Saturday, May 28, 2005

Thucydides: Melian Dialogue

The following excerpts from Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, "The Melian Dialogue," concerning the events of a war between Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404, are relevant to this discussion not only because of the modern relevance of the Athenian thesis but because of the counter-points raised in our modern times in the West against the Athenian thesis.

The bare position of the Athenian generals in their dialogue with the neutral allies of the Spartans, the Melians, is that might is right. From Book V, chapter vii we read in this truncated version the dialogue between Athenean generals Cleodes and Tisias and the otherwise unidentified Melian oligarchs. The Athenean generals put it to the Melians that they must surrender to superior force.

The Council of the Melians replied as follows:

We see that you have come prepared to judge the argument yourselves, and the likely end of it all will be either war, if we prove that we are in the right, and so refuse to surrender, or else slavery.

Atheneans: If you are going to spend the time in enumerating your suspicions about the future, or if you have met here for any other reason except to look the facts in the face and on the basis of these facts to consider how you can save your city from destruction, there is no point in our going on with this discussion. If however, you will do as we suggest, then we will speak on.

Then we will on our side use no fine phrases saying, for example, that we have a right to our empire because we defeated the Persians, or that we have come against you now because of the injuries you have done us--a great mass of words that nobody would believe. And we ask you on your side not to imagine that you will influence us by saying that you, though a colony of Sparta, have not joined Sparta in the war, or that you have never done us any harm. Instead we recommend that you should try to get what is possible for you to get, taking into consideration what we both really do think; since you know as well as we do that, when these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what thay have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.

Melians: Since you force us to leave justice out of account and to confine ourselves to self-interest, in our view it is at any rate useful that you should not destroy a priciple that is to the general good of all men--namely, that in the case of all who fall into danger there should be such a thing as fair play and just dealing, and that such people should be allowed to us and to profit by arguments that fall short of a mathematical accuracy. And this principle affects you as much as anybody, since your own fall would be visited by the most terrible vengence and would be an example to the world.

Atheneans: As for you, even assuming that our empire does come to an end, we are not despondent about what would happen next. One is not so much frightened of being conquered by a power which rules over others, as Sparta does, as of what would happen if a ruling power is attacked and defeated by its own subjects. So far as this point is concerned, you can leave it to us to face the risks involved. What we shall do now is to show you that it is for the good of our own empire that we are here and that it is for the preservation of your city that we shall say what we are going to say. We do not want any trouble in bringing you into our empire, and we want you to be spared for both the good of yourselves and of ourselves.

Melians: And how could it be just as good for us to be the slaves as for you to be the masters?

Atheneans: You, by giving in, would save yourselves from disaster; we, by not destroying you, would profit from you.

Melians: So you would not agree to our being neutral?

Atheneans: No, because it is not so much you hostility that injures us; it is rather that if we were on friendly terms with you, our subjects would regard that as a sign of weakness in us, whereas your hatred is evidence of our power....

So far as right and wrong are concerned they think that there is no difference between the two, that those who still preserve their independence do so because they are strong, and that if we fail to attack them it is because we are afraid. So that by conquering you we shall increase not only the size bt the security of our empire. We rule the sea and you are islanders, and weaker islanders too than the others; it is therefore particularly important that you should not escape.

Melians: Is it not certain that you will make enemies of all states who are at present neutral, when they see what is happening here and naturally conclude that in course of time you will attack them too. Does this not mean that you are strengthening the enemies even against their intentions and their inclinations?

Atheneans: As a matter of fact we are not so much frightened of states on the continent. They have their liberty, and this means that it will be a long time before they begin to take precautions against us. We are more concerned about islanders like yourselves, who are still unsubdued or subjects who have already become embittered. These are the most likely to act in a reckless manner and to bring themselves and us, too, into the most obvious danger.

Melians: We who are still free would show ourselves great cowards and weaklings if we failed to face everything that comes rather than submit to slavery.

Atheneans: No, not if you are sensible. This is no fair fight, with honour on one side and shame on the other. It is rather a question of saving your lives and not resisting those who are far too strong for you.

Melians: If we surrender, then all our hope is lost at once, whreas, so long as we remain in action, there is still a hope that we may yet stand upright.

Atheneans: Hope, that comforter in danger! If one already has solid advantages to fall back upon, one can indulge in hope.... Do not let this happen to you, you who are weak and whose fate depends on a single movement of the scale. And do not be like those people who, as so commonly happens, miss the chance of saving themselves in a human and practical way, and, even when every clear and distinct hope has left them in their adversity, turn to what is blind and vague, to prophecies and oracles and such things which by encouraging hope leads men to ruin.

Melians: Nevertheless, we trust that the gods will give us fortune as good as your, because we are standing for what is right against what is wrong; and what we lack in power will be made up for by our alliance with the Spartans. Our confidence, therefore, is not so entirely irrational as you think.

Atheneans: So far as the favour of the gods is concerned, we think we have as much right to that as you have..... Our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule whatever one can. This is not a law that we made ourselves, nor were we the first to act upon it when it was made. We found it already in existence, and we shall leave it to exist forever among those who come after us. We are merely acting in accordance with it, and we know that you or anybody else with the same power as ours would be acting in precisely the same way.... With regard to your views about Sparta, we congratulate you on your simplicity but do not envy you your folly.

Melians: But we think they would even endanger themsleves for our sake...since we are of the same race and share the same feelings.

Atheneans: We are somewhat shocked to find that, though you announced your intention of discussing how you could preserve yourselves, in all this talk you have said absolutely nothing which could justify a man in thinking that he could be preserved. Your chief points are concerned with what you hope may happen in the future, while your actual resources are too scanty to give you a chance of survival against the forces that are opposed to you at this moment. You will therefore be showing an extraordinary lack of common sense if, after you have asked us to retire from this meeting, you still fail to reach a conclusion wiser than anything you have mentioned so far. Do not be led astray by a false sense of honour--a thing which often brings men to ruin when they are faced with an obvious danger that somehow affects their pride. For in many cases men have still been able to see the dangers ahead of them, but this thing called dishonour, this word, by its force of seduction, has drawn them into a state where they have surrendered to an idea, while in fact they have fallen voluntarily into irrevocable disaster, in dishonour that is all the more dishonourable because it has come to them from their own folly rather than from their misfourtune. You will see that there is nothing disgraceful in giving way to the greatest city in Hellas when she is offering you such reasonable terms.... This is the safe rule -- to stand up to ones equals, to behave with deference toward ones superiors, and to treat ones inferiors with moderation. Let this be a point that constantly recurs to your minds -- that you are discussing the fate of your country, that you have only one country, and that its future for good or ill depends on this one single decision which you are going to make.

Melians: We put our trust in the fortune that the gods will send and which has saved us up till now, and in the help of men. But we invite you to allow us to be friends of yours and enemies to neither side, to make a treaty whihc shall be agreeable to both you and us, and so to leave our country.

Atheneans: You seem to us quite unique in you ability to consider that future as something more certain than what is before your eyes, and to see uncertainties as realities, simply because you would like them to be so.

The Melians, trusting to luck and the Spartans, refused to surrender to the superior force of the Atheneans.

The Melians surrendered unconditionally to the Atheneans, who put to death all the men of military age whom they took, and sole the women and children as slaves. Melos itself they took for themselves, sending out later a colony of 500 men.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War. Trans. Rex Warner. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972. pp 400-408.

The conflict today between fascist Islam and Western Modernity is little different than war 2,400 years ago. Passing by those who are professionally committed to relativism, anti-imperialism, and those self-satisfied classes of anti-war sentimentalists we are left with the hard reality that those who have power will use it; that the West having power, the West must, as a moral imperative, use it to further the Revolutions of Modernity for the greater benefit of general Humanity.

The analagous nations today in this case are the United States of America and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the latter being a colony of greater Islam, an island in the sand sea. Whether it is moral to conquer and enslave the people of the desert kindom is irrevlevant to the urgent task of bringing freedom and modernity to the whole world, whether the entrenched forces of reaction and privlege like it or not. We have the power, such as we found it in the world, and we will leave that power to others when we have left the scene, just as the defeated Atheneans did when their time was up and the Romans took their place in history.

Gunboat diplomacy in the struggle to free the world from the slavery of fascist Islam is perhaps not moral in itself but is necessary and essential for the good of the people regardless.

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