Diodotus Speech

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Put Anger Aside. Do What’s Best for Athens

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book III.42-48

[42] Unlike the previous speaker, I do not blame those who have urged us to reconsider the death sentence against the Mytilenes, and I do not agree that extended debate on important questions is harmful. I believe instead that the two things most detrimental to wise policy are haste and outrage. Haste is the fool’s companion, and decisions based on outrage are a sure sign of an undeveloped mind. As for debates, anyone who says they are not the best way for us to weigh the uncertainties of the future is either in a fog mentally or is speaking out of partisanship. Partisan speakers sometimes oppose debate because they know they are in the wrong on a certain issue, and being unable to make a good case for a bad cause, they attempt to slander and intimidate their opponents.

The poisoners of reputations are the worst of that lot — accusing speakers of taking bribes. It’s bad enough if you accuse someone of being ignorant: they may lose their case and still be thought an honest person. Diodotus-sp-1But if you accuse someone of having been paid off, they lose personally whatever the outcome of the debate may be: if their side wins, they are viewed ever afterward with suspicion. If their side loses, they look hapless as well as corrupt. This strategy of slandering is harmful to the state, because good advisers are frightened away. Our city would be better off if slanderers were barred from addressing the Assembly, for then we would make fewer mistakes under their poisonous influence. Citizens offering advice to the Assembly in good faith ought to prove the soundness of their positions by superior argument, not by intimidation.

In a wisely governed city, there should be neither rewards nor penalties for rendering honest advice to the state. Speakers should not be burdened or penalized for offering advice, nor should they receive special awards when their counsel wins approval by the Assembly. A speaker who offers a proposal that  turns out badly should not be subject to scorn or punishment. Under a system with no rewards or punishments, it is less likely successful speakers will shift their opinions for the sake of greater honors. Speakers who have not won honors will be less tempted to boost their popularity by backing causes they do not believe in.

[43] Our practice in Athens is the opposite of a no reward/no penalty system. We look with prejudice on even the wisest speakers if we hear a rumor they were bribed (a charge we do not know to be true), and so the value of their advice is lost. It has gotten to the point where sensible advice comes under as much suspicion as the most extreme partisan ranting. As a result, honest speakers end up having to use manipulative rhetoric like everyone else to get their ideas heard — right along with the extremists who try to stampede voters with fear and anger. Because of these rhetorical games, and a general mood of ill-will and provocation, Athens is the only state where a citizen cannot stand up and offer patriotic service for its own sake. Anyone who tries that comes under immediate suspicion of taking advantage in some sly way.

Yet under these difficult conditions, with such serious issues at stake, it is vital for speakers to take it upon themselves to look more deeply than general voters do into questions before the Assembly. You voters give most matters only brief consideration. Diodotus-sp-2You rely on speakers who are considered wise and well informed and can be held accountable for the advice they give, while you yourselves are not burdened with responsibility at all. If the followers of unwise advice were punished along with the speaker who offered it, you would be a lot more careful about casting your votes. As it is, when a policy you supported goes awry, you turn against the citizen who made one mistake by proposing it. You vote to punish that unfortunate citizen, while all those who supported the bad policy, making a lot more mistakes in the aggregate, get off scot free.

[44] I have come forward as a speaker on the question of the Mytilenes, but not as their defender or accuser. The matter for us to decide, if we look at it clearly, is not about the morality of their actions but about the best interests of the Athenian empire. I could make a case showing the Mytilenes to be as guilty as sin, but I would not necessarily urge the death penalty — not unless such a penalty would be best for Athens. Alternatively, I could show that they deserve some measure of forgiveness, but that would not be enough in itself to win my support for clemency, not unless such a policy were clearly to the advantage of the state.

As I see it, the decision we are making today is about the future, not the present. On the one hand, Cleon maintains that the death penalty will assure Athens of a more secure future by preventing revolts. On the other, I foresee it having adverse effects on our ability to manage colonies. I ask that you not allow the attractive but wrong ideas in his argument to blind you to the practical value in mine. Being angry at the Mytilenes, you find the call for justice appealing. However, we are not a court of law, weighing questions of right and wrong. The Assembly is a political body, convened to decide how Mytilene can best be made useful to Athens.

[45] As to the death penalty, many countries have it and even impose it for offenses that are relatively minor. Nevertheless people made brave by hope continue to commit crimes that carry the risk of capital punishment. No individual sets out on a dangerous venture thinking it is doomed to fail. And it is the same at the state level. What colony ever launched a revolt believing it did not have the wherewithal to succeed, either on its own or with support from an ally? It is human nature to misjudge the odds we are facing, in public life as well as in our private lives. No legislation can change that.

Throughout history, different societies have tried a variety of punishments to discourage people from doing wrong. In ancient times, the punishments for the worst crimes were probably less harsh than today, but as serious crimes persisted, the death penalty came into almost universal use. However, even with the death penalty, serious crimes remain a problem in every society. Either we must find a terror greater than death, or we are forced to conclude that fear of punishment is not a deterrent to crime.

Certain conditions, such as poverty, motivate some people to attempt daring acts. Wealth and a sense of entitlement make others grasp for even more. Other passions, similarly aroused and encouraged by the conditions of human life, drive plans and deeds beyond the bounds of good sense and calculation. Hope and Desire are universal. Desire shows the way, and Hope comes along for the ride, providing moral support. Desire works out the plan. Hope affirms that the gods are in favor. These two passions, while they are themselves invisible and ethereal, cause people to rush right past real dangers that are in plain sight, and the result is havoc. Fortune, too, urges the reckless onward, because at times she smiles upon risk-takers. The luck of these few encourages others to take a chance, even when they do not have all they need for success. Countries even more than individuals make the same mistake, because the rewards are so high: imperial power or freedom from an imperial power. Voters in an assembly, hearing their views echoed by popular opinion, overestimate their country’s strength. In this light, it should be obvious that human beings, once they are set on a particular plan of action, cannot be dissuaded by any law or threat of punishment.

[46] Let us not make the mistake then of thinking the penalty of death will protect us from rebellions. And let us not make rebels believe there is no hope for them to save themselves and get back in our good graces as quickly as possible. Consider how they see their choices. Under the present policy, if a subject state revolts and then realizes its attempt is going to fail, the rebels can negotiate for a peace agreement, under which they pay a heavy fine and continue to pay annual tribute. However, if a universal death sentence is the automatic punishment for revolt, what incentive do they have to surrender? The outcome for them — summary execution — is the same as fighting to the bitter end. If death is the universal punishment, then subject states have a good reason to concoct the most careful preparations before they revolt, making it that much harder to defeat them. Consider the outcomes for Athens as well. We suffer greater losses in conquering a rebellious state that will not surrender. Even if we are victorious, we lose the future revenue from a city laid to waste — revenue that we need to defend ourselves against Sparta and the Peloponnesian League.

Let us not injure ourselves by assuming the role of a harsh judge analyzing the guilt of a culprit. Let us rather see how, by moderate punishment, we can manage subject states so that their resources continue to benefit Athens. We must protect ourselves against revolts, but not by terrorizing our dependents — rather by the practice of more vigilant administration. Under our current system, we do just the opposite. When one of our allies — formerly a free state but pressured into becoming a satellite of Athens — attempts to revolt (as it is natural for them to do, wishing to recover their freedom), we impose a harsh punishment. Instead of punishing people after they revolt, we should keep an eye on them more carefully beforehand and so prevent the movement toward revolt from gaining momentum. When it does become necessary to put down a rebellion, we should limit the punishment to the leaders, and the fewer the better.

[47] Look carefully at the colossal mistake you would make by following Cleon’s counsel. As things stand now, the common people in all the cities of Greece look with favor upon Athens, the champion of democracy. Diodotus-sp-3They do not support the local aristocratic faction when it stirs up a revolt against our empire. If the common people are forced to join the revolt, they are still in their hearts against the aristocrats. As a result, when Athens must go to war against a colony or satellite state in revolt, we have an ally inside the gates, the common people. If we impose a sentence of death against the men of Mytilene, including those who were not guilty of supporting the rebellion, who in fact handed the city over to our army as soon as they were issued weapons, then two serious consequences will follow. First, you will be guilty of the deaths of people who were on our side. Second, you will play into the hands of the aristocratic parties in cities all over Greece. The next time they raise a revolt against Athens, the common people will have to join their side wholeheartedly, knowing that Athens will kill everybody in any city that revolts, no matter whether the population supported the rebels or not. Even when the commoners are guilty of rebellion, we should pretend to be unaware of it, so we don’t stir hatred among friends who can be won back.

This policy of allowing some of the guilty to go unpunished will do more to strengthen our empire than a vengeful policy which, although motivated by justifiable anger, kills people who have not done anything that deserves a death sentence. Though Cleon asserts that extinction of the Mytilenes will serve both justice and the interest of the empire, the case before us is one that will not let us have it both ways. We must choose between guaranteed punishment for everyone who took part in the rebellion, at the cost of many innocent lives, or the good will of people whose support is vital to the strength of our empire.

[48] I ask now that you recognize my proposal as the better policy for Athens. Do not give me your votes based on pity for the Mytilenes or on feelings of common humanity. I do not urge soft-hearted voting any more than Cleon does. Instead, cast your vote based on the credibility of my reasoning. By all means, pass judgment, as you see fit, on the top leaders of the Mytilene revolt. But let the others go in peace. Mine is the policy that will be best for Athens’ future. It will strike fear in the hearts of all those who oppose democracy, because a state that makes wise, deliberated decisions is a more dangerous enemy than one that rushes to strike with overwhelming force but without taking aim.

Diodotus Questions: https://ancientvoter.wordpress.com/diodotus-questions-2/

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