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

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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