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Monday, November 28, 2011

The Melian Dialogue: Its Place in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides has fundamentally represented his personal view of policy, while keeping to his chosen convention of objective narrative in the History of the Peloponnesian War. The notes on Athenian intervention in the Peloponnese in support of Argos, which Thucydides has woven into the narrative of the last stages of the Melos affair, show that the Athenians were consciously following a policy which carried the risk of war with Sparta-a policy which was carried even further when Athens was already fully engaged in the war in Sicily . Essentially, the Melian Dialogue takes place against this backdrop of growing political polarization in the Greek world. It’s a classical dispute consisting of a false sense of honor and uncertainties over imperial expansion. However, the speech and form is comparable to Alcibiades' in Book Six; it may be tragically contradicted by events like the Pericles’ Funeral Speech; it may, like the Plataeans' speech, be a miserable attempt to avert a predetermined doom .

There is, however, an interesting diversion from the narrative, yet consistent with the oligarchic political Spartan character. The Melians "did not invite [the Athenian] representatives to speak before the people [as would be the custom in a democratic state like Athens], but asked them to make the statement for which they had come in front of the governing body and the oligarchic few" . Subsequently, A.B. Bosworth explains that Athenians use highly traditional arguments and the Melians who chose a position of sophistication. The language of the Melian Dialogue comes quite close to that used in “Thucydides’ criticism of the wisdom of the cities which swallowed Brasidas' propaganda and revolted after his capture of Amphipolis” .

The parallel within the text seems to be a false sense of honor and neorealism. Thucydides is not seen as a champion for neorealism but he does approach the Melian Dialogue using critical approaches to international relations theory. The Melians assume they can look into the future or cling to their liberty, which their city has enjoyed from its foundation for 700 years. Uncertainties had led the Melians to falsified realities, and thus, they are “judging the issue by the clouded eye of volition rather than calculations based on security, and following the human tendency to back their desires with uncritical hope and use sovereign reason only to reject what they find unpalatable” .

Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue shows us the eminent failure of the Melians to avert destruction through appeals to justice, essentially dramatizing the confrontation between naked power and morality. The Athenians have essentially made clear that if they are remain on friendly terms with the Melians, their subjects would regard it as a sign of weakness. Therefore, the hatred the Melians show towards the Athenians only solidifies the power that the Athenians have. In verse 89, the Athenians state, “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” . Thus, power and the individuals who possess it defined what justice and morality represented. Those that had the power used it and those that didn’t accepted it. Consequently, power is actualized in political environments "where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds are not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish and create new realities" .

The first conversation of the Melian Dialogue shows the interchange of practical realism and emotive moralizing. The Melians accept the Athenian invitation to discuss the crisis step by step but protest against their situation. It was hardly a humanitarian discussion. A.B. Bosworth argues that the Melian Dialogue was not humanitarian at all because of the brutality the Athenians used against Melos. However, he also argues that it could be humanitarian because, "they could only confront them with the reality of their position in the bluntest terms” . The dialogue initially steers the Melians into quite a predicament. They have to choose to surrender or have their nation destroyed for the sake of independence. It would seem that Thucydides’ point of view during the Melian Dialogue was biased in favor of the Melians because of his exile from Athens. W. Liebeschuetz, however, argues that the Athenians were fundamentally deluded because of their lack of morality in Melos’ destruction but also because the Athenians were perfectly right that the Melians’ own interest required that they should yield to the Athenians since they had not the strength to resist successfully .

The Melians came to the conclusion that, in order to win the debate between the Athenians, they had to appeal to justice. There’s no hope of survival based upon their resources, so calling upon justice as their defense in lieu of the Athenians potential, and expected attack, is amusing to the Athenians. The Athenians explain, “in our opinion you are unique in taking from these deliberations the conviction that future events are plainer than the situation before your eyes and viewing what is uncertain as a present actuality in your volition” . The Melian’s opinion of their own status according to the Athenians represents the ultimate triumph of hope over expediency, and the appeals to justice are simply an evasion of reality . The Athenian’s approach in the Melian Dialogue sets the stage, or rather deters the Melians from asking for justice. They have cunningly represented themselves and the Melians as equal parties, creating an illusion in the face of brute facts. This misconception cannot hide the fact that Athens holds the power whereas the Melians only hope is surrender, and they must simply endure this fact.

The Melian Dialogue, like many of the speeches within The History of the Peloponnesian War, allows readers to understand the way in which Athens created their empire. It’s not about the morality of the event or the confrontation, but about the Melian response to the Athenians’ first demand, that Melos should submit. Thucydides wants the reader to understand the contemplation and arguments between the parties, instead of the actual aftermath of the affair. Also, he wrote it in this manner simply because a dialogue really took place. In so doing, Thucydides deliberately used a sophistic dialectic in the writing of this dialogue. AB Bosworth doesn’t recognize the sophistic form and content, but he does explain that the dialogue allowed Thucydides to juxtapose the two perspectives more subtly than was possible in a single pair of contrasting speeches . Additionally, it enabled him to emphasize the weakness of the Melian position, as “every argument is dismissed as irrelevant, and the folly of resistance is illuminated from a variety of perspectives. Practicality not sophistry governs the debate” .

In Melian’s weakness they professed that “we who are still free would show you ourselves great cowards and weaklings if we failed to face everything that comes rather than to submit to slavery” . This statement, while poetic and prolific in its own right, is meant to convey a point or reinforce the Melian’s ideas of independence, pride and power. Their idea of power was the ability to face any such obstacles of politics and war, and they saw this as good enough reason for the Athenians to take haste and leave them be. The fact of the matter is that the Melians were weak. Their weakness compels Athens to incorporate them in her empire. There is no sanction they can invoke and no alliance or treaty to give them protection. Under such conditions justice is an irrelevancy and there is no point invoking it .

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  2. Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
  3. Bosworth, A. B.. "The Humanitarian Aspect of the Melian Dialogue." The Journal of Hellenic Studies,. 13. (1993): 30-44. http://www.jstor.org/stable/632396 (accessed November 20, 2011).
  4. Liebeschuetz, W. "The Structure and Function of the Melian Dialogue." The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 88. (1968): 73-77. http://www.jstor.org/stable/628672 (accessed November 20, 2011).
  5. Macleod, C.W. "Form and Meaning in the Melian Dialogue." Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. 23. (1974): 385-400. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4435410 (accessed November 20, 2011).
  6. Rustin, Jeffrey S. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Thucydides. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  7. Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1972.


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