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Sunday, June 23, 2013

THUCYDIDES: Patriotism and History (The Mytilenian Debate)

In the Persian Wars the Athenians were portrayed as heroes fighting for Greek freedom. In the Peloponnesian Wars it’s the Athenians themselves who are trying to bring other Greeks under subjection. How could this happen, and only one or two generations apart? Times change. Does patriotism change too? Someone once asked why the Romans took world dominance away from the Greeks. The answer: Romans were willing to die for their country. Greeks weren’t. Does that mean that the Romans were patriotic and the Greeks weren’t? Or does it mean that the Greeks were smart and the Romans were stupid? Does patriotism mean that it is noble to die for one’s country? Or is “patriotism” really just the last refuge of scoundrels? In this section two opposing Greek views are expressed in speeches by Cleon and Diodotus. Which one of these speakers best shows the virtue of patriotism?

The Athenians captured Mytilene after Mytilene revolted and tried to join the Spartans. In the assembly the Athenians first decided to execute the Mytilenians. The next day many Athenians were having second thoughts. So they called for a second debate to determine what they should do. Cleon begins the debate this way: “Personally I have had occasion often enough already to observe that a democracy is incapable of governing others, and I am all the more convinced of this when I see how you are now changing your minds about the Mytilenians…” Cleon says what many philosophers have said before; democratic governments are notoriously unstable. “The people” will think one thing one day, then something else the next. Cleon’s strategy is to try to get the Athenians to stick with their original plan. Athens will be much better off if they have stability in government instead of wishy-washy policies. He believes “a city is better off with bad laws, so long as they remain fixed, than with good laws that are being constantly altered.” Changing our minds every day is a bad idea for following a plan for our own lives, much less that of a whole country. So Cleon concludes the Athenians need to stay the course.

Diodotus follows up with a counter-argument. He thinks Athens should be lenient with the Mytilenians. He won’t try to argue that the Mytilenians were not guilty of revolting in the first place. He thinks “The question is not so much whether they are guilty as whether we are making the right decision for ourselves.” Diodotus doesn’t want to appear soft on traitors. And that’s exactly what many Athenians thought the Mytilenians were; traitors. So he tells the Athenians that “This is not a law court, where we have to consider what is fit and just; it is a political assembly, and the question is how Mytilene can be most useful to Athens.” Diodotus ends up telling the Athenians that it’s better to be lenient with the Mytilenians because that’s what’s really in the best interest of Athens.

With that background we’re prepared to consider the question: who’s more patriotic, Cleon or Diodotus? Both men claim to be true patriots. What criteria should we use to define patriotism? Cleon is the hard patriot. He thinks we need to be tough and stay the course. Retreat is not an option for him. We need to finish what we started. Our enemies and our allies are watching every move we make. Diodotus is the soft patriot. He thinks we can be smart and still be tough; sometimes the smart thing to do is to back off and negotiate. That doesn’t mean we’re cowards. It means we think first before using brute force. It’s hard to say whether Cleon or Diodotus is the more patriotic Athenian. To every thing there is a season. And history, like nature, has its seasons too. Patriotism is love of one’s country in every season.  But the winds of war force patriots to re-evaluate what it really means to love one’s country.  Thucydides helps us to do that. 

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