Thucydides Account of Peloponnesian War
Thucydides presents a realist point of view to analyze the politics of the Peloponnesian War. The civil war in Corcyra revealed the disintegration of society when posed with questions about power and justice. The internal strife between the democratic party allied with Athens and the Oligarchs, who were eager to maintain good relationships with the Spartans, broke into civil war because both sides got caught up in their factions and were prepared to die for such factions. The idea of factions is strengthened in the Melian Dialogue, for the Melos are presented with an alternative by the Athenians to live but they choose death for their values of honor. On the other hand, the Mytilenean Debates demonstrate how self-interest is more important than justice to the Athenians. Thucydides’ critique of Athens deception in politics as doing what is “good” for the people is accurate; therefore, Athens should not be presented as a model of democracy to Greek states.
The war between the Athenians and Spartans began through systematic change that occurred when Athena increased their power and rivaled Sparta, which led to bipolarization where one states gain became the other states lost; thus, the system became unstable. Through this instability, there was a security dilemma that arose from fear. Corcyra is an example of the breakdown of law and order, due to irrational fear. During peace, states did not tend to call for outside forces, but during civil wars that were internal they did. Thucydides believed civil wars were much worse for it showed the way humans naturally are. It was as if all capacity for mercy was lost; however, Athens is not the monster that Thucydides made them out to be. In the Mytilenean debate there was a glimpse of hope for the Athenian empire.
The debates show that the Athenian society was civilized and internally democratic. Cleon was the representation of the imperialistic Athens, but Diodotus represents a strong sense of justice. Diodotus appeals to the senate through pathos, by logically referring to Athens self- interest as the primary focus rather than justice, which would nonetheless result in justice for it prevents bloodshed. Thucydides stated that politics are “attractive arguments to justify some disgraceful action” which led to corruption and the disintegration of society. However, Diodotus shows the opposite effect, for his arguments appeal to the greed of the senate in using the Mytilenian as profit, where they can pay tribute to Athens. He argues that it is a country's nature to attempt to rise and siege goods, instead of eradicating them, it is better to benefit from them after putting a stop to their rising. This saves the women and children from going into slavery and the majority of the men from being killed, and satisfies the Athenian hunger for power with the idea that it is for the good of the country. Even though Thucydides would question Diodotus’ true intentions, his usage of good policy is far more moralistic than Cleon’s idea of brute force. This speech shows that even in fractionalized war there is a possibility to reject vengeance as a motive.
In truth, factions are inevitable because people have different opinions that distinguish them from one another. Keeping that in mind, Thucydides shows how factions influence human nature in a time of turmoil. Once instability broke out among both sides, it affected all of Corcyra. The methods of seizing power and seeking revenge became central to the Corcyrean society, where eventually, “To fit in with the change of event, words,too, had to change their usual meanings.” Even the language had to change, indicating a movement of culture caused by extreme circumstances. What is perplexing is that as the atrocities increased in savagery within Corcyrean society, this was described as something noble. Its sole purpose in society was to acquire power, where even blood ties were weaker than party loyalties. These were the cultural norms of society at the time period.
The Peloponnesian war can be seen as a war between factions, where alliances determine the fate of cities. Thucydides claimed “revenge was more important than self-preservation,” which is another negative aspect of Athenian society, but not all societies are the same. On the contrary, the Melians were willing to die for their ideals, they held honor to be more important than living an honorable life under Athenian rule. They were willing to reconcile with the Athenians as equals, but treaties were not important to the Athenians. They believe deals were temporarily until one side got the upperhand. The Melians supported the Spartans who would preserve their ideals of honesty and justice. In Thucydides point of view, the Melians died for their factions, which encouraged the idea of honor to be superior than revenge. The Melians represent an exemplary model of society, whereas in Athens there is internal struggle for power and revenge. Through this we are able to see a side of leaders that represents falseness, “Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all the evils.” Leaders are displayed as only safeguarding their political standing and benefits as an aristocrat, thus Athens model only leads to the disintegration of society.
Thucydides showed that in order to maintain peace, there must be a form of balance of power, where in the Athens’ society it means the strong exercising their will over the weak. He did not believe states can cooperate because all treaties were meant to break. Morals or ethical judgements did not exist. There was no social contract between two states because in order for there to be justice Athenians believed they must be equal. For example, Thucydides stated, “the standard of justice 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”. Yet, the Melians defy this idea of might over right. They do not believe it is a weakness to display mercy. Their political position of neutrality makes them an enemy to Athens, however Athens are hypocritical as they do not apply the same theory of justice towards the Spartans, who are their equal in power. Instead they challenge the spartans and mercilessly revert to bloodshed to get the upperhand. Thus, their imperialistic nature to outside forces is alarming, wher they display no morals.
Athens was a selected example in the Peloponnesian war where Thucydides revealed their the nature of their politics as a reflection on human nature. Athens desire for glory and self interest displayed a dark side that disregarded morals, justice, and honor. However, it was in the circumstances of war that influenced such behavior. The idea that society has a tendency to always insue in conflict is false, therefore Athens is a poor model. The Melians and Oligarchs of corcyra support Sparta who are in pursuit of justice and fight for liberation, winning in the end because an imperialistic empire will eventually fall for their disregard of morals. Individually people are altruistic, but as a group we make bad choices. It is not true that when justice breaks down, we revert to what Athens demonstrated. It is under pressure that we become defensive as is shown through the Athenians, yet there are other ways to deal with the intensity of politics.
 Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (New York: Penguin Group, 1972), 244.
 Thucydides, History of the PW, 243.
 Thucydides, History of the PW, 403.