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.

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