Democracy’s Funeral

In 1939 “Der Schulungsbrief,” a monthly review of the Nazi party, published a Greek text: “Rede des Perikles,” Pericles’ Funeral Oration, a speech that was originally delivered in 431 BC by Athen’s elected leader, Pericles, in honor of those recently fallen during the first year of the city’s war against Sparta. The speech, one of the most celebrated in history, would mark the end of an age, the Golden Age, the most glorious that Athens would ever see, and it’s thought to have captured the essence of the most beautiful idea that Athens would produce: democracy. And it was this speech that was being proposed to the members of the Nazi party as an “unvergänglich Dokument,” an immortal document of “Aryan” heritage! But unless there was another Pericles, born in Stuttgart perhaps, there is no way for the original author of the Funeral Oration to have ever approved of Hitler’s Reich. And so, as expected, this “immortal document” was the product of fraud. But what is truly astounding, is that for this fraud to succeed, it only required the most subtle change… of only a few words.

The Funeral Oration was delivered at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War, a war that would end with Athen’s defeat almost 26 years later. Pericles opens his celebrated speech by saying that he will not bother his people with the history of their city, which they knew too well, but is going to speak only about the morals that led to its success. At first, this appears strange, as these morals were known just as well. What we need to keep in mind, however, was that Pericles’ Oration was not saved in its original but as part of Thucydides’ “Histories,” considered to be the first work of scientific history. There, the Funeral Oration works on multiple levels, both as a piece of actual history and as a literary device, one that introduces the reader to the character of Athens as it stood during its peak, and just before its ultimate downfall. Pericles speaks of “life in the Polis,” the City-State, the political unit that constellated the Greek world during antiquity. A unit that, in many cases, was more independent than Switzerland is today. Here, the German document is forced, mainly due to the language itself, to say “im staatlichen Leben,” life of the state. This change was absolutely crucial, as an aspect of Fascism was its absolute worship of the state, an aspect that is often downplayed in favor of a more obvious one: racism. But in contrast to how modern liberals would like to portray it, Fascism cannot be explained as a consequence of mere racism, as even America’s Founding Fathers had, by contemporary standards, a clearly racist view on who should be included in the electoral body 1. On the other extreme, the forced egalitarianism of the Soviet Union that promoted race equality, in theory, was for all means and purposes, fascistic in practice. Because despite their ideological differences, what both of these regimes had in common was the delegation of all power to the state, which was to be worshiped as an ultimate authority beyond individual criticism. In a Greek Polis, however, authority was never delegated but was in fact rotated among citizens and often at random. What for Marx was a fantasy about “being a hunter in the morning and an art critic in the evening” 2, was for Athenians of the Golden Age a historical reality, as the average citizens could expect to serve as soldier in battle, judge in the high courts, and theater critic during the city’s festivals. The differences therefore between “Polis” and “State” are enormous. As Thucydides wrote “άνδρες γαρ πόλις,” the Polis are its men, not the state. 

In contrast to how left-wing radicals like to portray it, American Democracy could have never been racist, as it pertained to all people, independent of race, who were present during its founding.

The people of this city-state, Pericles continues, who had given their lives, were not soldiers but erastes, lovers of Athens, who chose to die rather than be deprived of their beloved. Because Athens remains the only city, he tells us, that never copies the ways of others, but creates its own in a way that is unique. And it’s at this point that Pericles reminds us of the word Athenians used for this unique process: Democracy, where demos means people, and kratos, power. But in a tactical evasion, the German translator wrote “Volksherrschaft,” which is, unfortunately, and at least technically, correct. The word “Volk,” however, meaning “the people as a race” 3, represented for the Third Reich something entirely different than demos, which signified the citizen body that voted for a city’s laws. To better understand this, think of the “American Declaration of Independence.” It begins by saying “we the people,” showing that a people, a “volk” if you will, preexists the institution of any political order, democratic or otherwise. It was only when this “people” mentioned in the Declaration came together to found a new state that it became an American Dēmos, whose sense of belonging from that moment on stopped being “natural” (often a euphemism for “racial”) but based on the co-creation of common laws, which defined not just the legality of certain actions, but the very character of this new state. Unlike the native tribes that preexisted them on the same soil, the People of the Declaration didn’t even share a common language or religion, but consciously chose to come together and create a government that went over and beyond “blood ties.” And it was at this very moment that they became American. In contrast to how left-wing radicals like Cornel West want to portray it, Democracy cannot be racist, as it pertains to all people, independent of race, who were present at its founding!

Concerning private life, Pericles says that we Athenians are liberal, and never spy on our neighbor, knowing that whatever power we hold over him stops at the door of his house. What Pericles makes clear, is what most social reformers fail to acknowledge today, that equality is not a matter of private but public life. What makes Athens unique was not that it leveled the playing field for all members of its society by redistributing their private property, and women were still deprived of many rights, while slaves of nearly all. No, what made Athens democratic was that among the few that ancient nations on the whole accepted as free, there was no preference regarding race, wealth, or family ties, and all were equally likely to hold power. And hold it they did, as even the judges and generals were elected from among the citizens, and so, in a single lifetime, the average Athenian was expected to rule over court cases, lead units into battle, and vote in poetry contests. And it was in this context that Pericles named the rulers as “των αεί εν αρχεί όντων,” those who alternate in holding power, translated as “Obrigkeit” in German, meaning the authorities, like for example the police, who during the late ’30s could of course break into anyone’s house and drag them to prison with no charges. But Athens had no police force whatsoever, as it had no standing army during peacetime, and therefore no official way to coerce its citizens because the rulers and the ruled were not two, but one entity: the Dēmos of Athens.

There are those who suggest that Pericles’ speech should be read as a tragedy, and it is true that all the necessary ingredients are there. Because the “Funeral Oration” is a work of political poetry that is fully aware of the finality of human endeavors, and almost foreshadows the end of the very city it praises. But if we should read it as such, we must ask: who is the hero of this tragedy? Who is the person who achieved greatness only to cause his own downfall? It’s certainly not Pericles, who doesn’t even mention his role in the city’s ascent, nor the dead, whose value lies not in their individual valor but the ideals they serve. No, the tragic hero of the story is the city itself, the polis of Athens, whose downfall is presented here, in Greek typical fashion, as caused by its own greatness. The story of Athens, and perhaps Western Civilization in total, is a story of hybris, a word that so often gets mistranslated as “excessive pride.” But pride is a Christian sin and a pagan virtue! And for the Greek, who made this word so central in his tragedies, hybris was not a state of moral decadence, like pride is for the Christian Man. No, hybris was commuted by heroes, by the best, as a natural consequence of those whose greatness dares to go beyond the limits of fate and challenge the gods.

 

References

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War [2.34].

Cornelius Castoriadis. Ce qui fait la Grèce : Tome 3, Thucydide, la force et le droit. Seuil 2011. Séminaire of 13 Feb 1985.

 

Citations

1. Thomas Jefferson, in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” [David Carlisle, 1801. P.214], said amongst other things that “When freed [the slave] is to be removed from beyond the reach of mixture,” while Abraham Lincoln wrote how the physical differences that exist between their races will forbid full equality between whites and blacks. [Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates” Courier Corporation, Aug 13, 2012. P.159]

2. Karl Marx. The German Ideology. 1845. Part I: Feuerbach. The opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook. A. Idealism and Materialism. 

3. “It is necessary, however, to make an etymological preface concerning the meaning of the German word Volk, a word that has various connotations. It can mean nation, people, stock, and even race. ‘People as race’ would perhaps be the most suitable translation.” [Julius Evola. A Traditionalist Confronts Fascism. pg 134. Arktos, Sep 17, 2015.]

 

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