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Thread: The 'Thucydides Trap' and historical determinism.

  1. #1
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    The 'Thucydides Trap' and historical determinism.

    Big subject to sum up but important (to current and past affairs) so will start at the beginning; who was Thucydides for starters?

    Most people who have had any classical history teaching (apart from films) will know that the Greeks 'invented' what we today call 'history'. Herodotus and his Iliad (story of the Trojan War) lived circa 484425 BC and after him came Thucydides (circa 460-400 BC) who documented the most part of a long and bitter war (with a brief interlude) between Athens and Sparta during a time that he lived in, having served as an Athenian General in the early part of a 27yr long armed struggle. Today we call that war 'the Peloponnesian War'.

    The prelude to this war, according to Thucydides, was the rise of Athens after the Persian invasions. Hellas was, at the time, made up of city states and Sparta, who had a professional military citizenship (the fields being worked by subjugated slaves) was regarded as the natural leader during the Persian wars and during the last land battle (Plataea) fielded a force of around 10,000 compared the Athenian force of around 8,000. After chasing the Persians out of what they considered 'mainland Hellas' many of the cities states wanted to free the Islands and the Greeks who then lived on the western coast of Anatolia (modern day Turkey) but Sparta, having no knowledge of naval matters (probably considering "below them" as to have a navy you need money and Sparta in theory did not allow gold as a currency) and being 'conservative' (as they had a slave population to control) was not interested in further pan Hellenic liberation efforts and turned back to their own way of life. Thus Athens became leader of those city states that wished to continue the war and formed the 'Delian League' and a mutual treasury into which all payed that was until 454 BC stored on the Island of Delos. In 454 BC the mutual treasury was removed to Athens and for this reason the period after is known as the 'Athenian Empire' as naturally most of the say (and money) of the League was then dictated by Athens. Thus the rise of Athens.

    So back to Thucydides, the unfortunate General who was exiled from Athens after have been perceived to arrive too late to relieve Amphipolis in 423 BC he says in his famous book that war between Athens and Sparta was "inevitable." The 'Thucydides trap' therefore is this historical determinism that any up and coming nation will 'inevitably' have to fight the older established power so for example is a US-China war 'inevitable'?

    In some ways this form of historical determinism denies 'free will' of an or a group of individuals as well. If such things are indeed 'inevitable' what any person or group of people - even a Government - matters not a jot.

    I welcome your thoughts.

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    i dunno if it's historical determinism he was advocating when he was addressing just the case of Athens and Sparta.

    there's certainly increased risk given the particular situation of rising power/established power, but it's not inevitable that they go to war. the US didn't go to war with the UK in the 1890s, for instance.

    in the end, leaders matter.
    There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."- Isaac Asimov

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    Not sure your argument follows... So do you mean Thucydides meant that war between Sparta and Athens was 'inevitable' as a single case but the 'historical law' that made that war 'inevitable' will not necessarily be true in another case no matter how similar the case? I suppose you could argue that the circumstances cannot ever be identical to the Sparta/Athens case but I take him implying a causal relationship between the rise of the Athenian power and the outbreak of the war almost like a 'law' of physics; cause and effect. This implication therefore is that wherever or whenever such causes arise again the effects will always follow.

    One could argue that the Prussian/German wars from the Franco Prussian war of 1870, WW1 and two were attempts of the Germans to 'catch up' with British, French, Dutch (even Belgium) who had all established colonial Empires. In WW2 of course the Germans sought their 'empire' in Central and Eastern Europe. I would also point out that there were two periods of Anglo American conflict.

    Of course where there is an Empire for example Austro Hungarian Empire and the Muscovite Empire of 1914 those wishing for national independence; the Serbs most evidently in 1914, it is true per se that the 'nationalists' must challenge established system of the Imperial order - and try to overthrow it. There could be Serbia if the Habsburg Empire prevailed, nor could there be a Poland if some of Muscovite imperialism (Tsarist or Soviet) prevailed. However this is not related to the situation existing between Athens and Sparta in the 430s BC; Athens was not part of any 'Spartan Empire' but actually allied to Sparta and had an 'empire' of it's own.
    Last edited by snapper; 21 Mar 20, at 13:41.

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    So do you mean Thucydides meant that war between Sparta and Athens was 'inevitable' as a single case but the 'historical law' that made that war 'inevitable' will not necessarily be true in another case no matter how similar the case?
    -Thucydides- assessed the Athens-Sparta war was "inevitable", but he made no mention of other examples. so we don't know that he was a proponent of historical determinism in general.

    the Thucydides trap concept has been propagated before, but most recently and clearly by Graham Alison. he is careful to define it in terms of risks and probabilities, though, and -not- by things like "historical law" and "historical determinism".
    There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."- Isaac Asimov

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