Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Melian reasons to read Thucydides

I remember being in law school, still living at home, and a friend from school came over (actually the only one from law school who ever came over and I think it was just once). He looked at a book I had laying around – I’m sure it wasn’t on a shelf because I didn’t have any – and started laughing. It was Thucydides' Peloponnesian War. I had really enjoyed it, but he thought it was ridiculous, just too funny, and couldn’t imagine why anyone would like it. He is still laughing about it over a quarter century later and always calls it "The Greek Alphabet" for some reason - I think to mock it. Of course, most of the world probably agrees with him. But, since they still publish this old book occasionally, I can’t be alone. Last year’s Oxford World Classic edition was ranked 208,191 on Amazon when I checked last week. That doesn’t sound too good, but their Iliad, published a year earlier was ranked 482,048. I’m not sure it really means much because their Epic of Gilgamesh, also published in 2009, was ranked much higher than either at 7,015, and I’m pretty sure very few people have even heard of that epic (but see my post on 7/11/07 and 9/23/10 regarding the ancient Sumerian hero whose stories preceded The Iliad possibly by two millenia).

Anyway, the copy of Thucydides I had and still have - now on a bookshelf - is Thomas Hobbes’ translation. Yes, the same Thomas Hobbes who wrote that the life of man was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes was a pretty educated guy, a contemporary at one point or another with Shakespeare, Milton and John Locke, and a math tutor for the Prince of Wales who would become Charles II in the Restoration. Hobbes' most famous work, The Leviathan, from which I quoted above, tries to analyze the various forms of government. Hobbes was a monarchist and had lived through England’s brutal civil war. However, his less than angelic view of men might also be due to his having translated Thucydides. After all, like most wars, it was also brutal, and didn’t show the Greeks, or men in general, at their best. It would be no surprise that on translating it he asked himself - is this really the best we can do? His answer was no and he at least tried to tell us how to improve ourselves. Both Thucydides and Hobbes were considered political realists. If that doesn’t mean anything to you – think Machiavelli. There is a link among the three of them starting with the ancient historian.

But, I find myself starting to think about Hobbes now, so I will instead head back to Thucydides before I totally switch topics (you have no idea how often that happens with these posts) and just sum up Hobbes for you – people aren’t so nice by nature so we have to have a social contract and monarchy is the best type of government to achieve it – done.

There are two dialogues in Thucydides work which everyone acknowledges are, at best, paraphrased (that is, no one was taking down what Pericles said at the moment he said it - if they are not totally made up) and which are at least occasionally still discussed outside of classics departments. Foremost of the two is Pericles’ funeral oration, but I’ll be writing about the lesser known Melian Dialogue here.

In a nutshell, the Peloponnesian War was a conflict between the two major Greek powers in the 5th century B.C., Athens and Sparta and their various allies. The Greeks had already narrowly defeated the Persians, who had invaded in the early part of the century, and were led in many important aspects of the earlier war by Athens, particularly at sea, although Sparta is deserving of praise for their leadership at Thermopylae and Palataea – the beginning and the end. After the war was over, a number of city states – not including Sparta - organized the Delian League, which was headquartered at the traditional birth place of Apollo and Artemis on Delos (whose magnificent gleaming white ruins in a deep blue sea setting I visited about 2500 years later in 1992). After a while Athens not only dominated the league, but turned it into an Athenian Empire. No one is completely sure of the real cause of the war, but the consensus guess is that it was probably due to Spartan concern about Athen’s growing power. Sparta was still Greece’s greatest land power, as Athens, with its then impregnable long walls and famous harbor, was the dominant sea power.

The first part of the war started in about 459 B.C. and ended 14 or 15 years later. They then had peace for about 15 years after which it started again in 431 B.C. and lasted for another 26 years or so, ending in 404 B.C. Sometimes only the second part is called the Peloponnesian War. Summing it up in a paragraph means I have to leave out all the fascinating stuff, and there was a lot. But, the Melian (which rhymes with Delian) Dialogue happened in this way.

The island of Melos (Milos to us) is part of the group of islands known as the Cyclades (Santorini and Mykonos being the most famous islands in the chain, both visited by a very impressed yours truly) and now primarily a tourist destination. The Venus de Milo in The Louvre comes from there. Many of the islands in Greece were colonies of major cities and Melos was no exception, being founded by Spartans. It was in the western part of the island chain facing the southern peninsula known as the Peloponnese where the Spartans lived. A little more than halfway through the second and longer part of the war, and not too long after a major Spartan victory, some Athenians visited Melos and demanded that they become a tributary.

Although a Spartan colony, the Melians had steered clear of the conflict between the two great powers, preferring to remain neutral, and asked why they could not remain so. The following is a my vernacular interpretation of various translations of the dialogue which Thucydides, who was certainly not there, relates. Although many names are dropped in Thucydides, he clearly does not know who, in particular, the following discussion occurred between them. This is not my translation but my rendition of other people's translations. I have modernized it as Hobbes' and other translations of this stuff can often sound stilted, and no translator of Thucydides' entire work that I have read had a really modern ear. I will try my best to retain the full sense of it. Don’t look to be electrified by the language. It's not poetry. This is about the ideas.


Athenians. Since we aren’t going to negotiate in front of your people, so that we can’t speak without interruption and fool them with our unrefuted seductive arguments - for we all know this is the reason only a few of you are listening to this – why don’t you take an even more cautious method? Don’t make any speeches yourself, but argue with us at whatever point you like, and settle each one before going further. What do you think of that?

Melians. That’s fine. We don’t object to quietly arguing among ourselves, but given your military preparations, we can’t agree with what you say, because you can’t be the judges in your own conause, and all we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is war, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, or on the other hand, slavery.

Athenians. Well, if you have agreed to meet to reason based on your future predictions, or for any reason other than to consult with us for the safety based on the facts, we will end the discussion. Otherwise we will go on.

Melians. It’s natural for men in our position to think and speak of alternatives with good reason. However, you are right – we are here to talk about our safety, and we can do it your way.

Athenians. We’re not going to trouble you with a lot of nonsense about our having a right to our empire because we overthrew the Persians, or that we are attacking you because of something wrong that did to us, and make a long speech you won’t believe anyway. In turn, instead of thinking you will influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, even though you are a Spartan colony, or that you didn’t do us any harm, we hope you’ll try something that will work, and look to what we both care about. You know, of course, that the question of what is “right” in this world is between equals only, for the strong do that which they can and the weak suffer that which they have to.

Melians. We think, at any rate, it is practical – and here we are doing what you want, and only speaking about our interest and not about right - that you do not destroy our common protection, which is the privilege of invoking what is fair and right in moments of danger, and even to profit by arguments which aren’t really true if they can pass at all. And you are as much interested in this as anyone, because if you go down hard everyone is going to take vengeance on you and everyone in the world will take notice.

Athenians. If our empire ends, it ends. So what? Even if a rival empire like Sparta was our real enemy here, it’s not as bad as being vanquished by your own subjects. We’ll take the risk. So, we’re going to show you that we come here for our own empire’s sake, and say what we will about the preserving your country; as we would like to make you our subjects without a fight, and preserve you for both our sakes.

Melians. How good could it be as good for us to serve you as for you to rule us?

Athenians. Because it’s better for you to submit before the worst happens to you, and we will gain by not having to destroy you.

Melians. So why won’t you agree to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, and not an ally of either of you.

Athenians. No good. Your hostility wouldn’t be as much as a problem as your friendship, because your friendship would make us look weak to our other subjects, and having you as an enemy make us look strong.

Melians. Is that what your subjects think of as fair, putting people who have nothing to do with you in the same category as your own colonists or conquered rebels?

Athenians. As far as right goes they think about one as much as the other, and the ones who maintain their independence are strong, and if we don’t molest them it’s because we are afraid. So not only will we expand our empire, but we’ll be more secure by subjecting you to us. The fact that you are islanders and weaker than others makes it all the more important that you don’t succeed in frustrating the lords of the sea.

Melians. But why do you think there isn’t security for you if you do it our way? If you won’t let us talk about right and only about your interest, at least listen to us explain ours and try and show you how our interests are the same. Won’t you be making every other neutral your enemy by attacking us in fear you will attack them? Won’t you make even more enemies for yourself and force those who never would have thought of it becoming one otherwise.

Athenians. It just so happens that those who live on the mainland don’t really concern us. The freedom they have keep them from taking any precautions. It’s the islanders like you who are outside the empire, and our subjects under our thumb who are more likely to be hasty and bring both of us into clear danger.

Melians. So, if you can risk all that for your empire and your subjects risk so much to destroy it, how craven and low would it be for us at liberty not to do whatever we can before we let ourselves become subject to you?

Athenians. If you are smart you will realize that it’s not an even fight and the prize and penalty aren’t honor and shame, but, but a matter of your destruction if you resist those so much more powerful than you.

Melians. True, but sometimes luck in war is more important than who has the more men. To give up would be to despair, while doing something about it gives us hope that we can stand up tall.

Athenians. You can hope, that’s a comfort, but it’s really for those who have have something so that if they lose something, it won’t be everything. But, those who do tend to overdo it, and put all their eggs in one basket, only seeing their mistake when they are ruined, but until then, they have too much hope. Don’t let this happen to you, because, let’s face it, you are not strong and would have to have everything go in your favor. Don’t be vulgar either and give up the security that’s available, and then when final hopes fail, turn to magical prognostication and seers, and the other nonsense people turn to when their hopes are destroyed.

Melians. We are all to well aware of the problems we will have if we go up against your might and money, unless we can do so on a level playing field. We believe the gods might grant us the same fortune as you, since we are in the right and fighting against those who aren’t, and our lack of strength will be compensated by Sparta’s alliance, and they are bound, if only by embarrassment, to come to the aid of their own kind. So, we think we have reason to be confident.

Athenians. Why can’t we hope for the same favor of the gods as you do? Our attitude and conduct is consistent with what people believe of the gods, and the way they act among themselves. The men we know and we think the gods rule where they can as a matter of nature. We didn’t create this and weren’t the first to act upon it. It was like that before us and it will be like that after us. We just do what we know you and anyone else would do if they had our power. So, we’re not worried about the gods disfavoring us. As far as the Spartans are concerned, and your belief in what embarrassment will make them do, bless your simple hearts, but we don’t envy you your mistake. The Spartans are the best men around when it’s their interests or laws in question. You could say a lot of how they conduct themselves with others, but it’s easiest to say that it is clear they equate honor with what’s agreeable to them, and just what is the most practical. That really shouldn’t give you much confidence and it’s not reasonable to count on it.

Melians. But it is exactly that reason which will prevent them from betraying us, their colonists; their practicality, for they will not want to lose the trust of their Greek friends and give aid to their enemy.

Athenians. So you don’t think that being practical goes along with security, and that things like justice and righteousness are accompanied by trouble. The Spartans do not like trouble.

Melians. Except we are fairly close to them in proximity and we think it makes it more likely they will help us than others, as it is just easier for them, and our kinship makes their faithfulness a certainty.

Athenians. Okay, but allies don’t look for goodwill from those who want their protection, but superior power. The Spartans are more that way than anyone else. They have such distrust about their own assets they only attack a neighbor if back by allies. And, while we rule the seas, it is really unlikely they will come over one to an island.

Melians. But they have others to send. The Cretan Sea is broad and it is tougher for those who rule it to find others, than it is for those who wish to move around them in secrecy. And, if the Spartans don’t succeed in this, they will attack your land and those of your allies left who Brasidas didn’t get. Instead of fighting for foreign places, you will be fighting for your own country and league.

Athenians. They may try to invade us, but you’ll learn like everyone else, we don’t withdraw from a siege out of fear. But it strikes us that even though you say you will look to your safety you haven’t said one thing along those lines which might make men think you are trying to save them. Your strongest points are based on hope and predictions about the future, and you have too few resources compared to what we have, to win. You are being foolish unless after we leave you come to your senses. Don’t be caught up in the idea of disgrace, which when resorted to in times of danger is disgraceful itself even when too plain to miss, and is fatal. Too often clear eyed men who know what they are doing, by virtue of being disgraced, even just the name of it, become seduced by the word and go down in disaster, which is a worse disgrace than if they had suffered some misfortune. If you get good counsel, you won’t go down this road and you won’t think it a disgrace to submit to the best city in Greece, when all it asks is a reasonable offer to become a tributary ally and will still get to enjoy your own land. Don’t be blind to a choice between war and security. One thing is sure – those who do not yield to equals, but who make terms with their betters and act with moderation to those below them, are most successful. Think it over after we leave and consider again that this is for your country which you are doing so. It’s the only one you got and it fortune or loss depends on your determination.


It is hard to say what all of this should mean to us today, which is why this stuff is often left to philosophers and so called pundits. "I don't know" is a safe answer.  Making analogies between modern and ancient events is fraught with problems. Analogies of any type are difficult in argument. I often say to my friends I debate with that it puzzles me how I can do so well with analogies on standardized tests yet somehow, when I make an analogy in an argument - it is always called faulty by my opponent. Usually the attack is that there is some difference between the two parts of the analogy. Well, of course there is. It's an analogy. It's not the same thing.

So, I won’t try to compare the peril of the Melians to one single modern day event, but pull a few ideas from it.

I’ll start with framing the debate. The Athenians come to the Melians home armed. They start off the hostilities even as they invite the Melians to negotiate. But, right away they tell the islanders, don’t go arguing what you think is going to happen in the future and don’t try to tell us what we are doing isn’t just. We are only going to talk about the interests of the parties.

Being an attorney for a while, I long ago learned that framing the debate in a case, a trial or a motion is key to winning. If you make the case about the issue you think is important, you have a far better chance of winning. Take the O.J. case, for example. The legal question really was - did O.J. Simpson murder his wife and Ron Goldman? But, the defense attorneys, most of whom were not very adept, including the legendary F. Lee Bailey, and only excepting the two New York lawyers, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project, made the case about the police – were they competent? Were they racist?

The same is true about politics. When the immigration debate of a few years ago heated up, the opposition was successful in changing the debate to whether the legislation was – one word – amnesty. In the health care debate, they tried this with the idea of "death panels," which, although popular with some, didn’t catch on the same way, and may have backfired among others. I’m not debating the merits of either pieces of legislation right now, just debating the debate.

Straightforwardness – or, sincerity. Give it to the Athenians. They made no pretense of anything. We aren’t going to tell you we are entitled to our empire because we defeated the Persians or that we have right on our side - we are just more powerful than you and we are going to take what we want, either peacefully or not. I’m not praising their aggression. It’s hard to judge right or wrong at the remove of 2400 years anyway, as neither the leaders of Athens or Sparta would be candidates for a Nobel Peace Prize today. But, there is something to be said for sincerity. Kurt Vonnegut, the great comic writer who passed a few years ago, tells a story in one of his books that I have seen repeated over and over again on the internet, although often with other people being reported to have written it or with some political point he didn't make added in. You can research it for yourself, but the overarching point was, when you are making a speech, it often doesn't matter so much what you say. What matters is that your audience believes you to be sincere.

When I was a starting out I worked for two attorneys. One was quite famous and had that type of charisma on trial that very few attorneys in the whole country could ever hope to match. One day someone asked his partner, who was a successful lawyer in his own right, but not with the trial abilities of his partner, how that felt to him. I'm positive he never read Vonnegut, but he answered that he didn’t try to be charismatic with a jury; he just tried to show them he was sincere. I never forgot it and it is what I have sought to do any time I try a case before a judge or jury. And, it really doesn’t matter that much what else you do - rage, argue, even cry. If the jury thinks you are sincere, they won’t mind. Once in a trial I hurled my pen across the room. The jury later told me and my opponent they loved it because they knew it was genuine (it was).

Power rules. The main point of the dialogue though, is the analysis of what kind of behavior you should exhibit towards others with whom you are in conflict. My modern English interpretation is: "You know, of course, that the question of what is 'right' in this world is between equals only, for the strong do that which they can and the weak suffer that which they have to."

That doesn’t sound like the glorified cardboard cut out Athenians we learned about in high school – those masters of democracy, mind and body. By our standards the real Athens of the Golden Age was a small but vicious city state which was, like most civilizations, primarily interested in its own survival and prevailed over its enemies by energy, cunning, martial skill, discipline and power.

The Athenians here tell us that this is the rule of gods and men to take what they can. No doubt, there are many countries in the world which see America in this fashion now. No doubt the leaders of Iraq under Hussein saw us in this fashion and Iran and many other nations do now. It is forever argued by countries without the bomb, why is it okay for you to have it, but not us? If we say it is because we can be trusted with it and they can't, they reply that we were the only ones to use it in war.  

It might be argued that the rule set out by the Athenians against the Melians is in fact the basis of international law to this day; that in matters of great concern to them, Russia and China and the U.S. negotiate with each other, but dictate to the others; that the permanent members of the Security Council are more equal than all other countries in the U.N. put together. In fact, though the members of the U.N. have to follow rules, those with the power to do otherwise do so. Iraq went into Kuwait because they could. We and our allies threw them out, because we could. While you could make an argument that the world organization - the U.N., has changed this to some degree with various treaties, you could also argue that it is obeyed by powerful nations when they want, and obeyed by the smaller nations when powerful ones give them no choice. And that comes down to what the Athenians said over two millennia ago.

The odds. Were the Athenians right? Is it better to submit to the odds and be subjects than to be destroyed. Well, the Melians told the Athenians they would not submit. The United States is only a nation because we bucked the odds against what was then the most powerful military force in the world. And, as the Melians counted on, luck and allies played a big role for us.

But, it didn't work out that well for the Melians, even if the gods, fortune, justice and the Spartans were on their side. Although it took quite a while, inevitably, as the Athenians said they would, they destroyed the Melians, slaughtering each grown man and selling all of the women and children into slavery. In their case there were no Melians left to feel good about the honor they saved. Today, although they often horrify us, there is also grudging respect for peoples who refuse to submit even unto the death.

In movies, the underdog usually wins. But even in real life, it doesn’t always work out that the stronger side wins. Japan wasn’t expected to win in the Russo-Japanese War and but essentially did. Although it was eventually a negotiated peace, Japan had won against all odds by an early surprise attack and were so enthralled with their success that they tried to do the same thing 36 years later against us. And, of course, we ourselves in the founding era, and Israel and other countries now, have survived despite overpowering odds.

Hubris – There’s something about watching the arrogant bully taking a fall that we all appreciate. And, at the end of the Peloponnesian War, that’s what happened – again, despite what you might have learned in school. The mighty Athenian navy, which had already been humbled at Sicily in the midst of a truce in the war with the Spartans, was also defeated at the end of the Peloponnesian War by a conglomerate of Spartan led allies, including Greece's traditional enemy - the Persians. When Sparta came to the walls of Athens in 404 B.C. this time, Athens surrendered.

Then again, it wasn't really all that bad. Sparta, in a sense became Athens' protector. It did not take the revenge on her that Athens had taken on the Melians, or the one that Sparta’s allies Corinth and Thebes wanted – to slaughter them all. Sparta merely knocked down their walls and imposed on them an oligarchy of 30 men – a tyranny that lasted only one year before the Athenian democrats rid themselves of the tyrants and went back to their former ways, albeit without their former power. Athens did have a little renaissance, but, as we know, the next century belonged to Macedonia.

There are a few good works on the war, but, aside from directly reading Thucydides, who just might be too archaic sounding for many people, I recommend Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War as the best available work on the subject, much more comprehensive and interesting to me than the Victor David Hanson’s more popular work, A War Like No Other.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .