After last week’s “performance” in the auditorium, we returned to the Hops House for the sixth and final session of the series on Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. Despite the brutal subject matter, we approached the seminar in a spirit of conviviality and friendship, coupled with the feeling that there is something big at stake in our reading for this evening.
Summary of Melian Dialogue 5.84-116
Sixteen years after the outbreak war, and fifteen years after Pericles’ Funeral Oration, the Athenians started ravaging the tiny island of Melos. Melos, a Spartan colony, had been neutral up until the point when the Athenians started to ravage their land, whereupon they became openly hostile.
The Athenians approach the Melians insisting that they have two options: either submit to Athenian might, and be placed under subjection as a tributary city, or perish. Melos finally refuse to submit, commending themselves to the fortune of the gods, and preferring to face whatever consequences may come, such as death, on the grounds of the rightness or justice of their cause. After a skirmish, the Melians eventually surrender to the Athenians, who subsequently put to death all the grown men of Melos, sell the women and children into slavery and and send out five hundred colonists to settle there.
Following what we encounter in Pericles’ Funeral Oration, i.e. his high praises of the greatness of Athenian character and the city of Athens, what do we make of the Melian Dialogue? How do we read the two sections together? Does the Melian dialogue contradict the Periclean vision of Athens, or is it something like the real-world application of the Periclean vision? Or is there some third way of reading both?
The conversation tonight was a powder keg of excitement, with passions running high, but everyone maintained a genuinely civil tone, a real feeling of comradery pervaded throughout.
Pericles had claimed in his oration that one of the attributes of Athenian greatness was the willingness of those who had died for Athens not to cower in fear or run away from great odds: “choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonor, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, left behind them not their fear, but their glory.” (2.42)
In a very curious turn of events, the Melians exhibit exactly this characteristic described by Pericles’ words: they “choose to die resisting, rather than to live submitting.” The Athenians, while clearly the stronger of the two, seem to be taking a stand for the opposite – for self-preservation at all costs. They justify their own actions now by the self-preservation of their strength and their empire – that might makes right – an argument we had seen made before the outbreak of the war (1.76) Although this idea never appears in Pericles’ Oration, at least not explicitly, evidently it has great weight in the thinking of Athenians in the growth of their empire for the forty years of development. It was not, then, something that was simply precipitated by the fog of war. Some had suggested that the “gloves were off now”, things were really brutal, and all thoughts about justice were pitched out.
Now Athenian definitively argue that the Melians have no reason to fight, and urge them not be deluded by hope and honor, or fear of disgrace; and moreover claim that the whole situation reduces to a question of self-preservation (5.101): clearly the only choice is for the weaker to submit to the stronger, for the sake of survival or self-preservation. But Melos did not see it that way. Why, then, did they not?
The conversation centered on the Athenian claim that there is “a law of nature” (5.105) that the stronger dominate the weaker (compare with 1.76). The group was divided – some thought there was something very sensible and ‘realistic’ in the Athenian claim. But others wanted to draw out the implications of this position. Where does this leave Melos? Was there not something noble in Melos’ decision, the weaker, stand up to the stronger?
We appear to be facing a genuine impasse between two standards of action. Facing what seems to be a perennial or recurrent situation – which arises in numberless particular ways – in which ‘the stronger’ tries to dominate the weaker: on the one hand, the path of ‘prudence’ might dictate that the best choice is to ‘live another day’, and submit to the stronger out of self-preservation; or, on the other hand, the better choice might be to refuse to submit, because doing so would be a violation of the right, of justice or what is noble.
All throughout the conversation and confrontation with this problem were woven threads of thoughts about our world, numberless examples of situations around the world with which this reading resonates.