This conversation reveals two views on what is just: Spartan and Athenian. What is right or just is a dilemma that includes the common good, power politics, teleology, and relating the domestic common good to international policy. The Athenians recognize that justice is not predetermined, but rather depends on power relations, as well as on considerations of interests, especially protection. The Spartans, on the other hand, conclude that justice is non-teleological and set. In this dialogue, Thucydides attempts to defend Athenian justice over Spartan justice. The conflict takes place in the 16th year of the war, and the Spartans are neutral to this fight at the beginning, but they, however, assume the open hostility attitude in response to the Athenians’ plundering. The Athenian’s send a group with the intention of conquering Melos, but before subjugating their land, their leaders sent a group to negotiate, they were however not allowed to talk before the demos by the Melian oligarchs. The Athenian’s start their speech by saying that they understand why they are kept away from talking to the people they also proceed saying that they should be allowed to have a conversation that is free of deceit and the seductive rhetoric (O’Driscoll). This, therefore, demonstrates that the Athenians are willing to be open to their speakers at Sparta.
Thucydides also tries demonstrating that the Spartan concern for justice is deceitful, their attitude during the Plataea affair was assumed so that they could please the Thebans, whom they thought were of great importance during the raging moments for the war. Contrary to the Spartans, the Athenians are noble and frank, even in their supposed summit of cruelty and callousness; the Athenians are portrayed as people who are more humane than the Spartans. They try all means to try and convince the Melians to save themselves but the Spartans never pre-meditated moderation when dealing with the Plataea.
The Melians make it clear to the Athenians that they would not submit to slavery and it is evident that there had to be a war for them to discover who was on the right side between the two. The Athenians, however, refute this by saying that the dialogue would be of no importance were it not for them being mindful of the Melians’ safety. They bring up the Athenian thesis where they try to remind the Melians that the weak were always subject to the strong. They also tell them that it is not in their interest to destroy Melos, but they have to conquer Melos no matter what. The issue of the Athenians callousness is not as shocking as the Melians neglect for their safety.
The Melians argue that the Athenians were overestimating the inequalities between the two cities and that chance would act as a good equalizer between both of them. The Athenians warn the Melians not to fall for the foolishness of hope because this was a fatal move for the weak. The Melians hold their position and claim that the gods are on their side, the Athenians tell them not to boast that justice and the gods are on their side.
The melanin’s failed to completely follow the Athenians advice claiming that the gods always reward the just and that was the same case with justice. The Athenians proceed to refute this claim saying that truth did not depend on the gods but it was based on nature and considering that they were the stronger ones, nature would be on their side. The Melians final argument was that the gods always make justice convenient and the gods were the basis of the non-teleological justice; the Athenians respond to this saying that there was nothing new and they still made space for the gods in their teleological truth; if the gods existed, they also followed nature.
The Melians refuse to adhere to the demands of the Athenians, and the Athenians proceed to conquer Melos and execute all the men, the children, and the women are sold as slave s. The fate that befalls the Melians is not tragedy but results of an act of foolishness by failing to do as they had been ordered by the Athenians since they were stronger than them.
This dialogue shows that the Athenians had the clear understanding of justice as compared to the Melians. The Melians would resolve a conflict between them and other cities by being hypocrites and liars, but the Athens on the other side were noble and did what they saw was right according to the law.
Critique the Realist point of view
The Athenians argue that to them, what is moral is what applies to them and that it is natural for the weak to accord what they can while the powerful obtain what they can. They say this to mean that the Melians should surrender to them without having to put up a fight, the Athenians assure them that if they are not satisfied with the argument, then the Athenians would convince them by using a superior force of arms. The Melians are therefore left with no other choice but to surrender without a fight. This demonstrates realism where the Athenians prioritize their interests over those of the Melians, and they believe that their option is the correct one (Frankel).
The Athenians try persuading the Melians using facts and the Melians counter these points by use of their ideals. They, however, fail to agree and Melos is taken from the Melians by force. The Athenians acted how they were expected to perform for them to extend their political interests while the Melians, on the other hand, clanged on their ideals hence working against their political interests.
In this dialogue, Thucydides tries to show that justice is not part of the people’s reasoning not unless the use of force is considered ineffective. The weak and the helpless have to suffer at the hands of the influential people as is demonstrated between the Athenians and the Melians; he also tries to show that justice holds no position in international politics (Gabriel). These is because it would be challenging to have justice while countries like the Athens can attack the weak nations like Melos and enslave her children and women, execute the men and no one can question their actions.
The Spartans and their allies are engaging in a fight against the Athens with the aim of saving Greece from the Athenians; they believe that their gods will favor them; the god at Delphi promised them that he would offer them his assistance. Contrary to the Athenians, the Spartans and their allies believe that there a moral order that oversees all human affairs, they also think that there are gods who punish the unjust and reward the just and they will ensure that the Spartans triumph over the Athenians.
Arguments for and against democracy
It is evident that neither the form of government nor the styles of debate used in Sparta are democratic (Morefield). The Melian dialogue involves the exchange of opinions between the representatives of the Melians and the Athenians in a secluded place after the Melian representatives prohibit them from addressing their issues to the public. Even though this kind of dialogue would possibly result in a better discussion as opposed to when the subject is presented for open debate to the public, it is not the style used by the Athenians.
The Athenians generals seem to be aware that if the demos are not pleased they could be subjected to exile or even worse hence they are mindful of the public scrutinizing their decisions. In spite of all this, the Melian representatives choose to avoid the scrutiny of the assembly, and the Athenians use this as an argument against the Melians choice of defiance in place of surrender. They question them on how the rest of the people would say if they knew that their representatives were convicting them to inevitable slavery or death (Brendese). They also question their right to commit the rest of the Melians to sufferings which they would not want to undergo.
Even though the public is not involved, the dialogue seems to lead to a productive conversation which helps point out one of the inefficiencies of pure democracy whereby the process of democracy sometimes delays the process of formulating decisions (Balot).
Balot, Ryan Krieger. Courage in the democratic polls; ideologies and critiques in the classical Athens. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Brendese, Philip J. The power of memory in democratic politics. Boydell& Brewer, 2014.
Frankel, Benjamin. Roots of Realism. Routledge, 2013.
Gabriel, Mitchell. Understanding Thucydides as a critic of realism. 2015.
Morefield, Jeanne. Empires without imperialism; Anglo-American decline and the politics of deflection. Oxford University Press, 2014.
O’Driscoll, Cian. Thucydides and the just war tradition; a handbook of the reception of Thucydides. 2014.