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Thirty Minutes With Thucydides


Thucydides is one of those writers much invoked but seldom read. Which is a shame, because within his History of the Peloponnesian War are some great stories about ancient Greece and several very important insights about human behavior that remain instructive today. That is not to say that the History has the winning answer to the war in Iraq or a compelling argument about how to prevent terrorist attacks. But it does offer an illustration of how the logic of war entails a dynamic relationship where one party’s actions, motivated by what Thucydides (and Hobbes) calls a “necessity of nature,” can and usually does drive its opponents to reciprocate and often escalate the violence.

I cannot imagine that Thucydides would be surprised by the course of the war in Iraq or by the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate‘s finding that that war is creating more jihadists. And though he might not counsel Washington to continue on its present course, he certainly would not be shocked if it did so. His view is tragic, after all.

The History is a source of wisdom, not an instruction manual. It shows what happens within a society that ignores the logic of war. Not that the non-scholar should read the entire History; I did so in graduate school and can confidently state that vast sections may be avoided. Yet the Melian Dialogue and the Mytilenian Debate are among the episodes well worth the trouble: you can read them both in less time than it takes to watch a single re-run of Fear Factor.

The Melian Dialogue is the source of what many observers consider a central and timeless fact of international life: the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Cleomedes and Tisias, Athenian generals, make this observation to the Melians, members of a Spartan colony that had initially maintained neutrality in the war between Athens and Sparta but later took up arms against Athens. When they confront the Melians and demand their surrender, the generals do not want to hear talk of what is fair and what is just: for them, it all comes down to interests and power.

The Melians feel aggrieved of course, and they offer arguments for why they should not surrender, why they think Sparta will come to their aid if they resist, and why they think the Athenians should leave them to return to their neutrality. None of these arguments moves the generals. The strong do what they can….

So the Athenians besiege Melos, and Sparta calculates that it cannot assist the Melians. Finally Melos surrenders “to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.”

As brutal and unforgiving international life was in fifth-century B.C. Greece, some argue the essential lesson of the Melian Dialogue still applies today. Those with power make the rules according to their own interests, and it is only among those of roughly equal power that justice and fairness need to be taken into account.

Such an explanation might go along way to explaining why the very weak North Korea seeks nuclear weapons: they would put Pyongyang not on an equal ground with the United States but at least would not leave them completely at the mercy of the world’s only superpower.

Others might say that “the strong do what they can” explains why Washington and some of its allies decided to crush Saddam’s Iraq.

To put the Athenian generals’ viewpoint yet another way: Does anyone really believe that America invaded Iraq primarily to bring it freedom and liberty? As the generals would say, “Bless your simplicity.”

But were the Athenians actually so thoroughly ruthless, and is interest really the main basis for national security decisions today? The answer to the first part of the question is: apparently not. As for the second, I think the answer goes something like: Yes, interest is most important, yet rightly conceived, interest entails a lot more than might makes right.

Michael Walzer took up these questions in his landmark book, Just And Unjust Wars (1977), which was stimulated by the American intervention in Vietnam. Anyone who has read that book will recognize its influence on what I write here.

Walzer, like many others who studied Thucydides’ History, knew that the Dialogue was a literary re-creation of the actual parley between the Athenian generals and the Melians, and that moral judgments did in fact have some grip on Athenian thinking even if Cleomedes and Tisias insist otherwise.

How do we know this about Athens? Because a decade and half earlier, Athens faced a similar decision following a rebellion in its colony Mytilene. In 428 Mytilene rebelled from Athens and went over to Sparta. The rebellion was put down and the Athenians had to decide what to do about the colony. The initial decision: all the men of Mytilene, whether they rebelled or not, should be put to death and the women and children put into slavery.

The Mytilenian Debate takes place in the Athenian assembly between Cleon (“the most violent man at Athens”) and Diodotus—that is, among the victors, not between the victors and the subjugated–to reconsider this harsh judgment. As is the case with the Melian Dialogue some years later, the argument is largely about what is best for Athen’s interests. But, very interestingly, the Debate demonstrates how matters of justice and pragmatism coexist.

For example, Cleon argues that any sign of mercy will be interpreted as weakness by other colonies which may thus be tempted to rebel against Athens themselves. Diodotus argues, on the other hand, that by showing no mercy, Athens will never be able to compel surrender if and when it faces other rebellious colonies; if it is known that the rebels will be killed anyway, they will fight to the death rather than give up. Both orators weave moral considerations in their interest-based arguments. In the end, Diodotus’ argument prevails – just barely – and only the Mytilenian rebels are killed while the others are brought back under Athenian rule.

The Melian Dialogue is more famous, but the Mytilenian Debate is more in tune with contemporary debates about war and peace; that is reason alone to pick up Thucydides’ History and read Cleon and Diodotus go at each other.

Is it smarter to vanquish those who mean us harm as well as those for whom they purport to speak, or should we take pains to separate – and protect – the innocents caught in the crossfire? Does leniency and the attention to our own moral standards encourage others to treat us reasonably, or is just and reasonable behavior interpreted as a sign of weakness that only encourages those who might seek to challenge us?

The debate over the war in Iraq has been, so far, nowhere near as intelligent as what passed between Cleon and Diodotus. But the day for a more serious debate about the war may be coming sooner rather than later.

One final point: Why did the Melians receive so much harsher treatment than the Mytilenians? After all, the Melians were a neutral state that only wanted to be left alone whereas Mytilene was a favored colony that rebelled. Some argue that it was because the war dragged on so long and Athens fared so poorly in the meantime that the Athenians’ sense of what was right and strategically sound became distorted and diminished. By the time they got to Melos, the strong knew what they could do, but they no longer knew if it was right or prudent. That’s something else to think about as the war in Iraq drags on.

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 8:01 PM | Permalink

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