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Morality and Power Essay

Thucydides’ written history of the Mytilenian Debate and the Melian Dialogue reflects the reality of a period where morality is dependent on the exercise of power and those who possess it. The main theme running through the course of these two debates is that those with the power to act as they wish inherently have the power to dictate morality. The arguments that decide the fate of the Mytilene are made not strictly on the basis of morality but on how their power allows them to exercise the moral course they choose.

The Melian dialogue reveals how those in power can dictate morality in terms of self-interest. Both cases also demonstrate how morality is also a function of self-interest. The question of the relationship between power and morality also hinges on the definition of these two vague terms. Morality, in the broader sense of moral order, has been defined as “a set of rules which define what is right and wrong. ” (Outka and Reeder, p. 5) Who decides what is right and wrong often depends, as with Thucydides’ history, on who has the power in a given situation.

Power can broadly be defined, as the capacity to achieve what one wants. (Dickerson and Flanagan, p. 24) In the case of these two debates, the Athenians were the party who possessed the power. They had the coercive ability to decide the fates of both the Melians and the Mytilenians. This power was derived strictly from the military might their empire was able to build up. In both cases, power allowed them to dictate morality to the inferior parties.

Thucydides’ history of the Mytilenian debate details the discussion of a council deciding on how to punish the citizens of Mytilene for a failed revolt. The two options on the table are to either slaughter all the inhabitants, as had been previously agreed upon, or to leave them without severe punishment. Cleon, the Athenian responsible of initially deciding to slaughter Mytilene, argued that it was necessary to take his brutal course of action for the safety of the empire. He stated succinctly that “leadership depends on superior strength and not on goodwill. ” (Thucydides, p.

213) He believed that killing the Mytilenians was a question of safety for the empire; If you are going to give the same punishment to those who are forced to revolt by your enemies and those who do so of their own accord, can you not see that they will all revolt upon the slightest pretext, when success means freedom and failure brings no very dreadful consequences. (Thucydides, p. 216) In this statement, Cleon argues that Athens has a moral duty to put down this revolt in the harshest way. He makes it a moral argument because it is in the self-interest of Athens, and any state, to protect its citizens.

It is their moral duty. The Mytilenians, in their own self-interest, would argue that it is immoral to slaughter a whole population. They are both right. Subsequently, the council decides not to slaughter the inhabitants of Mytilene. They are convinced to “look for a method by which, employing moderation in our punishments, we can in future secure for ourselves the full use of those cities which bring us important contributions. ” (Thucydides, p. 221) They do this not the sake of the Mytilenians, but for one of pure self-interest. Morality, in this situation, is dictated by the party in power.

The Melian Dialogue concerns the history of the island of Melos. Melis, a colony of Sparta, had refused to join the Athenian empire and side against Sparta; they instead chose neutrality. Athens had brought a force to the island to take Melos by force. Before the siege, the two sides met to discuss the surrender of the Melians. (Thucydides, p. 401) Athens does not argue the morality of what they intend to do, they say strongly that ” the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.

” (Thucydides, p. 402) In this situation, power does not dictate morality; it completely voids it. The Melians ask repeatedly if the Athenians “would not agree to ? being friends instead of enemies. ” The Athenians reply by saying that “if we were on friendly terms with you, our subjects would regard that as a sign of weakness. ” (Thucydides, p. 402) The Melians question the Athenian’s morality by saying that this is not “fair play” since they have not posed any direct threat to the Empire.

Athens responds by saying “that by conquering you we shall increase not only the size but the security of our empire? this is no fair fight? it is rather a question of saving your lives and not resisting those who are far too strong for you. ” (Thucydides, p. 403) In the end, the Melians do not surrender and the Athenian army slaughters them. In Thucydides’ history, those in power decide morality. In both of the aforementioned cases, both sides have had morality on their side. The Mytilenians and Melians believed the moral precept of saving their own lives.

The Athenians believed in the morality of preserving their empire. Neither side was right or wrong, neither side acted immorally. They both acted in their own self-interest. What decided the moral outcome was that Athenians had the power to impose their moral right on their powerless, but equally moral opponents. Works Cited Dickerson, Mark and Flanagan, Thomas “Government and Politics” Scarbourough, Ontario: ITP Nelson, 1998 Outka, Gene and Reeeder, John “Religion and Morality” New York: Anchor Books ,1973 Thucydides “History of the Peloponnesian War” Toronto: Penguin Books, 1972ю


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