Cleon Speech

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Athenians, Face Reality and Exercise Power

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book III.37-40

[37] Many times in the past I have observed that a democracy is ill-equipped to govern an empire, and today seeing so many of you ready to back down from your decision on the Mytilenes convinces me all the more. Coercion and conspiracy play no part in your everyday dealings with other Athenians, so you assume the same is true in cities allied with Athens. You fail to recognize that any concessions you make today — hearing the Mytilenes’ excuses and giving in to feelings of compassion — will not win you any gratitude. However, your weakness will put our state in danger. Understand this: the Athenian empire is a despotism, imposed by force on our allies. They do not obey us because of kindnesses we have done them or sacrifices on our part, but because of our superior power. They obey only because they have to, and for that reason they conspire against us.

The worst part of this whole business is your failure to recognize that we, as rulers, must be consistent. Cleon-sp-1A state is better off with imperfect laws that everybody understands and that always stay the same than it is with better laws that keep changing and lack credibility. Moreover, a state is generally governed better by leaders who have only ordinary intelligence and a bit of common sense than it is by those with a great deal of learning and brilliant insight. The intellectuals want to appear as if they are wiser than the law. They want to win admiration in every discussion of public affairs, because there is no arena of greater note and importance. These too-clever types of leaders bring ruin to their cities. More humble leaders, who admit that they have less wisdom than the law and that they do not have the ability to pick apart a sophisticated argument, are able to act as impartial judges. Since they are not as brilliant as the top contestants in debate, they judge conservatively. And in the end, they generally prove to be in the right. We should act in the spirit of those leaders who are modest, rendering trustworthy judgments rather than being misled by clever argument into policies we do not fully understand or believe in.

[38] My opinion is unchanged on how we should deal with the Mytilenes. I am amazed there are some who want to debate the issue all over again, causing a delay that can only benefit the guilty. As time passes, the edge of the victim’s anger becomes dulled. This is why vengeance following closely upon the offense yields punishment that most closely fits the crime.

I wonder who it will be that will stand up to contradict me and show somehow that the Mytilenes are the victims in this case rather than ourselves. Obviously, this speaker will be someone with supreme confidence in his oratorical powers, undertaking to prove that a matter already decided has not been decided after all and requires further discussion. Or he will be someone who has been paid money to lead you down the wrong path.

In these debating contests of ours, the city funds prizes for the most skillful speakers, but she takes all the resulting perils on herself. Cleon-sp-2And you, Athenians, are to blame for the misguided way these debates are run. You are spectators of words, forming judgments about future enterprises based only on eloquence, giving as much credence to conjecture as to facts. You are eager consumers of anything calling itself innovation, refusing to follow tried and true principles — fools as you are for every novel paradox, turning your backs on anything that sounds like you may have heard it before.

All of you wish you could be orators yourselves. Failing that, you try to make it appear that you grasp all the subtle points made by the most sophisticated speakers, applauding a clever trope before it is even fully out of their mouths. You are quick to jump ahead of the speaker, and yet so slow to see the real-world consequences. You are consumers of novelty, lapping up anything that breaks with traditional ideas, and paying no attention to the facts in front of you. Athenians, gathered here as the government of your city, you act more like spectators at a show than lawmakers.

[39] In order to turn you to a better direction, I will explain how Mytilene has done a worse harm to us than any other state. Consider: it is understandable that a people would choose to revolt if they felt our rule was oppressive or if they were forced into it by our enemies. But Mytilene was not forced. It is a fortified city on an island, immune to our enemies except by sea, where Mytilene had ita own capable fleet of triremes on patrol. As for oppression, we treated the Mytilenes with the highest consideration and respect. When people who have been well-treated take the actions the Mytilenes have taken against us, it is not a revolt but something more like conspiracy and treachery. The Mytilenes made a deliberate choice to side with our bitterest enemies and tried to bring about our destruction. That betrayal was something more heinous than if they had simply declared war against us and tried to take over the whole island of Lesbos for themselves.

The Mytilene rebellion went against all standards of good sense and decency. It seems they learned nothing from the example of other allies that tried to revolt and were put down harshly. Gratitude was not a factor — I mean gratitude for the prosperity that came to Mytilene as a result of being affiliated with Athens. Instead Mytilenes became overconfident, misjudging their strength, and they acted on hopes that were not as high as their ultimate goal but were still beyond their power. The Mytilenes embraced might over right, and chose a moment to strike when they thought to have the advantage over us. They rebelled when there was absolutely no justifying provocation.

To explain the Mytilene rebellion, we have to keep in mind that a state enjoying extraordinary prosperity will often become arrogant. In fact, for humankind in general, unexpected riches are harder to handle than an ordinary measure of success, and people who have to deal with a little adversity are better off than those who hit the jackpot. We should have treated the Mytilenes like a satellite state from the beginning. Then they would never have rebelled against us, for it is human nature to despise superiors who try to be friendly while admiring the tyrant who makes no concessions.

Punish the Mytilenes in a manner that fits their crime. Do not blame the aristocracy and try to excuse the common people. All of them took part in attacking us. If the commoners had joined with our side, they might have been in control of their city today. Instead they calculated the risks and threw in their lot with the aristocrats.

Consider the effect your actions today will have on our other allies. If the punishment is the same for an ally that revolts of its own free will as for an ally that was forced to revolt by our enemies, then every one of our allies has a good reason to try their hand at rebellion. From their viewpoint, the possible outcomes are either freedom if the revolt succeeds or a slap on the wrist if it does not. Every time an ally revolts, the result for us is a no-win situation that costs money and lives. If we succeed in putting down the revolt, the prize is a ruined city, unable to pay the tribute on which the strength of our empire depends. If we fail in putting down the revolt, we have yet another enemy to face. When we should be fighting the Peloponnesian League, we will be fighting our own former allies.

[40] We must not encourage rebels to think they can save themselves with eloquence or payment of a bribe to a speaker in this Assembly, who will plead that to err is human. The Mytilene revolt was no whim but a well-planned crime. You may well forgive an injury when no harm was intended, but not when it was done out of malice. For that reason, my position today is the same as it was before. We should not reverse our decision on the fate of Mytilene. We must not be misled by sentimentality, delight in eloquence, or weakness of will — three qualities that enfeeble an empire. It is right to show compassion on those who are capable of feeling compassion for us in return, but not to those who will always be our enemies. As to eloquence, let the orators who would move you to pity in matters of state employ their skill in some arena other than civic affairs. The city pays a heavy price when the Assembly is misled, while the speaker collects a fine fee. Mercy is best reserved for cases where the guilty party will become a faithful ally afterward. Mercy is not for those who will continue the same as before, still our determined enemies.

To sum up briefly, my advice is to hold to our previous decree, which will give the Mytilenes what they deserve and also serve the interests of our empire. Cleon-sp-3If you alter your earlier decision, you will not win any gratitude but you will pronounce a judgment upon yourselves, because if the Mytilenes were right in rebelling, it means you were wrong in ruling. If you want Athens to keep her empire, whatever the rights and wrong of holding power may be, then you must punish these people, even if that punishment will be unjust in some cases, because the survival of your empire demands it. Otherwise, you will have to give up your present way of life. You will have to go to some out of the way place where it is possible to live by high principles.

Make up your minds to punish the Mytilenes with the penalty we already approved, so it will not appear to the world that we, the victims of a foul conspiracy, are less passionate than those who hatched the plot. Keep in mind how they would have treated you if their rebellion had succeeded. The plotter who strikes, as they did, without any reasonable cause, is the one most likely to try to destroy his enemy utterly, because he knows that such an enemy, if allowed to live, will return as the most dangerous kind of threat. People who have been attacked unjustly, as we have been, are determined to take revenge, more so than people who have given as well as received blows in a fair fight.

Do not undermine your own cause. Remember as clearly as possible how you felt when you first heard about the Mytilenes’ sneak attack and how in that moment you would have given anything to crush them. Now is the time to pay them back. Do not go soft at the sight of their helplessness today, but think of the danger you were in, and hand down the punishment they fully deserve. Show our other allies the penalty for rebellion is death. The clearer this message, the less we will have to turn aside from the war against our enemies to fend off rebellious allies.

Cleon Questions:

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