What Is A Eulogy? Ethos, Pathos, and Logos In Pericles’s Funeral Oration Speech

Thucydides offers one-hundred and forty-one speeches in his monumental history of the Peloponnesian War, yet the early eulogy offered by Pericles (in Book II) is surely the most famous.

pericles funeral
“Pericles’s Funeral Oration” by Philipp Foltz in 1877

The word “eulogy” comes down to us from the Greek word eulogia meaning to offer praise, or even high praise. Pericles delivers his famous eulogy, the “funeral oration speech” in the winter of 431 BC, after the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War in honor of the fallen Athenians. Thucydides explains ancient burial customs: he tells us that the bones of the dead were laid three days before the ceremony for their fellow tribesmen to honor, along with one empty bier to honor the bodies who could not be recovered (not unlike the American ‘Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’). The ceremonies were open to both citizens and strangers, they were paid for by their families as was customary. After the bodies were laid into the earth a man was chosen by the state to deliver a eulogy, one of “approved wisdom” and “eminent reputation.” The man chosen at the end of the first year of the war was Pericles, son of Xanthippus, an Athenian soldier and politician who fought in the Persian Wars. It has been said that he delivered the speech in the Kerameikos cemetery (from which we derive our word “ceramic”).

At the appropriate time, Pericles proceeds from the sepulcher to an elevated platform to deliver his eulogy. Thucydides gives himself a certain degree of creative license: the following speech is “like” what Pericles delivered in the winter of 431.

He begins by addressing “most” of his predecessors who praise the practice of eulogy and funeral oration, while separating himself (Pericles) into the undemocratic minority. He wishes that the deeds of men are honored, rather than the words of one man. Some may hear inaccuracies while others may be filled with resentment and envy. Appropriately honoring the heroic dead is a difficult task. “For men can endure to hear others praised only so long as they can severally persuade themselves of their own ability to equal the actions recounted: when this point is passed, envy comes in and with it incredulity” (2.35). However, since the Athenian ancestors have stamped this custom with their approval, Pericles will reluctantly oblige.

Why should we eulogize the dead?

In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, he identifies three key parts of a successful speech: ethos, pathos, and logos. After appealing to his own Ethos, or his the appeal to his own bona fides, Pericles begins by honoring Athenian ancestors who laid the foundation for such a great city and empire. Pericles endeavors to find the ‘road by which’ the Athenians came their current status, what form of government their greatness grew, and what national habits out of which it sprang. Pericles will address these three questions before eulogizing the dead. This section might be said to be the logos of Pericles’s speech.

Pericles’s eulogy is unlike any other – it is a praise of Athenian greatness because in order to honor the valorous dead Pericles must first justify the Athenian empire and the cause of the war. He praises the unparalleled Athenian constitution, laws, and citizenry. Since there are both citizens and strangers present for the ceremony, Pericles feels it is necessary to justify the status of Athens by means of “proofs” (2.42). The city requires justification. 

Now, proceeding to the eulogy at 2.42 Pericles says this established greatness is nothing without the deeds of the many unnamed dead Athenian heroes. And citizens who give their lives, despite their personal flaws, are nevertheless heroes:

“For there is justice in the claim that steadfastness in his country’s battles should be as a cloak to cover a man’s other imperfections; since the good action has blotted out the bad, and his merit as a citizen more than outweighed his demerits as an individual…Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonor, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, left behind them not their fear, but their glory”
(2.42 [3-4]).

Once Pericles has established and praised the dead for their decision to serve country over self, he turns the patriotic lens back onto the audience, instructing them to see the greatness of Athens in the faces of those who Athens has now lost.

“For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast, a record unwritten with no monument to preserve it, except that of the heart” (2.42 [3]).

Therefore, Pericles offers comfort, not condolence, to the grieving families, for their children died for a most honorable and noble cause. Parents find joy in honor, especially in old age; brothers take pride in their fallen heroes, and widows Pericles instructs to find glory and excellence in being gossiped about infrequently, whether for good or for evil.

Pericles closes his famous eulogy by offering rewards paid for by the state to the families and children of the dead, though the true rewards are numerous for citizen-soldiers.

In closing, Pericles’s “funeral oration speech” bears certain remarkable similarities to the structure of President Abraham Lincoln’s brief but striking eulogy: “The Gettysburg Address.” Both begin with an ancestral praise, followed by an ode to national greatness, and an acknowledgement that mere speeches cannot fully honor the dead, however we, the living, may forever remember their deeds. The other great analog to Pericles’s “Funeral Oration Speech” is the Platonic dialogue, the Menexenus.

It should be noted that the “funeral oration speech” does not identify any fallen soldier by name, and instead we simply see Pericles standing in place of the city, turning the focus from the honored to the honored living (i.e. himself). Pericles becomes the city through his demagoguery, and also Pericles’s speech immediately precedes an outbreak of the plague which eventually kills Pericles. Thucydides, the author, survives the outbreak of the plague with his moderate disposition and constitution, while Pericles, an ambitious leader prone to swings of high hopes and low fears, catches the plague that is unleashed mainly in Athens, not in Sparta. This plague might be said to be the birth of the mania in Athens that eventually culminates in the ill-fated Sicilian Expedition and the decline of Athens. 

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

Aristophanes’s The Birds: A New City in the Sky

Aristophanes The Birds (“Ornithets”) is the only comedy written by Aristophanes whose entire action takes place far from the city of Athens. Consequently, the play makes little mention of the circumstances of the Peloponnesian War, or of contemporary Athenian politics. It won second prize at the Dionysia in 414 BC.

It is a play about the Arcadian ideal, the pastoral romance that every man has felt at one point or another in his life -to escape the drabness of the city and live out a dream in a quiet, rural town. In The Birds, we follow two men: Eulpides (meaning “Hopeful” or “son of Hopeful”) and Peisthetairos (a hybrid of “persuader of his comrade” and “trustworthy comrade”). They have literally turned their backs on Athens, tired of the endless lawsuits, and they are guided by two birds who are leading them to the fabled king, Tereus. Tereus once morphed himself into a bird, so perhaps he can help them find a better place to live, since he knows the politics of mankind but also has a better perspective, i.e. he can fly and see all things from above.

When they meet Tereus, Peisthetairos persuades the birds that they should build a great human-inspired city in the clouds like those of men, one that will rival the gods. They decide to name this new city “cloud-cuckoo-land.” In the end, the birds begin making new laws, but nevertheless gods and men start sneaking into the new city, from Iris to Prometheus. Peisthetairos’s cleverly politically outmaneuvers the new presence in the city to be crowned king. The play closes with a joyful scene of marriage between Peisthetairos and Zeus’s lovely maiden, Sovereignty (note: not every Aristophanes play concludes on a positive note, recall the ending to The Clouds). Why does Aristophanes present the ruin of Socrates in The Clouds but the triumph of Peisthetairos in The Birds? Aristophanes claims not simply to entertain his audiences, but to teach of the just things. In The Clouds he presents Socrates, the gatekeeper of the new-fangled intellectualism of Athens, a particular kind of sophistry that allows for the possibility of the non-existence of the gods, a radically a-political skepticism. He welcomes new sciences from across the Mediterranean into his “Thinkery” while turning young men against their fathers. Peisthetairos, on the other hand, maintains the validity of the gods, though he proposes to replace to the traditional pantheon at one point, convincing the birds they are the new gods. He is, no doubt, shocking in that he upends the gods and their power, even replacing himself as king of a new city in the sky. However, he expels the astronomer and is rigidly opposed to father-beating. In this way, Peisthetairos is more in line with the necessities of the city, than Socrates. Hence why Peisthetairos meets his triumph and Socrates meets his downfall in Aristophanes. To what extent does this presentation of political necessity agree with Socrates’s exposition as found in Plato’s Republic? The one obvious distinction is the musical character of Peisthetairos’s new city -his Chorus sings praises of his new Orphic theogony, whereas Socrates comes across as aloof and unmusical, intellectual and silly.

We cannot understand the play without disentangling the relationship of the two chief characters: Peisthetairos is the dreamer, the visionary builder of a new city, while on the other hand, Eulpides is the devotee to the retired, quiet, and rustic life. He is closer to Aristophanes, in a word. Thus, since Euplides disappears midway through the play, the poet expresses his disagreement with Peisthetairos’s vision -a vision sometimes echoed today by people who wish to found a new city, amongst only friends and people they agree with, a mythical dream. However, Aristophanes suggests this vision is nevertheless feasible in concept (to found a new city) but of course it is absurd and manifestly impossible to construct a city in the clouds.

However, Euplides’s rejection of the city (Athens) as well as the new city in the clouds, points us to the tension between the poet and the city, and his role as a citizen. For if ‘no man is an island entire of itself’ (to quote John Donne), even the rustic must rely upon the city for at least defense and resources. In this way, Arcadia is a dreamland, yet still within the defensible bounds of the Peloponnesus.

For this reading I used the Loeb Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.

Socrates Ridiculed in the Clouds

The Clouds, first performed in 423 BC at the Dionysia, is Aristophanes’s masterpiece despite receiving a mere third place at the Dionysia festival. Aristophanes’s earlier plays had all been a string of successes. There is a rumor that, in anger at his loss over the Clouds, Aristophanes edited the original manuscript. This is referenced in the play’s first parabasis. We cannot know how much of our inherited play has been revised. Nevertheless, his comedy remains a hilarious satire of Socrates, and of the decadent Athenian enlightenment in ancient Athens. The Clouds is one of a very few contemporaneous artistic portrayals of Socrates in Western literature.

In the play, Aristophanes presents Socrates as saying and doing many laughable things. Socrates becomes a laughingstock, not unlike the story of Thales as presented in Plato’s Theaetetus –a story about the philosopher Thales being so practically inept and so focused on the ethereal questions that he trips and falls straight down a well. Similarly, Socrates runs a useless school primarily for young men to learn irrelevant facts about fleas and clouds and so on. He openly preaches atheism, replacing the gods with the clouds. His teachings, mirroring the sophists, praise injustice over justice – illicit private profiteering over civic virtue.

However, Socrates is merely a symptom of a broader Athenian decay. The cause of the action in the play is Strepsiades’s indebtedness. Why is he in debt? Because his long-haired son, Pheidippides, has a passion for expensive horse racing. The new generation in Athens lives a kind of hedonistic lifestyle, while the old generation of merchants supports it. This whole scene is taking place within the context of the Peloponnesian War, a foreign war that appears largely irrelevant to the main characters in the play. Within this context, Socrates appears silly, unproductive, and perhaps even counterproductive. Aristophanes, the comic poet, represents the voice of the demos, in its blame of Socrates for the ills that have befallen Athens, a charge which Socrates notes in Plato’s Apologia.

In typical Aristophanes fashion, the Clouds celebrates the pain-loving antiquarianism embraced by many conservatives, then and now. Aristophanes looks to a time-gone-by, a golden age of noble Marathon fighters, to judge his present-day woes. He is in love with a painting of the past, in which things seemed to be simpler and easier, superior. He is blinded by his ideological allegiances, and unlike Socrates, he is dependent on the applause of the crowd. As we see in Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes is also a contemporary and, to some degree, a student of Socrates, though he has trouble keeping up with Socrates’s claims regarding comic and tragic poets (recall the concluding lines of the Symposium). Perhaps, as Leo Strauss inquires, Aristophanes is capable only of embracing certain teachings from Socrates. The issues facing Athens – indebtedness, mounting war losses, extravagance, the public pursuit of injustice – come from a certain disharmony in the city, Socrates merely becomes the scapegoat of the city’s troubles.

The Clouds tells the story of Strepsiades (a reference to the Greek words for “tossing and turning), an old member of the Athenian gentry whose son, Pheidippides (a harmony of the Greek words for “thrifty” and “horse”) has become indebted and listless, as a result of his passion for horse-racing. He is long-haired and ignorant of practical matters. Horse-racing was one of the novelties promised to Socrates by the men in the Piraeus during the festival of Bendis, as detailed in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic.

Regarding the issue of indebtedness, recall in Plato’s Republic the importance placed on ‘paying one’s debts’ and also Socrates’s final words to pay his debt to Asclepius. The unjust person lacks a certain degree of balance, or harmony in the soul. Indebtedness is a tangible, numerical way to account for a man’s imbalance.

Interestingly, Socrates’s Thinkery and sophism are not the cause of the old generation’s woes. Instead it is the new generation who is causing debt, and this causes the older generation to look for a superior argument, regardless of justice, to escape debt. Thus sophism is a symptom not a cause of Athenian amorality.

Strepsiades tries to convince his son to go to the Thinkery (Phrontisterion) to learn of an argument – either the Better or the Worse argument – to help him talk his way out of debt as a result of the son’s expensive habits. Pheidipides declines and flees to go to his rich uncle, so Strepsiades goes to the Thinkery himself and he is exposed to their absurd mystery-cult. The pupils are busy deep in thought regarding the question of how many of its own feet a flea can jump (135), among other absurd and vulgar activities. He discovers Socrates in a wicker basket ‘treading the air and contemplating the sun,’ praising the clouds as gods. Strepsiades attempts to learn Socrates’s apparently nonsensical teachings and he lives with the cult at the Thinkery in a bed filled with bedbugs. He returns to his son and convinces him to go to the Thinkery, as well.

Then the Better and the Worse arguments debate one another – the Better argument states that justice exists among the gods, and the Worse argument claims that justice does not exist. Pheidipides emerges as the pale intellectual from the Thinkery promising to argue his way out of his father’s debts, however shortly thereafter he beats his father, Strepsiades, who laments the cold intellectual that Socrates has formed. His education has turned son against father. Strepsiades takes his slaves with torches to burn down the Thinkery as Socrates and his pupils flee.

For this reading I used the Focus Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.

The Peloponnesian War, Book V: Battle Recommences and Melos Enslaved

Book V of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War opens at the conclusion of the truce between Athens and the Spartans. Cleon leads the Athenians in an attack on Thrace. A double surprise attack is launched against Cleon and the Athenians by Brasidas of Sparta. The attack catches Cleon off guard and kills him en route, as well as Brasidas.

After this cataclysmic juncture, both sides desire peace. Athens fears further revolt from its allies. Spartan men and their land/economy begin to suffer. New leadership (King Pleistoanax in Sparta, and Nicias in Athens) desperately desires peace. Thucydides called Nicias the “most fortunate general of his time” (5.16). Many of their allies did not agree with the yearning for peace, nevertheless they make a treaty, allying Sparta and Athens for fifty years. Thus ends the “first war” spanning ten years.

Thucydides digresses from this juncture to discuss the nature of the peace being a mere interval in the ongoing hostilities, rather than a true peace. He mentions his own age being old enough to reflect on the activities and his exile for twenty years after his command of Amphipolous as mentioned earlier. As a result of his exile to the Peloponnesus he was able to see things with far more clarity. The city in motion lacks clarity absent the benefits of hindsight.

Hostilities resume in the war following the fifty year truce. Alcibiades leads a faction of Athenian allies in diplomacy against Sparta. The Spartans are barred from the Olympic games. Sparta battle the Argives, allies of the Athenians. The Melians choose to remain allied with the Spartans, despite Athenian warnings of ruin. Eventually the Melians are defeated: the men all killed, and the women and children enslaved. Athens settles the Melian country.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.