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In which John discusses The Melian Dialogue, a story of Ancient Greece, the Peloponnesian War, the city-state of Athens, the island of Melos, Thucydides, and 21st century human life.

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Good morning, Hank. It’s Tuesday. I’ve been thinking a lot about this famous moment in history called the Melian Dialogue. It happened around 2,400 years ago in Ancient Greece.

     The story stars the city of Athens, which is widely credited with giving us so many of our ideas about democracy and freedom. And Athens in the 5th Century B.C.E. really was a remarkable place, not only because Plato and Socrates were living and philosophizing there: Sophocles was writing Antigone and Oedipus Rex as well as serving in elected office; Thucydides was revolutionizing the writing of history. In fact, the know about the Melian Dialogue primarily because of him.

     So Athens was fifteen years into the Peloponnesian War, which was fought against their great enemy, the Spartans. And the island of Melos, which is about 110 miles off the coast of mainland Greece, was neutral in the war. The Melians were closely related to the Spartans but they didn’t fight with them.

     And then, in 416 B.C.E., the Athenians sent 38 ships with 3,000 soldiers to capture the island of Milos or else force the Melians to pay tribute.

     The Melians were like: “Hey! It’s not moral to attack a people who are neutral, who pose no threat to you. You’re Athens! the school of Greece, the cradle of justice!” And according to Thucydides, the Athenians replied:

      “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

     After a siege on their city, the Melians eventually surrendered and the Athenians murdered all of the men of Milos and sold all of the women and children into slavery.

     And that line—“the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”—has reverberated through history. Some argue that it’s the guiding principle of history, that the story of humans is powerful people doing whatever they can to increase and defend that power while powerless people suffer whatever they must.

     I think that’s an oversimplification; I don’t think that humans are merely power-seeking animals and I don’t think that you can understand the whole human story as seeing humans turning their faces to power the way that plants turn toward the sun.

     But around the world and across time we do find many, many examples of the powerful doing whatever they can and the weak suffering whatever they must. We see it in the experiences of refugee populations; we see children and vulnerable people are far more likely to be abused and mistreated; and we see diseases that disproportionately affect the poor receive less funding for treatment and research. I mean, 200,066 children under the age of 5 died of malaria last year: 200,066. Almost all of them were poor and on some level they didn’t actually die of malaria, which with more robust healthcare systems would usually be treatable. They died because the weak must suffer what they must.

     But again, I don’t think that needs to be the whole human story. Like, trying to become stronger and to make others weaker is not actually a very effective strategy, either personally or geopolitically. The Athenians, after all, lost the Peloponnesian War in the end.

     But more to the point, we know that other people suffering less does not mean that we will suffer more because human life is not a zero-sum game. In fact, when more people get the chance to live a healthy life and seek educational opportunities, life gets better for the strong as well as the weak because we have more potential innovators to solve our problems and because we are deeply interconnected and interdependent species.

     Like, 75 years ago the richest people in the world had no way to prevent themselves from getting measles. 150 years ago the most powerful people on earth had no air conditioning for their castles or cars to drive—or, probably to be driven in.

     All those changes happened in part because humans began to understand that more for me does not necessarily mean less for you. And I worry sometimes that we are forgetting those lessons, that we are instead embracing the Athenian worldview, which proved not only disastrous not only for the Melians but also for the Athenians themselves.

     I think building norms and systems that protect the weak from the Geneva Conventions to child labor laws has helped make the world safer and more just for all of us.

     Obviously there is a lot left to do. But I think to do that work, we need to stand with the Melians of today’s world.

     Hank, I’ll see you on Friday.