Thucydides’ written history of the Mytilenian Debate and the Melian Dialogue reflects the reality of a period where morality is dependent on the exercise of power and those who possess it. The main theme running through the course of these two debates is that those with the power to act as they wish inherently have the power to dictate morality. The arguments that decide the fate of the Mytilene are made not strictly on the basis of morality but on how their power allows them to exercise the moral course they choose. The Melian dialogue reveals how those in power can dictate morality in terms of self-interest. Both cases also demonstrate how morality is also a function of self-interest. The question of the relationship between power and morality also hinges on the definition of these two vague terms.
Morality, in the broader sense of moral order, has been defined as “a set of rules which define what is right and wrong.” (Outka and Reeder, p.5) Who decides what is right and wrong often depends, as with Thucydides’ history, on who has the power in a given situation. Power can broadly be defined, as the capacity to achieve what one wants. (Dickerson and Flanagan, p.24) In the case of these two debates, the Athenians were the party who possessed the power. They had the coercive ability to decide the fates of both the Melians and the Mytilenians. This power was derived strictly from the military might their empire was able to build up. In both cases, power allowed them to dictate morality to the inferior parties.
Thucydides’ history of the Mytilenian debate details the discussion of a council deciding on how to punish the citizens of Mytilene for a failed revolt. The two options on the table are to either slaughter all the inhabitants, as had been previously agreed upon, or to leave them without severe punishment. Cleon, the Athenian responsible of initially deciding to slaughter Mytilene, argued that it was necessary to take his brutal course of action for the safety of the empire. He stated succinctly that “leadership depends on superior strength and not on goodwill.” (Thucydides, p.213) He believed that killing the Mytilenians was a question of safety for the empire;
If you are going to give the same punishment to those who are forced to revolt by your enemies and those who do so of their own accord, can you not see that they will all revolt upon the slightest pretext, when success means freedom and failure brings no very dreadful consequences. (Thucydides, p.216)
In this statement, Cleon argues that Athens has a moral duty to put down this revolt in the harshest way. He makes it a moral argument because it is in the self-interest of Athens, and any state, to protect its citizens. It is their moral duty. The Mytilenians, in their own...