In his 2012 book, On Politics, political historian Alan Ryan reflects on the conflict between Athens and Melos during the Peloponnesian War – “It is famous as the worst atrocity committed by a usually decent society, but even more as one of the most famous assertions in history of the rights of unbridled power.” In this video, we will explore the encounter between the Political Realism of Athens and the Political Idealism of Melos.
The Peloponnesian War was fought by the Athenian empire against Sparta’s Peloponnesian League from 431-404 BC. Melos was a small island that wished to remain neutral during the war. The Athenians threatened to destroy Melos unless it became an ally of Athens and paid tribute. Despite the threats, Melos refused to agree to the Athenian terms. As a result, Athens slaughtered all Melian men of military age, and enslaved all of the women and children.
In the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ account of the War, he imagines the dialogue that took place between the Athenian and Melian ambassadors before the battle. The Melian ambassadors assert that though they are weaker than Athens, they will prevail against them with the help of the gods because the Athenians are unjustly abusing their power. “We trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust.”
The Athenians retort that both gods and men respect only one thing – power. “Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist forever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.”
The political policies of Athens and Melos illustrate the competing theories of Political Realism and Political Idealism. Political Realists believe that maintaining power and acquiring more power are and ought to be the primary motivations of States. Questions of morality are secondary to this pursuit of power. Political Idealists, on the other hand, believe that human beings are naturally altruistic and that questions of morality ought to be a primary consideration in forming the policies of a State.
It is important to note that Political Idealists are not pacifists. Melos chose to go to war rather than to accept Athens’ terms of peace. The difference between Athens and Melos is the motivation behind their actions. Athens was motivated by the maintenance and acquisition of power while Melos was motivated by purely moral sentiments.
Ultimately, the victory of Realism over Idealism, or vice versa, is dependent upon the military strength of the States that embrace each theory. In this case, Athens possessed military superiority over Melos, and utterly defeated the small island nation. In World War II, however, Idealism achieved a victory over Realism because the Allied Powers – who were primarily motivated by moral sentiments – possessed military superiority over the Axis Powers – who were primarily motivated by a desire for power.
To conclude, the clash between Athens and Melos during the Peloponnesian War has much to teach us about international affairs and the competing theories of Political Realism and Political Idealism. History has demonstrated that the victory of one theory over the other is dependent upon the military strength of the States in conflict. Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War provides a concise expression of this harsh fact: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”