Don’t expect a lot of sense out of this post … it’s merely an example of a conflict between two “philosophies” that I can take either side of – depending upon the circumstances.
I first read the “Melian Dialog” during one of my “five days” that I spent in college before dropping out. Actually it was more like three semesters but I figure the actual effort I put into it over those three semesters would equal about five days of my time! I spent the rest of the time chasing girls … because college girls would fuck and I had suddenly been plunged into a jungle of them after having experienced the extreme “dryness” of a High School where most of the girls were extremely religious.
Anyway – back to the Melian Dialog …
The Melian Dialog was written by Thucydides and describes the “negotiation” between the Athenians and the Melians prior to the Athenian invasion of Melos in (about) 414 BC. This was during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Melos had been a Spartan colony who had tried to remain neutral in the war and Athens was bent on taking it. The Athenians arrived and gave the Melians an ultimatum – “surrender or die”. It sounds hard … but if you read the Melian Dialog you can actually see the logic of the Athenian position. They reduced the argument from one of justice and honor – and presented it, rather, as a question of self-preservation to the Melians. Certain “truths” stood out in the Athenian arguments that made sense when I first read the dialog – and I remain convinced of their truth even today after all I have seen in my travels all over the world …
1. That profiting from a subjugated nation is much better than destroying it – which was the higher goal of the Athenians.
2. That “hope” can lead a man to ruin by diverting him from paths that are within his reach that could lead him to, at least, self-preservation. Basically – “hope” is NOT a plan.
3. That the law of men is “the strongest survive” and therefore, one should rule over what one is able to rule over – lest he be ruled by others. This was the most profound lesson I learned from the Melian Dialog and everything I have seen in the real world since absolutely confirms it. The Athenians point out … “Hey if you guys had the power to invade us – you would.” They were absolutely right. Someone is always in charge – if it’s not you, then it’s someone else and this is the key point that die-hard Libertarians screw up. The Athenians were trying to point out to the Melians that … they should “hate the game – not the player”. The Athenians didn’t make the rules they were just playing by them and all of the generations of humans following them would play by those same rules too – and without a single exception – the Athenians have been proven correct by history. There is always a strongman and you’re either him or you’re serving him – take your pick.
4. Following the path of self-interest is SAFE. However, following the path of justice and honor involves exposing oneself to danger. It’s amazing to me how many people today demand “justice” but aren’t willing to deal with the dangers involved in pursuing it.
The Athenian arguments – well I have not since read a better articulation of the notion of “realism”.
Yet … the Melians ultimately rejected their arguments – deciding instead to resist the Athenians. The Athenians crushed the Melians and killed every Melian male of military age. They then sold the remaining population into slavery and colonized Melos with their own people. The Melians could not have possibly been more ultimately destroyed than they were at the hands of the Athenians.
When I was young – I thought the Melians made the correct decision – they stood for what they believed in – their independence. So they died … everyone dies right?
But the fact is – Sparta and her allies defeated the Athenians and they did it within 20 years of the conquest of Melos. Had Melos surrendered to become a tribute ally to the Athenians, they would have been liberated from that yoke when Athens fell – and they would not have had to wait that long to see it happen.
But then again – how would a victorious Sparta feel about the Melians selling out their honor to the Athenians? What “vengeance” for that sellout would the Spartans have visited upon the Melians?
But, then again – maybe some “fast talking” Melian leader could have “soothed” the Spartan’s need for vengeance – or maybe there would have been some other way to placate the Spartans for joining the Athenians.
My heart tells me that the Melians did the right thing in resisting. But my brain tells me otherwise. Had it been simply me – then yeah – I would have resisted. But, as a leader of Melos, I would have had to have concerned myself with the welfare and safety of the women and the children of Melos. If Sparta falls – everyone’s a subject to Athens – so no harm or foul in cooperating with them now. If however, Sparta wins – then I have to deal with the wrath of Sparta for “betraying” her.
And then again – as stated above – maybe I wouldn’t have had to deal with it – depending upon how circumstances unfolded.
The only path here to survival was to submit to the Athenians. The only path to “honor” was to resist and die.
After years of pondering this – I think I would have submitted. If this had been a platoon of men and I was 0ne of them – I would have fought to the death. But this was an entire city-nation and I believe that I would have hesitated to project my notions of honor and pride upon those who could only die to uphold it – like the women and children.
And yet – that doesn’t make me feel very good either.