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The Echo of Melos: How Ancient Honor Unmasks Islamic Terror | Dr. Jose Yulo | December 21, 2005

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"...it follows that he who uses force unsparingly, without reference to the bloodshed involved, must obtain a superiority if his adversary uses less vigor in its application. The former then dictates the law to the latter..." – Carl von Clausewitz

"Then we must stand like hunters round a covert and make sure that justice does not escape us and disappear from view." – Socrates


In Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War, the Athenian general turned historian introduced future generations to the oftentimes disillusioning realities of men at war. One of the work’s many strengths is its ability to depict sharp turns in cultural behavior. The war itself has been, and today is seen as a singularly tragic event which portended the end of an epoch which briefly gave wing to Greek ideals; ideals so vital to a fledgling West. The lessons taught by this account would serve the modern reader well in light of the current struggle against Islamic terror.

A particular manifestation of the ways in which war alters even such a unique and influential culture such as Greece, is how older staples of measure and honor are so readily discarded in favor of the heady liquor of political power. There are few better examples of this phenomenon than when an aggressive, expansionistic Athens lands on the island of Melos, an erstwhile Spartan ally, and attempts to broker a quick Melian surrender.

With thirty-eight ships and over three thousand hoplites and archers landing on Melos, Athenian leaders soon sent emissaries to exchange with the Melian leadership. Not wishing to involve a general address on this matter, the Melians insisted that only their high officials should listen and deal with Athenian offers. This choice may be interpreted in different lights.

First, the Melian magistrates desired to avoid the very possible outbreaks of panic an invasion and ensuing siege induces. Melos and her citizens knew full well that as a colony of Sparta, this visit–one with demonstrated Athenian military strength–was no innocuous trading mission.

Second, by only allowing their best and most respected citizens to receive an expectedly one-sided offer of peace, the Melians would have shown Athens their resolve and at least the impression that this city state was in control of its choices. In putting themselves between Athens and their populace, the leaders of Melos conveyed their land as worthy of defense. This stance was presented with the complete realization that however honeyed the Athenian offer for peace was, it would inevitably rot the Melian standing amongst other Greeks, bringing about possible hostility from its Spartan patrons.

Ultimately, the Melian rationale for this option was based on strength. As the decidedly weaker party in these negotiations, it could ill afford to further enhance this perception. Giving ravenous Athens pause before the eventual pounce was a better alternative than to go meekly into its maw.

Dallying little, the Athenian contingent advanced its intentions. Its take on the inequities of the situation was paramount. Athens reminded Melos that it could invoke its new, post-Salamis hegemony, or creatively conjure up some offense dealt out by the Melians, to provide some rationale for what was about to take place. In refusing to do this, the Athenian representatives instead demoted the question of rectitude as being only applicable in situations where both parties involved possessed equally balanced levels of authority. This not being the case, Athens maintained, "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."

Taking a Stand

Such a sentiment may be readily attributed historically to marauding peoples such as Huns or Scythians, or perhaps more established military powers as Assyria and Rome. In truth, among the Greeks, it was Athens’s rival Sparta that had the reputation both for austerity in both rhetoric and realpolitik. Yet, it was not members of these nations who presented the Melians with their barren alternatives. Athens, the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, and the more refined Hellenic arts, was also known as the singular champion of a political system seldom repeated in the ancient world. It was democratic Athens, albeit a more ethically ambivalent city state than it had ever previously been, which voiced these words of acquiescence to power.

The Melian leadership, true to their convictions, did not receive the inevitability offered without a challenge; though at this point a purely rhetorical one. These elders cited (among other things) the catastrophic future end of the empire Athens is trying to build, the chance of turning peripheral city states into enemies, and the wishfully expected arrival of a Spartan vanguard as deterrents.

When these more material coercions fail to curb Athens’s own arguments, Melos conjured in turn more metaphysical variables. Admitting their decidedly inferior military and economic positions, the blessings instead of Olympus were sought. This call was one which recognized the gods’ sympathy for those who were "just men fighting against unjust."

It is ironic that after Athens is defeated and subjugated by Sparta after the war, and liberated to install a new age of democracy, she will produce some of the greatest exponents of justice philosophy has ever known. Socrates and Plato will later on remind future generations of the need for reason as a moderating force within men’s souls and states, begetting the virtue justice in each of these. This reason, a product of an earlier epoch in Athens, a period preceding the city’s current imperial desires, was conveniently laid aside in this time of war. Reason and its ensuing justice would have, in a previous age, told Athens not to put Melos in this position.







However, this was the age of Athenian dominance, the city state paradoxically performing the same feats it had so bravely fought off mighty Xerxes for less than half a century before. Answering the Melian divine invocation, Athens reminded its prey of the fickle, all too human quality of Hellenic deities. Both gods and humans, it seemed, followed an encompassing dictate for the pursuit of dominance as often as possible. Hence, of the gods and humankind "by a necessary law of their nature they rule whenever they can."

Here, it is possible to see the morally bereft position of the Athenian argument. In seeking power through the expansion of territory, it must first do away with established ethical guidelines. What better way exists to discard these than to claim they never existed to begin with, that even mighty Zeus himself shared man’s own predilections? The shirking of responsibility, another trait attendant to slackened honor, likewise permeated this ethos.

With power being the only staple consumable to an Athenian palate, the aggressors made a comparison of themselves to the Melians. Since as stated, the natural drive for dominance and rule predated man and was itself adhered to by the gods, anyone in Athens’s position would have done same. The Melians were reminded, "you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do."

This yet was another mark of the renunciation of Hellenic ethics. By elevating power, not justice, by the elimination of the former, Athens could not believe Melos would act for other more noble motivations. Worse still, by knowing of the past virtues as being inherently better than their newfound drives, the Athenian representatives must rationalize their actions by dragging the Melians through the selfsame mud of their advances.

Inevitably, and perhaps in spite of the spirited rhetorical defenses proffered by both sides, the dialogue at Melos turned into the siege and sack of that island. All Melian males were slain, and the land’s women and children sold into slavery. It would seem that mercy would not be possible if at first its corresponding virtue, justice, were never present.

The Present Day Situation

Although chronological variations remove direct parallelism of this time and event from the current epoch, there nevertheless are some points where the Melian Dialogue is pertinent to the larger war against Islamic terror at large, and the recent Muslim rioting in France in particular. In these comparisons, elements of the West and Islam will shift and assume perspectives contained in Thucydides’s masterful account.

First and in general, the West and other peaceful nations must realize the concrete and deliberate danger posed by Islamic terrorism. There are today many well-meaning voices urging for the consideration of past ills heaped upon the ancestors of the current crop of militants. These oftentimes take the appearance of perpetually wanting to support the politically, economically, and militarily weaker party. There are fewer eras when this same affinity for militant minority groups–at times excusing the acts perpetrated by agents of these–is more vocal than the current day. However, there is no romanticized cause or personality sacred enough as to wash away innocent blood already staining the streets of capitals the world over. The more nations pander to their factions within calling for not treating Islamic terrorism for what it is, the longer they stand apart from the Melian leadership who courageously put themselves between naked aggression and their citizens.

This argument can be extended to modern nations, which do little or nothing, for whatever reason, to stem the violence caused by Islamic terror. Though not yet themselves declared acts of terrorism, the recent acts of Muslim rioting in the suburbs of Paris share important commonalities with more infamous attacks by Islamic militants. The riots were ostensibly caused because of anger at the inequalities denying Muslim French youth the promised largesse of France’s welfare state. Following a logical progression, and the views of some supportive of perpetrators of the violence, these acts were done to ensure a political end. The nature of the rioting involved destruction of personal and private property, along with random attacks at unarmed civilians. When the French leadership, in particular Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, did little to stem the initial days of violence in lieu of calls for tolerance, they chose not to put themselves between their citizens and the actions of native terrorists.

This choice to not strongly confronting such aggression is in the very least strange because the government of France, possessing far more political power than local gangs, should be able to direct terms to the latter. As seen from Thucydides, Athens makes no compunctions about the stark realities of power politics. In France, and across broader frontiers where Islamic militance challenges established civilizations, it seems it is the politically weak that dictate to the strong. When members of Western societies wonder out aloud, "Just what do they (terrorists) want?", the crucial balance in this scenario of power shifts. Implicit in this sentiment is the belief that if only demands were met, murderous violence would stop. What then is one to make of the statements of groups such as Hamas, who frankly expound on their wish to push Israel into the sea? These desires are now echoed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new leader of Iran, who only recently spoke of wiping the Jewish state off the map. Not surprisingly, Iran’s Islamic theocracy is one of the world’s major sponsors of terrorist groups such as the Lebanon-based Hizbollah.

How then do sovereign states and international institutions respond to these threats? An institution such as the United Nations maintains a position wherein Israel itself is guilty of oppressing Palestine and, subsequently, its militant organization Hamas. UN chief Kofi Annan recently celebrated a day of solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Members of the European Union flexed their financial muscle and "reprimanded" Iran, which brought about a garbled rationalization from Ahmadinejad.

Perhaps it is this penchant for viewing terrorists as belonging to victimized societies that slurs the willingness of some to hold them liable for their actions. In the United States post-September 11, many voices in academia were quick to point out the potential folly in rushing to judge after thousands of innocents were incinerated. Instead of judgment, faculty such as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky strove to make American citizenry aware of the various plagues visited by the West on Middle Eastern cultures. In fact, it was the American people who were in some byzantine way culpable for their own suffering. It seems that in exchange of the search for justice, a civilization assaulted need turn its view to another virtue: tolerance.

The aforementioned French leadership, in its hesitance to assume early control of the situation during its fall riots, could be heard on a daily basis pleading for understanding and tolerance, chiefly for perpetrators of the violence. Seemingly, if only agitators could see self-penance and openness, hearts would be lightened and, more importantly, the French leadership would pass the "tolerance test" in front of the rest of the world.

Return to Justice and Honor

When Melos cited justice and honor, it called upon virtues and mores they knew most Greeks held in the highest regard. The approval of other city states was unimportant to this end; the eternal standards themselves were the only judges of any consequence. The French leadership, on the other hand, is not only conjuring a grace seen as a weakness by its dissidents, but employing a tactic requiring its primary legitimacy from an audience’s whim.

It is in the last, doom-filled statement from Athens that there may perhaps be some measure of hope in the conflict against Islamic terrorism–a conflict where the politically weak dictates to the great powers of the world. Drunk with power and solely dealing in the coin of force and aggression, Athens cannot imagine any city state behaving in a different manner than itself. If Melos, Corinth, and, of course, Sparta were similarly positioned as Athens was, these lands would naturally push their military advantage.

It ironic that although the young Muslim rioters in France clamor for their acceptance and relief from racial oppression, they in turn directed their violence toward some of the most vulnerable in French society. From a disabled woman set on fire on a bus to the scores of nursery schools lit by flames of spite, the rioters manifested their abject lack of compassion while all the while demanding the selfsame bounty.

In this they are echoed by the nihilism of Islamic terror. Both phenomena eschew the reasoned debate and discussion proffered to them by appeasement-minded Westerners. Rather, they elect and choose to answer perceived maltreatment with wanton violence. In places as diverse as Paris, Baghdad, and Bali, blood and fire–not words and reason–are the preferred means of expression.

While these macabre exhibits litter world capitals, the refrain often heard from the perpetrators is one of reciprocity. These acts were seemingly done in response to millennia of oppression. Yet it is this and only this that Islamic terror offers the world. Though groups such as Hamas will support charities to sanitize their image in the Islamic world, these acts truly only extend to their own native borders. How then do Islamist critics of the Iraq war answer to coalition soldiers risking their lives building schools and hospitals for the young and the sick of a civilization so different from its own?

Here is the weakness of the Athenian argument at Melos, one that is parallel to the fallacy of Islamic terror rhetoric. Those worshipping on the altar of power and the potentially evil actions it promotes and sustains itself by cannot see the enemy doing otherwise. However, this congregation is not (and has never been) alone in the many long and tragic annals of human history. There have always been those who would profess the sanctity of life, as well as justice, one of the former’s greatest defenders.

It would behoove the recently embattled nations of the civilized world to realize that the darker chapters of their past should not be cause for their retreat or paralysis in the face of Islamic terror. Rather, the leaders of these nations ought look at the Melian stand, and realize that in contrast to this lesson from antiquity, theirs is the political strength necessary to combat and defeat this scourge. The citizens of these nations should likewise realize that justice and honor–concepts long made passé in the lexicon of today–are merely dormant, and deserve just as much of their efforts as tolerance.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:


Martyrs and Suicide Bombers | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The One War, The Real War | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Wars Without Violence? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.



Jose Yulo, Ed.D. teaches courses on philosophy, western civilization, United States history, and public speaking at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He has a Doctorate in Education from the University of San Francisco, with an emphasis on the philosophy of education. He also holds a Master's degree in political communication from Emerson College in Boston, as well as a Bachelor's degree in the classical liberal arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. Originally from Manila in the Philippines, his research interests lie in Greek philosophy, the histories of Greek and Roman politics and warfare, and the literature of J. R. R. Tolkien.



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