Pericles and Leadership

Posted by Barry Strauss under on February 1, 2023

In my last post I wrote about two great leaders, ancient and modern, Socrates and Martin Luther King. Each of them was inspired by a sense of mission. Each had what President George H.W. Bush once described in frustration as “the vision thing.” The president was a man of many talents, but the ability to light the nation up with inspiration was not one of them. That supposed failing is not entirely negative: better, after all, to have leaders who get the job done than those who merely spin empty words. But an effective leader needs to have a mission and to communicate it to the public. An example comes to mind from the dawn of democracy.

Pericles of Athens dominated his country’s politics for over thirty years. He was a democrat, an imperialist, a builder, and a believer in national greatness. The historian Thucydides calls Pericles “the first man.” Yet Pericles was neither a president nor prime minister, as Athenian democracy had neither.

Athens was acephalous, to use the technical term. It had no formal leader. Yet leaders there were. These were men of talent, education, wealth, and usually of aristocratic birth. They excelled in war or speech and often both. They were politically active and often spoke in the Assembly. Athens was a direct democracy, with the Assembly as its central institution. All citizens – native adult males, that is – were entitled to attend the meetings, which typically took place three or four times a month. Other politicians gathered around a few leaders and formed informal groups. And so, a few men like Pericles emerged.

To stay in power, they had to be able to persuade the people, which took oratorical skill. None was better than Pericles. Thucydides says that he was esteemed because he was wise, incorruptible, and able to communicate.

An effective leader needs to have a mission and to communicate it to the public.

And he had the vision thing – did he ever. The most famous example is the speech that the historian Thucydides says that Pericles delivered in the winter of 430/29 B.C. It was the end of the first year of the great war between the Athenians and their allies and the Spartans and their allies. We call it the Peloponnesian War. Pericles’ speech was a Funeral Oration, given at the Public Tomb, where those who had fallen in battle for the fatherland were buried. The Athenians invented the idea of a speech for the nation’s war dead: a democratic institution, and one that was revived in modern times, as readers of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address know well.

Pericles delivered his speech on an emotional occasion, with mourners present. Thucydides was almost certainly present to hear the oration. What he reports is probably true to the general sense of Pericles’ remarks, although it doesn’t represent the actual words that the man used.

A main theme of the speech is praise of the dead and of the courage, sacrifice, and patriotism. Yet Pericles used the occasion to do more: to explain, as it were, why we fight. The answer, he said, was democracy, and the kind of citizens it molded and the country that they had built. He defines Athenian democracy simply: “It is true that we are called a democracy,” says Pericles, “for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few.” He goes on to describe Athenians as people who value freedom but with responsibility. Athenians, he says, demonstrate a sense of civic duty and public spiritedness.

His was an age of cultural flowering, making “Periclean Athens” even now a byword for artistic and literary achievement. It was the era of classical art and literature. Sculptors like Phidias and Polykleitos, vase painters like Polygnotos, playwrights like Aeschylus and Sophocles, historians like Herodotus, all contributed to the culture of Athens’ great age. Many of them were associated with Pericles and his brilliant mistress and later wife, Aspasia. The Parthenon, the most famous ancient Greek temple, crowned the age and summed up its achievements in its classical perfection.

Pericles alludes to Athenian culture in his speech, but he puts it in a wartime perspective. “We love beauty without extravagance,” he says; “we love wisdom without softness.” Pericles underlines Athens’ refinement without conceding an ounce of weakness. On the contrary, he maintains that Athens leads all the rest of Greece in its way of life and in the citizens that it creates. He states: “To sum up: I say that Athens is the school of Hellas [Greece], and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace.”

So far, so good, but there are issues in Pericles’ words. From a modern point of view, he demonstrates insensitivity to mourners and sexism towards women. He dismisses the suffering of widows thus: “And, if I am to speak of womanly virtues to those of you who will henceforth be widows, let me sum them up in one short admonition: To a woman not to show more weakness than is natural to her sex is a great glory, and not to be talked about for good or for evil among men.”

Pericles says nothing about slaves, but we are reminded that Athens was a slave society, built on exploitation and brutality. It’s true enough that the same was true of other ancient countries, and there is some evidence that, at least in some circumstances, Athens treated slaves better than other societies did. The bottom line, however, is dreadful. Athens built its democracy on slave labor.

So much for the modern viewpoint. By ancient standards as well, Pericles drops a rhetorical bombshell. After making a reasoned case, point by point, for Athens and its cause, he turns to pure emotion. Pericles says:

“Anyone can discourse to you forever about the advantages of a brave defense, which you know already. But instead of listening to him I would have you day by day fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until you become her lovers.” The Greek uses a word derived from eros, which calls to mind uncontrollable passion.

How can we lead people calmly and evenly, especially in a time of crisis?

For the ancients, passion had to take second place to reason. A statesman’s job was to help his compatriots control their passions and harness them to the public good. Instead, Pericles unleashes the furies. As Thucydides goes on to argue, Athenians failed to control their lust, greed, and anger. In the end, it led to a bloody and disastrous defeat.

Related to this was Pericles’ failure to provide for a successor. There was no one of his stature to take his place when Pericles died not very long after he gave the Funeral Oration. After his death, no one dominated Athenian politics as he had. Thucydides admired Pericles for leading the people instead of being led by them. At least as Thucydides tells the story, Pericles’ successors were lesser men who incited the people instead of helping them to control their emotions. Yet Pericles, for all his greatness, had opened the door to such behavior by his invocation of eros.

Not all historians accept Thucydides’ judgment, which they see as more a case of one man’s opinion than of fair and accurate history. Yet, whether Thucydides was right or not, he raises a basic question. How, in a democracy, do you persuade people to do the right thing without arousing dangerous passions? How can we lead people calmly and evenly, especially in a time of crisis?

We still search for answers today.

Barry Strauss © 2024