Thucydides and the human condition

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In the year 427 BCE, not long after the onset of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta took its time to send naval relief to the allied city of Mytilene, which had recently revolted against Sparta’s longtime rival, Athens. As a result, the city was captured by an Athenian contingent. This would have been just one more of a number of back-and-forth episodes between Sparta and Athens, which lasted from 431 to 404 BCE and which, even though it technically ended with a Spartan victory, weakened all of the Greek city-states, thereby opening the way for the Macedonian conquest of all Greece, which began in 338 BCE.

What sets aside the Mytilenean revolt is that Thucydides wrote about it in detail in his classic, The History of the Peloponnesian War (full text here). And what makes me write about it is one of the speeches connected to that episode and recorded by Thucydides. It contains some fascinating insight into the human condition, and reminds us that things have not changed that much, in certain respects, over the past two and a half millennia.

What happened after the Athenians entered Mytilene is that they captured the ringleaders of the revolt and brought them back to Athens for an hearing. The discussion was held in the open assembly, as Athens was a democratic polis. One party, led by Cleon, son of Cleaenetus, advocated for what we would today call genocide: kill all the men in Mytilene, and enslave all women and children.

Cleon is remarkably frank about Athenian imperialism. Here is an excerpt from Thucydides’ account of his speech:

How refreshing. No paternalistic nonsense about taking care of other people for their own benefit, as so much modern imperialism attempts to do. Cleon reminds his fellow citizens of the naked truth: the Athenian confederation is an empire, and it is held together by the threat of force. Which is why, he argues, Athens has to make an example of the Mytileneans, so that others will not dare follow in their footsteps.

The contrary argument is presented by Diodotus, son of Eucrates. Diodotus argues that it would be monstrous to carry out what Cleon had proposed, and that the Athenians will regret it, as the harsh punishment will actually incentivize further revolts among their subjects. Despite the generally pragmatic tone of Diodotus’ rebuttal, here is the crucial bit, which I’m going to quote in full, where he provides us with a stunning commentary on human nature:

This passage is packed with interesting considerations put forth by Diodotus (or at least, the version of Diodotus we get from Thucydides), considerations that may be applied — as he explicitly says — to both entire nations and individuals.

To begin with, the death penalty is not a good deterrent against crime, or revolt. This, remarkably, is still something we discuss today, even though the evidence very clearly supports Diodotus’, not Cleon’s, position. Why? Because when people decide to commit unlawful acts (setting aside for the moment whether rebelling against an imperial power is unlawful, or — more to the point — unethical) they discount the possibility that they will fail. Human beings are extremely optimistic about their ability to accomplish whatever their mind is bent on accomplishing.

Second, Diodotus says that we have “gone through the whole catalog of penalties” in order to deter people from certain actions, and that these penalties have been ramped up during the course of history. To no avail. Again, why? Because poverty is a powerful motive to action, and so is the lure of great wealth. Men (it is, mostly, men, at least historically) are lured by their passions to self-destruction, and no prospect of ultimate punishment will stop them, since they don’t take such prospect seriously, in their infinite hubris.

Third, desire leads and hope follows, the first one proposing the deed, the second one suggesting that fortune will be on our side. And thus human delusion is borne.

Fourth, fortune is complicit in the ruin of humanity, because it will present itself at the most inopportune moments, engendering the conviction that fate is on our side, while it is, in fact, entirely indifferent to human strife.

What, then, are we to do when “human nature [is] bent upon some favourite project [and cannot] be restrained either by the strength of law or by any other terror”? Here is Diodotus’ counsel to the Athenians:

Again, keep in mind that Diodotus is no modern humanist advocating for civil rights. But his insights into the situation are nevertheless still valuable today. Prevention is far more effective than punishment. We should be mindful of people’s legitimate wants and aspirations, and act accordingly. And when they make mistakes, we should be as magnanimous as possible toward them, turning our attention first and foremost to whatever attenuating circumstances are pertinent to the case at hand.

Unfortunately, by and large we have not followed Diodotus’ advice in the course of the intervening two and a half millennia, and there is little indication that we will any time soon. This is primary evidence of the fact that human beings have gotten progressively more technological advanced, our knowledge of the world has increased enormously, and yet our wisdom has pretty much remained stuck at the level of (some of) the ancient Greeks.

By the way, the Athenians decided to go with Diodotus’ argument and spare the Mytileneans. Though Cleon got some of the blood he wanted, as the Mytilenean prisoners were executed without trial.

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