because that he was the first of the philosophers who did not refer the first ordering of the world to fortune or chance, nor to necessity or compulsion, but to a pure, unadulterated intelligence, which in all other existing mixed and compound things acts as a principle of discrimination, and of combination of like with like.

Anaxagoras is the philosopher Socrates mentions with his nearly last words in the Phaedo, when describing his “second sailing,” his rethinking that is the beginning of philosophy properly speaking. What Anaxgoras proposed is that mind is purely a differentiating power: Hobbes says something similar in the opening pages of Leviathan, when he says those who only notice similarities are not philosophers.

The trouble with saying “mind only differentiates” is quite obvious: doesn’t mind also combine? It surely combines more than “like with like:” that sort of union seems to be a consequence of discrimination. In the Phaedo, this problem hits crisis proportions – the truth is we don’t really have a way of combining body and soul simply that isn’t pure mythology. Yet the self most certainly exists, and does more than endure or assert itself: self-knowledge, the deepening of a relation between body and soul, is most certainly real.

Here, Anaxagoras gives Pericles the idea that “knowledge is power” rather than giving him questions. This helps create the calm, the graciousness, the ability to “steer” the ship of state: Pericles is the noblest and most impious of men, as he truly believes in the full power of knowledge. He believes man can master this world – his unleashing of the populace is not done cynically or only for his own power. He’s a genuine lover of humanity who believes the Enlightenment project entirely: his means resemble contemporary social democracy, his rule that of the Progressive notion of the President, who is in tune with the voice of the people and understands it fully. The only aversion people today have with him would be his going to war, but many who deplore the US as imperialistic because it is the hegemon would have the same sneering envy and resentment for Sparta.

So Pericles may represent the height of political rule: an intelligent “first among equals” who can govern naturally and in accordance with what the people desire. Only once is it implied that Pericles truly forced the agenda, regarding war with Sparta. But Athens still complied.

The contrast with Socrates is that Socrates broke from Anaxagoras, whereas Pericles took the logic to an extreme, not seeing that “fortune” and “divinity” may be obstacles that can be overcome, but not in a lifetime. “Divinity” especially cannot be neglected if one rules: reverence for one’s homeland, for those who rule, is part of piety. The basis of Periclean rule was never what he did alone, but what he evoked in people’s imaginations. He was even mocked as being like Zeus, having a head so big the state emerged from it.

While there are other points of comparison/contrast, I do want to skip to the last moments of Pericles’ life, after the plague had wrecked his own health and his attempt to secure victory in the War:

When he was now near his end, the best of the citizens and those of his friends who were left alive, sitting about him, were speaking of the greatness of his merit, and his power, and reckoning up his famous actions and the number of his victories; for there were no less than nine trophies, which, as their chief commander and conqueror of their enemies, he had set up for the honour of the city. They talked thus together among themselves, as though he were unable to understand or mind what they said but had now lost all his consciousness. He had listened, however, all the while and attended to all, and speaking out among them, said that he wondered they should commend and take notice of things which were as much owing to fortune as to anything else, and had happened to many other commanders, and, at the same time, should not speak or make mention of that which was the most excellent and greatest thing of all. “For,” said he,” “no Athenian, through my means, ever wore mourning.”

Pericles and Socrates had the same goal – how do we find happiness in life, despite fortune’s slings? Pericles went an Enlightenment/populist route: in seamanship, the people were educated, and Thucydides talks much of the technical marvels Periclean Athens achieved. Piety was rejected entirely, science embraced. The project succeeded insofar as Pericles was the greatest politician ever, nothing less.

But we note that Socrates’ final moments involved him asking and taking questions as well as relating a story from his own past for others’ sake. Happiness wasn’t given, as much as left for others to find for themselves. Freedom doesn’t lie entirely in asserting oneself against the world, but in discovering. Pericles ultimately had to burn other cities in order to keep Athens lavish and win a monumental legacy. One wonders if Socrates is a kid with a treasure map, telling his friends it might be fun to go out today and see what they can find.

1 Comment

  1. Very Enjoyable Thanks for Sharing… FTA:But we note that Socrates’ final moments involved him asking and taking questions, and relating a story from his own past for others’ sake. Happiness wasn’t given, as much as left for others to find for themselves. Freedom doesn’t lie entirely in asserting oneself against the world, but in discovering. Pericles ultimately had to burn other cities in order to keep Athens lavish and win a monumental legacy. One wonders if Socrates is a kid with a treasure map, telling his friends it might be fun to go out today and see what they can find.

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