Truth, beauty, peace, and justice all have their place in a society that appeals to man’s higher self. When there is a yearning for a legacy of excellence and comfort with one’s position in the world, there is luxury to allow for these loftier goals to prevail over state or individual interests. When it seems that gods are watching and participating in the affairs of men, exhibiting virtue is a way to appease them. Acts need to be seen as consistent with justice and fairness. In calmer times, it is easier for states to be generous and believe that their actions do honor to their ancestors and their lofty rhetoric can be better believed. The sense of comfort allows for careful deliberation of potential future consequences of any action and a feeling that societies can evolve and innovate.
Are these appeals to virtue genuine, or are they a pretense for self-interested power politics? In times of danger does a state merely remove the mask of virtue or does it really make a shift in morality to embrace political realism?
When The Gods Fall Asleep
Political realism is the awareness that politics (or the art of power) has its own rules separate from morality or legalities. It is when states pursue their own security and prosperity in international relations – whatever their aims, alliances, and moral claims. A political realist has a pessimistic view of human nature and therefore will be open to the need to be able to respond in kind if necessary. These realists see the world as being ruled by “the law of the jungle” where strength and violence are the only lingua franca and only they can prevail. They see the idea of comfort and deliberation as enemies in a world that is hostile and is poised to take advantage of any weakness. This is heightened in times of war and other adversity due to the urgent need for survival in precarious times and shifting Fortuna. Political realists fail to calculate future unintended consequences of their actions and they do not seek wisdom from the past – instead they deal with the immediate present. This type of deliberation is seen as a weakness and a luxury. In their minds, maintaining greatness comes at a price.
In modern times the United States represents this struggle. On one hand, the U.S. claims to be “the beacon of freedom” constantly pursuing the high ideals set by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. On the other hand, in its foreign policy, it deals with the world according to less noble ideals of economic and military supremacy. Currently, the US is in a state of war with the potential of enemies lurking everywhere. Our rights and ideals of tolerance and equality are being re-examined and seen as luxuries in a dangerous world. While they may name the current campaign “enduring freedom” it is clear that they are acting to protect American interests and to maintain its supremacy in the world.
Another way to examine the contrast between the quest for virtue and political realism is to take a look at Thucydides’ account of Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides shows Athens decline from being an “enlightened empire” to a state that is self-interested in holding onto its own power and reputation by any means.
This fall is reminiscent of the Homeric hero Achilles, who turns from being an honorable warrior to a dishonorable one. Goddess Athena kept Achilles from killing the Mycenaean king, Agamemnon when he seized Achilles’ trophy woman. He responded by withdrawing himself from battle, which led to his best friend’s death at the hands of Hector. Enraged, Achilles savagely kills Hector and defies the warrior honor code by defiling the body of Hector. The hero betrayed his country and personal honor out of self-interested need for vengeance.
Athena herself has this duality of being a goddess of culture and wisdom, and being the goddess of extreme and unrelenting savagery that is impossible to placate or appease. It is no accident that she is overall the goddess of the city of Athens.
The life of Alcibiades is also another Athenian archetype – a great warrior, student of Socrates, and bright public figure whose self-interested excesses are his downfall. He leads his countrymen to embark on the Sicilian campaign and when he feels slighted by them he abandons them to serve his own needs.
Thucydides’ history itself can be seen as a work of political realism since he doesn’t record verbatim what was said by the actors in the conflict but represented the actual motives and thoughts behind the words. In a sense he is accepting the fact that there is a disconnect between the lofty rhetoric and political reality.
Athens didn’t begin as political realists. In Pericles’ War Speech he praises Athens as political innovators, not followers. In fact, Greece invented political theory and had the ability to imagining the other which was a central ingredient of democracy.
”We have a form of Government that does not try to imitate the laws of our neighboring states. We are more an example to others, than they to us.”
Athens is proud of its leadership and strength in saving Greece from the Persians and being the bright example in the region. It had earned its empire rightfully through courage and excellence. It allowed its colonies to go to court against them if they have complaints. Athens in peacetime was an open society that saw themselves as the enlightened and noble society. Pericles says as much in his War Speech.
”We are lovers of nobility with restraint, lovers of wisdom without the softening of character.”
In Thucydides’ analysis of Pericles, he states that Pericles was successful because of his reputation for moral behavior that allowed him to lead the country rather than his countrymen leading him. Which was a virtue for a man who distrusted the public will. In times of peace, Pericles was moderate and guarded Athens securely. In wartime his policy was of containment of the Lacedaemonians and maintaining the territories they already had.  Pericles had the foresight not to overreach the current empire in the Peloponnesian War. Yet, according to Plutarch’s Greek Lives, Pericles did intervene between Corcyra against the Corinthians, banned trade with the Megarians, and was ultimately responsible for the start of the war. Pericles was an Athenian patriot who invoked the bones of their ancestors who fought not for themselves but for the good of Athens. Thucycides is also critical of the leaders and personalities who came after Pericles who ignored his advice and overreached out of self-interested motives. There is evidence political realism was laid bare in Pericles especially after the plague.
”To be hated and to cause pain is, at the present, the reality for anyone who takes on the rule of others, and anyone who makes himself hated for matters of great consequences has made the right decision; for hatred does not last long, but the momentary brilliance of great actions lives on as a glory that will be remembered forever after.”
While Pericles does believe that the reality of political power does necessitate some heavy handedness, he differs from those of the generation after due to the condition that the state must exercise that power for a higher purpose. Those who came after him ignored his counsels to seek power for individual gain or to increase power.
Despite his untouchable reputation, Pericles did play a part in the start of the war by building up the cultural and economic supremacy of Athens at the expense of its colony states. According to Thucydides, the Peloponnesian War began out of jealousy and fear of the Athenian empire and the primacy of Athens in the region. In Pericles’ defense, he did at least live in the struggle between higher good and state interest, and between public interest and what was good for the city.
When Sparta opened their assembly to their allies to listen to the complaints regarding Athenian power plays in the region. Much like the “Cold War” conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, these primary powers in the region intervened in smaller country’s business to their own advantage. The Peloponnesians were trying to convince Spartan’s to go to war with Athens and urging them to become more like Athens to be a check on her power. It just happened that there were Athenian ambassadors present who overheard these complaints and had the opportunity to respond.
”When people follow their natural human inclination to rule over others, they deserve to be praised if they use more justice than they have to, in view of their power.”
In other words, they recognize that Athens does exercise its power over other states, but they are doing so for a higher good – for justice. They do not have to allow as many freedoms relative of another powerful country, but they do and should be applauded not criticized. Basically, there is nothing to fear from Athens’ benevolent power since it is a society based on laws and fairness. They remind people that because of its sacrifices against the Persians they rightfully earned their power. If the Spartans go to war with Athens and win, they will face the same challenges Athens does with the weaker states without the tradition of justice. Then they remind Sparta of the wisdom of their conservative nature.
”…you must realize how unpredictable war is. The longer it lasts the more it is likely to turn on chance. The odds of disaster are the same for both sides, and no one can see where the dangers lie”
This statement foresees a later Athenian argument with the Melos regarding the shifting fortunes of war and the ill-fated decision to expand the war to Sicily.
Straddling Political Realism and its Opposite
At the beginning of the war there is the struggle between the political realists and those who are clinging to a higher future good. Thucydides presents two cases where both super powers deal with weaker states – Plataea and Mytilene.
In the case of Plataea, Spartans offer the Plataeans a deal where they can be completely neutral city instead of being a city under siege. This would mean that Plataea would have to break their alliance with Athens while their women and children were being kept there for their safety. Plataea refused the offer and chose to be under siege instead. This appearance of giving Plataeans “a choice” gave the Lacedaemonians cover to overtake the state for their allies, the Thebians.
”Virtually everything the Lacedaemonians did against Plataea they did for the sake of Thebes, which they thought would be useful to them in the war that was then afoot.”
Having a court and offering a deal that could save them gave the appearance of being fair, while they were really acting in a political realist manner. In this “court” political realism overtook the Plataean argument that relied on historical promises being kept. The “court” kept the central question in the present tense – did they serve the Lacedaemonians and its allies in the war or not? Those who didn’t serve were punished, but the few who did serve were spared.
The Two Faces of Pragmatism
In the case of Mytilene, Athens was faced with a disloyal colony that was sentenced to death. Almost immediately there was a change of heart and there is a debate between Cleon and Diodotus regarding the Mytilene’s fate.
Cleon was the champion of punishing Mytilene, and was outraged that after voting for the death penalty they so quickly changed their minds. He chalks this up to the Athenians mistakenly thinking that they can be the same as their allies, and to their soft and comfortable existence. This existence blinds them to the dangers from the outside that sees the empire as a tyranny. Punishing colonies for striking out against you is what is expected if you want to be an empire. In this case, Athens is an empire called to do unpleasant things in order to keep control of political power. If one does not want to participate in unsavory and harsh actions, then they shouldn’t be an empire.
”…if they have the right to rebel, you ought not to have been their rulers. But then suppose your empire is not justified: if you resolve to hold it anyway, then you must give these people an unreasonable punishment for the benefit of the empire, or else stop having the empire so that you can give charity without taking risks.”
Pity, delight in speeches, and a sense of fairness to him are the most damaging to an empire. Here he shows displeasure at democratic deliberation that considers both sides. Rather than balancing all factors or mitigating circumstances, Cleon argues for immediate and self-interested retaliation for immediate injustice. Cleon finds fault in “dull anger” due to delay. His speech is one of a political realist, since he thinks the worst of human nature. People are coddled rather than rewarded, and they are always looking for an opportunity to take advantage.
”It is usual for cities to turn insolent when they suddenly come to great and unexpected prosperity…Long ago we should have given the Mytileneans no more privileges than our other allies, and they would not have come to this degree of insolence, for generally it is human nature to look with contempt on those who serve your interests, and to admire those who never give in to you.”
”Don’t you think anyone would seize the slightest pretext to rebel, when if they succeed they will win their liberty, but if they fail they will suffer nothing that can’t be mended?”
In the political realist ideology, cities respect discipline rather than fairness, and discipline is more important than historical ties. Fairness should be reserved for those who serve the empire’s interests in the present.
Diodotus responds to what he sees as Cleon’s appeal to emotion and short sightedness. The death penalty in this matter will not deter those cities that feel oppressed, since no conspirator starts an endeavor thinking they will be unsuccessful. It is natural for cities to either try to liberate themselves from empire or be interested in empire. Power and autonomy are equal desires for them. Capital punishment gives a false sense of security to those who use it while better security is met through prevention of rebellion. It is important to Diodotus that they focus punishment for the Oligarchs who actually hatched the plan rather than punish all in the city including Democrats. While they may have not risen up to fight against the treachery, keeping them as democratic allies makes more sense for Athens. If they destroy the colony, they will not be able to gain tribute monies needed for the war. If they destroy the democrats, then democratic allies may be pushed toward the Oligarchs.
The Velvet Gloves Come Off: The Melian Dialogues
Diodotus ultimately wins the debate and the Mytilene is spared except for those few who actively supported the attempted takeover. The vote was close indicating that Cleon was able to sway many decision makers of the need for “tough love.” Thucydides makes a distinction between actions prior to the war and actions after the war is in full swing. The plague brought on by overcrowding of Athens proper due to Pericles’ war tactics started to sour the public mood. War brings out the worst in human nature and even changes the language. Justice and moderation mean weakness. Revenge was nobler than piety. There was no such thing as common good or justice.
It is in this environment that Cleon’s position does get its day during the Melian Dialogues. Instead of it being a debate between Athenians, it appears that Athenians are putting on a united front against the Melians. Although they were allies of the Spartans, the Melians claimed neutrality, and argued for justice and shared interests. The Athenians immediately brush off any talk of justice.
”For our part we will not make a long speech no one would believe, full of fine moral arguments – that our empire is justified because we defeated the Persians, or that we are coming against you for an injustice you have done to us.”
The appearance of fairness gives way to brutal political realities. It’s as if the Athenians fully succumbed to their role as kings of the jungle – embracing Cleon’s love for simplicity of political realities. They will overrun Melos because they can. The Athenians are not going to attempt to put a moral justification for their behavior. They are merely stronger and will take what they can get for themselves. Negotiation is for equals, and Melos is not an equal to Athens. This is a departure from the democratic ideals of being sensitive to others or seeing both sides of an issue. Athens would prefer Melos to obey without struggle so not to damage their ability to pay tribute and be a benefit to the Athenian empire. To save the Melians would be more of a practical economic matter than moral one. The Melian Dialogues represent the realization that Athens is in an amoral, hostile world where the strong can dominate the weak and careful deliberation is for the weak.
The Athenians know that as a super-power their counterpart will act in their own self-interest and not contest the their taking of Melos. There is no downside to adding to their empire.
The Melians see that the Athenians have no concern for piety, fairness, the past, or future – they threaten that they may just want to take their chances in trying to remain free from domination. They state that the gods will judge the just from the unjust, and the gods will be on the side of Melos. They trust in the fortune of the gods. They also echo what once came out of Athenian’s mouths – fortunes can change unexpectedly in war and they just might win. Gone is the Athenian regard for a city’s passion for liberation. The regard expressed by Diodotus has turned into Athenian pity for misguided souls. Seeking honor is a folly and hope for the future belongs only to the strong. The Athenians appear to be correct since they do end up prevailing over Melos.
Athenian Legacy of Political Realism
Athens may have won Melos, but ultimately they are defeated when they overreach in Sicily. In that failure, they find there are limits to their ambitions when they misread the political reality.
While the Athenian empire gets defeated, its legacy of political realism lives on even to present day. It lives on not because they were consistently political realists throughout their history, but because they struggled with being a democracy and empire in a conscious way. Much of the irony we find in the Athenian experiment is from Thucydides’ own skill in weaving stories in a purposeful manner and interpreting motives behind the rhetoric. Yet, he is able to present each side’s point of view and maintains the virtue of accuracy over entertainment.
“I have made each speaker say what I thought the situation demanded, keeping as near as possible to the general sense of what was actually said.”
Thucydides teaches us that innovation and progressiveness can give way to more primal instincts. Athens realizes that the gods do go asleep when it comes to power politics – there is no need to dress up political action in niceties. It is not the gods that decide who the victor – only successful political action does.