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Posts Tagged ‘Melian Dialogue’

What’s the key lesson of the Melian Dialogue? The dominant tradition has been some sort of variant on Crude Realism, from the perspective of the would-be superior power: justice only between equals, we the strong have the right to dictate and you the weak must comply, and forget all this nonsense about hope. The usual response, from those who reject such a worldview and/or, perhaps more significantly, aren’t in any position to pursue it, is to question and reject the Athenian logic, by detaching it from the authority of Thucydides and pointing to the consequences of their attitude. But of course it is also possible to be one of the Weak and nevertheless accept the logic of the Strong; like the prisoner in Life of Brian who praises the Romans for their strict approach to crime and punishment, or the cow at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, there are those who fully accept the right of others to dictate terms and exact obedience. (more…)

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In a second-hand bookshop in Salisbury, in the year 1965 in the Fourth Age of Middle Earth, there was once a Book.* There were of course many other books there, but only this one merited the capital letter: The Fifth Book of Thucydides, edited with a short introduction and notes by C.E. Graves, MA, Fellow and late Classics Lecturer of St John’s College, Cambridge, and published by Macmillan & Co. of London in 1891 (reprinted 1899, 1908).** History does not record why Zillah Shelling chose to leaf through this particular book, but she did so, and was struck by a series of curious annotations in an unknown script that a former owner had added to the pages, including one long one at the very back, as well as by one of the names written on the flyleaf: J.R.R. Tolkien. (more…)

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If what you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If what you have is a copy of Thucydides, everything looks like the Melian Dialogue.

Sometimes, this is a great advantage: Thucydides offers a way – definitely not the only way – of seeing new connections between things, and asking new questions through a process of comparison and contrast. This was the way things turned out at Queen Elizabeth School, Crediton, yesterday, where Lynette Mitchell and I were running our first pilot session with Hattie Andrews from The Politics Project; the students had great fun playing what’s become known as the Peg Game – basically, the Peloponnesian War considered as Rock, Paper, Scissors – which then led perfectly into consideration of different examples of unequal power relationships, setting things up for next week’s exploration of the Melian Dilemma choose-your-own-adventure game. The only thing we could have asked for was an extra twenty minutes for discussion. (more…)

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…restraint impresses men most. Not Thucydides but attributed to him e.g. by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, but it does, as Tim Rood has pointed out, bear a certain resemblance to Nicias’ claim, in the Sicilian Debate, that it’s better to be feared from a distance for what you might do than to put it into action and be found wanting. This directly contradicts the claim of the Athenians in the Melian Dialogue that if they don’t crush the Melians they will be thought weak by enemies and potentially rebellious subjects, and it’s in that context that I’m thinking about this, as – inevitably – no sooner have I developed a full version of The Melian Dilemma game then I start tinkering with it. (more…)

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Of course it’s an untestable, highly speculative hypothesis, if not downright wishful thinking, that the current unspeakable pantomime of stupidity, deranged ideology and blinkered short-term political self-interest that is the Brexit debate in Parliament – no, go on, Nevs, tell us what you really think – might have been slightly less awful if more people had read and reflected upon Thucydides, especially the Melian Dialogue. It’s been quoted, of course, but usually in the utterly reductive form of an isolated line here and there, rather than engaging with the developed arguments on both sides – the (ultimately delusional) self-confidence of the Athenians about their own power and the predictability of future events, the desperate scrabbling of the Melians to find anything – hope, allies, historical precedent, unicorns – to justify their own irrational unswerving commitments. So maybe what was needed was an accessible version, on the YouTube thing that all the young people are watching these days instead of television…

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To return to an issue I’ve discussed before: do the Melians have any hope of rescue, if they decide to resist the Athenians? According to the conventional Realist reading, they are simply deluded, grasping at straws (the Spartans will come, the gods will help us, you never know what might happen) rather than accept the reality of their position and the way the world works. Whether Thucydides intended us to believe this – whether here, if not elsewhere, he shares the Athenian respective – is less clear. Certainly the Spartans (let alone the gods) fail to turn up, and there’s no indication in the text that this was even a possibility; we could then assume that T takes this as a given, and wants us to reflect on (among other things) the capacity for the ‘weak’ to start pleading unicorns, or we could assume that he leaves the counterfactual possibility hanging, so we might reflect both on how far the Athenians got lucky (and so were confirmed in their irrational belief in their own omnipotence) and on the question of how much hope is enough to make the Melian gamble worthwhile. (more…)

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The Thucydides Paradox is the way that all the authority of a complex, ambiguous author is used to legitimise a simplistic, reductionist account of his work. The high reputation of Thucydides in historical, political and strategic thought was founded on the opinions of people like Thomas Hobbes or Leopold von Ranke who had meditated long and hard on the intricacies of his account and its relevance to the present – but it’s largely used to confer truisms and dubious sound-bites, like “the strong do what they will”, “there is justice only between equals” or “a rising power always threatens an established power”, with an undeserved gravitas. It’s as if the whole weight of David Bowie’s cultural significance was presented in terms of Let’s Dance; yes, it’s part of the oeuvre, and not exactly unrepresentative, but it’s not the central point or the only thing you really need.* Those Thucydides quotes are likewise genuine enough (unlike some), but at best (the last one) they offer a drastic simplification of his understanding of events, and at worst (the other two) they make the basic error of confusing the artist with his characters. (more…)

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