Thucydides: Melian Dialogue

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.”

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “Thucydides: Melian Dialogue

  1. Well stated and very true. I would add that the Athenians may well have looked at themselves as the Political Idealists, spreading what they saw as the superior morality of enlightened democracy. Their realism may have seemed justified in their own war of survival with the Political Realists of Sparta, who defeated them only to be swallowed whole by the greater political realities that followed..And so it goes. Thank you for your thoughtful post. A good lesson told well.

  2. Reblogged this on Sperry Hunt – Words and Music and commented:
    Well stated and very true. I would add that the Athenians may well have looked at themselves as the Political Idealists, spreading what they saw as the superior morality of enlightened democracy. Their realism may have seemed justified in their own war of survival with the Political Realists of Sparta, who defeated them only to be swallowed whole by the greater political realities that followed..And so it goes. Thank you for your thoughtful post. A good lesson told well.

  3. i like this post but 1) melos fought to preserve itself. they didnt attack first. they had no choice. there’s nothing moralistic about this. survival isn’t idealistic. if melos fought to defend others i might buy the idea. & 2) ww2 won by the idealistic/moralistic powers?? ussr, usa, uk fought to preserve their own power in the world, not for some morality. sure it helps cloaking this in morality for the ordinary man, but ultimately its a power thing. the usa didnt use the atom bomb for moralistic reasons, not the russians fight for the liberation of others…& britain fought for its empire & role in the world. the nearest i can think of some mad cap version of political idealism might be tony blair in his invasions of serbia, iraq & elsewhere…but then the uk (with the Usa) had the greater strength to be able to afford such a notion of ‘invading to protect’.if you believe that. but interesting post nonetheless 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • 1) Melos could have chosen to accept the Athenian terms and avoided war.

      2) In the case of the beginnings of WWII, it’s reasonable to assume that the aggressors were PRIMARILY motivated by a desire to expand their power – German invasion of Poland – and that Britain and France were PRIMARILY motivated by what they felt it was right to do – i.e. come to the aid of Poland, with whom they had a pact.

      Furthermore, the aftermath of WWII reinforces my interpretation. If Germany had won the war, it would have expanded its power over all of Europe. There would have been no France, no Poland, no UK, etc. But the Allies won. Yes, they occupied Germany for many years, but they helped Germany rebuild its nation, and now Germany is one of the economic powerhouses of the world. Germany is certainly an independent sovereign State today. The Allies did not conquer and lay claim to Germany.

      Having said all that, I think you raise some very compelling points. Ultimately, motivations are subject to differing interpretations, even if a State publicly declares its “motivations” for a particular policy.

      Great comment! I appreciate your take on this topic.

      • 🙂 1) it could have, i would if they thought they had a chance at independence. i mean i can hardly imagine anyone fighting without thinking they’ve got a chance…athens/sparta vs persia maybe?? interesting area to research. & 2) britain & france didnt care about poland as such. they didnt care about czechoslovakia or austria before hand for example. poland was just a line in the sand where the power shift with germany was final. they had to act then or it really would have been too late to reverse & obviously nearly was! you mention rebuilding germany & not laying claim as if the uk & usa were considerate victors. they only didnt destroy germany cause they needed it against ussr in the cold war. germany became strong again because of the USA needing them. 3) thanks! 😛 🙂 its nice to have a sensible chat with someone online! 🙂 thank you. its nice to find a site which sparks my interest 🙂

    • I’d argue that the Viet Cong were stronger than the US. They were better adapted to jungle warfare. Their system of tunnels provided them with a significant advantage over the US.

      The Viet Cong also had the mental edge. Many American troops and citizens did not want the US to be involved in the war. That likely had an impact on the morale of American troops. The Viet Cong were fighting on their home turf.

      • Given the choice between tunnels and an Air Force (and much else!), I think you would be hard pressed to find any military commander that would pick tunnels 🙂 Jungle warfare might not have been our forte, but we won most every encounter. It was the war we lost. And fighting on their home turf did not help the Melians, or the Germans.

        But as you pointed out, the Viet Cong had a mental edge. That’s the factor I was referring to and can be the deciding factor. Victory is not determined solely by military strength.

      • I include the mentality of soldiers when determining the strength of a military. It seems we agree and that we merely have a semantic misunderstanding.

  4. Pingback: Thucydides: Melian Dialogue | vequinox

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s