Evil in the Peloponnesian War?

Recent posts have focused attention on the topic of the evils that occurred in the twentieth century: genocide, deliberate mass starvation, mass enslavement, and totalitarian dictatorships. I have been inclined to argue that these evils are sui generis — that the bad events and actions of the past were indeed bad, but they were qualitatively and morally distinct from the horrors of the twentieth century. So I argue that the evils of the twentieth century require special treatment by the philosophy of history.

In presenting these ideas recently to a seminar of philosophers and historians I was challenged to consider whether actions and events of past centuries were indeed different in kind, or whether the difference is simply one of magnitude and remoteness in time. So here is a test case to consider: were the actions in war by Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War instances of evil, or were they rather just bad deeds?

One definition we might try out for “evil” in human affairs is this: Evil actions by states are actions that deliberately lead to wanton human suffering and death on a large scale with no regard for the human value of the innocent human beings who are harmed. The key moral ideas here are the intrinsic value of each human life, and the general human obligation to refrain from harming the innocent. And “wanton” is also a morally-laden term; it might be paraphrased as “unmotivated, motivated only by self-interest, or undertaken without regard for moral limitations”. This attempt at definition of evil in human affairs corresponds roughly to the Christian theory of just war: the deliberate violence of war must be justified on the basis of a “just cause”; violence should be directed intentionally only against combatants; violent harm inflicted on the innocent (non-combatants) should be minimized and unintentional (the principle of double effect); and unavoidable violent harm inflicted on the innocent should be “proportionate” to military necessity. And these ideas, in turn, underlie much of the current international law of war, including the provisions of the Geneva conventions (link). How might these ideas about evil apply to other epochs of human affairs?

Consider, for example, the Athenian siege of Melos and its horrific aftermath. In 416 BCE during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, an Athenian naval force attacked the city-state on the island of Melos. Melos was neutral in the war between Athens and Sparta, but was perceived by the Athenians to be friendly to Sparta. In 416 the Athenian force demanded the unconditional surrender of the city-state or face complete destruction. Melos refused to surrender immediately, but eventually surrendered following a crippling siege by the Athenian forces. Following the surrender all the men were killed and the women and children were sold into slavery. Thucydides represents the reasoning of the Athenians in a passage referred to as the “Melian dialogue” in History of the Peloponnesian War (tr. Richard Crawley; link):

Athenians. For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences—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 Lacedaemonians, 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. (Book V, chapter XVII)

Here is Hobbes’s translation (link):

Ath. As we therefore will not, for our parts, with fair pretences; as, that having defeated the Medes, our reign is therefore lawful, or, that we come against you for injury done; make a long discourse without being believed: so would we have you also not expect to prevail by saying, either that you therefore took not our parts because you were a colony of the Lacedæmonians, or that you have done us no injury. But out of those things which we both of us do really think, let us go through with that which is feasible; both you and we knowing, that in human disputation justice is then only agreed on when the necessity is equal; whereas they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get. (Book V, sect. 89)

The Athenian negotiators stick to their line: the weak must defer to the strong, the Lacedaemonians will not come to your aid for the same reason that we press upon you — their own self-interest. The Melian negotiators confer among themselves and decide to stick to their principles and to defend their freedom:

Melians. Our resolution, Athenians, is the same as it was at first. We will not in a moment deprive of freedom a city that has been inhabited these seven hundred years; but we put our trust in the fortune by which the gods have preserved it until now, and in the help of men, that is, of the Lacedaemonians; and so we will try and save ourselves. Meanwhile we invite you to allow us to be friends to you and foes to neither party, and to retire from our country after making such a treaty as shall seem fit to us both. (Book V, chapter XVII)

So the war continues. After some additional weeks of siege the outcome is decided:

The siege was now pressed vigorously; and some treachery taking place inside, the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves. (Book V, chapter XVII)

The outcome is described calmly by Thucydides, but it is atrocious. It was cruel in the extreme — the execution of all male residents of Melos after the Athenians prevailed, and sale of the women and children into slavery. Moreover, this was a deliberate and purposeful act, a deliberate policy of state — not an instance of troops running amok, a regrettable instance of atrocities in the heat of war. 

And yet the Melian dialogue, as conveyed by Thucydides, has the measured and philosophical tone of a Platonic dialogue; in fact, I could imagine teaching this text in a course in the introduction to philosophy. The Athenians have a moral position which they are pleased to present, explicate, and advocate: Their position is that it is perfectly moral for the strong to dictate terms upon the weak; the gods have no objection, since this is their own principle of conduct; and it is morally acceptable that the penalty of refusal is complete annihilation. The Athenians make no apology for their position, nor show any embarrassment at the moral stance they are taking. The Athenians even have a reason why moderation and accommodation cannot be considered: “our other adversaries will think us weak and will no longer consent to our rule”.

So was the Melian massacre … evil?

Several points seem evident in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War. First, massacre and enslavement were “acceptable” means of waging war within the prevailing Hellenistic theory of war. And they were woven into statecraft through the role that these kinds of actions had in establishing the “reliability” of an adversary: if Melos does not comply, it will be annihilated, and other adversaries are thereby warned. Further, Hellenic conceptions of state action and the conduct of war reconciled massacre, enslavement, and the threat of these horrific punishments with their conception of piety (respect for the gods): the gods wage war in just this way. But this is now a question for us to pursue: Does the fact that massacre and enslavement were morally comprehensible within the fifth-century BCE Greek mental framework of the morality of war and the actions that fell within the range of the imaginable mean that these strategies were less than evil? Should the moral and normative ideas of Hellenic thinkers, rulers, and citizens make a difference in our evaluation of this event?

Moreover, the Melian dialogue makes it clear that massacre and enslavement were not “wanton” in the sense of “unmotivated” or “unjustified”. Rather, the Athenians take pains to explain the utility that these strategies have within their calculus of cost and benefit in running an empire. 

Second, it is also clear that “we” no longer accept massacre of the innocent or enslavement of the survivors as morally acceptable strategies in war. “Our” moral ideas about the conduct of war give great moral weight to the value of each human life, and we morally condemn those who massacre the innocent — whether from expediency or hatred. (I place the pronouns in quote marks because the experience of Bosnia (1995), Rwanda (1994), or Turkey (1915) demonstrates that modern leaders and citizens are still ready to countenance massacre as a legitimate action for the state.) But this poses a second major question for us: Is it legitimate or appropriate for us to apply our own moral principles across most of human history to that period of time 2,500 years ago when the city states of Athens and Sparta were at war? Or must we defer instead to the moral frameworks of the historical period — the Platos, Aristotles, and Thucydides of the Hellenic world? Can we adopt a universalistic conception of “just war” and apply it to Athenian behavior, or is this rather a “presentist” error of moral reasoning?

Third, we are compelled to ask a question of pity and empathy: how could a great people like the Athenians — or the individual soldiers of the Athenian forces — impose slaughter and death on their fellow human beings in these circumstances and for these flimsy reasons? How could they fail to recognize the human tragedy that this action represented, repeated over and over through the multiple acts of murder? This was a slaughter of the innocent — many hundreds of innocent male citizens of Melos — and enslavement of many hundreds more innocent women and children — how could these horrific actions be sanctioned and carried out?

Here is one more complication raised by the Melian dialogue: is it possible that the scheme of argument offered by the Athenians is an antecedent to yet another horror of the twentieth century — fascism and the doctrine that a state with the military power to subdue its neighbors should do so? We might take the moral framework of the Athenians (as presented by Thucydides) as fundamentally an anti-moral framework: an endorsement of the idea that there are no moral principles whatsoever that can, or should, constrain the statesman in the conduct of affairs of state. Seen in this way, the conduct of Athens over Melos is atrocious for its deliberate, explicit rejection of any moral constraints whatsoever on its conduct as much as for the specific actions it undertook — massacre and enslavement. And perhaps this is precisely the moral position taken by the Nazi state, or that taken by Slobodan Milošević in Serbia in the 1990s.  So perhaps the evil described in the Melian dialogue, and found in the behavior of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, was the evil of amorality itself, and with it, the germ of fascism.

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