Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History

by William Safire (Editor)



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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393059311
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/17/2004
Edition description: Updated and Expanded
Pages: 1168
Sales rank: 274,100
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.60(h) x 2.20(d)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

William Safire (1929—2009), a Pulitzer Prize-winner, was the long-time author of the "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine.

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Pericles Extols the Glory That Is Greece at the Funeral of Its Fallen Sons

"Those ... have the greatest souls, who, most acutely sensible of the miseries of war and the sweets of peace, are not hence in the least deterred from facing danger."

Pericles was a cautious general, a stern imperialist, an ardent patron of the arts, and a radical politician. Although he was born an aristocrat around the turn of the fifth century B.C., his "graces of persuasion," in Cicero's phrase, did much to curb the power of the aristocracy and extend democracy to the citizens of the city-state of Athens. For example, he pressed successfully for the payment of fees to jurors and, later, to public officials — which made it possible for a poor man to hold public office.

Fewer than forty thousand males made up the polity of Athens, and all were members of the Assembly. It chose by lot the Council of Five Hundred, fifty from each tribe, to manage its affairs, and elected juries of a hundred to a thousand men to decide cases. This was before lawyers came on the scene; each man was his own pleader, and a citizen required a mastery of the art of oratory to gain or defeat justice. Pericles was reputed to be one of the most eloquent at these meetings of the democratic legislature, exceeded only by fourth-century Greek orator Demosthenes.

"Reputed" is a necessary qualifier because we have no text of these Greek speeches. The reputation of Pericles rests on the writings of historian Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War. "With reference to the speeches in this history," the chronicler wrote candidly, "... some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make my speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to what they really said."

Fortunately, Thucydides was a friend of Pericles and was probably present at the delivery of this oration. Here, then, are portions of a translation of one historian's recollection of what the orator Pericles said at the funeral of soldiers killed in the first year of the war. Athens was soon to be destroyed; the purpose of this speech (like that of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address over two millennia later) was to use the occasion of a eulogy for the fallen to examine the cause for which they fell.

* * *

MANY OF THOSE who have spoken before me on these occasions have commended the author of that law which we now are obeying for having instituted an oration to the honor of those who sacrifice their lives in fighting for their country. For my part, I think it sufficient for men who have proved their virtue in action, by action to be honored for it — by such as you see the public gratitude now performing about this funeral; and that the virtues of many ought not to be endangered by the management of any one person when their credit must precariously depend on his oration, which may be good and may be bad. ...

We are happy in a form of government which cannot envy the laws of our neighbors — for it hath served as a model to others, but is original at Athens. And this our form, as committed not to the few but to the whole body of the people, is called a democracy. How different soever in a private capacity, we all enjoy the same general equality our laws are fitted to preserve; and superior honors just as we excel. The public administration is not confined to a particular family but is attainable only by merit. Poverty is not a hindrance, since whoever is able to serve his country meets with no obstacle to preferment from his first obscurity. The offices of the state we go through without obstructions from one another, and live together in the mutual endearments of private life without suspicions, not angry with a neighbor for following the bent of his own humor, nor putting on that countenance of discontent which pains though it cannot punish — so that in private life we converse without diffidence or damage, while we dare not on any account offend against the public, through the reverence we bear to the magistrates and the laws, chiefly to those enacted for redress of the injured, and to those unwritten. A breach of which is thought a disgrace.

Our laws have further provided for the mind most frequent intermissions of care by the appointment of public recreations and sacrifices throughout the year, elegantly performed with a peculiar pomp, the daily delight of which is a charm that puts melancholy to flight. The grandeur of this our Athens causeth the produce of the whole earth to be imported here, by which we reap a familiar enjoyment, not more of the delicacies of our own growth than of those of other nations.

In the affairs of war we excel those of our enemies, who adhere to methods opposite to our own. For we lay open Athens to general resort, nor ever drive any stranger from us whom either improvement or curiosity hath brought amongst us, lest any enemy should hurt us by seeing what is never concealed. We place not so great a confidence in the preparatives and artifices of war as in the native warmth of our souls impelling us to action. In point of education the youth of some peoples are inured, by a course of laborious exercise, to support toil and exercise like men, but we, notwithstanding our easy and elegant way of life, face all the dangers of war as intrepidly as they. ...

In our manner of living we show an elegance tempered with frugality, and we cultivate philosophy without enervating the mind. We display our wealth in the season of beneficence, and not in the vanity of discourse. A confession of poverty is disgrace to no man; no effort to avoid it is disgrace indeed. There is visible in the same persons an attention to their own private concerns and those of the public; and in others engaged in the labors of life there is a competent skill in the affairs of government. For we are the only people who think him that does not meddle in state affairs not indolent but good for nothing. And yet we pass the soundest judgments and are quick at catching the right apprehensions of things, not thinking that words are prejudicial to actions, but rather the not being duly prepared by previous debate before we are obliged to proceed to execution. Herein consists our distinguishing excellence, that in the hour of action we show the greatest courage, and yet debate beforehand the expediency of our measures. The courage of others is the result of ignorance; deliberation makes them cowards. And those undoubtedly must be owned to have the greatest souls, who, most acutely sensible of the miseries of war and the sweets of peace, are not hence in the least deterred from facing danger.

In acts of beneficence, further, we differ from the many. We preserve friends not by receiving, but by conferring, obligations. For he who does a kindness hath the advantage over him who, by the law of gratitude, becomes a debtor to his benefactor. The person obliged is compelled to act the more insipid part, conscious that a return of kindness is merely a payment and not an obligation. And we alone are splendidly beneficent to others, not so much from interested motives as for the credit of pure liberality. I shall sum up what yet remains by only adding that our Athens in general is the school of Greece, and that every single Athenian amongst us is excellently formed, by his personal qualification, for all the various scenes of active life, acting with a most graceful demeanor and a most ready habit of dispatch.

That I have not on this occasion made use of a pomp of words, but the truth of facts, that height to which by such a conduct this state hath risen, is an undeniable proof. For we are now the only people of the world who are found by experience to be greater than in report. ...

In the just defense of such a state, these victims of their own valor, scorning the ruin threatened to it, have valiantly fought and bravely died. And every one of those who survive is ready, I am persuaded, to sacrifice life in such a cause. And for this reason have I enlarged so much on national points, to give the clearest proof that in the present war we have more at stake than men whose public advantages are not so valuable, and to illustrate, by actual evidence, how great a commendation is due to them who are now my subject, and the greatest part of which they have already received. For the encomiums with which I have celebrated the state have been earned for it by the bravery of these and of men like these. And such compliments might be thought too high and exaggerated if passed on any Greeks but them alone.

The fatal period to which these gallant souls are now reduced is the surest evidence of their merit — an evidence begun in their lives and completed in their deaths. For it is a debt of justice to pay superior honors to men who have devoted their lives in fighting for their country, though inferior to others in every virtue but that of valor. Their last service effaceth all former demerits — it extends to the public; their private demeanors reached only to a few. Yet not one of these was at all induced to shrink from danger, through fondness of those delights which the peaceful affluent life bestows — not one was the less lavish of his life, through that flattering hope attendance upon want, that poverty at length might be exchanged for affluence. One passion there was in their minds much stronger than these — the desire of vengeance on their enemies. Regarding this as the most honorable prize of dangers, they boldly rushed towards the mark to glut revenge and then to satisfy those secondary passions. The uncertain event they had already secured in hope; what their eyes showed plainly must be done they trusted their own valor to accomplish, thinking it more glorious to defend themselves and die in the attempt than to yield and live. From the reproach of cowardice, indeed, they fled, but presented their bodies to the shock of battle; when, insensible of fear, but triumphing in hope, in the doubtful charge they instantly dropped — and thus discharged the duty which brave men owed to their country.

As for you, who now survive them, it is your business to pray for a better fate, but to think it your duty also to preserve the same spirit and warmth of courage against your enemies; not judging of the expediency of this from a mere harangue — where any man indulging a flow of words may tell you what you yourselves know as well as he, how many advantages there are in fighting valiantly against your enemies — but, rather, making the daily-increasing grandeur of this community the object of your thoughts and growing quite enamored of it. And when it really appears great to your apprehensions, think again that this grandeur was acquired by brave and valiant men, by men who knew their duty, and in the moments of action were sensible of shame — who, whenever their attempts were unsuccessful, thought it no dishonor for their country to stand in need of anything their valor could do for it, and so made it the most glorious present. Bestowing thus their lives on the public, they have every one received a praise that will never decay, a sepulcher that will always be most illustrious — not that in which their bones lie moldering, but that in which their fame is preserved, to be on every occasion, when honor is the employ of either word or act, eternally remembered.

For the whole earth is the sepulcher of illustrious men; nor is it the inscription on the columns in their native land alone that shows their merit, but the memorial of them, better than all inscriptions in every foreign nation, reposited more durably in universal remembrance than on their own tombs. From this very moment, emulating these noble patterns, placing your happiness in liberty, and liberty in valor, be prepared to encounter all the dangers of war. For to be lavish of life is not so noble in those whom misfortunes have reduced to misery and despair, as in men who hazard the loss of a comfortable subsistence and the enjoyment of all the blessings this world affords by an unsuccessful enterprise. Adversity, after a series of ease and affluence, sinks deeper into the heart of a man of spirit than the stroke of death insensibly received in the vigor of life and public hope.

For this reason, the parents of those who are now gone, whoever of them may be attending here, I do not bewail — I shall rather comfort. ... I know it in truth a difficult task to fix comfort in those breasts which will have frequent remembrances, in seeing the happiness of others, of what they once themselves enjoyed. And sorrow flows not from the absence of those good things we have never yet experienced but from the loss of those to which we have been accustomed. ... But you, whose age is already far advanced, compute the greater share of happiness your longer time hath afforded for so much gain, persuaded in yourselves the remainder will be but short, and enlighten that space by the glory gained by these. It is greatness of soul alone that never grows old, nor is it wealth that delights in the latter stage of life, as some give out, so much as honor.

To you, the sons and brothers of the deceased, whatever number of you are here, a field of hardy contention is opened. For him who no longer is, everyone is ready to commend, so that to whatever height you push your deserts, you will scarce ever be thought to equal, but to be somewhat inferior to these. Envy will exert itself against a competitor while life remains; but when death stops the competition, affection will applaud without restraint.

If after this it be expected from me to say anything to you who are now reduced to a state of widowhood, about female virtue, I shall express it all in one short admonition: it is your greatest glory not to be deficient in the virtue peculiar to your sex, and to give men as little handle as possible to talk of your behavior, whether well or ill.

I have now discharged the province allotted me by the laws, and said what I thought most pertinent to this assembly. Our departed friends have by facts been already honored. Their children from this day till they arrive at manhood shall be educated at the public expense of the state which hath appointed so beneficial a meed for these and all future relics of the public contests. For wherever the greatest rewards are proposed for virtue, there the best of patriots are ever to be found. Now let everyone respectively indulge in becoming grief for his departed friends, and then retire.

Roman Empress Theodora Refuses to Flee

"The royal purple is the noblest shroud."

Byzantine or Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian, on January 18 of the year 532, was certain he was about to be overthrown by rebel leader Hypatius and killed. A fast galley waited at the palace's private harbor to take him and Empress Theodora to safety in Thrace. His timorous advisers persuaded him that the rebellion could not be stopped and that the way out for the imperial couple was flight. As the panicky leader made for the door, the indomitable empress rose from her throne and delivered a brief speech that kept her husband from taking flight and led to the slaughter of the rebels.

* * *

MY LORDS, THE present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man's council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions.

In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me empress.

If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud.

Founding Father Gouverneur Morris Defines National Greatness

"It is in the national spirit ... I anticipate the day when to command respect in the remotest regions it will be sufficient to say, 'I am an American.'"

Gouverneur (that was his first name; he was a New York congressman, never a governor) Morris was among the most conservative of the nation's founders, at first opposing separation from England. Once the Revolution was under way, however, he responded to Lord North's appeal for reconciliation by making independence a prerequisite for peace. This strong stand, along with his advocacy of religious tolerance and the abolition of slavery, cost Morris political support in New York; rejected by the voters, he moved to Pennsylvania and aligned himself with financier Robert Morris (no kin) and a group of men around George Washington who later became Federalists-supporters, with Alexander Hamilton, of a central bank and strong central government, opposed by the Jeffersonians. He is the father of dollars and cents: his ideas on decimal coinage became the basis of U.S. currency.


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Table of Contents

An Introductory Address,
I. Memorials and Patriotic Speeches,
II. War and Revolution Speeches,
III. Tributes and Eulogies,
IV. Debates and Argumentation,
V. Trials,
VI. Gallows and Farewell Speeches,
VII. Sermons,
VIII. Inspirational Speeches,
IX. Lectures and Instructive Speeches,
X. Speeches of Social Responsibility,
XI. Media Speeches,
XII. Political Speeches,
XIII. Commencement Speeches,
XIV. Undelivered Speeches,

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