The Mytilenean Dialogue From 428 B.C. Explains Who Really Won the Trump-Clinton Debate

Why Hillary won, but America lost.

GREECE - AUGUST 24: The Parthenon, front view, Acropolis of Athens (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1987), Greece. Greek civilisation, 5th century BC. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
GREECE - AUGUST 24: The Parthenon, front view, Acropolis of Athens (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1987), Greece. Greek civilisation, 5th century BC. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

During Monday night’s presidential debate, Hillary Clinton, eyes fixed on her audience, declared that “words matter” when spoken by political leaders. Some might dismiss this as a glib cliché, but it also reminds us that these debates matter greatly for well-functioning democracies. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who recounts — or, more likely, re-creates — in his History of the Peloponnesian War many celebrated debates between Athenian statesmen, would surely agree.

Unfortunately, there’s also good reason to believe that Thucydides would find Clinton’s performance as a cautionary tale, rather than a paean to democratic values. The Mytilenean Debate was a verbal duel that, in uncanny and unsettling ways, anticipated this week’s presidential clash and suggests that while Clinton won the debate, the loser might not just be Donald Trump but also America.

In 428 B.C., scarcely three years into its war against Sparta, Athens found itself in desperate straits. The war had lasted longer than anticipated; Athens’s powerful leader, Pericles, had perished in a plague sweeping the polis; and most disturbing, one of the city’s historic allies, Mytilene, had suddenly gone over to Sparta. (Both Athens and Mytilene belonged to the Delian League, a Greek rehearsal for NATO. Just as America dominates the latter, Athens was the heavy lifter in the former.) Though an Athenian fleet besieged and brought Mytilene to heel, anxiety was running high not only over this betrayal but also because a Spartan fleet, in a failed attempt to relieve the siege, managed to sail through Athenian waters unimpeded. Overwhelmed, the Athenians voted to have all adult male Mytileneans killed and their women and children sold into slavery. Upon wakening the next day, however, and discovering that a ship had already departed to execute the city’s order, some horrified Athenians demanded that the assembly reconsider its initial decision.

At this point, Cleon steps onto the stage of Athenian history. Inheriting the wealth of his father, who was a merchant, the ambitious Cleon parlayed it into a political career. Both Thucydides and the comic playwright Aristophanes portray Cleon as a bellicose buffoon who uses and abuses the demos, or people, to rise to power. Furious with the moral qualms expressed at the assembly, Cleon declares that the “empire is a tyranny exercised over subjects who do not like it.” If that isn’t to your taste, he thunders, “surrender your empire … [and] go in for philanthropy.” In the end, Athens’s security trumps justice: “A city is better off with bad laws, so long as they remain fixed, than with good laws that are constantly being altered.”

Speaking immediately after is Diodotus, who appears as calm and collected as Cleon was seething and strident. It is obvious that he has clearly prepared for this moment. The good citizen, he announces, ought to triumph not by frightening the people, “but by beating them fairly in argument.” But Diodotus, placed on the defensive by Cleon’s claim that national security requires brutal realism, shows a greater sense of realpolitik than Cleon. Forswearing idealism, Diodotus argues that the question of right and wrong, either in moral or legal terms, was irrelevant. Instead, the assembly must consider if the motion was to Athens’s advantage. Given the situation with Mytilene, he argues, there are no good choices, only lesser bad choices. Our national security, Diodotus affirms, is best guaranteed by showing leniency to the Mytileneans — not because we are Pollyannas, but because we are pragmatists. Showing mercy, he insists, is the only way to avoid future rebellions against Athens.

Swayed by Diodotus, the assembly sends a ship “in all haste” to overtake the earlier one sent on, in Thucydides’s words, a “distasteful mission.” Worthy of The Perils of Pauline, the second ship arrives just when the first ship is about to execute the assembly’s original order, thus sparing the lives of the Mytileneans. With a sigh of relief, the reader concludes that all’s well that ends well.

Or not. The debate between Cleon and Diodotus unfolds not just in the shadow of war but also in the shadow of Pericles. From 461 until his death in 429, Pericles enjoyed undisputed ascendancy. This dominance was due to Pericles’s oratorical brilliance and strategic genius but also to his large and liberal vision of democracy. In his celebrated funeral oration, Pericles underscored the ideals that all Athenians should strive, sacrifice, and die for. He glorified not just what Athens was, but what Athens could become, praising what the city had already done and all that it could do in the future. Dwelling on those Athenian traits that had made the city great, including its openness, tolerance, its ideal of equality, and sense of balance, Pericles declared that Athens served as an “education for all of Greece.”

In the end, the education offered by Athens — and told by Thucydides — was as tragic as the plays of Aeschylus. The harrowing brutality of the endless Peloponnesian War reached its nadir sometime after the Mytilenean Debate at Melos, a neutral city that, in 416, the Athenians devastated as a reminder to other Greek poleis that either you were a winner with Athens or a loser with Sparta. It was a massacre that Diodotus’s pragmatic logic had paved the way for. In a dialogue that precedes the siege, the Athenian commander makes clear to the Melians that the only matters he will discuss are expediency and advantage. The standard of justice, he announces, “depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”

Justice and right, clearly, are for low-energy types. The Athenians declare, extrapolating from Diodotus, that the sole law of human nature, and thus the central rule of international relations, is that of power; and since they are stronger than the Melians, they have every right to expect them to bow to their demands. The Melians refuse, revealing another truth of human nature: Just as the will to exert power is all too human, so is the will to resist. Athenian hubris gives birth to increasingly determined efforts at resistance and reaches its crescendo less than a decade later in Sicily, where Athens was decisively defeated by local forces.

Pericles’s oration was widely cited by the democrats of his day and has continued to be by their successors in the centuries since. Pericles’s words, or at least those given to him by Thucydides, for example, inspired and shaped Abraham Lincoln’s writing of the Gettysburg Address. But if this week’s presidential debate serves as a prologue to the next six weeks, it’s the far less comforting Mytilenean Debate that embodies the present state of American politics. There are striking and sobering parallels between Cleon and Diodotus on the one hand and, on the other hand, our presidential candidates. We have been pummeled by the lawless and pitiless tirades of our own scion of a wealthy father — a demagogic discourse that has struck a chord with the demos.

But rather than rising, rhetorically and morally, to this challenge, Hillary Clinton has instead done a Diodotus. In the debate, she regaled us with her practicality and returned repeatedly to the need for realpolitik. For example, her reply to Trump’s criticism of the Iran nuclear deal — that it has succeeded in “putting a lid” on the threat — makes sense in a certain narrow way but lacks the heroic sensibility found in Pericles’s speeches. The daring and candor of the Athenians, qualities embodied and emphasized by Pericles, were as absent from Clinton’s words and person as they were from Diodotus’s.

With Clinton, as with Diodotus, political language and action undermine directness and transparency — traits, Thucydides writes, that marked the Periclean period — for coldness and calculation, both on the level of personal ambition and on the level of national strategy. Diodotus lacked, as does Clinton, what we have come to call the “vision thing.” And though they both seek what the Greeks called “the good” — that is to say, the pursuit of worthy ideals — Diodotus and Clinton do so not by rousing their fellow citizens to rise to their nation’s ideals, but instead by encouraging them to lower themselves to matters of practical advantage.

Thucydides insisted his work was “not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public but was done to last forever.” A braggadocious claim, one of our candidates might now say. But Thucydides’s brand has lasted two millennia, and one reason — a huge reason, really — is its insights into the ties between language and democracy. Democrats might well read or reread Pericles’s funeral oration: If we don’t truly grasp that words matter, for democracy’s defenders no less than its destroyers, it may spell the impending funeral of our own democracy.

Photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.