Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

THUCYDIDES: The Melian Dialogue

The Introduction to Great Books says “Reading what Thucydides has to say about the relationship between great powers and their satellites…we may not agree…but it is unlikely that we will ever again think about foreign policy in quite the same way.”  It also says “great writers …require us to think about what it means to live in the world and about what we are and what we hope to become.”  Thucydides is a great writer.  He wrote history about ancient Greece but he still has much to say to Americans about what it means to live in the modern world.  Who are we?  What kind of a country do we hope to become?  And what kind of foreign policy is needed for a superpower to achieve its goals?  The Melian Dialogue helps put these questions into perspective.  Thucydides can’t tell us what to do but he can show us the major issues we face.

As part of its foreign policy the great power of Athens wanted to dominate the small Greek island of Melos.  The Melians were no match for the Athenians and both sides knew it.  So the Athenians set up a meeting to try and persuade the Melians they should submit without going to war.  “The meeting dealt with the issue of whether a great power should be swayed by anything except self-interest in dealing with a smaller power.”  Here’s one issue for us today: should American foreign policy be based strictly on American interests?  The Athenians thought so.  They said “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’re right back to Plato’s question in The Republic: what is justice?  Plato was dealing with a philosophical theory of justice; Thucydides is dealing with justice in the real world.  Is justice the same thing in both theory and practice?  The Athenians haven’t come to the Melians for a philosophical debate.  No fancy words.  They just get right to the point: “we have come in the interest of our empire… we wish you to become our subjects with least trouble to ourselves.”

Plato (Socrates) would have responded with something along the lines of: let’s talk about what the true interests of your empire are.  The Melians tried that tactic and it didn’t work.  The Athenians only responded by saying “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.”  This little speech presents three major issues for American foreign policy today. (1) Is there really a kind of “natural law” that the nations with the greatest military and economic power make the rules?  (2) Was that concept true in the ancient world but not true in today’s world?  (3) Do modern countries still use military and economic power, as far as they can, to achieve their own national interests?       

For the Athenians using raw power was like doing a mathematical equation.  We may not like the results but we can’t argue that it works.  We might make the argument that people are human beings, not numbers.  Instead of resorting to raw power human beings can be persuaded to take a more honorable path.  But the Athenians already have a response for that argument.  “Surely you will not fall back on the idea of honor, which has been the ruin of so many when danger and disgrace were staring them in the face… If you are wise, you will avoid that fate.”  Does “honor” still have a place in the modern world?  The Intro to GB says “As we make an effort to understand great writers, we find ourselves seeing further, as Isaac Newton put it, ‘by standing upon the shoulders of giants’ and by standing on Thucydides’ shoulders we can see the world beyond our own backyard.


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