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Cleon’s Justice

For Cleon the Mytilene debate seems to be pretty black and white. His argument seems to align very much to that of a modern day political Realist except on one rather major point, which is he is appealing to justice. The idea of justice is something a Realist would never start with as the foundation of their argument because justice usually does not provide clear answers for what is the best option. However, in Cleon’s argument justice seems to do just that.

It is clear from Cleon’s speech that his idea of justice revolves around the idea of getting what you deserve, as displayed here “let them now therefore be punished as their crime requires” (3.39.6). Putting the Mytilenian people to death seems to be the only justifiable punishment for what they have done according to Cleon. “No one state has ever injured you as much as Mytilene”, and therefore the Athenian people can not show mercy, if they do it will make others question their authority (3.39.1). Cleon explains that if this why a revolt, then death would be too harsh a punishment but that “this is not revolt – revolt implies oppression; it is deliberate and wanton aggression; an attempt to ruin us by siding with our bitterest enemies” (3.39.2). In his speech he is trying to convince the Athenians that they vote in the side of justice in order to maintain authority and so that other nations know that “the penalty of rebellion is death” and they would not try to rebel in fear of death (3.40.7).

Cleon’s side had won the day before and the people voted to put the Mytilenians to death, and then woke up with a sort of buyer’s remorse the next day and decided they needed to revote. Cleon knew the people had already made the right choice and people having the ability to revoke an already ruled upon decision prompted him to display his thoughts on the Athenian democracy. He explained, “that a democracy is incapable of empire” if nothing can ever get done because anyone is allowed to questions decisions that have already been made (3.37.1). If a law or decision can always be challenged than neither has any authority and if laws or political decisions have no authority then an empire has no strength. Even “bad laws which are never changed are better for a city that good ones that have no authority” because people know what is expected of them (3.37.3).

Cleon warns the Athenians that “reversing your decision, or giving way to the three failings most fatal to empire – pity, sentiment and indulgence” could undermine their authority in Greece (3.40.2). He explains that they cannot show pity for those who would not reciprocate the favor, and that the Mytilenians have shown that they do not pity the Athenians through there outward rebellion. Indulgence should reserved for those who will be your friends in the future and the Mytilenians have no interest in that, and the sentiments of the Athenian people should not reflect their sympathies but for what the Mytilenian people have done to them and their reputation. Cleon tells the Athenians that if they allow themselves to fall victim to these “failings” they would be avoiding justice and become traitors to themselves. He wants the Athenian people to understand that if they allow the Mytilenians crime to go with out is just punishment they are sending the message to all of Greece that it was ok for them to rebel and “if they were right in rebelling, you must be wrong in ruling” (3.40.4).

20 Responses to “Cleon’s Justice”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Amber,

    I think it is a great point that you make at the beginning re: justice. Maybe justice is a bad starting point precisely because it is so ill-defined and thus does not provide clear answers. So why even bother with it? And yet Cleon does, strikingly, as you point out.

    It is strange that Thucydides does not include the speeches from the day before, as we discussed in class. Cleon’s view was triumphant there, as you point out, and presumably he gave an argument roughly similar in content. Or did he? Maybe the stuff about justice is tacked on to appeal to the moral sentiment of the Athenians (which he had underestimated the previous day).

    Given the near-obsession with justice these days (at least by many philosophers), it is notable that it does not really win out in the end. Maybe Cleon misinterpreted, or at any rate misjudged, the moral hangover of the people.

    KH

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