For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses–either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us–and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.Thucydides 5.89
At Online Great Books, one of the highlights of our program is The History of the Peloponnesian War. It’s not a fun book, but it’s a great book. We had originally intended only to read part of the work, but our first seminar group insisted that we read the whole thing. They were right. It’s the best book of political science that there is. Thucydides also gives you necessary context to understand Socrates. He wasn’t just an annoying person hanging around Athens in her golden age, tormenting people in the town square. Rather, he was an annoying person tormenting people who were busily leading their city in a destructive war with Sparta. Socrates himself served in this war, as did Thucydides.
The above quote is from the Melian Dialogue, where the citizens of Melos attempt to argue that Athens should not conquer them. The quote in bold is what most people focus on. It’s a naked declaration of might makes right. You’ll find Thrasymachus repeating it in Plato’s Republic. The strong do what they want. In fact, says Thrasymachus, justice is only the will of the stronger. I believe Thrasymachus is wrong, but it takes a lot of argument to determine how he is wrong. If you’d like to know more, read Plato.
There is a more interesting part of the quote. Before the dialogue starts, Melos and Athens agree to meet privately, away from the people, so that they may tell the truth. The “specious pretenses” that the Athenian mentions are lies that they would have told each other in a conventional political encounter. Most of these would have been for the sake of the people, who are, presumably, dumb enough to believe them. The leaders speak plainly when the People are not around.
In this sample of political interaction from 2500 years ago, we see what may be the model for all such interaction. Speeches are largely false, intended for an audience that cannot determine the truth. The real motives for action are hidden, and are only uttered between equals in private.