The World's Famous Orations/Volume 1/In Defense of Himself

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(430 B.C.)

I had both expected the proofs of your anger against me, which have been exhibited (for I am aware of the causes of it), and have now convened an assembly for this purpose, that I may remind you [of what you have forgotten], and reprove you if in any respect you are wrong, either in being irritated against me or in succumbing to your misfortunes. For I consider that a state which in its public capacity is successful confers more benefit on individuals than one which is prosperous as regards its particular citizens, while collectively it comes to ruin. For tho a man is individually prosperous, yet if his country is ruined, he none the less shares in its destruction; whereas, if he is unfortunate in a country that is fortunate, he has a much better hope of escaping his dangers.

Since then a state is able to bear the misfortunes of individuals, while each individual is unable to bear hers, how can it fail to be the duty of all to support her, and not to act as you are now doing, who, being panic-stricken by your domestic afflictions, give up all thought of the public safety, and are blaming both me who advised you to go to war, and yourselves who joined in voting for it. And yet I, with whom you are angry, am a man who deem myself second to none in at once knowing what measures are required, and explaining them to others; a lover too of my country, and superior to the influence of money. For he who knows a thing that is right, but does not explain it with clearness, is no better than if he had never had a conception of it; and he, again, who has both these requisites, but is ill-affected towards his country, would not so well speak for her interest. And even if this qualification be added to the others, while he is influenced by regard for money, all of them together would be sacrificed for this one consideration. So that if you were persuaded by me to go to war, because you thought that I possessed these qualities even in a moderate degree more than other men, I can not now fairly be charged with injuring you, at any rate.

For those indeed to go to war, who, while successful in other things, have had a choice in the matter allowed them, it is great folly. But if [in our case] it were necessary, either immediately to submit to our neighbors, if we made concessions, or to preserve our independence by running a great risk, then he who shrank from the risk is more reprehensible than he who faced it. For my part then, I am the same that I ever was, and do not depart from my opinion; but you are changing, since it happens that you were persuaded [to go to war] while unscathed, but repent of it now you are suffering; and that my advice appears wrong through the weakness of your resolution; because pain is now in possession of each man's feeling, while the certainty of the benefit is as yet hidden from all: and a great reverse having befallen you, and that suddenly, your mind is too prostrated to persevere in your determinations.

But with regard to your trouble in the war, lest you should fear that it may prove great, and we may still be none the more successful, let those arguments suffice you, with which on many other occasions I have proved the error of your suspicions respecting it. At the same time, I will also lay before you the following advantage, which yourselves do not appear ever yet to have thought of as belonging to you, respecting the greatness of your empire, and which I never urged in my former speeches; nor would I even now, as it has rather too boastful an air, if I did not see you unreasonably cast down. You think then that you only bear rule over your own subject allies; but I declare to you that of the two parts of the world open for man's use, the land and the sea, of the whole of the one you are most absolute masters, both as far as you avail yourselves of it now, and if you should wish to do so still further; and there is no power, neither the king nor any nation besides at the present day, that can prevent your sailing [where you please] with your present naval resources.

This power then evidently is far from being merely on a level with the benefits of your houses and lands, which you think so much to be deprived of: nor is it right for you to grieve about them, but rather to hold them cheap, considering them, in comparison with this as a mere garden-plot and embellishment of a rich man's estate. You should know, too, that liberty, provided we devote ourselves to that, and preserve it, will easily recover these losses; whereas those who have once submitted to others find even their greatest gains diminish. Nor should you show yourselves inferior in both respects to your fathers, who with labor, and not by inheritance from others, acquired these possessions, and moreover kept them and bequeathed them to us; for it is more disgraceful to be deprived of a thing when we have got it, than to fail in getting it. On the contrary, you should meet your enemies, not only with spirit, but also with a spirit of contempt. For confidence is produced even by lucky ignorance, ay, even in a coward; but contempt is the feeling of the man who trusts that he is superior to his adversaries in counsel also, which is our case. And ability, with a high spirit, renders more sure the daring which arises from equal fortune; and does not so much trust to mere hope, whose strength mainly displays itself in difficulties; but rather to a judgment grounded upon present realities, whose anticipations may be more relied upon.

It is but fair, too, that you should sustain the dignity of the state derived from its sovereignty, on which you all pride yourselves; and that either you should not shrink from its labors, or else should lay no claim to its honors either. Nor should you suppose that you are struggling to escape one evil only, slavery instead of freedom; but to avoid loss of dominion also, and danger from the animosities which you have incurred in your exercise of that dominion. And from this it is no longer possible for you to retire; if through fear at the present time any one is for so playing the honest man in quiet. For you now hold it as a tyranny, which it seems wrong to have assumed, but dangerous to give up. And men with these views would very quickly ruin the state, whether they persuaded others [to adopt the same], or even lived anywhere independently by themselves; for quietness is not a safe principle, unless ranged with activity; nor is it for the interest of a sovereign state, but of a subject one, that it may live in safe slavery.

Do you then neither be seduced by such citizens, nor be angry with me, whom yourselves also joined in voting for war, tho the enemy has invaded our country, and done what it was natural that he should do, if you would not submit; and tho, besides what we looked for, this disease also has come upon us—the only thing, indeed, of all that has happened beyond our expectations. And it is through this, I well know, that in some degree I am still more the object of your displeasure; yet not with justice unless you will also give me the credit when you meet with any success beyond your calculation. The evils then which are sent by heaven, you must bear perforce; those which are inflicted by your enemies, with courage: for such was formerly the custom of this country, and let it not now meet with a check in your case.

But consider that it has the greatest name in all the world from not yielding to misfortunes, and from expending in war more lives and labors than any other state; and that it has now the greatest power that ever existed up to the present time; the memory of which, even should we now at length give way (for everything is naturally liable to decrease), will be left to posterity for ever, namely, that we had dominion over more Greeks than any other Greek state ever had; and held out in the greatest wars against them, both collectively and singly; and inhabited a city better provided with all things than any other, and greater. And yet your quiet man would find fault with these things; but the man who has himself a wish to achieve something, will emulate them; while whoever does not possess them will envy them.

But to be hated and offensive for the time present has been the lot of all who have ever presumed to rule over others; that man, however, takes wise counsel, who incurs envy for the greatest things. For odium does not last long; but present splendor and future glory are handed down to perpetual memory. Do you then, providing both for your future honor, and for your immediate escape from disgrace, secure both objects by your present spirit: and neither send any heralds to the Lacedæmonians, nor show that you are weighed down by your present troubles; for such as in feeling are least annoyed at their misfortunes, while in action they most courageously resist them, these, both of states and of individuals, are the best.

  1. Delivered before an assembly in Athens called for the purpose, after violent criticism had been made of his influence in bringing on the Peloponnesian War. Reported by Thucydides. Translated by Henry Dale. Slightly abridged.