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Posts Tagged ‘Melian Dialogue’

Well, that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, but certainly this past year or so has seen Thucydides achieve a rather higher media profile: a series of appearances on BBC Radio 4 (including Tom Holland’s adaptation for Book at Bedtime), and ever more mentions in the context of the Greek economic crisis, including at the head of Channel 4 News the other night. There’s still a long way to go before Thucydides can be taken for granted as an authority figure in general current affairs discussions in Britain, compared with his established status in the US – one of the things that’s struck me is the extent to which almost every person mentioning him (see e.g. the letter in today’s Grauniad) feels the need to sketch in a load of background, and appears to assume that this is the first time Thucydides will actually have been mentioned. But we do seem to be getting there.

This isn’t simply a product of events in Greece; the groundwork was already being laid… (more…)

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Sometimes you recognise immediately that you’re in the same situation as before, but can still do nothing about it; sometimes it starts differently, and you realise only gradually that events are playing out just as they have in previous nightmares, and that they will continue to play out in exactly the same way to the end, or until you can tear yourself away. Another week in the ongoing agony of Greece and Europe, another Thucydides reference. Why is it always the bloody Melian Dialogue? (more…)

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Here We Go Again

Just for the sake of completeness – I occasionally refer back to posts here on examples of Thucydideanisms in the media, and I imagine that others may do so – I note the piece in today’s New York Times by Robert Zaretsky, Professor of French History at the University of Houston, entitled What Would Thucydides Say About The Crisis In Greece?. Yes, of course it’s a summary of the Melian Dialogue, along the now-familiar lines. One might have hoped that the developing polarisation within Greek society, with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations about the forthcoming referendum, would mean that we could move on to the Corcyrean stasis for a bit, to be followed eventually by the Sicilian expedition (leaving aside the well-attested capacity of the EU to keep kicking that can down the road so nothing ever gets anywhere near an actual resolution), but no… (more…)

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One aspect of the Melian Dialogue that is mentioned relatively rarely is the fact that the exchange of views between the Athenians and the representatives of the Melians takes place in private – at the request of the latter. This has a bearing on the question of whether Thucydides could have had accurate knowledge of what was discussed (A: no, he made it up), but it is clearly also important for understanding the dynamics of those negotiations, and for thinking about how this might affect attempts at employing the Dialogue as a model or template for other situations. In brief, in the real world no such exchange is ever entirely hermetically sealed off; the protagonists ‘represent’ their wider communities (politically, and for us readers also as a synecdoche), but their decisions must be shaped by their consciousness of a possible gap between themselves and the people whom they may be committing to certain actions or fates. The Athenian generals, we can assume, must be conscious that their decisions will be subject in due course to the scrutiny of the Assembly, with the possibility of exile or worse if the demos is displeased. The Melian leaders, however, seek to avoid any such scrutiny, and indeed this becomes one of the Athenian arguments against their choice of defiance rather than surrender: What do you think the rest of your people would say if they knew you were condemning them to inevitable death or slavery? What right does any elite, however legitimate, have to commit the rest of the people to suffering that they never signed up for?

The contrast with the current Greek situation is striking. (more…)

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Further evidence of the infinite flexibility of the Melian Dialogue; it’s clear that its general principles can be applied to absolutely any situation in which there is an imbalance of power between two parties. When the news of arrests of senior and former FIFA executives on bribery charges broke, my immediate response (on Twitter, naturally) was something to the effect of “FIFA exacts what it can, and UEFA endures what it must” (okay, the original tweet was a little less refined). I’m relieved to hear, via Paul Cartledge, that I’m not the only person who thought of Thucydides in this context. One Matt Kaiser offers a substantial summary of the Melian Dialogue and its historical context in a blog post on ‘Soccer, International Criminal Law, and Thucydides’. The conclusion:

Clearly, the United States is riding high. We’ve got the power of Athens and then some (we can cripple a country’s banking abilities without loading a single rifle). But the lesson of the Melian debate is that when power trumps reason it’s deeply problematic.

We seem to be following the Athenians not just in our accumulation of power, but also in our interest in talking to others about how we use it.

Well, yes, I too thought the most crucial aspect of this whole affair was American imperialism…

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The Melian Dialogue in Thucydides has been of interest to game theorists since the earliest development of the field; it was discussed on several occasions by John von Neumann, generally accepted founder of this approach, and it appears in the work of a leading game theorist like Thomas Schelling. It’s entirely understandable: the dialogue presents two sides in a high-stakes, zero-sum conflict, pursuing very different strategies with a limited number of possible outcomes, and – if you want to push the boundaries of game theory a bit further, it also offers interesting examples of how each side seeks to anticipate and influence the decision-making of the other, and raises some fundamental questions of rationality. I fully expect to find lots of other examples when I have time to pursue this theme in depth, but for today I want to focus on one case of a game theoretical discussion of the Dialogue, written by the current Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (1997; revised version 2014: 262-83). It is in itself an interesting reading of the situation, in relation both to Thucydides and to the normal assumptions of game theory, but there are also some striking implications for the current negotiations between Greece and the EU, especially Germany, which I will consider in the final section. (more…)

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I’ve never seen the whole of The Phantom Menace,* only odd five- or ten-minute snatches here and there, generally with the sound turned down, but over the years this has been enough to build up an overall impression of the film. This has tended to confirm the comments of various critics that it’s basically a number of show-piece action sequences interspersed with long discussions of galactic politics and trade embargoes with the Naboo, that could easily have been edited down into something a bit punchier. Some critics have said similar things about Thucydides – though in this case the temptation is to skip the battles and action sequences** to get to the meaty political debates, rather than vice versa. There is also, thankfully, no equivalent of Jar Jar Binks. Thucydides doesn’t really do comedy, even if it seriously cuts his margins on the merchandising.

How should one read Thucydides? Or, as I put the question at the end of the last blog post, do you really have to read all of it? (more…)

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