What is civilization?

“Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of our empire which we have left. Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now. We do not need the praises of a Homer, or of anyone else whose words may delight us for the moment, but whose estimation of facts will fall short of what is really true (History of the Peloponnesian War 2.41, trans. Rex Warner)

Thucydides claims that Pericles spoke these words when he delivered the first funeral oration for the Peloponnesian war dead. Pericles’ words bear a striking resemblance to Thucydides’ stated project in book one: to record “for all time” the most important conflict to date, meaning (for him) the war between the Athenians & the Spartans. Thucydides may be striving to set himself apart from two memorialists who preceded him, Homer and Herodotus, but he shares a common desire with both: to remember what and who have perished.

Kleos, as I pointed out in an earlier post, does not just mean “glory” or “fame” but the glory/fame that is sung about. Kleos is having your name on others’ lips. Achilles may be loved or hated, but neither are why he is famous. Achilles is famous because “Homer” composed a poem about him. He is famous because we continue to listen to, read, and perform that poem, which we do because Achilles’ journey to reckon with his fate continues to resonate, through both his great and his terrible deeds.

Pericles proclaims that the Athenians do not need Homer to praise them. This is for the best since, I believe, “Homer” is not attempting either to praise or to condemn. The project of the Homeric poems is to preserve human deeds, those worthy of emulation and those that serve as cautionary tales. This creative act is a response to destructive forces—whether human or divine—that are indifferent to human survival. For “Homer,” to remember is to preserve, and to preserve is to become imperishable. In Homeric terms, then, civilization is not monuments or beliefs in themselves but participation in creative acts.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: