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Greek historian and general Thucydides (c. 460-c. 395 B.C.) wrote his History of the Peloponnesian War as just that: a history. An invaluable work that is, of course, still studied today in universities and war colleges, Thucydides’ history is remains, more than 2,000 years after it was written, the sole credible account of the military conflict between Athens and Sparta. A detailed history that eschewed sensationalism or reference to interventions by immortals on either side, the decision by Thucydides to include the Melian Dialogue represented a notable, and historically significant, interruption in his narrative to emphasize the dominance of what is known today as “realpolitik.”
Realpolitik, a cold emotionless calculation of national or strategic interest irrespective of moral considerations, is considered to have its origins in the Melian Dialogue, and is often cited today in discussions of international relations. The dialogue involves a powerful entity, Athens, dictating to a smaller, weaker entity, the island of Melos, a colony of Sparta, the terms of their relationship. Athens, in effect, is explaining to the representatives of Melos why the latter is destined to be conquered by the former:
Athenians: . . . we recommend that you should try to get what it is possible for you to get, taking into consideration what we both really do think; since you know as well as we do that, when these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.
Melians: Then in our view (since you force us to leave justice out of account and to confine ourselves to self-interest) – in our view it is at any rate useful that you should not destroy a principle that is to the general good of all men – namely, that in the case of all who fall into danger there should be such a thing as fair play and just dealing, and that such people should be allowed to use and to profit by arguments that fail short of a mathematical accuracy. And this is a principle which affects you as much as anybody, since your own fall would be visited by the most terrible vengeance and would be an example to the world.
Athenians: . . . What we shall do now is to show ou that it is for the good of our own empire that we are here and that is for the preservation of your city that we shall say what we are going to say. We do not want any trouble in bringing you into our empire, and we want you to be spared for the good both of yourselves and of ourselves.
Melians: And how could it be just as good for us to be the slaves as for you to be the masters?
Athenians: You, by giving in, would save yourselves from disaster; we, by not destroying you, would be able to profit from you. . . (I)f we were on friendly terms with you, our subjects would regard that as a sign of weakness in us, whereas your hatred is evidence of our power.”
The Melian Dialogue is the classic presentation of the rational application of power and the dispositive efforts of the weaker party to see itself spared the indignity of being subjected to the humiliation of its subjugation.
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