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Analysis Of The Mytilenian Debate English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3038 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The Mytilenian Debate took place in Athens during the Peloponnesian War in 427 BC and echoed the rising political and moral confusion that overtook Athens after Mytilene, a city within Greece and an ally of Athens, had rebelled against them. Mytilene had risen against what they saw as oppression by Athens but soon surrendered to the Athenian military on condition that their fate be referred to the people of Athens. In the aftermath of this battle, the Athenian assembly then gathered and voted to put to death all Mytilenian men and enslave all their women and children. However, their guilty conscience soon set in and the predicament to kill or not to kill took over. Thus they met again to deliberate whether or not to proceed with their disciplinary actions. During this debate, two very prominent Athenian citizens, Cleon and Diodotus brilliantly used different modes of persuasion to present to their audience their views of whether or not to proceed with the disciplinary actions they had agreed to earlier. Cleon spoke extensively in favor of the motion arguing that the Mytilenians deserved this severe punishment as it represented justice while Diodotus opposed it wholeheartedly arguing that it was not in the best interest of Athens. This research paper shall seek to analyze their key arguments and simultaneously evaluate their use of ethos, pathos and logos to sway their audience to their views. It is hoped that after reading this paper, not only will the reader have a much clearer understanding of the three Aristotelian appeals, but also learn to recognize when and how it is used when listening to or reading another speech.

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The Credibility & Likability Of Cleon (Ethos)

Cleon, who spoke first in the debate, happened to be the same man who had proposed the earlier motion of executing all the Mytileans. Thucydides, who is credited for documenting this debate, described Cleon as “the most violent man in Athens and at that time by far the most powerful with the commons.” (Thucydides, 431 BC). Cleon knew that he would have to come across as very sound and moral and skillfully used his violent reputation to his advantage if he wanted to sway his audience to his side. Quite early in his speech, Cleon expressed his views of how he was more convinced than ever that a democracy was incapable of being part of an empire after the council had second thoughts about the punishment they had laid out for the Mytilenians. He was quick to remind them that their empire was a dictatorship and that obedience from their subjects was guaranteed by the supremacy of their own strength and not their fidelity. Cleon skillfully used his reputation to portray himself not only as a commanding and self-assured statesman but also to glorify the advantages of power. Through this way, he reassured the audience of the consistency of his personality as he maintained his previous position and his utmost respect for the law. This only enhanced his credibility and portrayed him as being fair.

Cleon’s Appeal Through Emotion (Pathos)

Cleon knew very well that being disloyal was regarded as a greater fault in Athens than untruthfulness and rashness. The emotions of the people rose substantially when their allegiance to the State was doubted. He made use of this knowledge to question the loyalty of the council and particularly that of speakers who spoke favorably of the Mytileans. His use of pathos was brilliant throughout his speech and a particular part of his speech that was loaded with emotional appeal caught my eyes.

“Their offence was not involuntary, but of malice and deliberate; and mercy is only for unwilling offenders. I therefore, now as before, persist against you reversing your first decision, or giving way to three failings most fatal to empire – pity, sentiment and indulgence. Compassion is due to those who can reciprocate the feeling, not to those who will never pity us in return.”

It is clear that Cleon was convinced that their compassion would only bring danger to themselves and no thanks from their allies. By cleverly associating their sympathy for the Mytileans with vulnerability he appealed to the council’s sentiments by questioning their resolve and making them ponder upon the repercussions of their actions. The emotions generated because of some of the emotionally loaded words are show through the table below.

Quotes from the speech (Emotionally loaded words highlighted)

Emotion(s) created

Their offence was not involuntary, but of malice and deliberate; and mercy is only for unwilling offenders.

Anger Shame Disgust Vengefulness

I therefore, now as before, persist against you reversing your first decision, or giving way to three failings most fatal to empire – pity, sentiment and indulgence.

Fear Uneasiness Apprehension

Compassion is due to those who can reciprocate the feeling, not to those who will never pity us in return.”

Insult Indignation Humiliation

Cleon here cleverly made use of the rising tensions and flaring emotions of the audience by inferring that revenge was just, and that the execution of the men and the enslavement of their women and children would be an equal response to their crime. More importantly, he implied that all those who spoke for revoking the verdict were obvious enemies of the state. The result was a highly intimidating speech, which no foe that valued his name would dismiss.

Cleon’s Appeal Through Logical Evidence & Reasoning (Logos)

Cleon exhibited just the right combination of violence and righteousness that made him a very effective orator. Throughout his speech he presented a series of logical arguments, insisting on accountability while at the same time presenting restraint as weakness and lack of loyalty. He attempted to plant hatred for the Mytileans in the hearts of Athenians by effectively representing the Mytileans as antagonists who had deliberately chosen to attack Athens, an attack that was clearly unprovoked and unnecessary, since they enjoyed a great level of welfare being an ally. He described their actions as “deliberate and wanton aggression; an attempt to ruin us by siding with our bitterest enemies.” He reasoned that if the same penalty was subjected to an ally who was forced to rebel by an adversary and to an ally who did so by his own free will, then more rebellions could be anticipated in the future. This would be the case especially because the prize of victory would be freedom and the consequence of failure would not be anything awful. Towards the end of his speech, Cleon reminded his audience that if they would follow his advice and do what he had suggested, not only would it be fair for the Mytileans but also advantageous for Athens. However, if they decided to act differently, they would not be rewarding the Mytileans but rather passing judgment on themselves because if they were right in rebelling, then Athens must be doing wrong to continue ruling. He stated furthermore that “however, if, right or wrong, you determine to rule, you must carry out your principle and punish the Mytileans as your interest requires, or else you must give up your empire and cultivate honesty without danger.” It is clear that Cleon wanted to have it both ways by shrewdly labeling Athenians as unbiased rulers who rightly penalized a revolt or biased rulers who would have to still pass some punishment nevertheless. Altogether this shows the magic of logos and the power of the sophists back then who ingeniously expressed their thoughts so as to win over the minds of the masses.

The Credibility & Likability Of Diodotus (Ethos)

Diodotus came on stage to speak to the audience after Cleon had spoken in favor of the motion. A couple of minutes into his speech Cleon began to make an effort to strengthen his ethos by arguing against Cleon’s accusations that skilled orators spoke primarily because they wanted to make money. He was critical of the slander that discouraged honest men from actively participating in politics. Diodotus pointed out that if orators were ignorant men but had a reputation for righteousness, they were likely to retire then stay on and be accused of not only being a fool but a scoundrel too. In his words, “the city is no gainer of such a system, since fear deprives it of its advisers; although in truth, if our speakers are to make such assertions, it would be better…if they could not speak at all.” Here Diodotus was clearing taking a strike at Cleon by stating that a good citizen would win not by simply intimidating his challengers but by defeating them fair and square through reason. He was confident that the city itself would recognize the value of this debate and would hold the better orator with high esteem rather than disgrace him. Through this means, Diodotus was able to strengthen his credibility as a honest man who was presenting his views because he believed that was the ethical thing to do.

Diodotus’ Appeal Through Emotion (Pathos)

Diodotus realized that his request for leniency for the Mytileans rested on expediency rather than rightness as advocated by Cleon. He focuses on reminding the audience that the interests of Athens are of the utmost importance by using a lot of anaphor. An example is where he asks the audience to imagine a scenario and how it would play out for Athens.

“Consider a moment. At present, if a city that has already revolted perceives that it cannot succeed, it will come to terms…. In the other case, what city, think you, would not prepare better than is now done, and hold out to the last against its besiegers, if it is all one whether it surrender late or soon? And how can it be otherwise than hurtful to us….to receive a ruined town from which we can no longer draw the revenue which forms our real source of revenue from the enemy.”

Diodotus attempts to at this juncture question the validity of executing the men by warning the audience that future rebellions could have worse consequences because the rebels would be better prepared. This creates emotions such as frustration for what the future holds and torment amongst the citizens because a possible scenario could arise where victory would bear no fruits.

Diodotus’ Appeal Through Logical Evidence & Reasoning (Logos)

Diodotus at the beginning of his speech argued that what should matter most for Athens is what serves best in their interests. He argues that the use of harshness only makes sense when it serves a greater purpose. However, in the case of the Mytileans, executing them would serve no useful purpose. By cleverly exploiting Cleon’s harsh persistence that interest precedes justice, Diodotus gets away with criticizing Cleon’s severe punishment without questioning its impartiality. Diodotus when arguing for the abolishment of the punishment said: “For if those who gave the advice, and those who took it, suffered equally, you would judge more calmly.”

His reason for saying this was that if Athenian people killed the Mytilenian people who did not take part in the rebellion and who in fact conceded on their own free will after obtaining arms, then they would not only be committing blatant injustice but also please governments elsewhere.

Stylistic Devices [1] 



Stylistic Device



“..unlearned loyalty is more serviceable than quick-witted insubordination…”




“..cleverness and intellectual rivalry…”




“For myself, I adhere to my former opinion, and wonder…I wonder also who..”




“..see a sight, take your facts on hearsay, judge of the practicability of a project by the wit of its advocates.”




“..this is not revolt – revolt implies oppression..”




“Consider therefore:…..which of them….will not rebel on the slightest pretext; when the reward of success is freedom and the penalty of failure not so terrible?”

Rhetorical Question



“…but are our natural and necessary foes..”




“I do not blame the persons who have reopened the case of the Mytilenians, nor do I approve the protests which we have heard against important questions being frequently debated.




“I think the two things most opposed to good counsel are haste and passion; haste usually goes hand in hand with folly, passion with coarseness and narrowness of mind.”

A Key Term



“…served openly and without disguise…”




“…making rebellion capital, I, who consider the interests….And I required you..”




“Again, was there ever any city rebelling that did not believe that it possessed either in itself or in its alliances resources adequate to the enterprise?”

Rhetorical Question


Various stylistic devices were brilliantly used on many occasions, throughout both the speeches and they only amplified further the effect the orators were trying to create within their audience.


Teaching The Three Modes Of Persuasion In A Writing 101 Class

In a writing course, a student is taught the fundamentals of writing: what content should be identified and presented, how it should be positioned, what are effective techniques, and so on. Hence, a writing course entails students being taught to create works that appeal to readers and stimulate their senses on many different levels. In order to do this, it is imperative that the concepts of logos, ethos and pathos be identified and taught to students. As logos appeals to the rationality or reason of the audience, ethos reaches out to the character of the author, and pathos is directed towards the emotions, values and beliefs of the reader, the combination of all three components enable the writer to reach out to his audience and persuade them on multiple levels.

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As no individual is the same, it is entirely plausible that every individual in an author’s audience is not the same; each individual is inherently different from other individuals in some way. This distinctness indicates that the author’s work needs to appeal to the array of readers in a plethora of different ways. For some readers, ensuring that the plot unfolds logically and presents a rational discourse is of the highest importance. For these readers, it is critical that the text appeals to their reasoning skills and demonstrates the logical nature of the presented argument. In such a scenario, the importance of the art of reasoning, or logos, becomes quite important. For instance, unfolding the plot one step at a time in a chronological timeline could appeal to these readers who prefer that any text appeal to their reason. Hence, as no illogical elements are uncovered, the reader stands to become persuaded by the text simply on the merits of its rational flow.

Similarly, other readers may strive to read between the lines and understand the author or where he is coming from. For such readers, determining the author’s role in the work created and the credibility of the arguments produced are of a higher priority than any other factor. In such a context, appeal to the author’s character via ethos becomes paramount. Hence, by making his/her arguments credible, an author can reach out to that segment of the audience, which is focused on the author’s credibility. For instance, providing proof of the existence of a character in a story may be deemed as more important for the reader than a simple statement indicating the same. This proof, therefore, has the power to persuade the reader of the author’s argument simply because it is perceived as credibility, and credibility is the foremost factor in the mind of this reader.

The third distinct group within the text-reading population comprise of those individuals who can be appealed to by reaching out to their emotions, beliefs and values. For some readers, satisfying their emotional stimuli or having a text catering to their personal beliefs and values is the best way of persuading them. For instance, if a reader believes that the existence of God transcends all vocabulary and cannot be identified in human language, and the author builds upon this belief by speaking of God in his text but being unable to describe the Being, the argument presented is directly parallel to the beliefs drawn upon by the reader. Hence, as the reader’s conviction is fortified by the author’s argument, the reader stands to be persuaded to a large degree by the text.

As each reader is different, the author needs to determine the purpose of his writing and the audience’s preferences to cater to them appropriately. Hence, varying degrees of logos, ethos and pathos need to be utilized to persuade a diverse audience. Without being taught such concepts, a student runs the risk of not being able to identify the audience makeup, and hence, traverse on a trajectory, which may do little to persuade the audience of the value of the arguments presented. Even if the content of the text is stellar, without understanding these concepts and capitalizing on them in an appropriate manner, any author will be found significantly lacking in the domain of persuasion.


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