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Remember Melos

October 20, 2008
That's Melos to the north.
That’s Melos to the North.

We told them “we don’t want you to think you can persuade us by saying you did not fight on the side of the Lacedaemonians in the war, though you were their colony, or that you have done us no injustice. Instead, let’s work out what we can do on the basis of what both sides truly accept: we both know that decisions about justice are made in human discussions only when both sides are under equal compulsion; but when one side is stronger, it gets as much as it can, and the weak must accept that.”

And then we asked them to answer.
“Well, then, since you put your interest in the place of justice, our view must be that it is in your interest not to subvert this rule that is good for all: that a plea of justice and fairness should do some good for a man who has fallen into danger, if he can win over his judges, even if he is not perfectly persuasive. And the rule concerns you no less than us: if you ever stumble, you might receive a terrible punishment and be an example to others.”
The brave-wise folly of their reply accepts and reverses the compelling logic with which we thought to cow them. I think it may be that the destruction of Melos was Athens’ suicide. Their daringly inventive argument for justice, their transformation of hard necessity into brilliance, seems a direct appeal to the star of the Athenian polis.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. Finbar Sullivan permalink
    October 21, 2008 4:44 pm

    This is always one of the saddest things to read in all of western literature. So beautiful. So sad.

  2. rainscape permalink*
    October 23, 2008 5:37 am

    Yes. Thucydides was a haunted campaigner, eyes lit with the weird light of eclipse.

    I thought I might elicit a comment from you, invoking him. Glad to see your gracing the rain-swept regions!

    Guessed also that you might also have some further insight or perspective to add this post?

  3. Finny permalink
    November 6, 2008 3:57 pm

    Well, in rereading this, I find myself trying to imagine the voices in which each side argued. With the Athenians I first tried speaking aloud in a pompous overblown military voice, one that has a memory of Harry the King on Crispin Crispian, but without a sense of honor. But when I tried to say it that way, I realized it wasn’t quite right. I remembered then that, when I read this aloud with my students last year, the voice I kept falling into was more like a slightly uninterested, entirely utilitarian business man. In rereading it a third time, I read it like a patronizing pre-schoolish kind of teacher.
    In any case, the Athenian runs through the logical argument that he’s sure they are going to give. He’s heard it all before. But he’s also saying “Listen, don’t try and use Logic against us, or try to argue from a position of Justice. We’re Athens. We invented philosophy. We can out Logic you any day of the week. And as for Justice, we basically invented that to, and that means WE get to tell YOU what it is.”
    The voice of the Melians is a little harder to read. You could read a sly, knowing smile and a sort of wild eye into their response (something like Wesley’s “We are men of action. Lies do not become us.” in the Princess Bride).
    However, the “And then we asked them to answer” bit makes me want to read in a pause (I do seem to remember that there are like bridges between statements throughout this discussion, so this isn’t strictly a textual statement. Merely a feeling. Just a hunch.) Did the Melians confer together before the speaker responded? Perhaps. Did it take a few minutes for the Athenian statement to sink in, before he could even formulate a response? That coule be the case as well. I’d be inclined to read it as the latter, if only because this response is so personal, I have trouble thinking a committee could have composed such an answer in so short a time.
    In any event, his response is exactly the kind that should’ve halted Athens in it’s tracks. You might read it once again in the voice of Wesley saying ‘Please’ to the Dread Pirate Roberts, the tone of which was enough to startle and intrigue Roberts. “Please…I need to live.” Maybe there is too much hope in that voice. Or maybe not- the tone of Wesley’s voice might be altered in the telling, since he knew how it would work out- he knew he would live.
    The Melian’s voice, as it appears in my head, is a little bit more sorrowfully resolute. The kind of voice you use when you’ve passed a point of no return and are therefore no longer hampered by protocol, and can simply speak the truth. It is not the voice of International Relations. It is the voice of one man speaking to another. It is a voice to which Athens is no longer accustomed. And it is a voice, like the voice of Socrates, that is calling them, simply to be Athenians.
    In the work itself, the Melian dialogue is the low point of a very real downward slide for Athens. A lot of people get down on Pericles’ Funeral Oration, and to a certain degree I can understand that. The tone of it, is at times, a little strange. However, the problems with it are not as simple as are sometimes supposed. To a certain extent I think that the funeral oration is beautiful (I think I mentioned that a student of mine changed the way I read that work. She loved it, and actually requested a paper on it, and her case in class for why she loved it ended up shaping my reading.) It is a true Eulogy. But it really does end up being a eulogy for Athens itself. This is a hard thing to put into words, but basically it seems to me that the way he speaks about the greatness and glory of Athens betrays a kind of separation from that greatness and glory, which could only come about when you are speaking of something that is passed. The fact that I don’t have a copy of Thucydides handy is making this very difficult to discuss, and is lending itself to awkward phrasing, so I think I shall hush my gob, as my people would say. Suffice it to say that at some point virtuous Athens passed mildly away, and it is dashed difficult for the sad friends (past or present) to say ‘his breath goes now.” Or “now.” Or “no.” But, by the time of Pericles the carcass of that virtue still rolled on, but without its breath, and by the time of the Melian dialogue the hill it was rolling down seemed poised to drop sharply into a canyon. Which it did.
    There is, however, the stamp of Athens on the argument of that Melian man. I think that should give us hope.

    “Their daringly inventive argument for justice, their transformation of hard necessity into brilliance, seems a direct appeal to the star of the Athenian polis.”

  4. Finny permalink
    November 6, 2008 4:31 pm

    Perhaps I should also mention that there is a case to be made that The Gettysburg Address is our Funeral Oration, and that the current conflict is our Peloponessian War. While I would certainly agree that upon being elected to National Office, all leaders should be issued a copy of Thucydides, I don’t think that this is a position that could be conclusively demonstrated for, you know, a thousand years. Plus it would be a little too convenient for things to work out exactly as they did. As Mark Twain said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure rhymes a lot.”
    Hopefully America has one or two creative rhymes left in her. Perhaps we should also issue a copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse to all of our Elected officials. Hmm…

  5. December 9, 2008 12:51 pm

    I just wanted to say that I loved this part of Finny’s reflection on the “Melian voice”:
    “The Melian’s voice, as it appears in my head, is a little bit more sorrowfully resolute. The kind of voice you use when you’ve passed a point of no return and are therefore no longer hampered by protocol, and can simply speak the truth. It is not the voice of International Relations. It is the voice of one man speaking to another. It is a voice to which Athens is no longer accustomed.”

    When Finny wrote “It is the voice of one man speaking to another”, it made me think of Wordsworth and how he sees poetry as man speaking to man. And that is beautiful!

  6. rainscape permalink*
    December 9, 2008 3:30 pm

    I loved that especially too. It makes me think of Cordelia.

    It also makes me wonder . . . do you use this voice only when your “past the point of no return?” Or is it that using this voice puts you past that point?

    It seems that this voice that transgresses protocol, does not therefore reject protocol, but seeks to establish protocol on a more fundamental basis. Or does it point out that that basis is never, ever secure; and that if protocol is going to be more than mere protocol, and allow for a “man speaking to man” (something to which, Wordsworth recognized, we are no longer acccustomed), it must transgress its own rules to recapture its form? thereby exposing itself to the dangers and possibilities of the realm where the rules are not yet established, where the orders of necessity and justice and love and power are still not reconciled (as total adherence to protocol would pretend), but where some heroic (perhaps) or divine response could (perhaps) unify them indeed.

    Is it poetry that seeks that realm, enters that vale of making, and makes nothing happen? transgresses the limits of speech, of protocol, of the city? that must therefore always unapologetically (like Socrates, like Prospero, and Wilbur, “forgive me love, if I call you too”) apologize for its manner of speaking, and pray for the help of a god–“unless I be relieved by prayer”–appeal too to a new, un-yet-established, and scarcely imagined communion of man and woman and man–“gentle breath of yours my sails must fill”–for rescue from its “bare island,” a voice that calls always from past the point of returning, of coming home, yet always keeps that home-coming most of all at heart. “And my ending is despair. Unless . . .”

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