Text from Gregory Nagy's Speech at the Université Charles-de-Gaulle-Lille 3
English Version | French Version
In the year 430 BCE, the Athenian statesman Pericles made a public speech, the third of three speeches dramatized in Book II of Thucydides.
In this speech, Pericles says that the state of Athens must hold on to its empire, which it had inherited from the Persian Empire in earlier years - and which was a major cause of the ultimately unsuccessful war that the state was waging against other states that were enemies of the empire. The burden of empire, to borrow from Pericles’ own wording as dramatized by Thucydides, required that the state of Athens should become a tyranny. This must have been a shocking thing to hear for Athenians who prided themselves on their democratic form of government and who were ideologically opposed to tyranny. For the people of Athens in the heyday of democracy as represented by the “golden age” of Pericles, the very idea of being ruled by a tyrant was tantamount to being a slave. But Pericles must have meant to shock his audience when he spoke about the state of Athens as a tyranny. This tyranny applied to the outsiders who were dominated by the empire that was Athens, not to the Athenians themselves, the insiders, who could continue to live in democracy, in freedom from tyranny. The state of Athens was a democratic society to its insiders. It was an imperialistic tyranny only to the outsiders. The shock and awe of imperial power is manifested in its tyranny, and Pericles admits the shocking truth of that tyranny. He argues that the burden of empire is worth it all. I quote his words, as dramatized by Thucydides 2.63 (after the translation of Richard Crawley). Pericles says it this way to his fellow citizens:
“Again, your country has a right to your services in sustaining the glories of her position. These are a common source of pride to you all, and you cannot decline the burden of empire and still expect to share its honors. You should remember also that what you are fighting against is not merely slavery as an exchange for independence, but also loss of empire and danger from the animosities incurred in its exercise. Besides, to recede is no longer possible, if indeed any of you in the alarm of the moment has become enamored of the honesty of such an unambitious part. For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe. And men of these retiring views, making converts of others, would quickly ruin a state; indeed the result would be the same if they could live independent by themselves; for the retiring and unambitious are never secure without vigorous protectors at their side; indeed, such qualities are useless to an imperial city, though they may help a dependency to an unmolested servitude.”
What are the relevant lessons of history here? I am the citizen of a country whose national government likewise claims to be a democracy on the inside but admits to be an imperialistic power on the outside. The big difference, to my mind, between the models of imperial democracy in Athens then and in America today is that American democracy is being threatened on the inside by the very forces that export imperial domination on the outside. The current American state holds in contempt not only the legalities of international law. It stands ready to subvert the laws that govern a democratic society. As an American citizen, I hope to do everything to resist such subversion. As a citizen of our academic community, I need to do even more. I need to speak out and call on the leaders of our world-wide academic community to provide protection of the principles of freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression of opinion. Academic freedom must not be impeded by any state, American or otherwise.