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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

- An engraving of the death of Astyanax

I'm still reading The Last of the Wine and I've come to the part where the main character, who is a student of Socrates, meets another student - Phaedo. I'd read the Phaedo, one of Plato's dialogues about the death of Socrates and his discussion with some friends about the immortality of the soul, as told through his student Phaedo, but I'd never learned anything about Phaedo himself.

The Last of the Wine writes Phaedo as an inhabitant of the island of Melos (though he was actually from Elis), but the rest of his story is correct ..... his city was on the losing side of war and as a prisoner, and young, he was not killed but made a slave, ending up in Athens in a house of prostitution. He began to hang out with Socrates on his off time and one of Socrates' rich friends eventually bought his freedom.

Reading this reminded me of two things ..... a commencement speech given at Georgetown University I'd seen some time ago about compassion - Compassion and Global Responsibility by Dr. Martha C. Nussbaum - which mentions what happened at Melos and how that related to the Euripides play The Trojan Women.

The other thing I thought of was, strangely, Iraq. The connection? Here's a little bit about the war between Athens and Melos ....

Though the Melians sent a contingent to the Greek fleet at Salamis, it held aloof from the Delian League, and sought to remain neutral during the Peloponnesian War. But in 415 BC the Athenians launched an attack to the island and compelled the Melians to surrender, slew all the men capable of bearing arms, made slaves of the women and children, and introduced 500 Athenian colonists. Thucydides made this event the occasion of one of the most impressive of the "speeches" in his history. Written like the others in more complex and difficult Greek than his pellucid narrative, this passage, known as the Melian Dialogue, is a locus classicus for the contest between raison d'├ętat and ethical action, and is the fulcrum at which the state of Athens in his history abandoned the noble ideals with which it had entered the war and began to pursue simply its own self-interest. - Wikipedia

Thucydides wrote about what happened at Melos in his History of the Peloponnesian War, and his Melian dialogue (you can read it here) is a famous "might makes right" argument made by the Athenians. It's pretty chilling. Here's what Wikipedia writes of it ....

In the passage, the Athenians present the Melians with a choice: the island may pay tribute to Athens and thus survive, or fight Athens and be destroyed. The Melians respond by arguing that their neutrality should be respected, and that international law guarantees their right to neutrality. The Melians also present several other counter-arguments, namely that showing mercy towards Melos will win the Athenians more friends; that the Spartans will come to Melos' aid; and finally that the gods will protect the island. The Athenians, however, refuse to discuss either the justice of their demand or any substantive argument advanced by the Melians. Instead the Athenians offer a sharp, simple, and oft-quoted formula of hard realism: The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. The Athenians further suggest that the Spartans are no strangers to this principle, and thus that the Spartans will not assist the weak Melians if doing so is to Sparta's disadvantage.

Melos did not surrender, though no one came to their aid, and Athens attacked the city, won the battle with superior numbers and through treachery, and put all the adult males to death, and made slaves of the women and children, and then colonized the city.

This brings me back to that commencement speech. Here's a bit of just the beginning of it ....


President DeGioia, faculty, parents and friends, and, especially, graduates: On this day of celebration, I want to ask you to pause for a minute, and to think of the ending of a tragic drama, Euripides' The Trojan Women. The towers of Troy are burning. All that is left of the once-proud city is a group of ragged women, bound for slavery, their husbands dead in battle, their sons murdered by the conquering Greeks, their daughters raped. Hecuba their queen invokes the king of the gods, using, remarkably, the language of democratic citizenship: "Son of Kronus, Council-President of Troy, father who gave us birth, do you see these undeserved sufferings that your Trojan people bear?" The Chorus answers grimly, "He sees, and yet the great city is no city. It has perished, and Troy exists no longer." A little later, Hecuba and the Chorus conclude that the very name of their land has been wiped out ......

The dramatic festivals of Athens were sacred festivals strongly connected to the idea of democratic deliberation, and the plays of Euripides were particularly well known for their engagement with contemporary events. In this case, the audience that watched The Trojan Women had recently voted to put to death the men of the rebellious colony of Melos and to enslave the women and children. Euripides invites them to contemplate the real human meaning of their actions. Compassion for the women of Troy should at least cause moral unease, reminding Athenians of the full and equal humanity of people who live in distant places, their fully human capacity for suffering .....

America's towers, too, have burned. Compassion and terror are in the fabric of our lives. And now, like the Athenians, we must grapple with the fact that we have caused devastation in foreign lands ......


Anyway, I've wandered far afield, but once again, The Last of the Wine is worth a read.


Blogger cowboyangel said...

"I will help you if I can, I will kill you if I must. I will kill you if I can, I will help you if I must."

Leonard Cohen.

And I have no idea why I wrote that. But it seemed to fit in a vague way.

8:33 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Yay, a comment. Why does no one like Greek history? I think you're Cohen quote is very relevant.

12:31 AM  
Blogger David said...

I wondered across this as a Google search when looking for the terrible pronouncement: The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

This is a very interesting and insightful blog. Kudos.

9:34 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks, David.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Binbir gece lover-xD said...

The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
what is the mean of this?thank you

1:21 PM  

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