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Saturday, January 15, 2011

THUCYDIDES: The Melian Dialogue

There's an old saying that might makes right. Is that true? Like many simple questions, there's no simple answer. Of course you could give a quick and simple answer such as: no, might doesn't make right. Having more power doesn't mean your side is right, it only means that your side is stronger. But it doesn't mean your side is necessarily wrong either. What if the stronger side really is right? Or what if there's no "right" and "wrong" but only two different points of view? Then we're right back where we started from. "Might" may not make right, but as long as your side has the power, your side gets to call the shots. And maybe in the real world that's what matters most, having the power. But maybe not. Maybe what matters most is doing the right thing, regardless of the cost. These are two very different world views. Thucydides explores both sides of this issue in real-life terms during a real-life conflict. What makes this reading such a masterpiece is the concise use of language. Both sides use precision in stating their political and moral objectives. The Athenians have the power. They've come to try and get the Melians to surrender without a fight. The Athenians first set the stage by proclaiming: Let us have no long speeches. But the Melians know what this is all about: You have come to be yourselves the judges of the debate, and its natural conclusion for us will be slavery if you convince us, and war if we get the better of the argument. This is a no-win situation for the Melians. The best they can do it try to talk their way out of it. But the Athenians only want to hear one thing. They want the Melians to give up. And they want them to give up without a lot of trouble. So here's the Athenian proposal: Let each of us say what we really think and reach a practical agreement. You know and we know, as practical men, that the question of justice arises only between parties equal in strength, and that the strong do what they can, and the weak submit... we have come in the interest of our empire... we wish you to become our subjects with least trouble to ourselves. We wish you to become our subjects with least trouble to ourselves. There can be no more honest answer than that. The response by the Melians is also blunt: It may be your interest to be our masters; how can it be ours to be your slaves? For the Athenians this is as simple as solving an arithmetic problem : By submitting you would avoid a terrible fate, and we would gain by not destroying you... This is not a competition in heroism between equals, where your honor is at stake, but a question of self-preservation. We have X number of troops, you have Y number of troops. X is greater than Y. X - Y = you must surrender or die. But the Melians aren't quite convinced that this equation equals their destruction: If we submit at once, our position is desperate; if we fight, there is still hope... The Athenians are having none of that: Hope encourages men to take risks... you are weak, your future hangs on a turn of the scales. So the Melians try a different argument: We trust that Heaven will not allow us to be worsted by Fortune, for in this quarrel we are right and you are wrong. Now the two different world views are emerging more clearly. One side is arguing from the angle of military power, the other side is arguing from moral grounds. To counter this moral argument the Athenians do have to adapt their strategy slightly, and they reply: As for divine favor, we think that we can count on it as much as you... We believe that Heaven, and we know that men, by a natural law always rule where they are stronger. We did not make that law nor were we the first to act on it; we found it existing and it will exist forever, after we are gone. And we know that you and anyone else as strong as we are would do as we do. You would do the same thing if you were in our shoes. It's a weak argument. But who knows? Maybe the Melians really would do the same thing in the Athenian's place. In any case the Melians say they will not in a moment deprive of freedom a city that has existed for seven hundred years. And the Athenians won't give up their glory and empire. The Athenians have the power so it's checkmate for the Melians. They die with honor.


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