"the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must"

How many of you have read Thucydides? I did while tutoring at St. Johns College in Annapolis, and although that was some 50 years ago, I’ve never forgotten that seminar reading and discussion of the History of the Peloponnesian War. In particular the Melian Dialogue now famous in Political Science literature. Not really a dialogue as there was no equality between the parties, but rather a one-sided conversation between the superpower Athens and the people of a small, island country, Melos.

The upshot was that the powerful Athenians had their way and proceeded to lay siege to Melos as they had threatened to do, starving the resisting inhabitants into surrender, slaughtering the men of military age, and enslaving the women and children. This Athenian action has become famous as the worst atrocity committed by a usually decent society, but even more as one of the most famous assertions in history of the rights of unbridled power, that the strong have the right to do whatever is in their power to do, and the weak have to accept it.

Here’s just a bit of the “dialogue” between the Athenians and Melians:

  • Athenians: “For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.

  • Melians: “You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust, and that what we want in power will be made up by our alliance with the Spartans, who are bound, if only for very shame, to come to the aid of their kindred. Our confidence, therefore, after all is not so utterly irrational.”
  • Athenian: “Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist forever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do”

Now why did I recall all this? Well perhaps you’ve guessed. The war in Ukraine between Ukrainian rebels supported by Russian arms and fighters and the Ukrainian army does suggest “unbridled power” as well as the Athenian position that “rights” have no place in a life and death struggle between the weak and the strong. In Russia’s, and especially President Putin’s view, the Ukrainians are totally without rights (because like the Melians they’re weak) and will eventually have to submit, not to superior rights, but to the Russian superior force of arms, and they may, while struggling to hold onto the eastern part of their country, be putting themselves at risk of losing everything.

We’d rather not think of it that way. For Athens, and especially Athens during the 5th century BCE, the Golden Age of Greece, produced some of the greatest literature, philosophy, art, and especially political ideas of all times, all of which production still has a big place in our lives. But during the Peloponnesian War, that lasted some 56 years, between 460 (431 in Thucydides’ History) and 404 BCE Athens was a bully and tyrant.

And if you were to complete the comparison, today Russia is Athens, Ukraine Melos or one of those neighboring city states beaten and plundered by Athenian power, and us, America? Well we’re Sparta, and just like Sparta during that earlier time, we have not much to say in our favor. While being the most powerful state, just as Sparta in certain ways, we have not been able to step into any fray, be it Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East, and now Eastern Europe and successfully defend the weak and defenseless and brutalized peoples of these regions.

Russia at least is acting in what it sees as its own interest, preventing the West from encircling their country. At worst Russia is mistaken, and probably in the long run not even helping itself from going the way of the West. What should we be doing in our own interest? At worst we’re not even mistaken because we don’t know what to do and are doing nothing (although in the long run that may be best).


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