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Dr. Paul Rahe Of Hillsdale College On Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue

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HH: It may seem odd at the end of a week of such extraordianry violence and chaos, and continuing climaxing drama to step back 2,500 years, but it actually isn’t. And as part of the Hillsdale Dialogues, I’m quite certain that my guest, Dr. Paul Rahe, who is the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee chair in Western Heritage, and a professor of history at Hillsdale, will explain to us. Professor Rahe, welcome back, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you, and first time on the Hillsdale Dialogue series with me.

PR: Okay, good, good, pleasure to be there, to be here.

HH: I read your essays on Thucydides to get ready for this, and I’ve been talking with Larry Arnn about it. But do you find it odd to talk after the week of such extraordinary violence about the destruction of the island people of Melian?

PR: No. I mean, it’s, look, Thucydides’ book is a kind of extended meditation on the relationship between the human and violence. And you know, I gather that you spoke with Dr. Arnn about the revolution at Corcyra.

HH: Yes.

PR: You know, one of the themes of that is war is a violent teacher. It’s a teacher of violence. And that war between political communities often can lead to war inside political communities. So one of the things that he’s tracing in the book is the manner in which a war that goes on for 27 years erodes relations inside communities. So you end up with a revolution like the one at Corcyra, and of course, that’s a portent of a revolution that will eventually come to Athens itself.

HH: Now let’s set up for the benefit of those who did not hear the first couple of weeks that I spent on the Peloponnesian wars with Dr. Arnn. We are at the midway point in the book at this point, and the Melian Dialogue, as you write in your essay, is really the centerpiece of the whole history.

PR: Yeah.

HH: Explain to people sort of the setting before we dive into what the Athenians actually say, and what it tells any great superpower to be aware of.

PR: Well, the setting is a great power going after a really miniscule power. The island of Melos, in the Aegean, which is an island of Dorians, and it was apparently very early in Greek history a colony from Sparta. It’s not been involved in the war. It stayed out of it. It stayed neutral. And the Athenians send a force to take it. And it’s at a time when they’re actually technically at peace with Sparta. It’s more like a truce than a peace. And they’re sort of cleaning up. They’re looking around and they’re thinking what can we do. And Melos is governed by an oligarchy. And so they don’t want the Athenians to speak to the assembly at Melos. They want to have a private discussion between the leaders of the oligarchy and the leaders of Athens. And there ends up being a discussion that is franker than one that would take place in front of the people. And the Athenians, who have the advantage militarily, are pressing the question of advantage. And what they’re saying to the Melians is you need to give in. If you do give in, we will allow you to live. If you make trouble for us, we’ll kill all of you, which is what they end up doing.

HH: Would you say that they are practicing terrorism?

PR: Well, they’re certainly using terror in war as a force for causing other peoples to toe the line. Look, in some sense, in wartime, terror is a force. How do you get people to surrender unless you scare them? So it isn’t quite what we would call terrorism, see? What we would call terrorism is a kind of secretive attack aimed not at military forces, but aimed at civilians. Now in a sense, the Athenians are aiming at civilians on Melos. On the other hand, the civilians they’re aiming at are also soldiers, since all of the men, and they’re the ones they’re going to kill, are in fact soldiers.

HH: And they do kill every man. They sell the women and children into slavery. They utterly destroy the island. And what I was thinking about when I was reading your essay is that you made the point the oligarchy, the folks who are punished here have no participation in the decision making, none.

PR: That’s exactly right. And there’s an earlier occasion in which the Athenians confront a rebellion on the island of Myteline, a rebellion from within their empire of a city that had been allied to Athens for a long time. That is also carried out by an oligarchy. And there’s a debate about whether they should, when they capture it, whether they should kill everybody. And an Athenian named Deodatus, whose name means given by God, persuades the Athenians not to do that. And his appeal is two-fold. On the one hand, he says the people are on your side, or you’ll make them be on your side if you drive a wedge between the oligarchic leadership that led them into this disaster and the people. And on the other hand, he intimates it’s unjust to kill the people. And early in the war, the Athenians have the measuredness not to make the decision to kill all the Mytelineans. But that’s maybe ten years before this, 12 years before the…

HH: So ten years into war, and the Athenians have lost their, not their civilization or civility, but they’ve lost, what, their patience with…

PR: Yeah, they’ve lost their patience. They’ve also lost their sense of decency. They’ve been worn down by the miseries of war. And now they’re doing things that, well, in Thucydides, when he talks about the decision not to execute all the Mytelineans, he says upon reflection, having slept on it for one night, they wake up the next morning and they think that would be monstrous. Okay, what they do to the Melians is monstrous. And so in cold blood, and in the later period, in, say, 416, they do to the Melians what in anger at their allies they were unwilling to do in, say, 427.

HH: Now in this famous dialogue that we’re talking about, there is the famous, famous line, the strong do as they can, and the weak suffer what they must. And that is sort of the summation of what the Athenians say here. We have a minute to the break, Dr. Rahe. Do you think that the Americans are sort of heir to the Athenian tradition, are finding their way to that same kind of conclusion?

PR: Not yet. No, I don’t think so. I think we do understand that the strong have a lot more weight than the weak, but there’s a kind of brutality to that statement that is really quite shocking.

HH: There is, and when we come back from break, after, I just don’t know how long America will put up with weeks like this, if it actually continued, and what they would do in response to it, because it’s a traumatic week.

— – – – –

HH: Dr., in terms of what I was saying during the break, when you discuss the Melian Dialogue in your essays that I read about it, you pay a lot of attention to the fact the Athenians are ten years into a war, 12 years into a war, and they’ve become rather ruthless, they exterminate an entire population. They’re in essence going Roman before the Romans ever went Roman. And I was just raising the question of whether or not you see that same tendency developing in America. There’s also a second tendency. Not long after this, they sail off to Sicily in their disastrous overreach.

PR: Yes.

HH: In fact, you point out it’s the transition point, the overreach transition. So they lose their grace, or their graciousness, and then they go off on a foreign adventure that destroys them.

PR: Right, they lose a kind of balance of measure, of caution and of decency. They’re, you know, killing all the Melians, the Melians have never done anything against the Athenians. So there simply, there’s no grounds for anger. There was grounds for anger against the Mytelineans, but the Athenians manage to restrain it by sleeping on it, as we often do when we’re angry, and waking up the next morning no longer being angry and thinking gosh. Now, they’re simply cold-blooded. Now you know, if you’re looking for another comparison, the Spartans are cold-blooded from the beginning. We’re told by Thucydides that when they capture neutral ships, they kill everybody. And when the Plataeans, who’ve never done anything against the Spartans, eventually early in the war, they’re starved out. The Thebans want their territory and their land. And the Spartans put on a kind of trial of the Plataeans, and they don’t listen to a word that they have to say. They kill them all. But the Spartans, because they’ve got helots, are kind of brutal people, which is hard to…

HH: They’re slaves. Helots being slaves.

PR: Yeah.

HH: I wanted to make sure the audience who just tuned in, yeah, they’re slave troops.

PR: Yeah, well, they operate in a slave system in which they’re outnumbered by the slave population they rule over by 7-1. And so when it comes to making decisions, they think only about their interests. There’s not a generosity of spirit to the Spartans. They’re brave. They’re very good to one another. They’re loyal to one another. But when it comes to foreign people, they really do not give them a thought except with regard to their utility. The Athenians claim to be better, and they in fact are better. But in the course of the war, they lose that capacity.

HH: So what happens to them?

PR: The violence of war puts them into something like the state of nature. Thomas Hobbes was the first translator into English of Thucydides. And you know, if you want to understand Hobbes, read Book 3, paragraphs 82 and 83 on the Corcyrean Revolution as translated by Hobbes, a better translation than any other of that passage anyway, and then look at his Leviathan. And in the world of the state of nature, Hobbes tells us in Chapter 13 of Leviathan, force and fraud are the cardinal virtues, virtues, by the way, that are identified by Machiavelli, you know, what a gangster in the 1930s would have called moxie. That’s what virtue really is. By the time of the Melian Dialogue, the Athenians are thinking like people in the state of nature. They have lost their capacity to, they’ve lost their balance.

HH: Does that happen to any people long engaged in brutal war?

PR: I think so. It depends on how long, and obviously it depends on how brutal. Look, we in the United States are relatively sheltered from war. Most of us never see the battlefield. You know, during the long Cold War, we were involved in a great struggle, but very few Americans found themselves on the battlefield, whereas ancient warfare involved almost every citizen in rising his life on the battlefield, and in killing. And the long term effect of that is to erode that sort of sense of decency and restraint that ordinarily holds people in check.

— – — –

HH: Dr. Rahe, I don’t want to push too hard on an analogy simply because the news of the week is pushing us there, but I am curious if you do sit back and talk with your students and wonder about, and I know you write frequently in the public intellectual world as well, about what 12 years of war has done to the United States, and what 12 hours of gun battles in the streets of Boston, and explosives, and I’ve been talking to experts all day about the Chechnyan civil war. It’s not traumatic, but it’s impactful to a country.

PR: Yes, yes, and look, I think on Boston in particular, this is going to have a huge impact. How not? I mean, everybody’s locked down right now. This is a day no one in Boston’s ever going to forget, and I suspect the day of the Boston Marathon is a day that no one in Boston is ever going to forget. In the rest of the country, you know, we watch from a great distance as spectators, and yes, you’re right. If you look at Twitter, there’s a great deal of anger being expressed. That’s not very surprising and not very shocking. But you know, it tends to pass fairly quickly, because it doesn’t touch most of us the way it touches, say, the families of the people who were murdered, or the families of people who lost legs, or the people of Boston who in some sense or other witnessed this, because they were very close to it, and were deeply touched by it. You know, think of the blowing up of the federal building in Oklahoma City back in the 1990s. I remember it well, because I was teaching at the University of Tulsa at the time. And I remember being called by the television station to comment on it. And of course, you know, they wanted me to say who dunnit, and they were pressing me to say that the Arabs had done it. And I was holding back, because it didn’t seem very likely to me. And it’s a mistake to shoot your mouth off on in circumstances like that. You need to hold back and wait and see what you’ve learned about it. But what strikes me is yes, we remember that, but we’re not moved by it to great anger today.

HH: Well, the other thing that strikes me that’s very different is, in your essays on the Melian Dialogues, immediately after the destruction of the island and the enslavement of the people who are taken captive and the massacre of the men, the Sicily expedition, Athens just goes further and further. We’re withdrawing from the world, aren’t we? We’re doing the opposite.

PR: Yes, I’m not sure that we can withdraw from the world. You know, Godfather III says every time I try to get out, they drag me back in.

HH: I think you’re the only person at Hillsdale who’s seen Godfather III.

PR: That may be. I insist that my students see Godfather I, because it tells you how Rome operates.

HH: Yeah, that’s true.

PR: Patronage and clientship and so forth.

HH: That’s true, but Rome, but number III, gosh, that’s an awful movie.

PR: Yes.

HH: In any event, every time, so you’re saying we yet may have a Sicilian expedition in us?

PR: Well, you know, people were comparing the second Iraq War to a Sicilian expedition. Now I don’t think the comparison was ever apt, because our capacity to project power over great distances is very considerable. And you know, the Athenians were sending a vast number of ships and men off where they really couldn’t be adequately be supported. But who knows? What I would say is this. In the larger world, simply because of our footprint, our economic footprint if nothing else, but also the historical role that we played in the 20th Century, we can’t escape that. There’s not going to be a new isolationism. We may try it for a couple of years, and then we’ll be punished for it the way we were punished the last time we tried isolationism. And it may happen under a Democrat, and it may happen under a Republican. But I don’t think we can actually pull out of the world. And what’s happened in Boston is an indication of that. You try to pull out of the world, they come to you.

HH: Yeah, that’s absolutely and truly well said. Can we conclude this segment, though, something you pointed out. The middle of a book is the place of honor. And that’s where the Melian Dialogue is put into Thucydides’ History. Would you explain to people what you mean by that, because that may be a novel concept to some folks.

PR: Well, it’s, you know, if you go through ancient literature, and you know, if you even consider a throne, the highest throne is always the one in the middle. And if you go through the plays of Aeschylus, the plays of Sophocles, the plays of Euripides, the turning point is always in the middle. So it’s a kind of hinge on which the whole thing turns. And Thucydides did not live to finish his account of the war. Book 8 sort of ends suddenly. And it’s clear that he would have gone on to do a book 9 and a book 10. And he would have ended the war, and then Athens would have been in exactly the position Melos was in – defeated and with some people wanting to kill all of the Athenians. So the very questions that the Melians raise in the Melian Dialogue, which is to say what if you’re in our position someday, is raised. And the Athenians prediction in the Melian Dialogue is the Spartans won’t kill them. The Spartans will consult their interests and keep the Athenians alive, because it will be in the interest of Sparta to keep the Athenians alive, which is exactly what happens.

HH: So by consulting rational self-interest, you can get to the right answer if you simply push the question hard enough.

PR: Yes, let’s put it this way. It was not in the interest of the Athenians to kill the Melians. It was not in the interest of the Athenians to go to Sicily. Restraint is in one’s interest. And you know, ordinary moral sentiments also come into play when there is restraint. You sort of pause and think that’s not just. That’s not right. But the Athenians in the course of the war lost that restraint. They came to be in the grips of what Pericles wanted to put them in the grips of, which is a kind of eros for glory, a kind of longing and lust for the beautiful, understood as their empire and their conquests and their victories on the battlefield. In the process, they lost the capacity to calculate about their interest effectively.

HH: Oh, a good word for restraint, and a great place to end this Hillsdale Dialogue. Dr. Paul Rahe, thank you for doing so, so well this week.

End of interview.

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