Thucydides and the human condition


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:

“You should remember that your empire is a despotism exercised over unwilling subjects, who are always conspiring against you; they do not obey in return for any kindness which you do them to your own injury, but in so far as you are their masters; they have no love of you, but they are held down by force.” (III.37)

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:

“To many offenses less than [the Mytileneans’] states have affixed the punishment of death; nevertheless, excited by hope, men still risk their lives. No one when venturing on a perilous enterprise ever yet passed a sentence of failure on himself. And what city when entering on a revolt ever imagined that the power which she had, whether her own or obtained from her allies, did not justify the attempt? All are by nature prone to err both in public and in private life, and no law will prevent them. Men have gone through the whole catalogue of penalties in the hope that, by increasing their severity, they may suffer less at the hands of evil-doers. In early ages the punishments, even of the worst offenses, would naturally be milder; but as time went on and mankind continued to transgress, they seldom stopped short of death. And still there are transgressors. Some greater terror then has yet to be discovered; certainly death is no deterrent. For poverty inspires necessity with daring; and wealth engenders avarice in pride and insolence; and the various conditions of human life, as they severally fall under the sway of some mighty and fatal power, lure men through their passions to destruction. Desire and hope are never wanting, the one leading, the other following, the one devising the enterprise, the other suggesting that fortune will be kind; and they are the most ruinous, for, being unseen, they far outweigh the dangers which are seen. Fortune too assists the illusion, for she often presents herself unexpectedly, and induces states as well as individuals to run into peril, however inadequate their means; and states even more than individuals, because they are throwing for a higher stake, freedom or empire, and because when a man has a whole people acting with him, he magnifies himself out of all reason. In a word then, it is impossible and simply absurd to suppose that human nature when bent upon some favourite project can be restrained either by the strength of law or by any other terror.” (III.45)

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:

“We ought not therefore to act hastily out of a mistaken reliance on the security which the penalty of death affords. Nor should we drive our rebellious subjects to despair; they must not think that there is no place for repentance, or that they may not at any moment give up their mistaken policy. … Do not hope to find a safeguard in the severity of your laws, but only in the vigilance of your administration. … When however they have been once put down we ought to extenuate their crimes as much as possible.” (III.46)

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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