Sunday, March 28, 2010

"The time was come, and the man was needed"

When teaching the Gorgias, I've often wanted to find a way to work in Thucydides' Melian Dialogue, but I've never actuall gotten around to doing so. I did notice recently, in looking over William Whewell's Platonic Dialogues for English Readers that he says some interesting things about the matter in his "Remarks on the Gorgias". Whewell's work was intended to be a sort of popular study guide to the Platonic dialogues: he translates copious sections of the dialogues, but abridges and summarizes many parts, adds clarificatory comments, and occasional evaluates the arguments being given. As he puts it in his introduction in Volume I,

The object of the following Translations and Remarks is to make the Dialogues of Plato intelligible to the English reader. But I would not have it understood from this that I have altered the substance or the drama of these Dialogues with a view to making them more popular. I have given both the matter and the manner with all fidelity, except in so far as I have abridged several parts, in order to avoid prolix and obscure passages.

He does a reasonably good job at doing this, I think. It ends up being quite a readable little work.

In any case, remarking on the Melian Dialogue and the theme of 'might makes right', Whewell says (p. 256):

It was plain that the cruel doctrine which was declared byt the Athenian envoys in the Melian conference had a strong and practical hold upon the Grecian mind; and that so far, an immoral philosophy was already predominant in Greece. And so far as the prevalence of such an immoral philosophy could give occasion to the formation of a moral philosophy which should, if possible, correct and condemn injustice, violence, and cruelty, it is evident that the occasion was there; and that if there could arise a moral philosopher who could prove such exercise of power and such disregard of equity to be a monstrous violation of the order of the world, the time was come, and the man was needed.

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