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Τετάρτη, 1 Δεκεμβρίου, 2021
ΑρχικήEnglish EditionThe law of strength and the morality of weakness, based on Thucydides

The law of strength and the morality of weakness, based on Thucydides

By Katerina Papadea,

As it is known, Thucydides’s works have exceeded the limits of destructive time and are an eternal property, which is perceived by the power of Thucydides’s perceptions in today’s reality. Also, long-term and durable is Thucydides’s view about the competition between interest and law, between logic and morality or emotions. The two concepts, law and morality, are part of the idea of “RAISON D’ ETAT”, which means that the nation’s own interests are primary for a nation’s foreign policy and subject to the idea, expressed by Thucydides, that there are no margins for moral choices.

Initially, it is very important to distinguish the two concepts. “Law” regulates external and social behavior, has a mandatory character, which means sanctions for injustices, and creates certain rights. On the other hand, “Morality” concerns conscience, is not obligatory, includes remorse and social disapproval, and creates only duties. Therefore, law and morality, although different in terms of content, are commonly opposed and contradictory to the concept of interest. This rivalry was reflected in the politics of ancient Athens and in Thucydides’s thoughts. 

Thucydides argues that the anarchic international system does not allow moral choices. The great need for self-preservation makes it imperative to satisfy the interests of the state and maximize power while marginalizing the requirements of law and ethics. Specifically, according to Thucydides, when it is up to the states to choose between law/ethics and interest, states choose an interest, as the anarchy that characterizes the international system, the constant transnational competition, and the need for states to survive do not leave ethical margins in the choices and decisions of states. Precisely because there is no world government that can fully impose itself in international relations and because states choose profit and least lost, the policy of interest is applied. Thucydides espouses the view that law and morality have no place in international relations while extending his position, arguing that law and morality are invoked by the weak and not the strong in the international system. Internal pressures and international necessities oblige states and political leaderships to a foreign policy that ignores ethics. 

The fact that there is an unsolved tension between power and moral concerns at the ancient international level (of the Greek city-states) is evident by the famous Athenian-Melian dialogue. The Athenians asked the Melians to succumb to the logic of the supremacy of power, arguing that law implies equal power and that when the power of one (Athenians) exceeds the power of the other, the strongest one will do what his strength allows him to do, while the weak one will do what his weakness allows. Therefore, Melos had to submit to the superior power of the Athenians, so as not to suffer its absolute crushing. On the other side, the Melians, as the weakest, invoked the gods and luck as their last refuge, believing that gods would protect them from the unjust Athenians. As it turns out, the Melians, due to their weakness, invoke the supernatural element. On the contrary, as a natural element is considered the innate human tendency to impose his domination on the weakest, which is a natural law, a law that has not been created, but has been found to exist. Precisely because it is a law of natural origin, the Athenians attributed it to a divine nature, as it can not be disapproved of by gods. Nevertheless, the Melians resisted the logic put forward by the Athenians, which shows the beauty of human nature. That beauty stems from the awareness of ineffective resistance, but the persistence in resistance. In other words, the wise choice in these cases, according to Thucydides, is the weak one to retreat and thus be saved and not to resist, invoking justice and morality. Ethics and justice can be essential between equal forces (e.g.  between Sparta and Athens).

Image source: archaiologia.gr

The intersection between ethics/law and national interest in Thucydides’s thought is that on one hand, the situation in the international arena requires non-observance of moral values, on the other hand, non-observance of moral values alienates a state from “higher culture”, as it is not a moral community. Therefore, Thucydides considers that ethics are abandoned out of necessity in the international arena and when no other option is available.

In conclusion, the opinion of Thucydides is not characterized by one-sidedness, in terms of ethics. The moral dimension of a state’s decision depends on the circumstances. Inevitably, the defense of the national interest is paramount and is not sacrificed on the altar of morality. However, if a decision protects the nation and at the same time observes morality, it gives the state the element of “superior culture”.

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Katerina Papadea
She is an Undergraduate student in the department of International and European Studies at the University of Piraeus. She speaks English and German. She likes to deal with the news and to be informed in many ways in order to form her own point of view. News keeps you awake and does not let you focus on theory but practices every situation and every definition. She likes foreign languages, and she believes learning them broadens the way of thinking and helps us understand the world, through different political, economic and social conditions. Her favourite music is old Rocks from 80’s - 90’s.