The Melian Dialogue

by Richard Riehle

greek potteryIdealism can be a problem (Part I)

Most of us have grown up in a world where we see our here’s as living a life based upon principles, of having ideals and living them. In some ways that is part of our folklore…how else could you sell rugged individualism to so many? And while it certainly makes up feel good, in theory…the actual practice can be dismally problematic at times.

A classic case would be the Melian dialogue (form Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War). This was a story of the ongoing fight between the opposing Spartan and Athenian empires. Melos, a tiny island in the Aegean, was a supporter of Sparta, buy when confronted by the might of the Athenian navy, they refused to give in, they were, in this particular case, neutral, and wouldn’t let someone push them around by virtue of their military might…

The Melians were the idealists here (obviously), and the Athenians lived in a world of real politick. Thucydides wrote this conflict as if it were a stage play; the dialogue between these two opposing interests has been a classic for centuries.

Here is a modern restaging of this dialogue:

And here is the English translation of the dialogue:

Fate of Melos

Melian dialogue
How this relates to political thought
The Melian dialogue is often taught in world politics classes because it’s a classic example of the clash between REALISM and LIBERALISM. In other words, do you do what is realistic in order to survive or do you act based on principle, in the name of freedom?

"The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."

Athens immediately attacked the island. So the Melians fought as hard they could!!

But of course, it was no use. They held them off for a short while, but eventually they were defeated. According to Thucydides, the Athenians executed every man, made every woman and child a slave, and colonized their island.

Why would the Melians make such a stupid decision?

You would THINK that the Melians would have given up and joined their side. After all, it was this tiny little island against a HUGE empire. But they didn’t. Why not?

They knew they wouldn’t win. It was impossible. The heart of the matter was this question:

Would you rather have your people die as free men, or live like slaves?

These points are right from any of a thousand freshman history classes…and they are great questions to think about. I would add in another point, what if the ultimate results were not so obvious to both sides, what if there was a chance that Melos could have ‘won’? In other words, how much do most students, and most Americans, for that matter, side with the Melians? So, is this perceived by us as merely supporting the underdogs, or is there a princi8ple involved? What is the principle, in that these leaders were literally guaranteeing that all of the people they represented would die or become slaves?