Monday, January 29, 2007


Lessons from Thucydides - Part 3

In my previous posts – here and here – I commented on the interesting similarities between debates during the Peloponnesian War, as recounted by Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War, and modern political debates. I looked at the arrogant rush to invade Sicily in 413 BCE, and at the cheapening of political discourse during the debate on the punishment of the Mitylenean revolt in 427.

There is an additional element of relevance in the Mitylenean debate on the question of capital punishment – not surprising, given that the question at hand was whether to execute the entire adult male population!

As in the last post, the debate is between Cleon and Diodotus, in Book 3, Chapter IX; as before, I am using the Richard Crawley translation posted on the MIT Internet Classics Archive.

Cleon first argues that the crime of the Mityleneans is thoroughly heinous and thus deserving of the severest penalty. Furthermore, the penalties they had seen others suffer had been insufficient to deter them.
[I]t is deliberate and wanton aggression; an attempt to ruin us by siding with our bitterest enemies; a worse offence than a war undertaken on their own account in the acquisition of power. The fate of those of their neighbours who had already rebelled and had been subdued was no lesson to them; their own prosperity could not dissuade them from affronting danger; but blindly confident in the future, and full of hopes beyond their power though not beyond their ambition, they declared war and made their decision to prefer might to right, their attack being determined not by provocation but by the moment which seemed propitious. … . Let them now therefore be punished as their crime requires, and do not, while you condemn the aristocracy, absolve the people.

Then, in an argument that could have been taken from a modern op-ed, Cleon asserts that failure to apply the strongest penalty in this case will only encourage others to commit similar crimes.
Consider therefore: if you subject to the same punishment the ally who is forced to rebel by the enemy, and him who does so by his own free choice, which of them, think you, is there that will not rebel upon the slightest pretext; when the reward of success is freedom, and the penalty of failure nothing so very terrible?

Diodotus, in his response, notes that the attempt to use punishment for its supposed deterrent effect has only led to harsher and harsher punishments; the death penalty is but the last step in the cycle, and that only because there is nothing worse to apply. Yet still, crimes happen.
Now of course communities have enacted the penalty of death for many offences far lighter than this: still hope leads men to venture, and no one ever yet put himself in peril without the inward conviction that he would succeed in his design. Again, was there ever city rebelling that did not believe that it possessed either in itself or in its alliances resources adequate to the enterprise? All, states and individuals, are alike prone to err, and there is no law that will prevent them; or why should men have exhausted the list of punishments in search of enactments to protect them from evildoers? It is probable that in early times the penalties for the greatest offences were less severe, and that, as these were disregarded, the penalty of death has been by degrees in most cases arrived at, which is itself disregarded in like manner.

The end-point, then, is the realization that the death penalty is no deterrent, because of the many factors in human nature that inevitably lead to crime.
Either then some means of terror more terrible than this must be discovered, or it must be owned that this restraint is useless; and that as long as poverty gives men the courage of necessity, or plenty fills them with the ambition which belongs to insolence and pride, and the other conditions of life remain each under the thraldom of some fatal and master passion, so long will the impulse never be wanting to drive men into danger. Hope also and cupidity, the one leading and the other following, the one conceiving the attempt, the other suggesting the facility of succeeding, cause the widest ruin, and, although invisible agents, are far stronger than the dangers that are seen. Fortune, too, powerfully helps the delusion and, by the unexpected aid that she sometimes lends, tempts men to venture with inferior means; and this is especially the case with communities, because the stakes played for are the highest, freedom or empire, and, when all are acting together, each man irrationally magnifies his own capacity. In fine, it is impossible to prevent, and only great simplicity can hope to prevent, human nature doing what it has once set its mind upon, by force of law or by any other deterrent force whatsoever.

What can be done?
We must not, therefore, commit ourselves to a false policy through a belief in the efficacy of the punishment of death, or exclude rebels from the hope of repentance and an early atonement of their error. … And how can it be otherwise than hurtful to us to be put to the expense of a siege, because surrender is out of the question; and if we take the city, to receive a ruined town from which we can no longer draw the revenue which forms our real strength against the enemy? We must not, therefore, sit as strict judges of the offenders to our own prejudice, but rather see how by moderate chastisements we may be enabled to benefit in future by the revenue-producing powers of our dependencies; and we must make up our minds to look for our protection not to legal terrors but to careful administration.

This is the point at which many readers become unhappy, as the argument Diodotus puts forward appears to concentrate on base utility. Indeed, within the rhetorical framework available to him, which includes the nature and emotional state of his audience, this may have been his only clear course. But from the modern standpoint, I think it also holds up if we think thusly: If you no longer have an option that deters crime, then you are better off concentrating on containing it. And, if you no longer have a means for addressing the moral state of the criminal, then you are better off opting for a course that best satisfies your own moral interests. If the death penalty cannot deter others from killing, then you yourself might as well adopt the course that preserves your own moral state, and not kill.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


Lessons from Thucydides - Part 2

In my previous post on The History of the Peloponnesian Wars, I talked about the eerie similarities between the arguments of Nicias and Alcibiades on the Sicilian Expedition of 415 – 413 BCE and the arguments advanced for the more recent invasion of Iraq. In this post, I want to look at one of the most notorious episodes of the war: the plan to execute the entire adult male population of Mitylene in punishment for their revolt against Athens. The debate on this decision provides some insight on modern concerns about the quality of debate in the public sphere.

The story is told in Book 3, Chapter IX; as before, I am using the Richard Crawley translation posted on the MIT Internet Classics Archive. Mitylene was the capitol of Lesbos, the famous island off the Ionian coast (i.e., modern-day Anatolian Turkey). (By the way, there is a nice presentation of the geographical context of The History done up by Gutenkarte – an open-source geographic test browser that works with Project Gutenberg e-texts.) The Mityleneans had been part of the Athenian alliance, but pulled out and joined up with the Spartans.

Some Mitylenean envoys explained their decision to an assembly at Olympia. Seeing the Athenians growing as an empire, they feared that Athens would eventually no longer allow them to remain an independent ally.
Now the only sure basis of an alliance is for each party to be equally afraid of the other; he who would like to encroach is then deterred by the reflection that he will not have odds in his favour. Again, if we were left independent, it was only because they thought they saw their way to empire more clearly by specious language and by the paths of policy than by those of force. Not only were we useful as evidence that powers who had votes, like themselves, would not, surely, join them in their expeditions, against their will, without the party attacked being in the wrong; but the same system also enabled them to lead the stronger states against the weaker first, and so to leave the former to the last, stripped of their natural allies, and less capable of resistance. But if they had begun with us, while all the states still had their resources under their own control, and there was a centre to rally round, the work of subjugation would have been found less easy. Besides this, our navy gave them some apprehension: it was always possible that it might unite with [Sparta] or with some other power, and become dangerous to Athens. The court which we paid to their commons and its leaders for the time being also helped us to maintain our independence. However, we did not expect to be able to do so much longer, if this war had not broken out, from the examples that we had had of their conduct to the rest. … [T]o condemn us for being the first to break off, because they delay the blow that we dread, instead of ourselves delaying to know for certain whether it will be dealt or not, is to take a false view of the case.

In 427 BCE, the Athenians attacked and pushed the Spartans out. The question then arose: how best to punish Mitylene for its disloyalty?

Athens was at that time lead by Cleon, the first prominent member of the commercial class (he was a tanner) to become strategos. He had been a long-term opponent of the previous leader, Pericles, and a strong proponent of the war with Sparta. A popular orator, Cleon took over soon after the death of Pericles from the plague in 429. (Thucydides, who had been a great admirer of Pericles, did not treat Cleon well in The History.) True to his brutal nature (as Thucydides would have it), Cleon encouraged the Athenians “to put to death not only the prisoners at Athens, but the whole adult male population of Mitylene, and to make slaves of the women and children.”

This order was sent to Paches, the commander of the fleet that retook Mitylene. But the next day, the Athenian assembly regretted the extremity of their decision, and decided to reconsider.
The morrow brought repentance with it and reflection on the horrid cruelty of a decree, which condemned a whole city to the fate merited only by the guilty. … An assembly was therefore at once called, and after much expression of opinion upon both sides, Cleon, son of Cleaenetus, the same who had carried the former motion of putting the Mitylenians to death, the most violent man at Athens, and at that time by far the most powerful with the commons, came forward again and spoke…

Cleon’s speech, as reconstructed by Thucydides, conveys the crude power of his rhetorical style, and in particular, his hostility to thoughtful analysis.
[O]rdinary men usually manage public affairs better than their more gifted fellows. The latter are always wanting to appear wiser than the laws, and to overrule every proposition brought forward, thinking that they cannot show their wit in more important matters, and by such behavior too often ruin their country; while those who mistrust their own cleverness are content to be less learned than the laws, and less able to pick holes in the speech of a good speaker; and being fair judges rather than rival athletes, generally conduct affairs successfully. These we ought to imitate, instead of being led on by cleverness and intellectual rivalry to advise your people against our real opinions.

He then goes on to use an all-too-familiar trick, casting doubt on the motives of the opposition.
For myself, I adhere to my former opinion, and wonder at those who have proposed to reopen the case of the Mitylenians, … I wonder also who will be the man who … will pretend to show that the crimes of the Mitylenians are of service to us, and our misfortunes injurious to the allies. Such a man must plainly either have such confidence in his rhetoric as to adventure to prove that what has been once for all decided is still undetermined, or be bribed to try to delude us by elaborate sophisms.

This ploy is immediately familiar; more impressively, it has seemed so throughout history. For example:
As this is a mode of dealing with questions both of public concern and of private morality, not less common at present than it was in the time of the Peloponnesian war – to seize upon some strong and tolerably wide-spread sentiment among the public, to treat the dictates of that sentiment as plain common sense and obvious right, and then to shut out all rational estimate of coming good and evil as if it were unholy or immoral, or at best mere uncandid subtlety – we may well notice a case in which Kleon employs it to support a proposition now justly regarded as barbarous.
This is from George Grote, A History of Greece, London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, Vol. VI, pp. 340-341 – published in 1849!

Having hinted that those arguing for a more lenient sentence have probably been bribed to do so, Cleon proceeds with his arguments. I should point out that the sophistry to which he refers was a legitimate issue for the Athenians of the time. Plato records the social disruption created by the newly developed methods of argumentation that did not require any commitment to the implications of their results (most notably in the Euthydemus, but also in the Meno). Indeed, it was the accusation that Socrates was such a Sophist (as in Aristophanes’ lampooning in The Clouds) that lent both force and irony to his trial and eventual execution. From the standpoint of a contemporary Athenian, Cleon’s insinuation was not much different from a modern accusation of collusion with terrorists.
After him Diodotus, son of Eucrates, who had also in the previous assembly spoken most strongly against putting the Mitylenians to death, came forward and spoke…

A moment of respect, please, as this is apparently the only time Diodotus appears in recorded history. Although his argument for mercy is based on expedience rather than morality, his direct response to Cleon’s insinuations still resonates.

I do not blame the persons who have reopened the case of the Mitylenians, nor do I approve the protests which we have heard against important questions being frequently debated. I think the two things most opposed to good counsel are haste and passion; haste usually goes hand in hand with folly, passion with coarseness and narrowness of mind. …

What is still more intolerable is to accuse a speaker of making a display in order to be paid for it. If ignorance only were imputed, an unsuccessful speaker might retire with a reputation for honesty, if not for wisdom; while the charge of dishonesty makes him suspected, if successful, and thought, if defeated, not only a fool but a rogue. The city is no gainer by such a system, since fear deprives it of its adisers; although in truth, if our speakers are to make such assertions, it would be better for the country if they could not speak at all, as we should then make fewer blunders. The good citizen ought to triumph not by frightening his opponents but by beating them fairly in argument; and a wise city, without over-distinguishing its best advisers, will nevertheless not deprive them of their due, and, far from punishing an unlucky counselor, will not even regard him as disgraced. In this way successful orators would be least tempted to sacrifice their convictions to popularity, in the hope of still higher honors, and unsuccessful speakers to resort to the same popular arts in order to win over the multitude.

This is not our way; and, besides, the moment that a man is suspected of giving advice, however good, from corrupt motives, we feel such a grudge against him for the gain which after all we are not certain he will receive, that we deprive the city of its certain benefit. Plain good advice has thus come to be no less suspected than bad; and the advocate of the most monstrous measures is not more obliged to use deceit to gain the people, than the best counselor is to lie in order to be believed. The city and the city only, owing to these refinements, can never be served openly and without disguise; he who does serve it openly being always suspected of serving himself in some secret way in return.

In tracking down information on this subject, I encountered an online article by Paula Debnar with a lengthy discussion of the rhetorical ploys in this debate. Early on, she notes that Thucydides seems to be using it to focus on the weaknesses of the democratic method that come from the debasement of debate.
Especially striking is the attention both speakers pay to the shortcomings of the Athenian assembly, in particular to the pernicious effects of sophisticated rhetoric on political debate. The extreme rhetorical self-consciousness of the two speeches led Gomme to conclude that “the quarrel between Diodotos and Kleon is as much about how to conduct debate in the ekklesia as about the fate of Mytilene.

– from “Diodotus’ Paradox and the Mytilene Debate (Thucydides 3.37–49),” Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, 2000, vol 143, p. 161.

(The reference is to A.W. Gomme, A Historical Commentary on Thucydides, II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956)

The issue continues to be relevant to the American polis.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


Lessons from Thucydides - Part 1

Nicholas Kristof has drawn the connection between the American invasion of Iraq and the Athenian invasion of Sicily. The similarities are eerie, although I will argue in subsequent posts that there are many uncanny presentiments for us in Thucydides. In this post, I thought I would look in more detail at the argument over the Sicilian Expedition.

You will recall that the wars between the Athenian coalition and the Spartan coalition lasted from 431 to 404 BCE. It is generally felt that a foolish Athenian decision to capitalize on its advantage over the Spartans in 415 by attacking Syracuse led, thanks to an overwhelming defeat in 413, to the overthrow of the Athenian government in 411 and its eventual loss of the war. The arguments for and against invasion are summarized by Thucydides in Book 6 of The History of the Peloponnesian War. (I shall be quoting from the online version maintained by the MIT Internet Classics Archive, using the translation of Richard Crawley.)

The anti-invasion argument was made by Nicias, who spoke despite the fact that the decision to invade had already been made and despite (or perhaps because of) his position as one of the selected leaders of the fleet. Kristof does not go into Nicias’s speech, so I will.

Nicias first stated that he spoke from neither fear nor eagerness for glory.
[I]ndividually, I gain in honour by such a course, and fear as little as other men for my person- not that I think a man need be any the worse citizen for taking some thought for his person and estate; on the contrary, such a man would for his own sake desire the prosperity of his country more than others- nevertheless, as I have never spoken against my convictions to gain honour, I shall not begin to do so now, but shall say what I think best.

And then, he goes directly to the nub of the argument.
Against your character any words of mine would be weak enough, if I were to advise your keeping what you have got and not risking what is actually yours for advantages which are dubious in themselves, and which you may or may not attain. I will, therefore, content myself with showing that your ardour is out of season, and your ambition not easy of accomplishment.

I affirm, then, that you leave many enemies behind you here to go yonder and bring more back with you.

Of course, the Athenians were not on the lookout for establishing democracy in the far west. Syracuse was a Greek colony and the point of the expedition was to reconquer and hold it. Nicias was firm on the difficulties.
[The Sicilians, even if conquered, are too far off and too numerous to be ruled without difficulty. Now it is folly to go against men who could not be kept under even if conquered, while failure would leave us in a very different position from that which we occupied before the enterprise.

Thus, if it were necessary to go, it would not be wise to linger.

The Hellenes in Sicily would fear us most if we never went there at all, and next to this, if after displaying our power we went away again as soon as possible. We all know that that which is farthest off, and the reputation of which can least be tested, is the object of admiration; at the least reverse they would at once begin to look down upon us, and would join our enemies here against us.

One might even think that Thucydides anticipated the Clinton surplus and Ahmed Chalabi in Nicias’s speech.
We should also remember that we are but now enjoying some respite from a great pestilence and from war, to the no small benefit of our estates and persons, and that it is right to employ these at home on our own behalf, instead of using them on behalf of these exiles whose interest it is to lie as fairly as they can, who do nothing but talk themselves and leave the danger to others, and who if they succeed will show no proper gratitude, and if they fail will drag down their friends with them.

Nicias closes with a call to courage.
I, in my turn, summon any of the older men … not to let himself be shamed down, for fear of being thought a coward if he do not vote for war, but, remembering how rarely success is got by wishing and how often by forecast, to leave to them the mad dream of conquest, and as a true lover of his country, now threatened by the greatest danger in its history, to hold up his hand on the other side… [T]he virtue of men in office is briefly this, to do their country as much good as they can, or in any case no harm that they can avoid.

Alcibiades was the archetypal slimy villain, changing sides whenever it suited him and leading the enthusiastic Athenians into a terribly mistaken expedition. He argues that the Athenians must help their allies in Sicily, both to maintain their empire and (with chilling presentiment) because enemies must be fought in foreign lands to keep them from coming over to fight in the homeland.
They are our confederates, and we are bound to assist them, without objecting that they have not assisted us. We did not take them into alliance to have them to help us in Hellas, but that they might so annoy our enemies in Sicily as to prevent them from coming over here and attacking us. It is thus that empire has been won, both by us and by all others that have held it, by a constant readiness to support all, whether barbarians or Hellenes, that invite assistance; since if all were to keep quiet or to pick and choose whom they ought to assist, we should make but few new conquests, and should imperil those we have already won.

Accordingly, he favors preemptive war.
Men do not rest content with parrying the attacks of a superior, but often strike the first blow to prevent the attack being made. And we cannot fix the exact point at which our empire shall stop; we have reached a position in which we must not be content with retaining but must scheme to extend it, for, if we cease to rule others, we are in danger of being ruled ourselves. Nor can you look at inaction from the same point of view as others, unless you are prepared to change your habits and make them like theirs.

Alcibiades thus promises victory and the worth of war.
Be convinced, then, that we shall augment our power at home by this adventure abroad, and let us make the expedition, and so humble the pride of the Peloponnesians by sailing off to Sicily, and letting them see how little we care for the peace that we are now enjoying; and at the same time we shall either become masters, as we very easily may, of the whole of Hellas through the accession of the Sicilian Hellenes, or in any case ruin the Syracusans, to the no small advantage of ourselves and our allies.

Oh how wrong he was.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


TR on Criticising the President

The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly as necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.
from Theodore Roosevelt, 1918, "Lincoln and Free Speech"

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