Saturday, December 9, 2006

Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death: The Melian Dialogue

In a class I am currently taking we were, in our study of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars, the Melian Dialogue (V: 84-116). This debate, between representatives of Athens and the council of Melos, takes place in 416 BC, right in the meat of the war. Melos, a small island city-state, while known as being sympathetic to Sparta, claimed neutrality in the war. (Recent evidence has suggested that at least some Melians did, in fact, pay tribute to Sparta. That can be looked into more in-depth later.) Athens, eager to secure all islands as allies in their domination of the seas, sailed to the island to demand their tribute, whether through debate or force. This dialogue consists basically of the Melians trying to convince the Athenians to let them remain neutral and the Athenians, in turn, demanding the Melians pay tribute and become their ally

In discussing this in class, I was shocked to discover that the vast majority of students, when polled, would have surrendered to the Athenians rather than fight had they been in the Melian council. I am certain that most, if not all of the students, were influenced by the outcome of the actual historical events – the Melians resisted and were eventually defeated; all the men were killed, the women and children sold into slavery, and their city repopulated by Athenians. Nevertheless, where was these students’ sense of pride and honor? Their respect for national freedom, even in the face of an overwhelming enemy? Especially in this classroom situation, where there is nothing really at stake, how could you not vote in favor of freedom??

This debate, and the hubris of the Athenians, reminded me of another similar historical event, one with a very different outcome. The American Revolution. True, there are some major differences; the American’s had no Sparta to fall back on, nor were the Melians a colony of Athens. However, the core of the Melians’ and Americans’ conundrum is the same: do you surrender to foreign rule in order to avoid destruction, or do you take up arms, despite a horribly unequal battle, to sacrifice everything to save your independence? When debating this issue from the Melians’ perspective, the phrase that I came back to again and again was one from Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” I agree with the Melians. They had no choice but to fight. If freedom is not worth fighting for, what is? Henry would have agreed; “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” The Melians clearly did not think so. If the they had just handed over their city, an independent polis built up over 700 years, to the first oppressor that came by, they would have been undoing all the hard work of their predecessors. They would be selling freedom at far too low of a price. The Melians affirm this position, stating “we who are still free would show ourselves great coward and weaklings if we failed to face everything than comes rather than submit to slavery” (V:100).

It unnerves me that my peers, representative, I fear, of my generation, were so unwilling to send our imaginary Melians into battle in the name of freedom. Are we too comfortable today, confident that the freedoms we enjoy in America are permanent? Do we take these for granted? I hope not. Freedoms are never for certain and we must always willing to fight for them, regardless of the costs. Because, in answer to Patrick Henry, I say that a life bought by chains and slavery is not one worth living.


Phil Snider said...

I just stumbled on your blog this weekend (thanks to rogueclassicism). Excellent work.

Now, about your peer's reactions. I, obviously wasn't there, but I think that your peers reactions may not be because they are lukewarm about freedoms, but because their judgement of the power balance made the Melian efforts look futile. Think about it, Athens is the largest empire in the region. It can literally deploy hundreds of ships and thousands of men by sea without much opposition Sparta still has no navy and, in any case, is technically at peace. Sparta's allies are also, per force, at peace. Melos could maybe have a small navy and a few thousand hoplites. I've never seen figures, but I note in Thucydides' account, even against the first small expedition launched against them, Melos didn't try to challenge the Athenian fleet. They did fight with some success against this first expedition on the land, but were totally overwelmed (predictably) by the second. The Melian's resistence was brave and noble, but ultimately, futile. They simply couldn't match Athens' power.

Okay, yes, that isn't your point. Your parallel to the American revolution is intersting, but I think it important to recall that the the power imbalance between Britain and the American colonies was not as much as between Athens and Melos. Don't get me wrong. America was outgunned, if the British could bring the full weight of their power against them, but not as much. There were, after all, thirteen colonies, not just one small island.

Still, I enjoyed your entry and enjoyed thinking about the issue. Despite my being critical, your point is a good one as far as the moral courage of the Melians. Keep up the good work!


MJD said...

Thanks for the comments. I agree with your criticisms of my post. I probably am being a little too idealistic in my criticisms of my peers. It’s hard to disagree with them practically; the Melians were horribly outnumbered and outgunned. It could have been very difficult to argue, in the Melian council, in favor of war. However, it would not have been impossible, clearly, and I just wish the other students would have used the classroom as a place to have some fun with it.

Viagra Online said...

I think that Patrick Henry was way too clever. By the way, I am also sure that his humble words changed the whole world's life perspective.
Good for everyone!
Then we already know that, if it is time to fight for freedom, I will!

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