We continued with the Peloponnesian War this week.
What happens to a war without precise, achievable objectives? Might we expect it to teeter back and forth, with varying actions and motives as time goes by? And how might this strategic instability impact Athens politically? Can its government remain stable if they fight a war rife with murky waters?
Perhaps because the war lacked clear goals, it began to take on a life of its own. Without a precise, achievable objective we might surmise that both sides got imaginative with their tactics. So we see the Athenians utilize light infantry, and the Spartans take drastic measures at sea with Athenian allies. As the tactics changed, so too did the targets, and eventually civilians inevitably got drawn into the conflict.
Quite possibly the changing tactics changed the war aims for both sides. What began apparently as a war over a fairly innocent political dispute become a war of annihilation. If neither side would ever back down, the war could end in only one way.
On Thursday we had a good discussion that grew out of out of our look at the rebellion against Athens in Mytilene. After crushing the uprising, the Athenians debated what to do with the city. Should they,
- Kill/enslave all of them — have it cease to exist. Mytilene was one of the privileged members of the Athenian alliance. They had their own navy, for example. Their rebellion threatened Athens’s whole system. If the ones you treat nicely rebel, what about the others? Furthermore, is this how they repay our kindness to them?
We cannot risk, argued Cleon, that this rebellion spreads. Mytilene controls the island of Lesbos, and most of the rest of the island stayed loyal to us. We must protect the innocent on the rest of the island by making sure we get all of the guilty.
- Kill only the leaders, argued Diodotus. Our prudence and clemency will pay dividends down the road. If we face another rebellion, after killing all in Mytilene, the ‘innocent’ will have choice but to join it, since if the rebellion failed, they would killed anyway. This will more, not less resistance to us in the future.
I think the divergent points of view boiled down to the question of the role of power and a good image in achieving security. Is power or a good reputation a better guarantee of security? In our discussion most everyone agreed that both play a role, but many differed on the priority each element should take.
In the end, the Athenians voted for Diodotus’s point of view. But they still executed about 1000 people without any legal proceeding whatever. We may cheer that the Athenians chose the “right” path, before we realize that they never considered other potentially more humane options, or at least more “legal” options. The temptation to abandon such things when fighting for your life would be tremendous. But it was an ominous sign of things to come. In the midst of our current conflict in the “War on Terror,” we too have to decide to what degree our system of checks and balances is non-negotiable, and if we can let certain things slide, when and under what conditions?
The title of this update refers to a famous chapter in Machiavelli’s The Prince. Machiavelli asks the question, and while he agrees that ideally a ruler can be both loved and feared, he understands that this can rarely happen. If you have to choose between the two, one should choose fear. Love is simply to fickle.
In many ways, I think Athens would have agreed.