Classics Philosophy Politics

Understanding the Melian Dialogue in Thucydides

Thucydides is sometimes considered to be the most dense and thoughtful writer and thinker of Antiquity, yes, even more-so than the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  His great gift to the Western canon: History of the Peloponnesian War is one of the great classics of Western literature, history, and philosophy.  Its content, especially when read philosophically rather than as scientific history as Leopold van Ranke believed, is thought-provoking and deep.  One of the most famous dialogues is the Melian Dialogue which we are now going to cover.

Most people know the Melian Dialogue at the end of Book V as Thucydides famous treatment of the issue of political and international realism in the realm of politics.  We can identify, at minimum, six major themes that come out of this short dialogue: 1) realism (the contest between internationalism and isolationism which was already in play in Book I); 2) questions concerning the law of nature; 3) geopolitics; 4) the question of whether an empire can be just; 5) rationality and irrationality (especially as these concepts relate to the law of nature), and 6) whether heroism and bravery is any sort of guarantee in battle and war.  We can add a seventh from Machiavelli reading Thucydides concerning how to deal with a conquered people.  I will briefly parse out each of these themes that are contained in the few short pages of this incredibly rich dialogue.

REALISM AND THE LAW OF NATURE

The Melian Dialogue is almost universally read because of its treatment of realism.  Thucydides had earlier treated the same topic in the Debate of War between Corcyra and Corinth back in Book I, but it is the Melian Dialogue that is most famous because of what happens to Melos after the fact.  Realism is, in the reading, represented by the Athenians.  Idealism is represented by the Melians.

In between the lines there is that debate of internationalism and isolationism from Book I and which of these two camps are “realist.”  Thucydides indicates throughout the book that internationalism is the only form of political realism while identifying isolationism as idealism.  That is, the Melians are foolish – or overly idealistic – in their neutrality and isolation.  In times of great crisis and war there is no “neutral” side.

Like from the Corcyreans from Book I, who understand the errors of their way and turn to internationalism in seeking an alliance with Athens, the Melians are stuck in the errors in believing that they can keep their sovereignty and independence in their neutrality.  The reason for this problem is related to the themes of law of nature and geopolitics which we’re also going to visit.  But the question of realism in the internationalist vs. isoliationist debate is which is really following their self-interest?

Thus, the question of realism is entirely tied to the question of the law of nature that the Athenians and Melians also engage in.  (There is also an internal satirization of the Melians in this because they claim to be taking rational and logical positions which the Athenians flip time and again against the Melians – but I will get to that latter.)  The Melians argue that their neutrality is a result of their following their own self-interest which is what the law of nature is.  The Athenians rebuke by arguing that the law of nature is self-preservation and, if true, then the Melians are not following their own self-interest and the law of nature because by not siding with Athens they are inviting themselves to destruction (which is the opposite of self-interest preservation).  (Note: any educated reader will realize how much of an influence Thucydides was on Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza despite having written two millennia earlier than they.)

The Athenians also respond to the Melians that the way of the gods is the way of power.  Power is the law of nature.  (Remember Thrasymachus from Plato’s Republic?)  Power is the highest manifestation of the law of nature which is about self-preservation.  And the Athenians are upfront about this too.  They tell the Melians that by allowing the Melians to remain neutral the Athenians look weak in the eyes of their allies.  They may rebel against Athens if Athens doesn’t display her strength and resolve.  Furthermore, the Athenians play mind games with the Melians by saying that since they are colony of Sparta they are not as independent as they claim.  True self-interest should align them with Athens rather than Sparta.

Despite the threats from Athens, the Melians respond with the claim that Athenian action against the Melians will expose Athens for what it really is: not a just empire at all but a vengeful and power-hungry one  “And this is a principle which affects you as much as anybody, since your own fall would be visited by the most terrible vengeance and would be an example to the world.”  In other words, more modern words, “the world is watching.”

Throughout the dialogue the question of the law of nature and whether it is about power is also a question about logical argumentation.  Thucydides highlights how a worldview dominated by power leads to utilitarian sentiment and logic.  (Again, much like how the sophists in Plato’s Republic defend their views on purely utilitarian grounds.)   The Athenians tell the Melians that it will be more profitable for them to align with Athens over Sparta.  The Athenians tell the Melians that true self-interest is alignment with Athens because Athens is far more powerful than Melos.  “You, by giving in, would save yourselves from disaster; we, by not destroying you, would be able to profit from you.”  Notice the utilitarianism inherent to the Athenian position.

This returns us to the question of self-interest.  Self-interest and the law of nature is entirely predicated upon power.  Self-interest, which includes self-preservation, must lead to submission to the more powerful party involved in the dialectic.  Thus, Athens is in the right and Melos is in the wrong.  The issue of being “in the right” and “in the wrong” is another major philosophical theme throughout Thucydides’s work.  You can be wrong when you’re not following the law of nature.  By not following the law of nature you are acting irrationally.  The Melians, though claiming to be acting rationally, are really acting irrationally – that is to say they are acting idealistically.

GEOPOLITICS

Included in the Melian Dialogue is the theme of geopolitics.  More critically, and to the sharp eye, it is question of land power vs. sea power.  Sparta is the great land power of the Hellenes.  Athens is the great sea power of the Hellenes.  City-states sort themselves out based on whether they are land and sea powers: the sea power states are part of the Athenian alliance and the land powers are part of the Spartan alliances.  We even got traces of this back in Book I when Corcyra joined with Athens and argued that it was in Athens’s interest for them to be allies because they possessed one of the largest navies of all the Greek city-states and that this would only strengthen Athens’s claim to sea.  This theme of geopolitics between land and sea powers was influential on Grotius, Hobbes, Fichte, Schmitt, and more recently, Alexandr Dugin.

This relates itself to the question of self-interest and the law of nature which we just covered.  Melos is an island city-state.  Thus, it is a sea-power by its very nature.  Athens is the greatest sea power.  Other sea power states are part of the Athenian alliance.  In the sorting out of geopolitics, with the land powers being part of the Spartan alliance and the sea powers being part of the Athenian alliances, Melos should be part of the Athenian alliance.  That is why the Athenians come to them with an offer to submit rather than showing up and immediately waging war against them.

Since Melos is a natural sea power, it is in Melos’s self-interest (and following the law of nature) to sort itself into the sea power alliance.  They do not and suffer the consequences as a result.  History, according to Thucydides, is rooted in the contest between land and sea powers.  Because the sea power is the “open city” which Thucydides discussed in Book II in the Pericles’s Funeral Oration, and it is precisely because Athens is a sea power that she is the “city open to the world” and all of the wealth and trade of the world, the sea power seeks to expand itself to consummate its power.  Thus, Athens was acting self-interestedly in seeking the submission of Melos into her alliance.  Furthermore, as Thucydides hints at throughout other books, Athens always wanted the war to expand from Ionia to Sicily, and from Libya to Carthage.  Her empire would stretch across the seas.

One needs to know whether it is a natural sea power or land power and sort itself out accordingly.  Melos failed to do that and suffered the consequences.

JUST EMPIRE

Part of the dialogue includes Athenian representatives informing the Melians that the Athenian empire is just because of what Athens did in coming to the aid of Greece during the Persian Wars.  This is a theme stretching across the first half of Thucydides’s great work: the question of whether any empire can be just or whether all empires are unjust.  Americans should ask themselves the same question concerning what happened after the Second World War and why, as I’ve said, America is the New Athens rather than the New Rome (because like Athens, not only do most Americans see the “American Empire” (e.g. the “liberal order”) as just, America is also the great sea power).

RATIONALITY AND IRRATIONALITY

Embedded throughout the dialogue is an exception use of satire by Thucydides.  The Melians are convinced that they are not acting irrationally, “Our confidence, therefore, is not so entirely irrational as you think” the Melians tell the Athenians.

The Athenians begin the dialogue by playing a psychological game with the Melians, “So we are not to speak before the people, no doubt in case the mass of the people should hear once and for all and without interruption an argument from us which is both persuasive and incontrovertible.”  The Athenians are basically saying from the beginning, through the pen of Thucydides, that the Athenians will be the logical and rational party in this dialogue while the Melians will be the illogical and irrational party – that is why they are discussing in private: so the Melian people aren’t won over by the logic of Athens.

This returns us to the question of realism, self-interest, and the law of nature.  Rationally speaking, the Melians are outnumbered by the Athenians.  The Athenians possess a larger fleet and army than the Melians.  The Melians are isolated from their de jure ally Sparta.  Melos is a natural sea power instead of a land power.  The Melians know that rejection of Athens’s offer likely means destruction which means by refusing their offer they are not actually acting in accord to self-interest which is about self-preservation but is really about power because Melos doesn’t have the power to defend herself from Athenian aggression.

Thus, the Melian position is defined by hope.  (In other words, just more idealism.)  “Hope, that comforter in danger!  If one already has solid advantages  to fall back upon, one can indulge in hope” the Athenians tell the Melians.  The Melians have no such advantages, thus their hope is misplaced, and is causing them to act irrationally because it is the false comfort in their moment of decision.  Furthermore, the Athenians dislike the moral high ground the Melians keep falling back on.  They tell the Melians that if their roles were reversed that the Melians would be doing the same thing that the Athenians are doing – so the moral high ground is irrelevant and relative because if Melos was the great sea power in war with the great land power, and if Athens was a natural sea power (though less powerful than Melos in this hypothetical) then it would only be natural for Melos to be acting in the manner that Athens is currently acting in.

At the same time the Athenians continuously play to the Melian definition of the law of nature as self-preservation.  If true, and the Athenians entertain that reality, then why aren’t the Melians acting in their self-interest and joining the Athenians?  It seems only logical that they should do so.

Melos again responds by saying that even though the Spartans are the great land power, they too have a navy.  Thus, the Spartan navy will come to their rescue.  The Cretan Sea is large and expansive and it is unlikely that the Athenians will be able to intercept the Spartan fleet.  The Athenians respond by saying that they may very well be right about that, but they also say that Athens will never relent her siege against Melos so this hope is in vain, “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.”  Hope is for fools, in other words.  The decision is now.  And the decision in the now is quite obviously but the Melians refuse to decide upon the obvious.

HEROISM IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE INEVITABLE

The Melians refuse Athens’s offer to join with them and, as a result, war breaks out.  The Melians believe that their courage and heroism will help them in the fight.  And Thucydides does write of the Melian heroism in battle, form their night raids to even – albeit briefly – breaking the siege.  Nevertheless, superior Athenian power and resources win the day.  For all the bravery that the Melians showed in battle it was for not.  The city is destroyed and all able-bodied men are killed and the children and women sent into slavery.  Athens was, ironically, true to her word here.

OTHER NOTES

Also in the text we can see traces of the problem of sovereignty and liberty.  The Melians have enjoyed sovereignty and liberty – despite being a nominal “colony” of Sparta – for 700 years.  The Melians are not simply willing to give this up because Leviathan came knocking on their door.  Because the Melians have never previously experienced subjugation they are willing to fight and die for their sovereignty and freedom rather than give it up.  Again, sovereignty here means the right to control their own affairs and determine who is member of the body of Melos and who is not a member of the body of Melos.  Sovereignty rests on the principle of exclusion.  The Melians know this, which is why they seek to exclude Athens (by refusing to submit to them) in order to keep their sovereignty because that would mean Athens controls Melos and the Melians do not control Melos.

Furthermore, Machiavelli highlights Thucydides in how to deal with conquered peoples.  Athens destroys Melos and replaces the native population with a colony of Athenians.  Rather than seek accommodation or joint-rule the Athenians purge Melos and start anew.  The Romans did the same when they burned Carthage and Corinth to the ground.

I ask the reader to consider all of the points and themes raised by Thucydides in this simple and short dialogue.  It is for these reasons that Thucydides has always been considered a thinker of the highest rank.  The fact that he is able to include all of these themes into a tiny dialogue is incredible.  It is also why History of the Peloponnesian War is probably the most dense and complex text of Greek antiquity.  Philosophers have always read Thucydides and will continue to read Thucydides for everything he has to offer.  He has left his mark as a thinker of the highest caliber and joined the rank of immortals as a result.  So again, I close with the question, are we missing so much from Thucydides by reading him as a strict historian when he was, until the advent of “scientific history” in the 1800s, always read as a philosopher providing commentary over a historical event which he himself participated in?

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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