The Melian Dialogue
from The Peloponnesian Wars by Thucydides

1. What is the situation? (Who, precisely, is meeting with whom? When?)

2. What deal do the Athenians offer the Melians?

3. Carefully consider the arguments which the Athenians use to persuade the Melians to surrender (and justify their own aggression) Then, consider how the Melians rebut the Athenian argument. Who wins the debate?

1. On Justice

Athenians: "...You know as well as we do that 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....

Melians: ...[All] we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is war, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, and in the contrary case, slavery.

2. On Mercy

Athenians: “…your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power.”   ie. Making friends with you rather than humiliating you would make us look weak and damage our prestige. Why?

Melians: How can you avoid making enemies of all existing neutrals who shall look at our case from it that one day or another you will attack them? And what is this but to make greater the enemies that you have already, and to force others to become so who would otherwise have never thought of it?”  ie Conquering neutral countries will, in the long run, make you less secure: Why?

3. On Dishonor

Athenians: There is no dishonor in surrendering to a more powerful enemy.

"[T]he contest not being an equal one, with honor as the prize and shame as the penalty, but a question of self-preservation and of not resisting those who are far stronger than you are.... you will not think it dishonorable to submit to the greatest city in Hellas, when it makes you the moderate offer of becoming its tributary ally, without ceasing to enjoy the country that belongs to you; nor when you have the choice given you between war and security, will you be so blinded as to choose the worse."  ie Truly, there is no honor in committing suicide, and opposing us would be suicidal.

Melians: “To submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect.”

3. On Hope

Athenians: "Hope, danger's comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colors only when they are ruined; but so long as the discovery would enable them to guard against it, it is never found wanting. Let not this be the case with you, who are weak and hang on a single turn of the scale; nor be like the vulgar, who, abandoning such security as human means may still afford, when visible hopes fail them in extremity, turn to invisible, to prophecies and oracles, and other such inventions that delude men with hopes to their destruction."
ie Hope is illogical because you face ruin. Do not wait to discover this truth too late. And those who place their hopes in the faith that the gods will act on their side are indulging in delusions.  

Melians: "You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against injustice."

4. On the Gods' Justice:

Athenians: "Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do. Thus, as far as the gods are concerned, we have no fear and no reason to fear that we shall be at a disadvantage."
ie Might makes right. That is the only justice. That is the gods’ law.

Melians: "Our resolution, Athenians, is the same as it was at first. We will not in a moment deprive of freedom a city that has been inhabited these seven hundred years; but we put our trust in the fortune by which the gods have preserved it until now, and in the help of men, that is, of the Lacedaemonians; and so we will try and save ourselves."

5. The Result:

“Reinforcements afterwards arriving from Athens in consequence, under the command of Philocrates, son of Demeas, the siege was now pressed vigorously; and some treachery taking place inside, the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.”