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The Two Sides of Hellenic Thinking: Pericles’ Funeral Speech and The Bacchae Essay

One of the most famous thinker, orator, general, and statesman in ancient Athens is Pericles. Pericles (495-429 BC) is known as one outstanding figure that represented the “golden age” of the city state of Athens; it is where philosophy, the arts and literature, and the practice of democracy flourished. In addition, it is also in the time of Pericles where many ideas and modes of thinking where developed, which later became one of the most important foundations of western civilization as a whole.

Pericles lead the building of most of the structures which can be seen in the Acropolis, and also developed Athenian democracy, representing the heights of Hellenic thinking that western civilization sought inspiration from. However, it is not only through Pericles where one can see characteristics of Hellenic thinking. There is also the play entitled The Bacchae, written by the Athenian playwright Euripides (480-406 BC), who emphasizes another way of Hellenic thinking: conflict among city states, the limitations of mortality, and the wrath of the gods.

This essay would try to explore the two different aspects of Hellenic thinking by exploring two essential works from the ancient Greek civilization, the Funeral Speech by Pericles, and The Bacchae by Euripides. Pericles is best known for his promotion of Athenian democracy, “the rule of the people;” and it is the Hellenic idea of democracy where modern democracy tries to model itself. One of the most significant speeches given by Pericles that explains the Hellenic idea of democracy is his Funeral Speech, given in the first year of the Peloponnesian Wars (about 431/430 BC) (Pericles, n. d. ).

According to Pericles, the system of government of the Athenian city state is a model to others, and does not merely imitate the law of other states. This is because of the fact that it is democracy, where “…its administration is in the hands, not of a few, but of the whole people. In the settling of private disputes, everyone is equal before the law. Election to public office is made on the basis of ability, not on the basis of membership to a particular class.

No man is kept out of public office by the obscurity of his social standing because of his poverty, as long as he wishes to be of service to the state” (Pericles, n. d. ). This part of his speech clearly states one important aspect of Hellenic thinking that serves as a great inspiration to modern civilization; democracy as the rule of the people. Pericles emphasizes the fact that being able to rule is not limited to a few persons, but to the people in general, and forwards the notion of public service not based on status, but on his willingness to serve.

In addition, Pericles also describes in his speech freedom as an important component of democracy, stating that “…not only in our public life are we free and open, but a sense of freedom regulates our day-to-day life with each other. We do not flare up in anger at our neighbor if he does what he likes. And we do not show the kind of silent disapproval that causes pain in others” (Pericles, n. d. ). In this case, Pericles also emphasizes the importance of freedom in Hellenic political thinking, the notion that freedom regulates day to day activities by being free and open while not causing harm to others at the same time.

However, Euripides represents another face of Hellenic thinking: destruction, revelry, and the changing of the old (Euripides, 2004). Written at the time where the glory of Athens is already fading in the end of the Peloponnesian Wars, The Bacchea represents the entry of the new cult of Dionysus, which is characterized by revelry, drunken orgy and sacrifice (Euripides, 2004); with the lines stating that “O happy he! Who to his joy is initiated in heavenly mysteries and leads a holy life, joining heart and soul in Bacchic revelry upon the hills, purified from every sin” (Euripides, 2004).

And while the old rulers of the city state oppose this, with Pentheus the King of Thebes finally confronting the God, he is brutally crushed by Dionysus, wherein the god “Kindle the blazing torch with lightning’s fire, abandon to the flames the halls of Pentheus” (Euripides, 2004). This represents the questioning of notions of intellect and emotion, of madness and reason, of old systems and the need to accept new beliefs and ideas.

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