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Why debating still matters

The Guardian – Alex Clark

“The current political scene might have been radically different if Remain had had Diodotus on its side: if you could persuade an assembly of Athenians bent on retribution to spare the lives of a group of rebels, then you could probably best Boris Johnson. The Mytilenian debate of 427BC is perhaps one of the ancient world’s best examples of an argument with something vital at stake: following an unsuccessful insurrection in the city of Mytilene, the Athenians had voted to put to death not only the uprising’s leaders, but all Mytilenian men, and to enslave its women and children. Fears that this judgment erred on the side of harshness led to a second debate, with Diodotus arguing for clemency, and Cleon, “the most violent man at Athens”, opposing him. Cleon’s point was that justice must prevail in the face of the deliberate malice of the Mytilenians, and that a show of weakness by the imperial government was potentially disastrous; better, he said, to enforce bad laws than to shilly-shally around with good ones. And what, he asked his audience to imagine, would the rebels do if they were in the Athenians’ shoes? None of this daunted Diodotus, whose counter-argument began with a paean to the power of debate: “The good citizen,” he insisted, “ought to triumph not by frightening his opponents, but by beating them fairly in argument.” And beat Cleon he did, in a series of detailed appeals to his audience, setting out his belief in how Athens’ long-term interests would best be served. The vote was close, but Diodotus won the day. The Mytileneans were spared.”(more)

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