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Foundations of Western Civilization 9

In contrast to other Greek city-states, such as Sparta with its explicit militarism, it appears that the basic philosophical and civilizational values of the city-state of Athens most resemble a type of system that is currently embodied in the modern West, insofar as a democratic system defined Athenian life. Taking the relationship of Athens to democracy as the defining characteristic of this particular city-state, when comparing two historical sources, that of the Melian Debate and  Pericles’ Funeral Oration, it would seem that the latter most closely reaches to the essence of Athenian existence.

This is because Pericles’ speech occurs within the context of the Peloponnesian War which occurred between Sparta and Athens in the 5th century B.C. In this speech, Pericles’ words may be interpreted as an attempt to justify Athens’ moral high-ground in the war, by directly appealing to the city-state’s democratic foundations. In particular, Pericles strives to underscore the uniqueness of the Athenian political vision as opposed to other states, when he suggests the following: “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.” Accordingly, Perciles’ entire oration rests around trying to bring to the surface the specific tenets of Greek values; by identifying these values with democracy, he underlines the particular characteristics of the Athenian City-State.

In contrast, the Melian Debate does not contain such an explicit association of Athens and democracy. Rather, the context of the debate itself is crucial, since Athens is attempting to colonize the island of Melos, which seems to be a direct imposition of a foreign will upon others, and therefore a violation of the rights of the masses as outlined in democratic ideology. Hence, the Melians in debate with the Athenians criticize the latter’s attempts at colonialization, by arguing that “you should respect a principle which is for the common good: that to every man when in peril a reasonable claim should be accounted a claim of right.” In other words, the Melians use democratic arguments based on rights against Athenian colonialization.

Insofar as Athens is defined by its commitments to democracy, Perciles’ oration better captures this notion. The Melian debate, in contrast, seems to contradict the very democratic policy that the Athenians preached.

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