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Deadly Dialogue: Thucydides with Plato

Author(s): Daniel Boyarin

Source: Representations, Vol. 117, No. 1 (Winter 2012), pp. 59-85
Published by: University of California Press
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Deadly Dialogue: Thucydides with Plato
For Andrea Nightingale
Orators dispute cases and philosophers refute and establish positions.
Richard McKeon
Thucydides is not ordinarily thought to be a major player
in the gestation of the rhetoric/philosophy rhubarb. Nor is he ordinarily read
as providing a protreptic for rhetoric. In any history of philosophy, Plato will
be notedfor good or ill, usually the formeras the thinker who drew the
sharp distinction between debate (rhetoric) and dialogue (philosophy).
Debate, that is, the attempt to persuade an audience of the truth of ones
position by delivering a lengthy prepared address intended to advance ones
position against an opponents similarly intended speech, is taken as the
highly problematic emblem of rhetoric and hence sophism.
The genre of
dialogue, on the other handundistinguished from dialecticis taken as
the true form for philosophical inquiry into truth in a disinterested fashion.
Even though it is only in Plato that we first find the contrast between debate
and dialogue explicitly thematized, I propose that it is well formed, if implicit,
in the slightly earlier but nearly contemporaneous Thucydides as well. By
comparing the singleton dialogue, the Melian Dialogue, with another
moment in the same author, the equally famous Mytilenian Debate, I hope to
show that Thucydides is taking a position on the question of dialogue (phi-
losophy), as opposed to rhetoric (sophism), a position exactly opposite to the
one adopted by his rough contemporary but slightly junior, Plato.
There are, notoriously, twenty-six speeches and only one dialogue in all
of Thucydidess great work. As cannot be emphasized enough, the Melian
Dialogue is an absolute unicum in Thucydidesthere is no other dialogue
anywhere in the workprompting many critics, from antiquity (Dionysius of
Halicarnassus) until now, to wonder what might be its explanation.
In his
attempt to answer this conundrum, after showing that the distinction
between long speeches and dialectic was a highly thematized one at the time
of Thucydides by citing Euripides and Aristophanes, H. LL. Hudson-Williams
abstract In this paper it will be argued that Thucydidess Melian Dialogue is best illuminated in the
context of Socratic dialogue as given by Plato. Thucydides and Plato take directly oppositional positions on
dialogue versus debate or philosophy versus rhetoric. Representations 117. Winter 2012 The Regents
of the University of California. ISSN 0734-6018, electronic ISSN 1533-855X, pages 5985. All rights
reserved. Direct requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content to the University of
California Press at DOI: 10.1525/rep.2012.117.1.59.
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Representati ons 60
noted, as well, that the speeches were the metier of the law courts and the
assembly. He then cites two previous attempts to answer the question of the
unique form of the Melian Dialogue, one by F. M. Cornford who had argued
in 1907 that the form was due to the influence of drama, an argument
that, on Hudson-Williamss account, was successfully refuted by 1914 by W.
R. M. Lamb.
A second strikingly untenable position had been maintained
by G. B. Grundy who had averred that the dialogue represents a rough out-
line summarizing arguments which Thucydides intended to work up into
two long antithetical speeches. However, as Hudson-Williams points out, at
the very beginning of the dialogue, attention is specially drawn to the fact
that there will not be the usual long antithetical speeches.
has certainly captured the point that the use of the dialogue form here is
intentional and in contrast to the usual Thucydidean presentation of two
long speeches in debate with each other.
The distinction between debate
in antithetical long speeches and dialogue or dialectic is, I will argue, much
more fraught and much more significant than Hudson-Williams, who has at
least discerned it, would have it. It represents, in my view, no less than the
contest within Thucydides of two fundamental political philosophies. Hud-
son-Williams, well on the road to an answer, misses the main point because
he does not turn to the writer who most deeply engaged the question of
debate versus dialogue; that is, of course, Plato. Felix Wassermann had
already indicated the hermeneutical significance of the Melian Dialogue
owing to its form: Thucydides expects his readers to ask why he introduces
a dialogue instead of a pair of speeches. This is the reason for his presenting
it as a suggestion from the Athenians.
This thematization must, therefore,
mean something. However, for Hudson-Williams, the only relevant distinc-
tion between the debate and the dialogue form is that one is to be used for
public purposes and the other in private, and since the Melian discussion
was to take place in private, dialogue was the appropriate form for it.
In a
sense, Hudson-Williams, by this conclusion is begging the question, because
the private nature itself of the Melian Dialogue is by no means adventitious
but in itself a thematized choicewhether in the actual history or Thu-
cydidess ownand a highly meaningful one.

Platos dialogues began to be written within three decades after Thucyd-
ides began his work (431) with the first probably dating from c. 399. However,
Thucydides was still working on his text as late as 404, or even later, so it is
entirely plausible to read these two corpora of texts together in a sort of new
historicist mode, that is as co-texts within the problematic of a particular epis-
temic shift. In fact, one could say that this is the very ideal type of epistemic
shift, involving as it does the invention of the very idea of epistm, truth
defined as philosophical, opposing doxa, opinion, the wisdom of the collec-
tive. In several of his dialogues, Plato foregrounds the sociopolitical aspects of
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Deadly Dialogue: Thucydides with Plato 61
the discursive practice that he calls dialectic or dialogue, as opposed to rhe-
torical debate, the making of contrasting arguments through paired, pre-
pared speeches of some length. The Platonic material invites us to examine
the ways in which Thucydides positions these two discursive practices in rela-
tion to the social and political economy of classical Athens, and, in particular,
to the question of democracy. As Andrea Nightingale has reminded us:
On the one hand, [Plato] approaches a given genre as the conveyor of a certain set
of ideas by means of a specific discursive style and structure. But his critique invari-
ably goes beyond the level of discourse and ideas. For he is always aware of a genres
context of performance and the ways in which it is implicated in the social and
political institutions of the Athenian democracy. In order to comprehend fully Pla-
tos interrogation of a given genre, then, the interpreter must first analyze the
genre as a literary form grounded in a specific socio-political context. Fortunately, a
good deal of recent scholarship in the field of Greek literature has set out to recon-
textualize various genres of poetry and rhetoric, focusing in particular on their spe-
cific performative contexts as well as the ways in which they reflect the social,
political, and economic practices of their (respective) cultures.
This type of critical eye, however, has hardly been focused on the dialogue
itself, within the dialogues, as itself a genre. The opposition between dialogue
and debate is at the very heart of the Platonic project itself, and, as I shall argue
here, at the heart of Thucydidess project as well (with exactly opposite aims).
Dialogue vs. Debate
In the conclusion to his discussion of dialogue versus debate,
Harold Barrett has put his finger on the matter:
Thus form and substance unite. The absolutist position . . . finds consonance and
agency in the dialogical short form of oral address. To the end of maintaining con-
trol, leadership is invested with dominant authority. Regulating all of its functions,
the system rigidly restricts discussion, insists upon brief statement, denies refuta-
tion, arbitrarily acknowledges only the judgments it produces, and remains idealis-
tically detached in seeking after the value it names as permanent. The democratic
idea enjoys congruity with the long speechwith form more obviously rhetorical. It
accommodates free expression, extended argument, choice and management of
thoughtsubject only to social regulation, necessary cooperation and consensus,
refutation, flexibility of behavior, popular judgment, and a practical adaptable epis-
teme for particular ends.
Not only are different and contrasting views of authority at stake, then, but
dialectic and debate imply different and contrasting epistemologies as well.
The production of the common knowledges (doxa) upon which democracy
was both theoretically and pragmatically maintained was in large part effec-
tuated through the debating process as carried out in assembly and law
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Representati ons 62
court. Rhetoric is the foundation for the reproduction of democratic knowl-
edges, as well as for their modifications. The elenchus, Socratic dialectic par
excellence, is not only an attack on doxa, on that which appears to be true to
the Athenian citizenry, the foundation of their legal and political decisions,
but also an attack on the speech-institution, the debate, in which doxa is both
maintained and modified for the purpose of democratic deliberation. It is
thus part and parcel of Platos general attack on Athenian institutions tout
court, homologous with his attack on Athenian eros in the Symposium.
tos near-obsessive disdain for rhetoric and his near-obsessive insistence on
dialogue as the means of exposure of doxa as false, on this reading, consti-
tute a sustained attack on democracy. Dialogue, in this Platonic sense, identi-
cal with dialectic (both in Plato and in his interpreters, there being, in fact,
no distinction between them in ancient Greek), constitutes the least dialogi-
cal of speech forms.
Having recently argued at length for this position, I
will spare readers here a detailed account.
Suffice it to say here that in my
view, readings that claim that all of the voices in Platos texts are, in some
sense, Platos, and that there is robust dialogue in them between the philo-
sophical and sophistic, fail to contend with two things: (1) Socrates always
wins even in the aporetic dialogues, and (2) the others are mostly paro-
dies of one sort or another.
In late fifth-century and early fourth-century
Athens, rhetoric was not only an art of politics but rhetorical theories and
practices were of the very stuff of politics, as well understood by Aristotle,
inter alia, who closely associates his Rhetoric with his Politics. Insofar as rheto-
ric (as debate) was the epistemology of democracy, then Plato argued obses-
sively for dialogue (as dialectic).
A powerful moment in the Protagoras will illustrate this point well. Pro-
tagoras has just given a nuanced and convincing speech in which he articu-
lates his reasons for not assenting to Socratess insistence that all virtues are
one by indicating the ways that certain things are beneficial to certain peo-
ple in certain circumstances and distinctly harmful to them in others (I over-
At that point, the audience shouted their approval of his
speech. Socrates, with his usual ironic self-deprecation, announces that he
has a defective memory and cannot follow a long speech, anticipating as well
his ironic and deceptive self-deprecatory reaction at a similar moment in the
He therefore insists that Protagoras confine himself to giving
short answers to questions addressed to him by Socrates. After some byplay
as to whether Protagoras or Socrates will decide what the proper length is, it
becomes clear that it is Socrates who will determine this. At this point, Pro-
tagoras protests, Socrates, he said, Ive had verbal contests with a great
many people, and if I had done what you tell me to do, and spoken accord-
ing to the instructions of my antagonist, I should never have got the better of
anyone, nor would the name of Protagoras have become known in Greece
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Deadly Dialogue: Thucydides with Plato 63
(335a). Platos rhetoric here is anything but innocent. By having Protagoras
formulate his preference for long speech in this fashion, he is having the
sophist confess that his goals are victory in speech contests and the conse-
quent fame (and presumably wealth) that such victories portend and at the
same time completely disabling any conceivable thought that what is at stake
is the possibility that one might have a better chance of explaining ones
true views in an autonomous speech than as the antagonist in a conversation
in which someone else entirely controls the discourse and allows one only
short answers to set questions. And, of course, he thus further occludes the
point that Socratess purpose and advantage are entirely served by his insis-
tence on dialogue and the management of such dialogue.
At this point, Socrates pretends to give up, I knew that he was dissatis-
fied with his previous replies, and that he wasnt willing to take the role of
answerer in the dialectic [dialegesthai], so I felt that there was no point in my
continuing the conversation [sounousias] (335ab). Socrates is about to
take his football and go home, and indeed gets up with intent to do so. Pre-
dictably, others intervene and insist that he remain, upon which, after some
further expressions of false modesty (explicitly marked as a joke by Alcibia-
des just a bit further on), Socrates stipulates, If you want to listen to Protag-
oras and me, ask him to answer now the way he did at first, briefly, and
sticking to the question. If not, what sort of discussion [dialog n] will we
have? I thought that a discussion [sunenai . . . dialegomenous] was something
quite different from a speech in the assembly [dm g oren] (336ab).
course in the two previous exchanges in which Protagoras had kept to
Socratess rules, Socrates had managed to twist him up in thoroughly
sophistical knots, which is presumably what Socrates desires to continue to
be able to do.

Then a further very arresting development takes place. Socrates is asked
to choose a referee for the discussion, that is, someone who will determine
who has successfully defeated the arguments of his opponent and defended
his own point of view. Socrates, of course, refuses this option, arguing that if
the referee be inferior to the speakers, then his opinion is obviously useless;
if he is equal to them, he will simply do the same as we should, so it will be a
waste of time to choose him, and, of course, it is impossible to choose one
superior to Protagoras, so why bother? What has not been noticed, I think,
by commentators is that what Plato is doing here is parodying and dismissing
precisely the ethos of the democratic speech situation, in which opposing
speakers make their best arguments and others (their inferiors) decide
who was right, or more right at any rate. Moreover, the further assumption is
that equals will always see exactly the same truth, because it is, simply, the
Truth. Persuasion can have no role, disagreement is impossible and democ-
racy a sham.
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Representati ons 64
Even as sympathetic a reader of Socrates as Patrick Coby remarks that via
his manipulation of democratic nostrums Socrates is left free to arbitrate
himself. The natural ruler will be the judge.
Cobys summation is
Because the standard of dialectical brevity remains in force, Socrates can be
thought to have emerged victorious. His victory and Protagorass defeat are indica-
tive of the relative dependence of each speaker on the audience. Socrates can
endure the publics scorn; but Protagoras depends on its applause. Insofar as this
procedural dispute exposes Protagoras to be a creature of public opinion, it calls
into question the sophists central claim that by sophistry he is made secure.
If, however, we recast these sentences only slightly, we can see them quite dif-
ferently. Reading this byplay as a political parable, we catch on that Socrates
can endure the publics scorn, indeed, and as philosopher-king would not
have to depend on the public at all. Protagoras is a creature of public opin-
ion; in a democracy he would have to prevail with his rhetoric over opposing
rhetors and convince the assembly or the jury of the justice of his cause, just
as Pericles had to continue to persuade of his excellence in governing in
order to continue being chosen to do so.
The reason that Socrates insists on dialogue is owing to the way dialogue
allows one party to control and manage the discourse in such wise as to
assure his own victory.
The dialogue is taken to be self-judging, in that
there is some kind of absolute standard of victory that appears from within
the situation itself and to the parties themselves, while the debate is always to
be judged by others, notably, in the democratic situation by the voters.
Barrett takes us further along the road to an elaboration and refinement of
an explanation for this Platonic preoccupation. As Barrett argues, the
difference is that in the rhetorical debate the two sides are presented with a
certain equality of opportunity, and it is up to another group, the assembly
or the jury to render a decision of what is right or wrong in the case, while
the dialogue allows for the decision, as it were, to be entirely internal to the
discussants: No other agency is needed, as Plato would structure the pro-
cess. . . . Fundamental to the points of difference, then, are two profoundly
conflicting mentalities: democratic and authoritarianone needing and
trusting popular will and the other denying it. . . . The Platonic-Socratic way
demands obedience to form and leadership.
In the Platonic topos of long
persuasive speech versus so-called dialogue lies an answer to our dilemma
regarding Thucydidess choice of the dialogue form for the incident on
Melos. Precisely reversing the values assigned by Plato, for Thucydides
(I hypothesize), the Melian Dialogue signifies a strong critique of the dia-
logical form itself as the agent of a particularly vicious form of the exercise of
Let me now put some flesh on these bones.
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Deadly Dialogue: Thucydides with Plato 65
Hybris and the Athenian Tragedy
Somewhere near the middle of the Peloponnesian War, some-
thing happens that is so terrible that for writers as diverse in style and man-
ner as Thucydides and Euripides (in The Trojan Women), it marks the very
turning point, the anagnorisis of the Athenian tragedy. Although this event
was of relatively minor political and military significance, both the historian
and the tragedian mark it as the moment after which Athenss tragic fate is
sealed. The event is the massacre of prisonersor more like the near geno-
cide of the entire populationon the island of Melos.
Melos is an island in the southwest Aegean, as close to the Peloponnesus
as it is to Attica. The Melians were a Spartan colony that did not submit to
the Athenians but wished to remain neutral, and did not participate at all in
the war. The Athenians, nevertheless, attack, but before actually doing any
harm to the Melian land, send envoys to negotiate. Upon the failure of these
negotiations, the Athenians massacre the Melians.
In Thucydidess great tragic history, this moment, one of utter moral
degradation and hybris (also in the older sense of this term as outrage, rap-
ine), as seen through his eyes, is the moment at which all begins to go badly
for his hero, Athens, and that will lead inexorably to the final defeat and
destruction of that hero, left as wounded and blinded as an Oedipus at Col-
onnus or a bound and demoralized Prometheus.

We can get some sense of the tragic temper of that time by reading
Euripides, writing as he lived through it. Although performing such a read-
ing here is beyond the scope of the present argument, as Louise Mead has
remarked, Of course, everyone who reads the Troades knows that it was
Euripides answer to the Melian massacre perpetrated by the Athenians in
416 B.C., the year before it was first produced.
As hinted by P. G. Maxwell-
Stuart, in a now near-classical little article, Euripidess play is more than that;
it is also a prediction of a sort of the terrible effects on Athenss future of the
moral collapse implied both in the massacre and in the Sicilian expedition
about to begin.
Given this point, it is reasonable that, notwithstanding the
gifts of hindsight that would only have strengthened his affect, Thucydidess
reading of the Melian massacre as the moral turning point of the war, the
hybris that caused the tragedy of Athens, was a vital part of the sensibility of
critical Athenian intellectuals horrified in 416 by the moral evacuation of
their city and convinced that it could only lead to disaster. To my temper,
everything about the Thucydidean passage, from its rhetoric to its placing in
the design of the history as a whole, suggests that the historian, in his quite
different style, was as horrified at this moment as the tragedian, even from
the distance of a by-then seven-year exile from Athens. The Melian Dialogue
purports to provide us with the record of those fatal negotiations.
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Representati ons 66
The Earliest Philosophical Dialogue
I think I am in a position now to suggest, at least, a novel answer
to the question of the uniqueness of the Melian Dialogue in Thucydidess
text. In addition to its historical meaning as the moral disaster that led to
Athenss downfall, Thucydides through this pointed and singular formal
invention is making, on my reading, a metacommentary on speech genres
current and contending in Athens, (philosophical) dialogue versus (rhe-
torical) debate. As we have seen, since Dionysius of Halicarnassus writing
in the first century BC, critics have understood that the Melian Dialogue
is unique in Thucydides and highly pointed in its form. It would seem that
George Kennedy is exactly wrong to ignore this uniqueness of character:
Another famous example of opposing arguments [in addition to the
Mytilenian Debate] found in Thucydidess Historythis time on the con-
flict of might versus rightis the Melian Dialogue.
Even more
wrong, in my humble opinion, is Dennis Proctor, for whom the Melian
Dialogue is itself practically a sophistical display on the part of the Athe-
Once again, this, to my mind palpably wrong claim can be made
only by ignoring the topos of debate versus dialogue and their cultural
and political entailments. Neither of these interpreters spots at all the
highly charged opposition of debate in speeches, for Plato the province of
sophists and their only province, and dialogue, for Plato the province of
philosophers and their only province. For Kennedy, the Mytilenian Debate
and the Melian Dialogue are two examples of the same phenomenon,
opposing arguments. I venture to suggest that the Mytilenian Debate
and the Melian Dialogue are precisely examples of rhetoric and its
antithesis. The Melian Dialogue, says H. D. Rankin, may properly be
regarded as the earliest example we have of philosophical dialogue in a
developed form.
Given that the upshot of this philosophical dialogue
was mass murder by the Athenians of their Melian dialogue partners, this
comparison by Rankin is sharply observed (in both senses). I agree with
Rankin and with Ober that there is a strong and important connection
between the Melian Dialogue and those of Plato. The Melians lost the
argument. It was lost even before the talking began.
I read the Melian
Dialogue as about as genuinely dialogical as the Protagoras and specu-
late, therefore, that the disastrous results of this encounter reveal much of
Thucydidess attitude toward dialogue and dialectic and to the political
forms that attend these.
The dialogue begins with a metacomment that is immediately reminis-
cent (to us) of the incipets of various Platonic dialogues, namely an explicit
thematization of the form of the discourse.
Just as in the Symposium, the
Gorgias, the Protagoras, and the Republic, where Socrates insists on dialogue
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Deadly Dialogue: Thucydides with Plato 67
and not debate, refusing that the decision of right and wrong in the
discussion be made by anyone else (the form of democracy), so too in the
beginning of the Melian Dialogue, the Athenians refuse the Melians the
opportunity to carry on a debate, in which each party would be able to
express their own position at length, freely, and with full opportunity to
express themselves. To be sure, it is the Melian oligarchs themselves who
demand that the discussion take place in private, a perhaps fatal error on
their part, but this does not alter the force of Thucydidess presentation of
the dialogical speech situation and its consequences for Melos. That this is
a metacommentary on Thucydidess part is borne out by the following con-
sideration: The alternative of a debate is on the face of it absurd, for such a
debate belongs only to a situation in which an outside party will decide
between the two as to whose speech carried more conviction (typically, but
not only, the democratic speech situation). Two examples from book 1 of
the History bear this out; in both the Corcyrean debate and the Corinthian
debate at Sparta in that book, contending parties give their speeches in
order to persuade a third party of the rightness of their cause, but where is
the third party at Melos? Who would be the judge in this case, the Melian
populace? But they are the most interested of interested parties; its a life
and death matter and they could hardly be expected to judge it. The whole
notion, then, of this conversation is preposterous, and therefore must be
seen as a pointed significant construction on Thucydidess part.
The incon-
gruity continues: The reason that the Athenians give in refusing to allow a
debate of long speeches is, as we shall see immediately, a standard critique of
debate, that it deceives the ears of the multitude by arguments. But what
multitude is there here to deceive? Even if it did make sense to have the
Melians judge and jury in their own cause (no more troubling than having
the Athenians judge and jury in theirs), Melos is no democracy; as a Spartan
colony, it has an oligarchic form of government.
The Melian oligarchs
bring the Athenians before their magistrates and the few (the oligarchic
leaders themselves). The alternative possibility of a debate to be judged by
others, as in democracy, is a patent preposterousness. Why, then, does Thu-
cydides even raise it? There must be some other reason for him to have
roused the alternative of a democratic debate here from its bed only to have
it dismissed so summarily.
My answer to these questions is that the false alternative of a debate is a
Thucydidean set-up, by which I mean an attempt to instruct his audience,
an artificial expos of the inequities, dangers, and consequences of dia-
logue/dialectic itself, of the speech situation of Platos dialogues also, in
which there are only two parties present (in the speech situation itself oth-
ers of course may overhear or interject), the proponent and the opponent,
and they themselves are meant to judge the success or failure of the
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Representati ons 68
arguments. By even raising the specter of long speeches and debate, Thu-
cydides is clueing us in to a contrast that he wishes us to perceive. In other
words, I suggest that via the naked self-interest of the Athenians in both
their proposal and conduct of this pseudo-dialogue, Thucydides is suggest-
ing that the Socratic dialogue has similar verbal violence built into it
(without, one would hope, the horrific consequences of physical violence).
This does not in any way preempt a reading of the text as a condemnation
of the content of the dialogue as well, namely, that might makes right.
Indeed, the two are joined, for it is precisely in so-called dialogue, I submit,
that might has a strong tendency to make right also. Thucydides is exposing
the political and ethical entailments of philosophical dialogue (as a form of
tyranny) in a way that will be enormously helpful for analyzing Plato, while
Plato helps to uncover these meanings in Thucydides.
Note that this argu-
ment is not made on the basis of what is said in the dialogue but on what is
said about it, implicitly and explicitly, in Thucydidess voice; neither the
Athenians nor the Melian oligarchs are here heroes (although there is no
doubt in my mind that the Melian populace, murdered, raped, and pil-
laged, are quite clearly presented as victims). That the consequences of the
dialogue are seen as horrific by Thucydides is not, I think, in question, nor
is the meaning of its placement in the history as a whole just before the
beginning of the end for Athens.
I would insist that the uniqueness of this
moment, as the only dialogue in all of Thucydidess work, renders the sug-
gestion that we have here a condemnation of the dialogue form quite com-
pelling. Thucydides has chosen never to show us a dialogue any more
benign and dialogical than this monological dialogue to the death.
Artificial as it all is (according to my reading), it is clear from the discourse
that follows that the Melians would have liked to present their case to the Athe-
nians in the form of speeches, but the Athenians would have nothing of it:
Since the negotiations are not to go on before the people, in order that we may not
be able to speak straight on without interruption, and deceive the ears of the multi-
tude by seductive arguments which would pass without refutation (for we know that
that is the meaning of our being brought before the few), what if you who sit there
were to pursue a method more cautious still! Make no set speech yourselves, but
take us up at whatever you do not like, and settle that before going any farther. And
first tell us if this proposition of ours suits you.
The Melians, despite their oligarchical stance, understand both the irony
and the threat implied by the Athenian insistence on dialogue. They are
being made an offer they cannot refuse: To the fairness of quietly instruct-
ing each other as you propose there is nothing to object; but your military
preparations are too far advanced to agree with what you say, as we see you
are come to be judges in your own cause, and that all we can reasonably
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Deadly Dialogue: Thucydides with Plato 69
expect from this negotiation is war, if we prove to have right on our side and
refuse to submit, or in the contrary case, slavery.
It is certainly instructive to compare this with a moment in the Gorgias in
which the modes of discourse are similarly being negotiated. In this passage
we see Socrates analogously browbeating Polus to follow his dialogical
method of discourse and refrain from debate:
Soc.: For my part, I am willing to take back any agreement you think was reached
improperly, whichever you pleasebut on one condition.
Pol.: What is that?
Soc.: That you bridle that long-answer method you tried using at first.
Pol.: Why? Cant I talk any way I wish?
Soc.: You would be treated terribly indeed, O best of men, if having come to Ath-
ens, where there is more freedom to talk than anywhere else in Greece, you were
the only person here denied it. But there is another side. If you speak at length and
wont answer what is asked, wouldnt I, in turn, be terribly treated if I couldnt leave
and not listen to you? Now if youre concerned for the argument weve carried on
and wish to set it straight, then as I just said, take back whatever you think you
should, asking and answering questions in turn just as Gorgias and I did, refuting
and being refuted. (461d462a)
I contend, or at any rate propose and offer, that the reasons for the Athenian
insistence on dialogue are precisely symmetrical with Socratess reasons for
such insistence against Agathon and Protagoras and Gorgias/Polus. Socrates
must win, just as the Athenians must win, and the most powerful instrument
for ensuring victory is total control of the others discourse (all, of course,
under the guise of disinterested seeking of truth. Just when, in what dia-
logue, is Socrates ever refuted by an opponent, I ask.) Just as the function
of dialogue in the Platonic context isas Barrett has already seen so
clearlyto ensure a Socratic victory beyond any possibility of doubt, homol-
ogously in the Melian Dialogue the function of the choice of weapon is to
ensure beyond any possible doubt that the Athenians will prevail. The Athe-
nians determination to be judges of their own cause is, I suggest, precisely
parallel to Socratess insistence in the Protagoras that there not be any out-
side judges either, that only the natural ruler will arbitrate.

The Athenians, moreover, in true Socratic fashion, dictate the terms
under which the discussion can take place. They will not present the justice
of their case, using the topoi of Athenian right owing to their defeat of the
Persians or of wrongs done the Athenians by the Melians: We shall not trou-
ble you . . . and make a long speech which would not be believed (The
irony is Socratic avant la lettre). But the Melians also may not claim their right
to independence on the basis of having never attacked the Athenians nor
supported the Peloponnesians in their war against Athens. The Melians can-
not give long speeches about the rights and wrongs of the matter, but only
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Representati ons 70
speak of what is expedient to the Athenians, for as these insist: might is right
Now Thucydides puts a very sagacious remark into the mouths of
the Melians:
As we think, at any rate, it is expedientwe speak as we are obliged, since you
enjoin us to let right alone and talk only of interestthat you should not destroy
what is our common protection, namely, the privilege of being allowed in danger
to invoke what is fair and right, and even to profit by arguments not strictly valid if
they can be persuasive. And you are as much interested in this as any, as your fall
would be a signal for the heaviest vengeance and an example for the world to med-
itate upon. (5.90)
The Melians make a brilliant argument for rhetoric here. Although the
Athenians have enjoined them not to speak of morality but only of expedi-
ence, they argue for the expedience of morality. Furthermore, they suggest
that a decent politics can only proceed via the epistemology of rhetoric,
sophist epistemology, of doxa, that which appears right and true. Epistm ,
the insistence on only absolutely valid arguments, will lead, as they see
rightly, to their destruction.
The earliest example of a philosophical dialogue continues. As the
Melians have predicted, it leads perforce to the ends of Athens and the end
of Melos. Just as much as Socrates in the philosophical dialogues of Plato
that Ive alluded to, the Athenians as the powerful party simply impose their
will on the weaker party, the Melians, through the medium of a dialogue in
which they are the sole controlling party and of which the telos is a foregone
Melians: And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?
Athenians: Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering
the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you. (5.9293)
This is, one might say, a philosophical argument that the Melians cannot
refute (or better put, a philosophical offer that they cannot refuse), or
indeed they will (and do) suffer the worst. And a terrible worst it is; after a
siege, all of the men of Melos are simply taken out and murdered. And
Thucydides is appalled by this conclusion to the dialogue, every bit as much
as Euripides is. The foregone discursive practice that conduces ineluctably
to foregone conclusions is approved by Plato, as it leads to Truth, while
Thucydides finds it appalling, since it can lead to massacre, as it would, as
well, during the rule of the thirty tyrants. It needs to be pointed out, more-
over, that as much as the Melian Dialogue is an indictment of the Athenians
at their least democratic, it is also (at least plausibly) an indictment of the
Melian oligarchy, who in refusing to allow the case whether to resist or not to
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Deadly Dialogue: Thucydides with Plato 71
be brought before their own dmos made themselves vulnerable to the
oppressive force of the dialogue.

With reference to the denouement of the Protagoras, Barrett wittily remarks:
Plato gives Protagoras the attitude of a rehabilitated rebel who has learned the
right way and the right words to say.
Glossing Barrett a bit here will enable
us to see the aptness and deadly accuracy of his barb. In the Protagoras, the
eponymon has repeatedly tried to get Socrates to allow him to present his
argument in a coherent and organized speech, and as repeatedly Socrates
turns down this plea, insisting that the only game in town is dialectic, with
Protagoras playing the role of answerer (only yes or no) or alternatively
being forced to ask the questions that Socrates wants asked. In the end,
thoroughly bamboozled by Socratess dialectical pyrotechnics and realizing
that he has been beaten without assenting to Socratess conclusions or rea-
soning, he just says I guess you win.
At the end of Melian Dialogue, there
is nothing left for the Melians but to concede defeat and be led out to the
In the Platonic topos of long speech versus so-called dialogue lies an
answer to our dilemma regarding Thucydidess choice of the dialogue form
for the incident on Melos. Dialogical Melos signifies a strong critique of the
dialogical form itself as the agent of a particularly vicious form of exercise of
power. It is, then, not inapposite to refer to the Melian discourse as the first
philosophical dialogue in a very dark sense indeed. Jaqueline de Romilly has
hinted at the great significance of the contrast in form between the Melian
Dialogue and the Mytilenian Debate: It can even be said that Thucydides
adds a genuine commentary to his account of these measures, since one
(Mytilene) gives rise to a discussion with antithetical speeches, and the other
(Melos) to a dialogue.
However, even the redoubtable de Romilly does
not develop this insight at all; she never tells us of what the genuine com-
mentary consists, thus leaving us with an enigma.
In what follows I hope to
shed some light on this enigma and will turn, therefore, to an analysis of the
Mytilenian Debate, which is also, one must note, about the advisability of a
The Debate of Rhetoric,
The Rhetoric of Debate
In the Mytilenian Debate, it is the very question of rhetoric and its
democratic entailments that is at issue for Thucydides. If I read Plato gener-
ally as a discourse of protreptic for the philosophical, dialogical life, I will
read (at least some of) Thucydides as a protreptic for rhetoric. But this
reading is doubly (or even triply) complexified by two factors. Rhetoric is,
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Representati ons 72
indeed, the discursive mode of democracy, and, insofar as Thucydides
seems to be a defender of rhetoric (and I believe he is), he could be seen as
a critical and somewhat skeptical defender, not an enemy of democracy. But
rhetoric itself, as even Gorgias well knew, can easily become an instrument
for misleading the populace, and then democracy itself becomes corrupt.

Moreover, a genuine dialogicity, that is, a true commitment to rhetoric (the
Protagorean Antilogoi), must allow for both sides of the issue to be pre-
sented with a high degree of fidelity, even the side that undermines rhetoric
(and thence democracy) itself.
As Protagoras is famous (some would say
notorious) for saying: On every subject there are two logoi opposed to one
another (Diogenes Laertius 9.51). My thesis is that all of these complexi-
ties and even paradoxes have been enacted in Thucydidess writing in the
Mytilenian Debate.
The background: The Mytilenians, who are the inhabitants of Lesbos, an
island that is key to Athenian power, have revolted, and their revolt has been
put down. The Athenians, in their anger, have voted to execute all the male
inhabitants and sent a boat with that message and charge. The next day, they
reconsider their Draconian order, and after a debate in the assembly decide
to rescind the order, which they manage to do, just. The debate is the
speeches that were made in the assembly on the occasion of deciding to
reconsider. They constitute a good example of the structure of Athenian
democracy and the role of rhetoric within it. It is important, I think, both to
remember and to take very seriously Thucydidess pledge to make the
speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occa-
sions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what
they really said (1.22).
As Rankin has already observed, [Thucydidess]
account of the debate whether to rescind the order is notable for its use of
arguments that bear the colour of sophistic influence.
Thucydides himself
is quite clear where his own sympathies lie. He has already informed us that
Cleon is the most violent man in Athens and made fully explicit his con-
tempt for him. Moreover, he indicates that the desire for reconsideration
was the product of a wave of revulsion among the dm os for their cruel deci-
sion of the day before. Finally, he shows them being persuaded (if only
barely) to make the right decision through deliberation and rational
Cleon makes a double case in favor of the massacre. On the one hand,
he argues that might makes absolute right and that the Athenians should
think only of their own well-being (rather narrowly defined). On the other
hand, and even more important from my point of view, he argues that the
decision, having been made in the healthy heat of anger of the common
folk, should not be reconsidered at all, let alone overturned as the result of
the work of intellectual sophist/rhetors in persuading the populace.
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Deadly Dialogue: Thucydides with Plato 73
Thucydidess own rhetoric indicates in this case his evaluation of the
matter as well. The two speeches are very close structural parallels as noted
by de Romilly:
The parallel between the plans of the two speeches brings out the rigorous nature
of Diodotus reply; for everythinganalysis and considerationsis more precise in
his speech than in Cleons. In the analysis itself, Cleon merely mentioned Mytilen-
ian hubris, while Diototus discusses the nature and consequences of hubris in
general. In the considerations, Cleon deals simply with the possibility of future
desertions, while Diodotus (who, as his analysis shows, considers them inevitable)
judges them in relation to two specific circumstances, ignored by Cleon but men-
tioned in the narration of events; the fact that Mytilene was easily reconquered,
and the fact that the people soon changed their minds in favour of Athens.
In other words, we have here an excellent double usage of rhetoric. On the
one hand, we have examples of the sort of speeches with which Athenian
politicians would try to sway the decision makers of Athens (the dm os in the
assembly); on the other hand, this is Thucydidess own rhetoric attempting
to convince us that Diodotus was right and Cleon was wrong: The two
speeches were thus composed by Thucydides in such a way that the system-
atic contrast between them, although rather improbable in an actual
debate, brought out the wisdom of one solution compared with the folly of
the other.

Not only the speeches but also the speakers are contrasted in a very inter-
esting and important way. It has long been noted in the scholarly literature
that the speech of Cleon, the most violent man in Athens, contains much
language and ideology that are very reminiscent of the speeches of Pericles,
Thucydidess hero. This has been seen, of course, as a paradox. Much less
noticed perhaps has been the extent to which Diodotus too repeats much of
Periclean ideology and even Periclean language in his discourse.
It almost
seems as if Pericles is being praised and blamed in the same moves, a fact
that has led some scholars to read Thucydidess own apparent praise of Peri-
cles as ironic in some degree or fashion. One way of thinking beyond this
dilemma is to imagine Cleon and Diodotus as indeed both projections of
Pericles: a bad Pericles, as it were, and a good one. I want to read this as an
exploration on the part of Thucydides of the two faces (the two logoi) of
logos, rhetoric, itself. As someone once wrote, for Thucydides, the best argu-
ment for the democracy is that democracy sometimes will throw up a Peri-
cles. After Pericless death, Thucydides shows us the worst that democracy
can do but also imagines (I believe a fictive) worthy successor to the great
luminary, Diodotus, balancing the evil and the good possibilities of democ-
racy on a razors edge.
That democracy, at any rate, is the question at hand in the Mytilenian
Debate is made clear at the very outset of Cleons remarks: Personally I have
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Representati ons 74
had occasion often enough already to observe that a democracy is incapable
of governing others, and I am all the more convinced of this when I see how
you are now changing your minds about the Mytilenians (3.36).
[Cleon] speaks as Callicles is made to speak in Platos Gorgias.
Callicles is
the very parody of a democrat, so Thucydidess discourseif Cleon is to be
taken as a democrat toocould be read (and has been) as an attack on
democracy, just as Platos is. This would seem to be borne out, moreover, by
the continuation of Cleons remarks:
Ordinary men usually manage public affairs better than their more gifted fellows.
The latter are always wanting to appear wiser than the laws, and to overrule every
proposition brought forward, thinking that they cannot show their wit in more
important matters, and by such behavior too often ruin their country; while those
who mistrust their own cleverness are content to be less learned than the laws, and
less able to pick holes in the speech of a good speaker; and being fair judges rather
than rival athletes, generally conduct affairs successfully. These we ought to imitate,
instead of being led on by cleverness and intellectual rivalry to advise the people
against our real opinions (3.36.35).
This would seem, on one reading, to be an argument for radical democ-
racy, and since Cleon is the most violent man of Athens, according to
Thucydides, the argument would constitute in fact a powerful indictment
of democracy. To make the point in slightly different words, Cleons appar-
ent praise of the decision-making powers of the simple folk would consti-
tute, on this reading, an attack on democracy, since this praise is in the
mouth of Cleon.
But, on another reading, Thucydides is not damning
democracy at all, for Cleon is no true democrat but literally a demagogue,
and it is quite explicitly demagoguery that is being condemned through his
praise of it, not democracy.
Democracy, in the Periclean sense, requires
intelligent, trained expert speakers to argue for different positions between
which the people will decide, exactly that which Diodotus praises here,
while Cleon condemns it. Indeed, Cleons attack on the rhetors is redolent
of nothing so much as Platos attack on them, so in this sense Cleon is no
Callicles at all but almost Socratic in his assault on the ethics of rhetors. It is
made clear in the immediate sequel that Cleons case is not for rational per-
suasion (indeed it is the opposite) but for demagoguery. He is made to
openly claim the virtue of acting in haste and in the heat of first anger and
not of rational reconsideration. His argument, moreover, is pursued in the
form of an attack on the sophists: I wonder also who will be the man who
will maintain the contrary. . . . Such a man must plainly either have such
confidence in his rhetoric as to attempt to prove that what has been once
for all decided is still undermined, or be bribed to try to delude us by elabo-
rate sophistic arguments (3.38).
Socrates-like, Cleon is the one who por-
trays democratic debate as if it were a mere gymnastic competition or a
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Deadly Dialogue: Thucydides with Plato 75
contest of rhetoricians or tragedians. His argument for the virtues of stupid-
ity (not being clever) and never changing decisions once made is, in fact,
an argument for the superiority of Sparta, the oligarchy, over Athens, the
democracy. It is Sparta, whose traditional and primitive constitutional fea-
tures became a symbol of what was politically natural for Socratics like
Antisthenes and for some of the Cynics. Even Platos Republic, in outlining a
constitution that would be more true to nature and therefore essentially
true, introduces adaptations of Spartan customs.
It is worth remarking
that Socrates in the Protagoras is made to give a discourse praising the Lace-
daemonians for their laconic speech, a discourse in which, the two coun-
tries [Sparta and Crete] most renowned for their adherence to traditional
ways and their doctrinaire regimentation are accorded supreme honors for
their achievements in the liberalizing field of philosophy. To be sure, on my
take, philosophy (in the Platonic sense) is hardly liberalizing, so neither
Socratess nor Cleons upholding of the Lacedaemonians is surprising, but it
is significant: Socrates seems intent on depriving Athens of all her most
cherished accomplishments and ascribing them to Lacedaemon, her fiercest
Fascinatingly, in contrast to the usual charge that it is the Athenian
sophists (or rather foreign sophists in Athens) who hide their true viewsas
reflected in Cleons remark just quotedSocrates praises the invented Lace-
daemonian sophists for hiding their true opinions and wisdom.
this must remain in the category of hermeneutic leap of faith, I would ascribe
to Cleons apotheosizing of the Spartans here the same antidemocratic spirit
that animates Socratess.
Cleon declares, I therefore now as before persist against your reversing
your first decision, or giving way to the three failings most fatal to empire
pity, sentiment, and indulgence (3.40.2).
It is the second term in this list
that needs discussion, for the translation sentiment hardly seems to cap-
ture the sense of the Greek
(hedon log n). Simon Hornblowers rendition,
the charm of wordsone might even suggest the pleasure of speech
seems much closer to the sense.
It seems clear that the question of rhetoric
is centrally on the table in this debate. Although Cleon was surely one of the
most effective of rhetors in Athens at the time, Thucydides takes pains to
make him here the opponent of the democratic process of suasion through
argument. He is the most violent man in Athens and the one who exer-
cised the greatest influence over the people in this time (3.36.6).
ides is showing us herenot telling usof what might consist a possible
distinction between Cleon the demagogue, whose speech is violent, and a
sort of parody of Pericles and true democrat, the invented (I feel quite sure
of this) Diodotus, who is the true successor to Pericles.
Diodotus answers this with a spirited defenseof rhetors and of logoi,
speech-making in the deliberation of action:
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Representati ons 76
I do not blame those who have proposed a new debate on the subject of Mytilene,
and I do not share the view which we have heard expressed, that it is a bad thing to
have frequent discussions on matters of importance. Haste and anger are, to my
mind, the two greatest obstacles to wise counselhaste, that usually goes with folly,
anger, that is the mark of primitive and narrow minds. (3.42.1)
This, of course, is a direct refutation of Cleons attack on democratic reason,
as Cleon had insisted that words, speeches, only confuse and that the assem-
bly should decide in the heat of emotion and anger and then maintain that
decision unwaveringly. It echoes, moreover, Pericless own praise of debate
and deliberation in the Funeral Oration. As Harvey Yunis has put it, By
seeking to rid the political forum of personal ambition and to restore merit
and public-spiritedness as its fundamental values, Diodotus echoes the meri-
tocracy of the funeral oration.

Diodotus has more to say:
And anyone who maintains that words cannot be a guide to action must be either a
fool or one with some personal interest at stake; he is a fool, if he imagines that it is
possible to deal with the uncertainties of the future by any other medium, and he is
personally interested if his aim is to persuade you into some disgraceful action,
and, knowing that he cannot make a good speech in a bad cause, he tries to frighten
his opponents and his hearers by some good sized pieces of misrepresentation.
Then still more intolerable are those who go further and accuse a speaker of mak-
ing a kind of exhibition of himself, because he is paid for it. (3.42.12)
Diodotus then gives a spirited defense of rhetors, to argue strongly against
the punishing of unsuccessful ones, and especially to decry the practice of
accusing rhetors of acting out of self-interest and desire for monetary gain,
precisely, of course, the main tenets of Socratess attack on sophist rhetors.
Rhetors who are so treated, argues Diodotus, cannot serve the polis well and
are, indeed, almost forced into lying, but the implication is clear: rhetors
who will be well and fairly treated will provide an enormous service to Ath-
ens via the democracy. Diodotuss speech might be taken as a rebuttal of the
arguments of Megabyzus in Herodotuss fictive discussion on the virtues of
various forms of government (3.81.2). This antidemocratic figure argues
that the dm os lacks all political intelligence either from within or without
and cannot deliberate or make rational choices at all. Yunis shows how the
herald in Euripidess The Suppliants (41722) makes essentially the same
charge, namely that the dm os cannot properly assess the speeches of the
rht ores.
And it is effectively this argument too that Socrates makes in the
Protagoras when he insists that no one else should judge between them. Inso-
far, then, as Cleon attacks rhetors and rhetoric and Diodotus defends both,
and if it be granted that Diodotus is the hero of the Mytilenian Debate,
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Deadly Dialogue: Thucydides with Plato 77
then it follows that Thucydides is mounting here a strong defense (if not a
univocal one) of rhetoric, debate, and thus of democratic process as opposed
to the essential undemocracy of the dialogue, Melian or otherwise.
One point needs to be made clear here, since there has been some con-
fusion in the literature. For instance, Proctor has written, At Melos the
reader is to see the uncompromising intellectuality by which Diodotus saved
Mytilene serving the same vindictive ends as the emotionalism of Cleon.
This is simply not the case. In fact, Diodotuss version of an argument from
self-interest, namely, that it is in our self interest to behave decently because
some day the shoe may be on the other foot, matches perfectly the argu-
ment that the Melians offer to the Athenians as to their (the Athenians) self
interest, while the argument that the Athenians force down their throats
uncannily echoes Cleons arguments in the Mytilenian Debate. The self-
interest proposed by Diodotus and the Melians is a matter far different from
(and finer than) the justice of vengeance proposed by Cleon. Far, then,
from the Melian Dialogue being read as a cynical condemnation of Diodo-
tuss argument, it should be read, as Ive proposed, as a condemnation of the
implicit might-makes-right practice of the so-called dialogue.
Diodotuss argument in defense of democratic debate seems quite like
that of Pericles in the Funeral Oration:
Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our
ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges
of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, we regard the citizen who takes no
part in these duties not as unambitious [apragmona] but as useless, and we are able
to judge proposals even if we cannot originate them; instead of looking at discus-
sion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable prelimi-
nary to any wise action at all (2.40).
Thomas Hobbes wittily translated this phrase as follows: For we only
think one that is utterly ignorant therein, to be a man not that meddles
with nothing, but that is good for nothing.
The point, in any transla-
tion, is that what in other places is a compliment, to be , is not
so at Athens, where to be uninvolved in political life is to be deemed use-
less. Perhaps better would be to say that the adjective is still a compliment,
even at Athens, but would not be applied there to one who is ignorant
and uninvolved in public affairs.
The essence of Athenian democracy
hangs here, on the ability of the Athenian citizens who are not experts
and not even adepts in political tekhn to nevertheless hear and under-
stand speeches about justice and to make just decisions on that basis. We
see better now why this issue will be such a fraught one for Plato, reap-
pearing as we have seen in the Protagoras in the discussion of taking on of
a referee. Thucydides palpably supports the practice of free discussion of
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Representati ons 78
all citizens, in the form of their listening to speeches by experts who
make proposals and counter-proposals and then make their decisions on
the merits of those proposals. He is certainly no knee-jerk antidemocrat,
in the mold of Plato, that old oligarch. Cleon, by appearing as a democrat,
while systematically attacking the fundamental and crucial practice of the
democracy, deliberative rhetoric, thus reveals himself to be a hypocritical
demagogue and no democrat at all.
Now it is very clear that Cleon is the representative of extreme imperial-
ism in this debate and he is the antidemocratic voice. He does not believe
that deliberative speech can truly and honestly affect decisions; for him it is
only a matter of contests of skill on the order of athletic contests. He draws
the same ratio between the speech of the assembly and the law courts and
that of rhetorical contests as does Socrates in the Symposium: As for the
speech-makers who give such pleasure by their arguments, they should hold
their competitions on subjects which are less important, and not on a ques-
tion where the state may have to pay a heavy penalty for its light pleasure,
while the speakers themselves will no doubt be enjoying splendid rewards
for their splendid arguments.Cleons antidemocracy goes, then, hand in
hand with his extreme imperialist position.
On the other hand, Diodotuss speech, as we have seen, also immediately
thematizes a prodemocracy stance. The strong defender of democracy is the
moderate (true Periclean) imperialist and the explicit defender of rhetors/
sophists from the usual charges against them. Cleon attacks rhetoric, but
Diodotus defends it, and on nearly precisely the terms of Pericless own
account of it in the Funeral Oration. When Thucydides has Diodotus win
this debate, as he certainly does, he is putting in a qualified, ambivalent, but
nonetheless undeniable vote for democracy. It is not only that the form of
the discourse, debate, and the juxtaposition of speeches is the very metier of
democracy and that it prevails here in achieving a just result but also that the
explicit defender of democratic process of debate and decision making by
the dm os is the one who has prevailed in this encounter.
Note, as well, that
Diototus, in his last sentences, is invoking (once again, proleptically speak-
ing) some of the topoi of Platos attacks on rhetoric, suggesting that those
attacks were, indeed, current at least by the time of Thucydidess writing. If,
as Rankin has put it, like a Socratic dialogue, this confrontation informs us
about the medium as well as the subject matter of the discussion, then the
message of this medium is that democracy works, at least sometimes even in
the presence of a Cleon.
For if the conclusion of the Melian Dialogue is a
moral (and historical) disaster in Thucydidess eyes, the conclusion of the
Mytilenian Debate is just as surely a desirable result.
While it has not infrequently been noted in the literature that Cleon
expresses political opinions that are similar to Pericless, in his disdain for
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Deadly Dialogue: Thucydides with Plato 79
deliberation he is the opposite of that hero, while Diodotus is made the true
successor of Pericles in his views on deliberation and rhetoric in a democ-
racy. Yunis has noted the strong support for democracy entailed by Diodo-
tuss speech, but he does not take it quite seriously: Aside from Diodotus
one speech there are no further traces in Thucydides of the Diodotean con-
ception of democratic deliberation. Having forcefully articulated that con-
ception once, perhaps for the sake of giving an interesting idea its due,
Thucydides apparently had no further use for it.
I suggest instead that
Diodotuss speech and its outcome are not simply a jeu desprit on Thucyd-
idess part but a strong hermeneutical key to his view of democracy at its
best, which is, or can be, for him, politics at its best. Its best, however, after
Pericles was not too frequent or even very good. Given how unattested,
almost uniquely so, Diodotus is outside of Thucydides, and even there out-
side of this one incident, one might even suspect that Diodotus was made
up to indicate what a proper successor to Pericles might have looked like, a
true democrat, not a false one like Cleon.
A true democrat is one who also
can criticize, educate, and improve the dm os, not mislead them by flattery;
the latter is the definition of a demagogue, not a democrat. At the same
time, we must, however, note carefully that Thucydides hardly idealizes
democracy, even at, as it were, its best. He is deeply aware of the flaws of the
Athenian democracy even as he is, on my view and according to my argu-
ment, defending it against oligarchy and its alleged companion, dialectic.
The right position even here only wins by a slim majority, and elsewhere
throughout the history democratic decision-making brings disaster, most
notably in the decision to invade Sicily, the very hybris that brings Athens
down in the end. There is a tragic dimension to rhetoric (and thus to democ-
racy) of which Thucydides is always aware in his total refusal to compromise
his clear sight, to be seduced by any solutions at all.
Although, to be sure, I am arguing that Thucydides sides with the sophists
in his defense of rhetoric as the very stuff of democracy, at the same time,
there is a dark side to Athenian democracy itself, namely, its passion for power
over others, its imperialism. Reading Thucydides carefully, one finds this
destructive passion at the very site and heart of the democracy itself. Tim Whit-
marsh has made this point well, arguing that Thucydides presents Pericles as
publicly praising Athens as an education [paideusis] for Greece (
, Thuc. 2.41.1), but then in a footnote remarks, Thucydides does
not, however, silence the alternative, and less flattering, descriptions of Athe-
nian hegemony as a tyranny or an enslavement.
That complexity of think-
ing is Thucydidess hallmark, but even more: it represents in my view nothing
less than the organizing and motivating ideational base of the entire History.
Thucydides, I argue, appalled by philosophical dialogue and realizing its
inherent and almost inevitable inability to represent different views, found
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Representati ons 80
another way to write a richly, authentically dialogical text. In the very dialogue
of genres, debate versus philosophical dialogue, the great historian found his
way to write a history that, while not in any fashion disengaged, disinterested,
or objective, nonetheless was adequate to the task of presenting, in its own
form, the different sides of the Athenian debate on democracy.
Not es
I would like to thank the following readers of various earlier versions of this argu-
ment over the six or seven years of its gestation: Carlin Barton, Erich Gruen, A. A.
Long, and Andrea Nightingale, who all nurtured it with tough love. I would thank
as well readers for TAPA and Historia who just hated it, and the much more help-
ful, yet critical, readers of the Representations board, and especially David Henkin.
Finally a seminar with the students of Rhetoric 200 at Berkeley on (literally) the
eve of the conclusion of this paper was very salutary for some final nuancing.
1. Richard McKeon, Greek Dialectics: Dialectic and Dialogue, Dialectic and
Rhetoric, in Dialectics, ed. Cham Perelman (The Hague, 1975), 2.
2. Although strictly speaking sophists and rhetors are two different professions,
the one teachers of the skill of persuasion by speechmaking, the others politi-
cians, precisely since the alleged sin of the sophists is that they teach the rhetors
to seek to persuade without regard for the truth and of the rhetors that they do
indeed, do that, the close association of the two as virtually one group seems
not far-fetched to me at all. This does not mean, as Andrea Nightingale has
pointed out to me, that all sophists were democrats. Protagoras himself is
hardly a perfect democrat; the point is rather that, on my somewhat controver-
sial view, Plato uses interlocutions with sophists as in the Protagoras and the Gor-
gias as well (where Socrates refuses to allow the bringing in of outside witnesses)
to figure the democratic speech situation in which rhetors speak and others
judge the persuasiveness of their claims.
3. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, On Thucydides; English Translation, Based on the Greek
Text of Usener-Radermacher, with Commentary, trans. W. Kendrick Pritchett (Berke-
ley, 1975).
4. H. LL. Hudson-Williams, Conventional Forms of Debate and the Melian Dia-
logue, American Journal of Philology 71, no. 2 (1950): 164.
5. Hudson-Williams, Conventional, 164.
6. Contra, e.g., Georg Deininger, Der Melier-Dialog/Georg Deininger, bound with Das
Programm Des Thukydides/August Grosskinsky (1938; reprint, New York, 1987),
13839. The Deininger is a 1939 dissertation.
7. Felix Martin Wassermann, The Melian Dialogue, Transactions and Proceedings
of the American Philological Association 78 (1947): 20.
8. Hudson-Williams, Conventional, 167.
9. For intimations of the politics of public vs. private in Socratic speech, see Allan
David Bloom, The Ladder of Love, in Platos Symposium trans. Seth Benardete
(Chicago, 2001), 122.
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Deadly Dialogue: Thucydides with Plato 81
10. Andrea Wilson Nightingale, Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philoso-
phy (Cambridge, 1995), 9.
11. Harold Barrett, The Sophists: Rhetoric, Democracy, and Platos Idea of Sophistry
(Novato, CA, 1987), 62.
12. Daniel Boyarin, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (Chicago, 2009), 281318.
13. For the nuances of this claim, see ibid., 3235.
14. Ibid., 33132.
15. See John Beversluis, Cross-Examining Socrates: A Defense of the Interlocutors in Pla-
tos Early Dialogues (Cambridge, 2000), as well as my own arguments as cited
earlier and esp. Boyarin, Socrates, 28283. In the book I have argued, however,
for a double voicing of Plato between the serious and comic, indeed for a kind
of Menippean effect; Boyarin, Socrates, 81132, 31943. If there be multivocality
in Plato (and I believe there is), it is to be found here in this second accent
and not in the pseudo-dialogues between Socrates and the sophists, contra
such readers as Francisco Gonzalez, who, in the name of vaunting Platos dia-
logicality only end up inscribing the absolute and invidious opposition of phi-
losophy to rhetoric even more strongly; Francisco J. Gonzalez, Giving Thought
to the Good Together: Virtue in Platos Protagoras, in Retracing the Platonic Text,
ed. John Russon and John Sallis (Evanston, IL, 2000), 11354, and see discus-
sion in Boyarin, Socrates, 34550. The voice of internal critique via narrative
that I have identified does not vitiate the point that the dominant accent of the
Platonic texts is vigorous propaganda for dialectic as the only way to Truth and
the disparagement of rhetoric as specious and only self-serving. The argument
here, thus, neither stands nor falls on the considerations offered there but the
discussion there may temper the impression of hutzpa vis--vis Plato that my
rhetoric here would otherwise indicate.
16. Plato, Protagoras (334ac), in Plato, Protagoras, rev. ed., trans. with notes by
C. C. W. Taylor (Oxford, 1991). All citations are to this edition.
17. Boyarin, Socrates, 31213.
18. , ;
. For a brilliant account
of the role of this false modesty in Socratic discourse, see Ramona Naddaff,
Exiling the Poets: The Production of Censorship in Platos Republic (Chicago, 2002),
5556. As Melissa Lane, The Evolution of Eirneia in Classical Greek Texts:
Why Socratic Eirneia Is Not Socratic Irony, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philoso-
phy 31 (2006): 4983, has compellingly shown, this has nothing to do, however,
with the term eirn eia, as used in Platos own texts.
19. Socratess generous offer to let Protagoras be the questioner in the first
round hardly changes this point: Everyone agreed that that was what we
should do. Protagoras was altogether unwilling, but none the less he was
obliged to agree to put the questions, and when he had asked sufficient, to sub-
mit to questioning in his turn and give short replies (338ce), anything, that
is, but to do that which he wants to do: present his ideas in a reasoned and well-
formed speech! It is remarkable the way some interpreters gloss over this com-
pulsion of Protagoras: It is agreed to proceed by question and answer, with
Protagoras questioning first; Plato, Protagoras, 135. Even more telling, in my
opinion, is the fact that Taylor, in his expansive commentary, has almost noth-
ing more to say on the topic of this clearly highly fraught contestation between
speeches and dialectic.
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Representati ons 82
20. Cf. Josiah Ober on the old oligarch: Democracy is thus marked for
Ps.-Xenophon by the hegemonic political authority of those who are necessar-
ily inferior, both morally and culturally, over their betters; Political Dissent in
Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule (Princeton, 1998), 17.
21. Patrick Coby, Socrates and the Sophistic Enlightenment: A Commentary on Platos Pro-
tagoras (Lewisburg, PA, 1987), 97.
22. Barrett, Sophists, 5960.
23. Ibid., 6062.
24. The irony of the situation [a Socratic irony indeed] lies in the fact that what
apparently is a free discussion, in reality is a thinly disguised ultimatum, as the
Melians point out from the very beginning (5.86); Wassermann, The Melian
Dialogue, 20.
25. It was Francis Cornford who early on and most clearly delineated the tragic
structure of Thucydidess narrative, with the Melian Dialogue placed just
before the Sicilian Expedition not so much for reasons of chronology as to
indicate the consequences of the hybris. Francis Macdonald Cornford, Thucyd-
ides Mythistoricus (London, 1907), x.
26. Louise M. Mead, The Troades of Euripides, Greece & Rome 8, no. 23 (Febru-
ary 1939): 102.
27. P. G. Maxwell-Stuart, The Dramatic Poets and the Expedition to Sicily, Histo-
ria 22 (1973): 39899. Maxwell-Stuart seems to imply that this interpretation
supersedes the reading of the play as being a response to the Melian massacre,
but I would suggest it deepens it and complements it instead.
28. George Kennedy, A New History of Classical Rhetoric (Princeton, 1994), 23.
29. Dennis Proctor, The Experience of Thucydides (Warminster, Wilts, UK, 1980), 88.
30. H. D. Rankin, Thucydides: Sophistic Method and Historical Research, in
Sophists, Socratics, and Cynics (London, 1983), 116.
31. Ibid.,121.
32. Since, as pointed out by Ober, Political Dissent, 96, there is meta-rhetoric in
the Mytilenian Debate, it is hard to ignore the ways that Thucydides is thema-
tizing the forms of speech in these passages.
33. As realized clearly by Wassermann, The Melian Dialogue, 2021: Why, then
does Thucydides have his Athenians suggest a discussion at all? The very fact
that it has no external results and cannot have any, makes the general issue
behind the particular case stand out more clearly. For Wassermann it is two
political philosophies that are at issue, while for me it is the question of dia-
logue itself, but he has clearly seen how the artificiality of the speech situation
forces us to interpret it. On Wassermanns account, precisely the question that
he himself raised of why this is a dialogue and not a pair of opposed speeches
remains unanswered, for if one of the main purposes of the Melian Dialogue
is to make clear that both sides have a point (21), then a pair of speeches
would have done as well. Even more, as we have seen, in fact the form of dialec-
tical dialogue is spectacularly unsuited for such purposes. All that said, I find
Wassermanns account of the dialogue as a conflict between an older Hellenic
order and a newer one persuasive, only disagreeing as to Thucydidess affect
toward that conflict and its impact on the text.
34. Indeed the argument could be made, although perhaps it would be over-
reading, that it is precisely the Melian commitment to oligarchy that brings
their downfall.
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Deadly Dialogue: Thucydides with Plato 83
35. It is a masterpiece of Thucydides presentation of the dynamic and dangerous
energy of his people in the field of the and of the , that the zeal to
convince which they reveal in the Dialogue turns into ruthless suppression of
actual resistance; Wassermann, The Melian Dialogue, 35.
36. I make this obvious point, since it does not seem obvious to everyone. See cita-
tions in James V. Morrison, Historical Lessons in the Melian Episode, Transac-
tions of the American Philological Association (1974) 130 (2000): 12122, some of
which scholars consider the Athenians as humanitarian here, because they
engaged the Melians in dialogue before killing them.
37. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (5.85), in The Landmark Thucydides: A Com-
prehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, ed. Robert B. Strassler, intro. Victor
Davis Hanson, trans. Richard Crawley (New York, 1996), 351.
38. Reginald E. Allen, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Gorgias, Menexenus, vol. 1 of
The Dialogues of Plato, trans. Reginald E. Allen (New Haven, 1984), 246 [transla-
tion slightly modified from Allens].
39. The claims anent Socrates have been argued at length in Boyarin, Socrates and
the Fat Rabbis.
40. Thucydides, Landmark, 352.
41. Ibid.
42. Ibid.
43. See a related point in Maurice Pope, Thucydides on Democracy, Historia 37
(1988): 287n28.
44. Barrett, Sophists, 60. It should be stated that T. H. Irwin, Coercion and Objec-
tivity in Platos Dialectic, Rvue Internationale de Philosophie 40 (1986): 4974, is
largely an attempt to show that in the Gorgias Plato partly corrects for defects in
the earlier elenctic method that render it coercive, but even Irwin (7273) is
not entirely sure of his success in this enterprise. In any case, whatever Irwins
conclusions about the possibility of a noncoercive dialectic might be, it seems
clear that in practice Socratic speech was coercive and criticized as such by dem-
ocrats (Callicles!), and that is what is crucial for my argument here.
45. For a detailed examination of the actual text, see Boyarin, Socrates, 7278.
46. Jacqueline de Romilly, Thucydides and Athenian Imperialism, trans. Philip Thody
(Oxford, 1963), 93n2.
47. Moreover, the obvious inference from this contrast directly contradicts Romil-
lys own argument in Jacqueline de Romilly, La Condamnation du plaisir dans
louevre de Thucydide, Wiener Studien (1966): 14248, and see Ober, Political
Dissent, 60n18.
48. Cleon in the Mytilenian Debate is perhaps the parade example. See too John
Finley, The Unity of Thucydides History, in Three Essays on Thucydides (Cam-
bridge, MA, 1967), 15455. For Gorgias, see Boyarin, Socrates, 93103.
49. For the Protagorean Antilogoi, see Hermann Diels and Walther Kranz, Die Frag-
mente der Vorsokratiker, Griechisch und Deutsch (Zrich, 1966), 80 A1, B56. For
Protagorean influence on Euripides in this regard, see John Finley, Euripides
and Thucydides, in Three Essays on Thucydides, 15.
50. Thucydides, Landmark, 15.
51. Rankin, Thucydides, 105. For more on connections between Thucydides and
the Sophists, see John H. Finley, Three Essays on Thucydides, 154.
52. Romilly, Thucydides, 15960.
53. Ibid., 160.
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Representati ons 84
54. The point has been partially anticipated, however, by Harvey Yunis, Taming Democ-
racy: Models of Political Rhetoric in Classical Athens (Ithaca, NY, 1996), 9394, who also
does well in my opinion in emphasizing Thucydidess Protagorean connections.
55. Thucydides, Landmark, 176.
56. Rankin, Thucydides, 106.
57. Thucydides, Landmark, 176. It is fascinating to note how similar Cleons notes
here are to those of Strepsiades in The Clouds. But thento his creditIve not
been able to quite figure out whose side Aristophanes is on, anyway. The Clouds
is usually taken as an indictment of Socrates (or the Sophists) but Strepsiades
seems hardly a hero either.
58. Cf. Daphne Elizabeth ORegan, Rhetoric, Comedy, and the Violence of Language in
Aristophanes Clouds (New York, 1992), 11:
Increasing prominence of speech and rhetorical technique and theory was matched
by increasing controversy about the nature of logos and the significance of its use. The year
after the death of Pericles (428) saw the beginnings of Cleons ascendency and the Mytile-
nian debate. Thucydides presentation makes this a forum for a new negative analysis of
the power of logos and its speakers that invites his readers to meditate upon how far Ath-
ens had already fallen from the ideal articulated in Pericles funeral oration. There, Peri-
cles made faith in and commitment to speech and discussion one of the distinguishing
features of his idealized Athens. Thucydides Cleon represents the new perversion of this
ideal. Described as the most violent of the citizens, and by far the most persuasive to the
demos, Cleon is dedicated to logos only insofar as it helps him maintain his position. His
continuous rhetorical thundering reflects no respect for others, no belief in discussion,
and no commitment to the tongue rather than the hand, in short, no understanding of
the special role of logos in human relationships or in the maintenance of the polis. His
views reflect this, for to support his previously enacted decree, Cleon attacks the prized
Athenian debate as a sham, singling out in particular the new sophistic rhetoric. Its speak-
ers, delighted with their own cleverness, use and abuse the power of words for not public
but private ends. Its listeners have similar motives: pleasure in judging rhetorical skill and
appearing fashionably familiar with the latest techniques. As all try to maximize personal
benefit, the city is lost. The best city is not one where everyone speaks, but where the laws
rule in silence. Logos itself is undermining the democratic polis.
ORegan sees only one side to this debate, for clearlyat least in my view
Diodotus represents the other side of a debate on logos.
59. See also Harvey Yunis who writes, Cleon, however, facing a dm os who have
experienced nothing more serious than a desire to reconsider, contravenes
Pericles: he repudiates reconsideration altogether by denying the utility of
democratic deliberation, Taming, 89.
60. Thucydides, Landmark, 177.
61. Rankin, Thucydides, 107.
62. Both cites are from Coby, Socrates, 106.
63. For all too rare exceptions, see Rankin, Thucydides, 108; Ober, Political Dis-
sent, 98.
64. Thucydides, Landmark, 178.
65. Simon Hornblower, A Commentary on Thucydides: Volume I: Books IIII, (reprint;
Oxford, 2003), 431. See also Reginald Winnington-Ingram, Ta Deonta Eipein:
Cleon and Diodotus, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 12 (1965): 7082.
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Deadly Dialogue: Thucydides with Plato 85
66. Thucydides, Landmark, 176. For discussion of the correct translation, see Horn-
blower, Commentary, 420.
67. Yunis, Taming, 94. I thus find it very difficult to accept Obers thesis, as carefully
argued as it is (Ober, Political Dissent, 7879), that Thucydides promotes the
critique of democratic knowledge spoken by Cleon. That being the case, why
would Thucydides have put this critique into the mouth of Cleon, the most
violent man in Athens (Thucydides speaking in propria persona) and in the
mouths of the Athenians engaged in their horrifying project of exterminating
the Melians, while the opposing view to the effect that the Athenians are com-
petent to judge between competing speeches and make decisions (surely not
always wise ones, but that can hardly be the criterion for any system of govern-
ment) is placed in the mouths of Pericles and Diodotus?
68. Thucydides, Landmark, 179. Contra Ober (Political Dissent, 99), I dont think
that Diodotus willfully embraces the well-known Cretan Liar paradox here.
He doesnt say that all rhetors are engaged only in their own self-interest but
something quite different; rhetors who argue against rhetoric are either fools
or liars, not rhetors who argue in favor of rhetoric. See Yunis, Taming, 99101,
with whom I tend to agree on this question.
69. For discussion of these texts, see Yunis, Taming, 4043.
70. Proctor, Experience, 93.
71. Thucydides, Landmark, 113. This seems, moreover, to have been a commonly
held account of democracy, namely that what citizens do best is judging. See
on this point Pope, Thucydides, 285: a glimpse here into a fifth century
democrats handbook. Note how thoroughly Plato attacks this notion in the
Protagoras, as well as in the Symposium. Aristotle, on the other hand, fully appro-
bates it; cf. Politics 3.11.12 (1281b). For a sense of how widespread this topos
is, note that it comes up again the famous speech of Athenagoras in Thucyd-
ides 6.39.1, and see discussion in A. H. M. Jones, Athenian Democracy (Baltimore,
1986), 5455.
72. Cited in A. W. Gomme, Antony Andrewes, and Kenneth James Dover, A Histori-
cal Commentary on Thucydides (Oxford, 194581), 2:121.
73. For further discussion of this point, see Hornblower, Commentary, 305.
74. It seems to me that the Mytilenian episode is, at least, a palpable exception to
Obers claim that in practice, the Athenian demos is depicted in Thucydides
text as tending to act selfishly in the narrow interest of the many, and as mak-
ing decisions on the basis of highly misleading speeches delivered by person-
ally selfish and self-interested parties; Ober, Political Dissent, 72. It is not entirely
clear where, in this episode, even Cleon is being condemned as being person-
ally selfish or self-interested, a fortiori Diodotus. Even Diodotuss argument is
realpolitisch for sure, as has often been observed, but in no sense is it a defense
of the interest of one Athenian group over others, still less of his own personal
interest, and the Athenians, far from being misled, vote the right way.
75. Rankin, Thucydides, 111.
76. Yunis, Taming, 96.
77. Cf., however, Hornblower, Thucydides (Baltimore, 1987), 53.
78. Tim Whitmarsh, Greek Literature and the Roman Empire: The Politics of Imitation,
2nd ed., (reprint; Oxford, 2004), 7.
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