Another Memorial Day, Athens, 431 BC

Today is Memorial Day in America. For’s international visitors, this is the day Americans remember and celebrate those who have fought for our liberty and our ideals. Meant to celebrate Americans, we lose nothing by remembering that many of our ideas are older than America. People from many lands have sacrificed for similar ideals, beginning in ancient Athens, the first democracy.

Almost 2500 years ago Athens was fighting for its life against its polar opposite, Sparta. Athens, the world’s only democracy, cultivated trade, learning, arts and politics. In contrast the Spartans lived on a permanent war footing. Some 90% of their population were slaves, ready to revolt at any moment.

After an early battle the great Athenian leader Pericles spoke of his city’s ideals at a memorial service. From The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. The words are his, the bolding and editing mine.

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; . . . advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way. . . .

The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes. . . . [We] obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.

Further, we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business. We celebrate games . . . all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure . . . while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.

If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. 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. . . .

We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it.

…[O]ur ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; . . . and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. . . . [T]he palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger.

. . . And it is only the Athenians, who, fearless of consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency, but in the confidence of liberality.

May it be ever so.