Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue is a seminal example of what can be termed to be a realist view of history. This is a view that focuses on specific material questions and interests, rather than attempting to think about history in terms of moral values and other overarching universal concepts. This paper will show that the Melian Dialogue demonstrates this throughout, as although the speakers behave according a code of honour, they are essentially self interested and do not act outside of their pragmatic aims.
This relationship between morality and self-interest is complex. The dialogue is introduced with the fact that the Melians are attempting to engage the Athenians in conversation in order to prevent themselves from being violently brought under their control. It is clear that although certain codes of decorum are present, both of the speakers are simply interested in practical matters. Throughout the dialogue between the Athenians and Melians, the latter make reference to a certain view of justice, however they do so from the perspective that this view serves a material purpose. Thucydides has them states that ‘in our view it is at any rate useful that you [the Athenians] should not destroy a principle that is to the general good of all men’ (Thucydides, 2015). This reasoning is then made clear to refer to something akin to justice. The Melians state that ‘in case of all who fall into danger there should be such a thing as fair play and just dealing, and that such people should be allowed to use and profit by arguments that fall short of mathematical accuracy’ (ibid).
In order to attempt to persuade the Athenians not to engage in war, the speaker appears to make an appeal to morality. However, this appeal is done so from the perspective that the morality itself serves a practical end. Therefore it can be argued that the dialogue shows a realist view in this by subordinating morality to objective interests. At another point in the dialogue, the Melian speaker again states that even if arguments regarding justice are inadequate the Athenians should be able to reason according to their own interests. Attacking the Melians further will only make other states hostile and will increase the number of enemies of the attackers. Thucydides writes; ‘Is it not certain that you will make enemies of all sates who are at present neutral, when they see what is happening here and naturally conclude that in course you will attack them too?’ (ibid). Once again, it is clear that morality is second to interest. Although the Athenians will appear just, this appearance has a manifest purpose and will aid them particular.
The tactics employed in this case are reminiscent of other writings on war and strategy, In particular, they can be compared to Sun Zu’s ‘The Art of War.’ In this work, the author places large emphasis on strategy and intelligence rather than simply force. At one point he writes that; ‘To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill’ (2009, 40). The most effective powers are those which are able to win according to diplomacy and to protect their interests without appealing to either morality to ideas of honour won in battle. This idea can be seen to be a realist view, similar to that expressed Thucydides. In the Melian dialogue, the Athenians are encouraged to win without fighting and to exercise their military strength by making sure that they do not need to engage in open warfare.
In conclusion, the Melian Dialogue can be seen to be realist as it emphasizes practical interests over and above overarching moral themes. Although morality is invoked, it is done so in rational way. In this sense the overall tone of the piece can be understood to be reminiscent of other realist works, such as those of Sun Zu.