The Common Reading for 2016: “Funeral Oration”

For the past decade, the college has encouraged a summer Common Reading as a means to frame academic discussion for the coming year. We have enjoyed a diverse selection of readings; often tying those works to elements of liberal arts education–the centerpiece of our academic programs. So, from C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we have explored a variety of eras and styles, in an effort to focus our community of Christian scholars on the meaning of learning and the value of ideas in practical terms—in terms of absolutely impacting our lives and the lives of others.

In an uncertain political era, (yet, it is often an “uncertain political era”), our Common Reading for 2016-2017 shifts our thinking to the principles of antiquity, as well as the era of our own republic’s most difficult hours. Certainly, the Greeks understood the value of a public life, the meaning of liberty and freedom, and the essential role of an educated citizen. Thucydides, one of the great classical historians, recorded within his History of the Peloponnesian Wars the “Funeral Oration” of Pericles, which is set in 431 B.C., as Athens sought to maintain its freedom. In unsparing terms, Pericles—the most renowned Athenian of his day—defined the meaning of the tremendous struggle that his city was in with Sparta and her allies. In a manner refreshing to the present day, Pericles explained the unique nature of his beloved city and people; what it meant to sacrifice and struggle—and even die—for the principles of liberty and a free society. It is a compelling reading.

In something of an extremely brief companion piece, the 272 words spoke by President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg on 19 November 1863–as he delivered a “few brief remarks” to commemorate a burial place for those who fell in battle just months prior–served as a something of a reflection on much of what Pericles had uttered two millennia before him. The meaning of sacrifice for a “new birth of freedom” is often remembered; what is often forgotten is the role of “us…the living,” even as Pericles spoke to not only inspire tears for the dead, but inspiration for the living. Both Lincoln and Pericles, individuals who truly understood the value of a public life in service to others, were caught up in circumstances well beyond their control. Both understood that, and sought to direct their words and thoughts in a way to cause others to make choices worthy of the sacrifices made for their free societies.

What does it mean to be at liberty in a free society? We grapple with that every year—and not just in a general election year. Perhaps, by considering Pericles and Lincoln, we can consider the question anew, understanding that any such endeavor is among the blessings we enjoy from Him, and remembering that our greatest liberty is not found in the laws of men.