Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

THUCYDIDES: Hope and History (The Melian Dialog)

When Jesus is on trial in the Gospel of Mark we read about a large crowd yelling for Pilate to execute him. When the crowd calls out for the death penalty Pilate asks them: why? What has he done to deserve it? The crowd starts getting out of control and he doesn’t want a riot to break out. So he orders Jesus to be executed by crucifixion. This offends his Roman sense of justice. But from Pilate’s point of view sometimes it’s necessary to temporarily suspend justice in order to achieve the higher good of maintaining peace and civil order. As far as most Romans were concerned Jerusalem was just another unruly provincial town. But for Roman rulers it was crucial to keep this province within the empire. If we have to temporarily suspend justice to do that, then so be it. It’s a tough policy but Jerusalem is a tough neighborhood. In modern terms this is called Realpolitik.

Thucydides deals with some of the greatest themes in the Great Books: history, justice, God, and patriotism. But The Melian Dialog is particularly focused on an idea not often dealt with by the Great Books: hope. The Melians were optimistic and hopeful that their tiny island could survive the war between the two superpowers of Athens and Sparta. They had been independent for seven hundred years, much longer than the United States has been around. But now the winds of war were closing in on them. The Mytilenians on the island of Lesbos tried to rebel against Athens and join up with Sparta. But the Athenians smashed the rebellion and punished the Mytilenian rebels. The Melians were in a different situation. They didn’t want to join up with either side. They just wanted to stay neutral and not take part in the war at all. Athens said no. We can’t let you stay neutral. You either join our empire or we take over your island. Take your choice.

As they begin negotiations the Athenians come right out and tell the Melians to hold their speeches. They don’t want to hear any lectures about history, justice, God or patriotism. This isn’t a college seminar on ethics. This is Realpolitik. We have the power, you don’t. There’s no court of appeals so logical arguments won’t make any difference. When all is said and done we’re going to take over your island. Don’t waste your breath telling us that we’re wrong to take it and you’re right to defend it. Justice is no concern of ours.

Since the Melians can't talk about justice the only thing left for them is hope. In the Greek myth of Pandora's Box “hope” was the last thing left at the bottom of the box after all the other plagues and worries had been set loose upon the world. The idea was that when all else is lost hope still remains as a comforter. The Athenians turn that idea upside down. They tell the Melians that hope is "danger's comforter" and warn them not to rely on hope if they want to save their country. So it seems strange when the Gospel of Mark brings a message based on hope. In fact, faith, hope and love are primary virtues for the Christian. It's small wonder that the idea of hope as a virtue was mere foolishness to the Greeks. They were hard-headed realists. The death of Jesus is proof enough for them that hope is foolish. The Athenians warn the Melians (and readers of this history) “don’t be like those people who, as so commonly happens, miss the chance of saving themselves in a human and practical way, and when every clear hope has left them in adversity, they turn to prophecies and oracles and things which give hope but lead them to ruin.” Don’t pin your hopes on other-worldly dreams. Deal with this world as it is now. The Athenian attitude reminds us of Dante when he wrote about hell: "Abandon every hope, all you who enter."


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