Escaping the Melian Dialogue

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

Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Behold the true, primal, and ruthless nature of politics.

At the height of the Peloponnesian War, the ancient historian Thucydides recounts a dramatic encounter between Athens and Melos. The balance-of-power between these two city-states could not have been more lopsided. Athens was a great hegemonic power. She ruled a vast Mediterranean empire and commanded an indomitable navy. Melos was just a tiny island in the Aegina Sea that remained neutral while the rest of Greece was convulsed against each other.

In 416 BC an Athenian expedition was sent against Melos and the Athenians first attempted to negotiate. The Athenian terms were harsh: either become a subject of the empire and pay tribute or be destroyed. Faced with a desperate choice between fighting a hopeless war or slavery, the Melians appealed to logos hoping the refined and sophisticated Athenians would be persuaded to treat their fellow Greeks fairly.

In these negotiations, the Athenians did not waste any time with specious pretenses. They did not try to persuade the Melians into submission by recounting the obligation owed to Athens for defending the common liberty of Greece against Xerxes and the Persian menace just a few generations past. Instead, the Athenians were frank and proclaimed that since they were strong they will do what they want and since Melos was weak, they will suffer what they must.

The Melians refused to surrender and decided to leave their fate up to the gods and trust that others, like the Spartans, would come to their aid and provide deliverance. Alas, reinforcements never arrived. In the end, the Athenians executed all of the Melian men and enslaved their women and children.

Fast forward over two thousand years to 2021. After an incredibly turbulent presidential election, the relationship between the political Left and Right slightly mirrors that between Athens and Melos. The Left is today's cultural hegemon. They drive the prevailing narrative and dominate most established positions of power in American society: government bureaucracies, media, corporate board rooms, education, and more.

 The left is a fount of virtue, while the right is a deplorable trash heap.

The Right represents a declining cultural power. If conservatives occupy positions of influence they know it is in their best interest to just keep quiet. The right is always playing from behind, and wildly out of sync with the Republican party which makes achieving any significant sustainable political victory nearly impossible.

In the ensuing fallout from the Capitol Siege, we witnessed a coronation of the Left's hegemony over American society. In a matter of just two years, they have gone from de-platforming people like Alex Jones to censuring a sitting President of the United States. One day we are told that rioting is the language of the unheard but on the next, we are told similar scenes amount to insurrection. Some bad actors are given the noble rank of social justice warrior, while other bad actors are labeled domestic terrorists. Politicians on the left question election results because they are the valiant defenders of democracy, and politicians on the right question election results because they are seditious fascists.  

Cries of "hypocrisy" and "double standards" pour out from people on the Right in vain. The Right is not being treated fairly, but that should not come as a surprise. Such is the true, primal, and ruthless nature of politics. The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

The Left would be wise not to abuse their superior station. If they wield their power responsibly and treat their cultural inferiors with magnanimity and grace, there will be no alarm for concern. But power almost inevitably breeds arrogance. If the Left becomes a tyrant over those of their fellow citizens with whom they disagree, dark days lie ahead. From what we have seen from the Left up to this point, the Right should now brace themselves and prepare to suffer what is headed their way.

Fortunately for the people on the Right, they can find consolation in the fact that the strong are never the strongest forever. Melos tried to warn Athens of this point but to no avail:

'You should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right. 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 meditate upon.'

And meditate we shall:

In any relationship between human beings, whether among families, fellow citizens, or even nations, there is a common standard of justice and fairness that the weaker party will always appeal to. If the stronger party is responsible, they will recognize and uphold this standard in their dealings with the weaker party. If the stronger party abandons this standard, there will come a day when the tables are turned. The strong will inevitably lose their power, and as soon as they find themselves at the feet of a new superior they will appeal to that same standard of justice and fairness which they themselves had once abandoned.

As the story goes, the Athenians ignored this warning and Melos suffered total annihilation. Xenophon picked up where Thucydides left off and finished telling the story of the Peloponnesian War. 

In 405 BC Athens was decisively defeated by a cunning Spartan Strategos named Lysander at the Battle Aigospotamoi. After this victory, Lysander sailed directly into Athens, put an end to her Democracy, installed a new regime known as the Thirty Tyrants, and with great zeal dismantled the city's famed Long Walls to the accompaniment of flutes and songs.       

Xenophon writes:

It was night when [a messenger ship from the defeated fleet at Aigospotamoi] reached Athens with her evil tidings, on receipt of which a bitter wail of woe broke forth. From Piraeus, following the line of the long walls up to the heart of the city, it swept and swelled, as each man to his neighbour passed on the news. On that night no man slept. There was mourning and sorrow for those that were lost, but the lamentation for the dead was merged in even deeper sorrow for themselves, as they pictured the evils they were about to suffer, the like of which they themselves had inflicted upon the men of Melos.

The Athenians, finding themselves besieged by land and sea, were in sore perplexity what to do. Without ships, without allies, without provisions, the belief gained hold upon them that there was no way of escape. They must now, in their turn, suffer what they had themselves inflicted upon others.

In just ten years the arrogant Athenians fumbled their fate and found their fortune totally reversed.

The Melian Dialogue teaches us that power is like a pendulum. The strong may be powerful today, but they could find themselves at the mercy of someone else tomorrow. This swinging power-pendulum creates chaos in every kind of relationship, but particularly derails and frustrates the challenge of domestic politics. It is difficult to imagine how a society of people can stay united and keep from devouring one another if there is not sufficient virtue among them to confront the chaos of power politics.

The goal of the Galloway Institute is to escape the Melian Dialogue and rescue our politics from the dangerous power games the Left and Right have already carried us into. 

Politics is not a battle against your fellow citizens, but a battle against time. We do not win by means of imposing our will upon each other whenever fortune places us in a position of strength. We achieve victory in politics by staying united as one people and standing firm against the unrelenting vicissitudes of time

The chaos of power politics is lurking at our door. It will come after and annihilate us, just as Melos, just as Athens, and just as every other civilization that has opened this door and pursued this perilous path. We can be destroyed by chaos, or confront it with the help of a new and unifying political narrative.