Posts Tagged ‘Sparta’

Tight Fit

If I ever want to write a distillation of the political wisdom and insights of Thucydides that will get noticed by serious newspapers and sold in proper bookshops, it’s clear that I’m going to have to develop an eye-catching binary distinction with which to make sense of the entire world, the equivalent of the Nowheres and the Somewheres, or the Tight and Loose cultures distinguished by a social psychology study that claims to “provide a consistent way of understanding differences observed from antiquity to the present day, in everything from international relations to relations in our homes.” Hmm. The Thucydides and the Thucydidose? The Thucydiscerning and the Thucydiots? The people who believe in reductionist binary distinctions with universal validity, and everybody else? (more…)

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“The best are those who are raised in the severest school.” To the best of my knowledge, my grandmother never read Thucydides (whence that quote comes; Archidamus at 1.84), or Herodotus, or Plutarch’s life of Lycurgus, or any of the other ancient accounts of Sparta and its values, but she didn’t have to; she could draw on a substantial popular tradition of images of Spartan life and attitudes, including her favourite admonitory story of the Spartan boy and the fox. As a child I was never sure what the lesson was supposed to be – don’t get caught? if you get caught, never confess? – but in retrospect I think it was more a kind of mood music: big boys don’t cry, that’s just a scratch, a family of starving Bangladeshis could live on that for a week (on failing to eat one’s crusts), and in my day we’d have been sent to bed without any supper for less than that. The Spartans tell you why you shouldn’t ever have more than one slice of cake. (more…)

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A further thought on the Thucydides Trap idea, that’s just a bit too long to develop properly on Twitter… Insofar as Thucydides actually holds such a conception, it’s firmly rooted in the specific historical situation of the confrontation and competing interests of Athens and Sparta, including the distinctive characters of those two states. That is, it’s the restless, energetic, ambitious nature of the Athenians (as set out by the Corinthians in the debate at Sparta in Book 1) that both explains why they have risen to a position of power and makes the current situation volatile; it’s the slow, cautious, conservative and risk-averse nature of the Spartans that has allowed the Athenian rise. The “truest cause” of the war can’t be reduced to the bare dynamics of the confrontation – established power versus rising power – alone; but of course that’s precisely what the ‘Thucydides Trap’ does, setting up historical analogies and making predictions on the basis solely of abstract structural similarities.

If we bring ‘national character’ back in, as a way of talking about general tendencies in foreign policy and how different states will behave in a given situation – and keeping in mind the Thucydidean point that it’s never absolutely uniform or fixed – then the great potential US-China confrontation looks somewhat different. It’s difficult to imagine a ‘rising power’ that looks less Athenian than China: slow, steady, cautious, risk-averse. Meanwhile, the US certainly has its cautious, risk-averse phases, especially when it comes to dealing with other major powers – but it also has a track record of reckless military aggression that couldn’t be less Spartan. Arguably this makes the situation more volatile, depending on the regime in power, but it certainly directs attention towards the ‘established’ power as the likely source of trouble, whereas a lot of the articles discussing the South China Sea as the crucible of WWIII seem to accept US hegemony as legitimate because already existing, and every Chinese action as gratuitously aggressive because they’re the rising power – they must be the pushy ambitious ones, as they’re playing the Athenians…

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