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Thucydides Roundtable, Book IV: “What a Man Can Do”: The Melian Dialogue and Morality Reality in War

[by Pauline Kaurin]

The Dean of contemporary Just War Theory, Michael Walzer begins his classic Just and Unjust Wars with a discussion of the Melian Dialogue. (pg 5ff) He is using this discussion to set up the claim that that Realists are wrong and that we, in fact, experience and discourse war in moral terms; these moral terms track an objective reality.  This is one traditional way to read the Melian Dialogue – as a contrast between the Realist position (the Athenians) and the Just War position (the Melians).   In the dialogue the Athenians seem to be arguing from a position of power, supposedly from the class fear, interest and honor paradigm in defense of their Empire. But this seems odd! The Athenians are making a Realist argument from Empire, with the Melians being seen as appealing to ideas of justice and fairness?

Another common reading is that the Melians (with their backs against the wall) have no option to appeal to morality: the strong abandon and ignore morality because they can and the weak appeal to morality because they cannot compete. This film clip from the popular film, Pirates of the Caribbean seems to have Captain Jack Sparrow espousing such a view.

However, I don’t think either of these is quite right. If we look more closely we see that this dialogue departs the “speech-ifying”model in the rest of the text. The speeches are long monologues that are uninterrupted, followed by the other side responding with a long uninterrupted speech. Here we have something much more like a Platonic dialogue, with back and forth questioning.  After the Athenians frame the discussion in terms of the survival of the Melians (and rule out discussion of any other topic, 5.87 ), the Melians take on the role of Socratic questioner, with the Athenians cast into the role of defending their position while occasionally rebutting Melian points. The Athenians try to demonstrate the Melian view as irrational and not considering the ramifications of their position, at the same time as defending their Empire interests.

What is interesting here is that relative to the Platonic model of dialogue, the Melians are the ones that are in control, in the position of power , with the Athenians being forced to defend their actions and being challenged on the grounds of what is rational. The Athenians seem to be invoking the obligation (a moral term, oops!) of the Melians to preserve themselves asking why the Melians do not surrender? From the Athenian point of view, the Melian faith in the good favor of the Gods and help from the Spartans is irrational; from the Melian point of view, Athens unfairly have limited the discussion to questions of expediency only.  In short, the Athenians are arguing for Empire and the Melians for their survival.

Given the discussion and the attendant destruction of the Melians when they refuse to give into the Athenians, how are we to read the dialogue? As the hopeless moral appeal in the face of a imperial power using Realist logic?  Are the Melians just foolish for not taking the chance at cutting a deal and living to fight another day?  Of course, we do not know what their fate would have been had they surrendered – the Athenians might have destroyed them anyway as deterrence or to ensure that they did not rebel at some later point in time.  Are we supposed to focus on how the discussion is framed by the Athenians as a choice between war and servitude? Is this dialogue about the power dynamic in international relations, that it is framed in terms of war, since it is clearly not a dialogue between equals? And does how the discussion is framed or the process of dialogue even matter since it does not impact or change the outcome?

But if the Realist line of thinking above holds, there is a much more important question: Why are the Athenians even having to defend and justify their actions? If the classical Realist view holds, the conversation need not even take place and is completely pointless! Which naturally is my point: the rhetorical move whereby the Melian’s adopt the role of questioner and the Athenians as respondents is in fact an ethical move. It moves what is happening firmly into the domain of the war as moral discourse. Returning to the Jack Sparrow example, we can see “What a Man Can Do, and What a Man Can’t Do” in a different light: even the Powerful must, in fact, defend their actions because there are limits on what they can do. (Sparrow needs help bringing the ship into port.) The Melian Dialogue makes the Athenians look morally bad and that, in my view, is the point; they lose the moral argument, even if they destroy the Melians in war.

War is a moral discourse. You can control and narrow the terms of the discussion, you can do what you want in terms of physical action and bending the adversary to your will, but a justification is still required.  The fact that the Melians are able, even in limited terms, to exact a justification from Athens is a moral act. The Athenians won the battle, but in a certain way the Melians won the war. A contemplative point from Master Sun Tzu, “Confront them with annihilation, and they will then survive; plunge them into a deadly situation, and they will then live. When people fall into danger, they are then able to strive for victory.” (Nine Grounds)

2 Responses to “Thucydides Roundtable, Book IV: “What a Man Can Do”: The Melian Dialogue and Morality Reality in War”

  1. Neville Morley Says:

    Do the Melians really have power and control? Agreed, compared with a Platonic dialogue this feels more even and open. Each side demands that the other justifies its position, rather than one doing all the questioning and controlling the outcome. But a crucial issue is that they don’t agree on what would constitute an adequate justification – for the most part they’re arguing at cross purposes, from incommensurate world views…

  2. zen Says:

    I have used the Melian Dialogue many times with students to spur thinking in terms of moral reasoning in that given situation. But for me, I have always read it not in isolation in a larger context, which perhaps Thucydides intended and maybe he did not; which is “Look at the Athenians now. What have they become?”. The Athenians began the Delian League as Pan-Hellenic liberators and became first masters and then genocidaires. They were no longer Pericles’ democracy but Cleon’s.
    War is transformative. WWII began with the hesitation among Allied general staff regarding the propriety of bombing private property and ended in the nuclear fire of Hiroshima. The Athenians are Spartans were transformed and the future Western world with them.

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