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Melos' Prospects: War and Interstate Relations

Date and Time: 
Thursday, February 7, 2019. 12:00 PM - 01:30 PM
Meeting Location: 
Humanities Center Boardroom
Workshop: 
History of Political Thought
Meeting Description: 

Professor Josh Ober is presenting the sixth chapter of a book provisionally titled "The Greeks and the Rational," with Tim Sorg as discussant.

ABSTRACT: This chapter concerns relations between states, exploring both zero-sum conflicts and non-zero-sum bargains. Plato's Republic addresses war and inter-state bargaining in the idealized state of Callipolis. War brings issues of chance, risk, and probability assessment to the fore. Plato's discussion of the military training of the young Guardians establishes that the senior Guardians are capable of assessments of risk, based on their expert measurement of the probability that a given battle will be won or lost. Thucydides' history is an extended treatment of both interstate conflict and bargaining. He offers the Athenian empire as a case study in rational cooperation among unequal states, predicated on calculated costs and benefits. Athens' imperial policy rested on the rationality of fear and self-interest. Because the empire, modeled as a 'stationary bandit', could credibly commit to low taxes in exchange for high levels of cooperation, rational subjects had no reason to defect from the coalition. But defect they did. Thucydides' Mytilene narrative (book 3) explores the motives of the defectors and the implications for Athenian imperial policy. The limits of rationality are foregrounded in Thucydides' Melos narrative (book 5), centered on the failed bargain chronicled in the Melian Dialogue and ending in the destruction of Melos. That outcome was inefficient (as well as unjust and tragic) in that it benefited neither party. It was the result, Thucydides suggests, of failures of practical reasoning. The Melians failed to recognize that the Athenians were credibly committed to destroying Melos should the Melians refuse to join the coalition. The Athenians failed to see that the Melians had predicated their choice on the psychologically intolerable prospect of great loss, rather than on calculations of expected advantage, based on a realistic assessment of probabilities.

Josh Ober is the Mitsotakis Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, and works on historical institutionalism and political theory, focusing on democratic theory and the contemporary relevance of the political thought and practice of the ancient Greek world.

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