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Thucydides Roundtable, Book V: The Melian Dialogue: Athens’ Finest Hour

[by A. E. Clark]

This byword for stone-cold amorality was Athens’ finest hour? A provocative thesis . . . but I’ll give it a try.

First, in this episode the Athenians are entirely honest. They do not mask their intentions or weave ambiguity into their promises; they misrepresent no facts.

By contrast, much of the diplomacy in Book 5 (and almost all its talk of justice) involves fraud. As readers, we pick our way through a forest of the crooked timber of humanity. Sparta forges an “alliance” with Athens in order to have breathing space to crush Argos. Athens, at least, fulfills some of her promises; Sparta, hardly any. Corinth lies and obfuscates (5.30.2) when questioned by Sparta about its maneuvers. After the Lepraeans welsh on their debts, the Eleans back out of arbitration crying “Unfair!”, and switch alliances (5.31).

Then, while assuring the Athenians that they are trying to bring the Boeotians and Corinthians into the alliance with Athens, the Spartans secretly urge envoys from those two cities to ally with Argos and then bring Argos over to Sparta. The Spartans’ aim is to “be in a better position to resume hostilities with Athens.” (5.36) This scheme misfires somewhat comically when other members of the Boeotian government, unaware of the ephors’ double game, veto the Argos alliance out of loyalty to Sparta (5.38.3).

Athens, Sparta, and Argos thus find themselves in a triangle held together by deceptions — mostly Spartan — until the duplicitous Alcibiades tricks the Spartan ambassadors into concealing their mission and their authority . . . which leads, notwithstanding the honest efforts of the hapless Nicias, to a hasty alliance between Athens and Argos, after which a resumption of the war is inevitable.

The diplomacy of Book 5 is not merely practiced in a deceptive and insincere manner: when based on appeals to justice, it is shown to be futile:

While the Argives were in Epidaurus embassies from the cities assembled at Mantinea, upon the invitation of the Athenians. The conference having begun, the Corinthian Euphamidas said that their actions did not agree with their words; while they were sitting deliberating about peace, the Epidaurians and their allies and the Argives were arrayed against each other in arms; deputies from each party should first go and separate the armies, and then the talk about peace might be resumed. In compliance with this suggestion they went and made the Argives withdraw from Epidaurus, and afterwards reassembled, but without succeeding any better in coming to a conclusion; and the Argives a second time invaded Epidaurus and plundered the country. (5.55.1-2)

Even worse was the justice-based diplomacy of the Spartans at Plataea, where they promised a fair hearing and just treatment to trick the besieged into surrendering (3.52.2). . . and then killed them all.

Against this background, the behavior of the Athenian envoys at Melos seems a model of candor and sincerity. They define the agenda and offer the Melians two choices with different consequences. When the Melians choose to resist, the Athenians do exactly what they said they would do. There is no reason to doubt that, had the Melians chosen to comply, the Athenians would have kept their word then, too. They employ no sophistry; their rebuttal to each of the Melians’ points is cogent: in my opinion, they win the debate, and that appears to be Thucydides’ opinion, too, as Mr. Strassler suggests by citing here his later praise of Phrynicus as “a man of sense” (8.27.5). Certainly their warning that the Spartans are not to be relied on is confirmed by events.

In commending the honest dealing of the Athenian envoys, I am aware that what scandalizes most readers is the principle underlying the Athenian policy that was implemented at Melos. This is indeed problematic, but not necessarily as odious as it might first appear. I’d like to evaluate it from three angles.

1. It is tempting to discern in the Melian Dialogue fundamental issues of moral philosophy. One might say the Melians take a stand on principle (or would if the Athenians allowed them to), while the Athenians disclaim any moral principle. But this may not be quite right, if principle denotes the goal or value motivating one’s choices. A “pure principle” approach would hold that one should do the right thing irrespective of the likely outcome. The hopes of the Melians—that the gods or the Spartans will come to their aid—are a key factor in their decision. They never say, “We’ll choose certain death, in freedom, over a life of servitude.” They differ from the Athenians less in their ends than in their opinion of the efficacy of various means.

It is also not the case that the Athenian envoys have no principle. They affirm the tendency of the life-force to assert itself and to seek mastery as a ‘given’ of human nature and therefore not subject to moral choice. This is the conatus of Spinoza turbocharged with Hellenic arete. Given the pervasiveness of the evolutionary framework in much modern social science, we cannot dismiss this approach as barbaric.

What intrigues me is that the pure-principle approach–to the point of self-sacrifice–was eloquently articulated by Athenians both before and after the Peloponnesian War (Sophocles’ Antigone was produced a decade before the war and Plato’s Gorgias about two decades after its end). The best dialogue between these two approaches to morality, then, was conducted not at Melos but in Athens itself. But there is no evidence that proponents of pure principle ever had much influence on public policy. The execution of Socrates, in fact, seems a decisive rejection of their position.

2. The “submit or be destroyed” message politely conveyed by the Athenian consiglieri resembles the demand for earth and water brought by the envoys of Darius in 491. On that earlier occasion, most of the poleis had chosen to submit. But the defiance of Athens and Sparta, which became the stuff of legend, created a powerful myth of Greek liberty. By placing themselves in the position of the Persians, the Athenians ensured that an ideology which they had helped create would now work against their empire—as we see happening in the rhetoric of Brasidas (e.g., 5.9.9: “this day will make you either free men and allies of Sparta, or slaves of Athens”). It is remarkable that Pericles could call Athens the school of Hellas (2.41.1) and later confide to his fellow-citizens, “For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny.” (2.63.2) This was the worm at the heart of the golden apple of the Age of Pericles, for tyranny had gone out of style.

3. J. A. O. Larsen, in his 1962 paper “Freedom and its Obstacles in Ancient Greece,” noted the difficulties in “the common Greek view of freedom which tended to include in freedom for oneself the right to dominate others.” As I commented before, the Periclean stance invites comparison with Lincoln: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” It seems a gross inconsistency, but every inspiring ideal is fraught with conceptual and practical difficulties — perhaps especially freedom, which by its nature resists limitation and constraint.

All three themes find expression in Leonidas’ rejoinder to Xerxes at Thermopylae,

“If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life [ta kala tou biou], you would refrain from coveting others’ possessions; but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler over the people of my race.”

Plutarch is our only source for this saying. Did Leonidas actually say it, or could such thoughts occur only to one steeped in the transcendental ideals of Middle Platonism? If Leonidas did say it, what a pity the Greeks did not pay closer heed. Perhaps the life-force wouldn’t let them.

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