Sample Humanities 220 Paper

Professor Celia Easton
Department of English
SUNY Geneseo

This is a sample of a successful essay by a student in one of my Humanities 220 classes.  The author writes in response to this paper topic:

Through a close study of Cleon and Diodotus' debate in Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War, explain how Thucydides guides your sympathies. In other words, how do you know which part of the debate Thucydides wants you to find convincing?
This paper is successful because it builds a case for an argument through careful analysis of the text.  As you read this essay, you will notice that the author does not merely cite examples and paraphrase them.  She applies tools of discourse analysis to the speeches Cleon and Diodutus make.  She makes frequent reference to Thucydides' text, but she does not include excessive quotations.  She discusses every passage that she cites; this discussion is the evidence for her assertions.  She recognizes that the professor knows the text and she does not need to summarize Thucydides' history.  Instead, she selectively draws the reader's attention to useful passages that are applicable to the topic.  Her discussion indicates that she understands the context of the Mytilenean Debate in Thucydides' History.

Students looking at this essay as a model for the formal characteristics of a Humanities paper should note that a hard-copy essay would be double-spaced and approximately five pages long.

Please respect the author's intellectual property. No portion of this essay may be used for any purpose without the express consent of the author, Emily Lawlor.

       Emily Lawlor
Humn 220

On Manipulation and Human Nature
Copyright © 1999 Emily Lawlor

      Thucydides comments on the nature of democracy in his account of the Peloponnesian War. His accounts are by no means without bias, and his own views are especially evident in recounting Cleon and Diodotus' debate concerning the fate of the Mytileneans. He makes certain claims through his representations of democracy that portray his own views on human nature. These views are imposed upon the reader as the debate unfolds. Human nature is composed of many layers. Coming to terms with something innately human involves incorporation of many concepts, including democracy, justice, and power as seen in this debate. Human nature governs above all else; it is what is uniquely human that drives us to aspire to ideals of justice and power.

      The strategy Cleon expresses is strength at all times. His argument that it is better to enforce poor laws than appear weak coincides with his tendencies towards tyranny. Cleon states that "democracy is not capable of ruling an empire" (Thucydides, 67). A different approach is necessary to maintain order. A well-ordered political structure is one in which there is a definite ruling and a definite submissive party. The Athenians are the rulers and expect submission from the Mytileneans, who upon challenging their submission face a charge of death. Cleon's arguments rely on his view of human nature: that first reactions must be trusted and acted upon. He states "after a delay, you see, the victim comes at the wrong doer with his anger dulled: but the punishment he gives right after injury is the biggest and most appropriate" (Thucydides, 68). This approach to justice is based on the trust Cleon places in human nature, stemming from the belief that our natural instincts are the most logical basis for the enforcement of justice.

      In an attempt to sway the opinions of his listeners, Cleon emphasizes that the Mytileneans had no reason to revolt, "It is not a rebellion, for a rebellion can only come from people who have been violently oppressed" (Thucydides, 69). This argument leads his audience to feel defensive and angry, which is necessary to elicit the response he wants from them. Only in this state of emotional upheaval will they act on their first impulses and vote to execute the Mytileneans. Cleon argues matters of justice to provoke feelings he knows are inherent in human nature. This is also accomplished by arguing that one rebellion will lead to more rebellions, and that it is necessary to use this case as an example to future would-be rebels. 

      His implications about justice denote his thoughts on human nature, but Cleon also makes definite statements regarding his views on the matter, "generally it is human nature to look with contempt on those who serve your interests, and to admire those who never give in to you" (Thucydides, 69). This is said in regards to making the Mytileneans an example to the rest of those thinking to oppose Athens. Human nature is fickle and illogical, but it is the root of all other systems of understanding our existence. According to Thucydides, as expressed by Cleon, humans are by nature mildly sadistic. This would suggest our instability and an inherent need for structure, as in the political hierarchy Cleon suggests.

      Cleon highlights the "three things that are most damaging to an empire: pity, delight in speeches, and a sense of fairness" (Thucydides, 70). Pity implies a lack of personal strength, which is a downfall of human nature when counted among the most damaging ideas to a city. It refers to submission, that one city has the power to control another. Submission is important to Cleon's concept or relations between Athens and Mytilene, but only when he is a member of the stronger side. In counting delight in speeches among these concepts, Cleon again enforces an act before thinking strategy. Without debate and speeches ideas can not be thought through to their consequences. Long term effects of actions can not be realized. Cleon further comments that the Mytileneans would have enacted similar policies if they had been the stronger counterpart in the situation. This idea speaks to the underlying instincts of his listeners, calling them to action before thought, encouraging them to trust their impulses.

      The subjects of Cleon's speech are the first to be attacked when Diodotus holds the attention of the audience. He begins his arguments by disputing Cleon's logic rather than by addressing the problem at hand, namely what should be done with the Mytileneans. His purpose in beginning this way is to undermine the present thought pattern of his audience, which again highlights the fickleness and weakness of basic human nature. We are easily manipulated by whomever chooses to lead our thoughts. Thucydides makes this clear in both sides of the argument. 

      Diodotus attacks Cleon's platform in reassuring his audience of the benefits of carefully thought out actions, "nothing is more contrary to good judgment than these two- haste and anger" (Thucydides, 71). He also comments that one of the benefits of talking through decisions is that the city can be persuaded to fewer errors. While ultimately demonstrating how easily swayed human nature is, this argument gives the audience more credit for rational thought than Cleon did in his speech. 

      In this first part of Diodotus' speech in which Cleon's ideas are attacked, Thucydides demonstrates the very principle he has Diodotus describe. The audience is talked out of believing Cleon's message. They are persuaded by his words not to trust their initial reactions. It is important to set up his own beliefs in this manner because it makes him more credible. He has already proven that he is correct on this matter, therefore is likely to be correct in other matters.

      After thus preparing the audience to receive his own views, Diodotus addresses the subject of the Mytileneans. He argues that the most important thing in this and any situation is to decide what is best for the Athenians. It is a very ethnocentric concept, though not dissimilar to Cleon's ideas in that self-preservation is used as a tool with which the audience might be manipulated. Diodotus comments that "I still would not advise the death penalty for this, unless that was to our advantage" (Thucydides, 72). His concern for the future is the point on which his views differ greatly from those expressed by Cleon. Whereas Cleon is focused on instant validation, Diodotus looks to the future and the past as a guide for controlling the present. Diodotus recalls the outcome of similar situations in which death was not an end to the problems. His philosophy dictates that the Athenians must, "look for a way to impose moderate penalties to ensure that we will in the future be able to make use of cities that can make substantial payments" (Thucydides, 74). Here Thucydides highlights another aspect of human nature which Diodotus play upon in dealing with his audience: we are entirely self-focused. Others are seen not for who they are but for what they can do for us. 

      Several principles are constant in both of these speeches, though they are presented as polar opposites in policy and philosophy. Both Cleon and Diodotus try to verbally manipulate their audience, an act that preys upon the weakness of human nature and our tremendous susceptibility to suggestion. This is the message to the reader as presented by Thucydides, but human nature is further explored by the speakers individually. Each of the speeches concentrates on conclusions about human nature that are drawn through conclusions about power, justice, and democracy. Cleon's ideas center on focusing on the present at all times, while Diodotus urges his audience to consider the past and the future before making hasty decisions.

       If, as implied in all areas by Cleon's and Diodotus' arguments, human nature is weak and in need of guidance, there must be some higher power dictating the correct courses for us to follow. Cleon and Diodotus act as the empowered leaders in Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War. Their audience must trust them and their leadership in order for the political system to be successful. It is implied that we must always answer to authority and are not capable of making our own decisions. Democracy and the democratic process are certainly not feasible systems for running a country because the general public is can not be held responsible for their own actions. 

      After both sides have presented their well-crafted arguments, the Athenians decide to follow through with Diodotus' ideas. The ship carrying the message not to carry out the death sentence for the Mytileneans is almost too late to deliver the message, and Thucydides comments that "That was how close Mytilene came to destruction" (Thucydides, 75). After the painstaking process of arguing and debating all sides of the argument and coming to a consensus, the outcome was almost inconsequential. Had the ship not arrived on time, the outcome of the entire venture would have been futile. However, the fact that the decided upon actions were carried out despite extreme closeness to failure is testament to the importance of crafted language as a part of the decision making process and therefore the easily manipulated human nature. 

Work Cited

Thucydides. On Justice Power and Human Nature: Selections from The History 

of the Peloponnesian War. Trans. Paul Woodruff. Indiana: Hackett 

Publishing Company, 1993.