On Pericles and the State of Lincoln at Gettysburg

“Monday Musings” for Monday November 17, 2014

Volume IV No. 47/201


Pericles’ Funeral Oration, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Veterans’ Day

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

The relationship between November 11, the Veterans Day, and November 19, the day Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg speech is a historically rich and emotionally loaded era. Veteran’s Day was started on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 which marks the end of World War I. The Gettysburg Address which was primarily designed for the veterans of American Civil war was given by President Lincoln on November 19, 1863. Another related occasion of historic importance was Pericles’ Funeral Oration for the dead soldiers of Athens and Sparta war 431-404 BC.  Both Pericles and Lincoln led their nations into civil wars.  A few reflections: the Gettysburg Address:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.”  Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do.  But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow, this ground – The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.  It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

In 272 words Lincoln explains why America was at war, why so many lives (by the end, the American Civil War took the lives of 623 thousand men) were sacrificed in the struggle, and why citizens of one nation, speaking one language, enjoying one common heritage and in most cases being blood related were engaged in such a vicious war. As an aside, we have been engaged in war in the Middle East for nearly 15 years with thousands of American lives lost, trillions spent, with no one ever articulating the reason for America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Back to the mid-nineteenth century American civil war: The intense hatred and fratricidal impulse was illustrated by the observation of the Governor of Massachusetts riding through the battlefields in June 1862, and seeing the putrefied bodies of young men strewn about. He was deeply touched. He started a fund raising campaign with cooperation from the governors of the neighboring states. They started hiring traveling morticians who charged one dollar and quarter per body to pick up and bury. Also, the same group of governors thought that there should be a cemetery property dedicated to the dead. They chose Gettysburg. When time came for the dedication of the cemetery, the conveners of the project did not want to invite Lincoln because he was controversial and often “long-winded”. Edward Everett was the main speaker. But Lincoln came on the back of a horse much too small for Lincoln’s height with Lincoln’s long legs dangling on the sides of the horse, almost touching the ground. It was a very caricature-like and un-presidential sight. In addition, Lincoln was going through one of his bouts of clinical depression, compounded by the naggings and demands of a wife who at best was emotionally unstable. She did not want for Lincoln to go to Gettysburg in the first place. While on route to Gettysburg, Lincoln heard from his wife that she had just lost a second brother in the war and their son was extremely ill with the same symptoms of which their other child had died. Her vitriol and mercurial mental state exacerbated Lincoln’s depression. Lincoln’s appearance in Gettysburg on that gloomy morning makes for a triumphant grand opera on the scale of Verdi’s 1842 opera, “Nabucco”.

In the 272-word-Gettysburg speech, Lincoln invokes the Bible from the beginning. Instead of saying 87 years ago, he starts with “fourscore and seven years ago… “ He continues with “bringing forth a nation…” and finally using John 3:16, strongly suggesting that the soldiers who gave their lives for the cause of justice and equality are all Christ-like…A powerful and emotionally effective way to recognize and elevate the meaning and the purpose of the war. The all Christian audience understood and heard Lincoln’s last sentence that it is the dead soldiers who are upholding a government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”   The brief but most effective speech brought much healing to the audience and the parents of the dead soldiers. They felt and saw justification for their sacrifice.  The honored soldiers did not die in vain.

Veteran’s Day and Pericles

Lincoln scholars have written extensively about Lincoln’s emulating the lifestyle and leadership of Pericles, the Athenian philosopher, general and orator (459 BC-429 BC), who lived almost 2500 years before Lincoln. Lincoln was very familiar with Pericles’ assertion that to die for your country is the noblest act. Pericles brought on the war between Athens and Sparta. Pericles consecrated land and erected a lavish cemetery for the casualties of the war. He gave a speech, Pericles’ “Funeral Oration,” short and to the point, a model for what Lincoln used in Gettysburg.

The act of war is foolish. But war is a constant. We have had wars since Adam and Eve, a brother killing brother. At this moment we have at least 12 ongoing wars in various parts of the world. But some believe, as Lincoln did, that according to Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) there is such a thing as just war. The American Civil war may belong to that category- a war that abolished slavery and brought the concept of “we are all created equal” to intellectual and practical acceptance of the citizenry. It also prevented America from splitting to halves.

Using Pericles’ and Lincoln’s words, to all the veterans who sacrificed for America we send our heartfelt gratitude.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.


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