zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Thucydides Roundtable, Book V: Debating the Dialogue

Thucydides Roundtable, Book V: Debating the Dialogue

[by A. E. Clark]

The Roundtable moves on — we are supposed to be in Book 8, but the pace of postings evinces that “friction” of which Clausewitz wrote  — yet I would like to revisit the Melian Dialogue at the end of Book 5 and register my respectful disagreement with some of the thoughtful posts it received.

Professor Kaurin opened discussion of this celebrated passage, noting that it has been read both as a clash between Realism and the Just War theory and also as evidence that appeals to morality are the last refuge of a loser. Prof. Kaurin finds instead (I hope I am paraphrasing acceptably) that morality is an inescapable part of the framework of war, and that the Melians are calling the Athenians to account and get the better of the argument. Without repeating the points I made in an earlier post suggesting a different interpretation, I’d like to flag a couple of points which I think raise doubts about Professor Kaurin’s thesis:

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.

The Athenians do not argue for their empire; they present it as a fact beneficial to themselves, and they take their intention to maintain it as the most natural thing in the world and therefore not requiring justification. They do explain the relevant mechanics of empire, namely that its continuance depends on maintaining a credible deterrent in the eyes of their subjects (5.95) — a deterrent which in this case will be established at the expense of the Melians. This I believe is the heart of the “messaging” on which Dr. Metz focused in his post

What brings the two states into conflict is not the Melians’ wish to survive, but their wish to be independent, which the Athenians will not permit them: a way of survival lies open, however, for the Athenians offer the status of tributary ally, “without ceasing to enjoy the country that belongs to you.”

The Athenians argue that by putting their hope in aid that will not come, the Melians are making a terrible mistake. This is more of the nature of a pertinent technical observation than a moral injunction. The Athenians say quite frankly that it is in their interest, as well as the Melians’, for the Melians to survive: “We would desire to exercise that empire over you without trouble, and see you preserved for the good of us both.” Philosophically, then, the Athenians are consistent.

The Athenians also argue that the Melians are at risk of making another terrible mistake, namely, of letting notions of honor and disgrace (“the mere influence of a seductive name”) lead them “into hopeless disaster.” The passage at 5.101 is clarifying: the Athenians are not dismissing all notions of honor (which here, as usual, denotes external honor or reputation) but stating that honor is not relevant in so unequal an encounter. 

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.  

To me this is extremely doubtful. The Athenians had a reputation to keep up. With regard to “messaging,” it was almost as important for the hegemon to be known for keeping promises as it was to be known for following through on threats. Moreover, as they said, it was in their interest to secure the Melians as profitable tributaries.

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.

As I have attempted to show, (a) the Athenians are not trying to defend or justify their actions; (b) the conversation is not pointless, for the Athenians (by calling attention to resources and consequences) are trying to persuade the Melians to make, for their own survival, a decision which will also bring the optimal outcome for the Athenians.

Mr. Greer sees in the Dialogue proof that the Athenians recognized no principle but self-interest and contrasts them unfavorably with their adversaries who retained a principle of honor. To evaluate this contrast, we need to be clear what ‘honor’ meant to Thucydides’ contemporaries.

The honor about which Mr. Greer writes (in the constellation of “justice, honor, and mercy”) sounds like Victorian honor, which James Bowman, in his work Honor: a History, glosses as characteristic of the gentleman who owes allegiance to a universal and ethical standard. It represented a democratization of the honor of the Christian aristocracy, most vividly exemplified in the code of chivalry. Essential to this concept (and greatly complicating it) is a certain duality: “honor” denotes both recognition by others and one’s own inner integrity.  Tension between outward and inward honor was a frequent motif in Victorian novels. Trollope’s work often features an honorable protagonist enduring social obloquy: Phineas Finn arrested for murder and the Reverend Crawley accused of stealing a check. The inward kind of honor came to be seen as ultimately the “real” one, and to call someone an honorable man was a judgment of his inner values, not his reputation.

I doubt that anyone in the fifth century BCE would have recognized this concept. It is not what Thucydides meant by the word time. The classical Greek dictionaries make it clear that time was extrinsic honor. It was paramount in the ancient world — note that at 1.76.2 although the usual English translation (I think for the sake of tricolon crescens) is “fear, honor, and interest,” in the original, ‘honor’ comes first (Professor Morley pointed this out in his comment to Lynn Rees’s post). It remains paramount in the Muslim world, and it is close to the Asiatic concept of “face.”

It is with some unease that I point out that the meaning of ’honor’ has changed over time, because this is certainly not news to Mr. Greer. He has blogged elsewhere with erudition about the dramatic (and popularly unknown) evolution of family values, and the succession of honor, dignity, and victimhood as the changing forms of validating status in American society. Nevertheless, it seems to me that his discussion of honor in the Peloponnesian War suffers from an uncharacteristic anachronism.

Let us follow Mr. Greer into the argument over the fate of the Plataeans (3.52-68), a lengthy and emotionally arresting episode. I do not think it supports the conclusions Mr. Greer draws from it.

Knowing all of this, the Plataeans did not defend themselves in terms of interest

— but, he says, they appealed to the Spartans’ sense of justice and honor. Yet let us consider this carefully. When the Plataeans appeal to the Spartans’ sense of honor, they are referring to what people will say about you.  Look at the passage again: “most of the Hellenes regard you as a model…take care that displeasure not be felt at an unseemly [that’s closer to the Greek than Crawley’s ‘unworthy’] decision.” You will look bad!

As for the Thebans’ argument at Plataea, Mr. Greer is right that it refers often to justice and injustice; but after scrutinizing their speech I sense that the Thebans are tendentiously labeling as unjust and criminal anyone who has been on the other side in a war.  This is not unnatural: one who chooses to be on the other side harms my interests, and human beings have always tended to identify the Good with whatever is good for themselves, and Evil as whatever is harmful to themselves.  If we accepted this logic, then on the conclusion of a war every soldier on the losing side would be treated as a criminal. This may have been fair in the Theban view, but we should be clear that the Thebans are not using the word justice as we use it. And we certainly have no reason to place the Spartan and Theban decision at Plataea on a higher level, even conceptually, than the Athenians’ at Melos. The Spartans, too, were guided by their own interests, except that their calculation was based largely on the past (retribution) where the Athenians’ was based mainly on the future (keeping their empire intact).

Even if we found reason to understand the ’justice’ mentioned here as comparable to our concept, it would be rash to conclude that the Spartans were imbued with justice simply because they talked about it. This is especially true if (as I think can fairly be said) the outcome of deliberations ostensibly guided by a criterion of justice happened always to be a choice that served Spartan interests. “Rationalization” may be a modern term, but the phenomenon is very old.

It is harder to evaluate the tendency for inauspicious sacrifices or an inviolable festival to delay Spartan military campaigns. It was the perception of other Greeks that the Spartans were cautious by temperament and loath to engage in action outside their borders. This may have been because their domestic situation was always somewhat precarious, or because they — with the sobriety typical of professional soldiers — were less keen to get into wars than amateurs were. I wonder if the often-invoked auguries were not simply a face-saving way to put the brakes on. I doubt that their sense of national security ever took a back seat to piety.

The combination of an anachronistic reading of ‘honor’ and a willingness to accept rhetoric as virtue leads Mr. Greer to be rather hard on the Athenians

Behold the men of Athens! Dead to honor, to principle, to humanity. This was a people whose hearts had hardened. Nothing was left to Athens but the pursuit of power—and its cousin, profit. The only language they spoke was the language of naked interest.

while he gives the Spartans more credit

The Spartans were a very different sort of people. […] Her people stuck fast to her traditions to the end of her days. […] To the end they talked and thought and fought in a world they never stopped describing with words like justice and honor.

I, too, see much to admire in the way of Lacedaemon, but I am afraid the Spartans, like the Athenians (and every other long-lived society), underwent a moral and cultural decay. Helena Schrader, who has written a very pleasant trilogy fictionalizing the life of Leonidas, dates the commencement of that decay even before the Classical era, as the laws of Lycurgus began to be watered down or circumvented. She represents Leonidas as one of the last exemplars of the virtues of the Archaic era. Within the pages of Thucydides I do not observe consistent devotion to principle more frequently in Spartans than in others, though their military discipline was stronger. There is certainly no halo around Pausanias!

Yet in the end I am willing to draw a moral lesson, but it is that economic and political structures play an enormous role in determining moral tenor. The Athenians did not treat rebels ruthlessly because they were immoral or unprincipled. They treated rebels ruthlessly because they had an empire to preserve. Empire — that is, power without accountability to those over whom it is exercised for the purpose of extracting resources from them — necessarily involves treating certain people or communities as means, and not at all as ends. Since few wish to be treated as means, this arrangement requires coercion and (in all the cases I can think of) some degree of institutionalized cruelty. (A debate over Aristotle’s “natural slave” will await a different discussion!)  Admirers of the culture of Athens must acknowledge with regret that this was what the Athenians let themselves in for when they chose the path of Empire. The Spartans’ empire lay at home, and the krypteia marked helots, sometimes arbitrarily chosen, for murder — and in one case that Thucydides recounts (4.80.3-5), the murder occurred treacherously and on a very large scale.

It is hard to ponder the relation of morality to power, and the feasibility of remaining moral while exercising power, without thinking of Machiavelli. His work has been plausibly interpreted in such contrasting ways. Did he despise Christian morality? Did he believe that statecraft was a domain in which different rules applied, though the ultimate values were consistent with Christian morality? Was he trying to arm republicans against the wiles of tyrants — exhorting his followers to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, except that the first took precedence over the second? I find the cool pragmatism of the Athenian imperialists rooted in a worldview that is not only pre-Christian, but untouched by the implications of monotheism; and comparisons with Machiavelli are therefore likely to mislead. The Florentine, like the Platonist and the Stoic, believed — or lived in a culture that professed to believe — that all men in some sense were brothers. The Athenians did not. That is why they are closer to Darwin than to Machiavelli.

Finally, when Mr. Greer observes that after all it was the Spartans who won the war, I trust he is not suggesting that they won because they more frequently talked about justice! Their victory may defy simple explanation, or it may turn out to have been overdetermined. The subsidies from Persia should not be forgotten, as well as the elephantine folly of the Sicilian expedition. And as I have written elsewhere, by exercising empire over fellow-Greeks the Athenians chose to sail against a powerful headwind — the ideology of Greek freedom — that they had done much to create.

One Response to “Thucydides Roundtable, Book V: Debating the Dialogue”

  1. T. Greer Says:

    I do not know if I can defend the thesis that the Spartans won the war because they talked and thought in terms of justice while the Athenians did not. The point I tried to make was the opposite of this: the Athenians, despite openly declaring themselves devotees of empire and cold realpolitik, did not win. Their ‘realism,’ if it is to be cold such, did not help them. There is a strain of IR theorists turned policy pundits who’ve seen in the Melian Dialogue not just a description of how international politics works, but a prescription for how international politics ought to work. Realism is not just normative—it’s a guide for action. It is interesting then to see a nation that took such an open and hard realist turn fail so spectacularly because of it.


    Because of it. Can I say that? It might not be justified by evidence—the war was more complex than that. I do think, however, that this is an intentional undercurrent of Thucydides work. The Melian Dialogue directly precedes the Sicilian Expedition for a reason. This may just be it. The same spirit which led the Athenians to slaughter the men of Melos led them to war with the men of Syracuse. Power for power’s sake, hints our author, may not be all that it seems.


    Whether the Spartans are any better is hard to say. We cannot know if their talk of justice and honor was just lip service, or if it was the real deal. The evidence is simply not sufficient. But that admitted, see the contrast between the two societies! The Athenians don’t just neglect justice and mercy—they compete to show that their argument is the least concerned with it! This is not natural. Men are wired to justify themselves—that is, to convince themselves they do what they do for reasons of right, not might. We are all the good guy in our story. Most of us could not face ourselves and go on were it otherwise. The Athenians were different. Something happened to their society that deadened them to claims of right. Perhaps it was the plague. Perhaps it was the Sophists. Whatever it was, the Athenian story was different: they did not endeavor to show that they were in the right, but that there was no right but might. Some might call their approach intellectually brave and honest. I am inclined to call it sick. A society that shuns even the appearance of virtue is a society has been warped well beyond the normal human bounds.


    Along these lines: we can argue whether or not Spartan actions were actually just, but to the Spartans it was still important to at least appear just. The word justice still meant something to them, even if they bent it for their own ends. It really is a marvelous contrast: one people desperate to believe and have others believe that they were acting morally; the other denying that morality had any place in political decision making at all. Thucydides seems to think that this difference had practical consequences—thus the time he spends on the dialogue in the first place. Spartans may have been just as heartless…but if so, Thucydides does not seem to think It relevant. Instead he juxtaposes Athenians talk of interest with Spartan talk of piety and justice.


    As a translator working with the type of sensitive materials that you do, I think you will understand this point. The boundaries we place around words matter. The range of acceptable vocabulary a society (or state) is willing to sanction matters.


    Finally, on to honor. You are correct, of course, in saying that honor at this time mostly meant reputation. But a reputation for what? The Plataeans answer:

    “Consider also that at present the Hellenes generally regard you as a model of worth and honor; and if you pass an unjust sentence upon us in this which is no obscure cause—but one in which you the judges, are as illustrious as we, the prisoners, are blameless—take care that displeasure be not felt at an unworthy decision in matter of honorable men made yet more honorable than they.”

    Or a little bit later on:

    Our lives may be quickly taken, but it will always be a heavy task to wipe away the infamy of the deed; as we are no enemies that you might justly punish, but friends forced into taking arms against you.

    In both cases then the Spartan’s reputation is tied directly to their penchant for just behavior. A just decision will increase their honor; an unjust decision will blot it out.


    This was different from the Athenian concerns. The debate before the Spartans was mainly over whether or not the Plataeans had culpability for their resistance—e.g., could they be justly blamed of any crime equal to the punishment they were sentenced. The Athenians admit from Day 1, on the other hand, that the Melians deserved no punishment, but that their actions would incur one anyway. I do not see how the two can fairly be compared.

Switch to our mobile site