12th Grade: The Origins of the Peloponnesian War

Greetings,

This week we started our unit on the Peloponnesian War.  This conflict took place between 431- 404 BC, and was chronicled by one of the founders of History itself, Thucydides.  Thucydides’s genius lay far beyond his dispassionate recording of events.  He concerned himself not only with battles, but also the deeper political, economic, and psychological contexts.  He was a commentator on democracy and human nature itself.  We will attempt to follow his lead, ranging back and forth between ancient and modern times.

We will also shortly begin our own Peloponnesian War game, in which the class is divided up into 5 different teams, each of whom participated in the actual Peloponnesian War.  The game is designed to give each side certain strengths and weaknesses, and different means of winning.  Generally speaking, the teams that have won in the past have focused not merely on eliminating enemy soldiers, but instead on forging a synergy between their economics, politics, and diplomacy, with their military action arising from that context.  This usually means that things start slow, but tend to pick up as weeks go by.

Most of us are used to thinking of democracy as a permanent fixture in our lives, but the Athenians lost, regained, lost, and finally regained democracy during and after the conflict.  Why did this happen?  Does war put more pressure on democracies than other forms of government?  On another note, are democracies naturally inclined toward expansion, or are those democracies that have expanded a product of historical coincidence?

Our study of this conflict should always have the idea of democracy behind it, for the war as a whole, and Athens’ role in it particularly, can teach us a lot about democracies.  Fundamentally, we should consider what makes a country “democratic.”  I offered the students the following choices:

  • In country ‘X’ the people are ruled by a king, but the laws of the realm allow for free speech, equal treatment under the law, freedoms of assembly, religion, etc.  In short, all the trappings we usually associate with democracy, except the people did not elect their leaders.
  • In country ‘Y’ the people have a representative democracy where they elect all their leaders.  But the elected government (which won 60% of the vote) uses their power to restrict the rights those that opposed them.

Which country is more democratic?  Does democracy have more to do with the process than the result?

As we look at the origins of the conflict, we will consider criteria for a ‘just’ war.  What kind of strategy should Athens have pursued, and does it teach us how democracies tend to, or should act, in war?

First, some of the background to the war.
Prior to ca. 500 B.C., Athens was not one of the major city-states of Greece.  They were not nobodies, but they could not be called a New York, LA, or Chicago.  Perhaps a Philadelphia.  Their moment came during the Persian Wars, where their staunch resistance and military success propelled them into a potential leadership role.  How did they handle it?
They helped from what was known as The Delian League, a mutual defense alliance with other city-states that rimmed the Aegean against Persia.  Member states could contribute money or ships.  As one might expect, nearly all chose the ‘money’ option.  It was easier, for starters.  But it also made sense.  Since Persia might return any time it made sense to fund the best navy and get more of the best ships out into the Aegean, and Athens had that navy.
But what if Persia did not look like it was coming back?  Can you leave the Delian League?  Athens said no.  They had some good arguments:
  • Persia was still a major power and could decide to come back at any time.
  • If a city-state left they could potentially make an alliance with Persia, which would threaten all of their neighbors.
  • Even if a city-state did not make an alliance with Persia, they would still get security.  Athens could not let Persia establish a beach-head anywhere in Greece.  Therefore they would get free security, which was unfair.
We can still imagine that the other city-states failed to be impressed with these arguments.  Athens, the one-time champion of the ‘little guy’ had become the block bully in the minds of many.  How should we view Athens?  Who was right?  Here is a map of the Greek world at the time the war began:
I think we have to appreciate Athens’ dilemma, but if we look elsewhere for clues, it appears Athens had fallen into what Toynbee called “The Idolization of the Parochial Community.’  That is, once Athens stood for something, something outside itself. Now, despite the progressive nature of Athenian democracy, drama, philosophy, and so on, Athens seemed to justify its actions based on how it related to themselves and themselves alone.  This can be seen in their siding against certain democracies when it looked like doing so might advantage them in some way.  One can see the comparisons with pre-World War I Europe, with democracy at home, and imperialism and a form of subjugation abroad.  By 431 B.C. the Greeks had made their society into a fireworks stand where anything might upset the apple cart.  Athens’s power, their rivalry with Sparta and Corinth, created a potential disaster.  If you are interested, I include below an excerpt from Toynbee’s ‘An Historian’s Approach to Religion’ on the idea of parochial communities.  When war breaks out next week we will  consider a few different issues.
  • To what extent is a country’s reputation part of its power and security?  Can threat’s to your reputation be considered a threat to your security?  Should war’s be fought if no physical danger is immediately present?  How much importance did reputation have in the Greek world?  Does that make the actions of Athenians and Spartans more or less defensible?
  • Traditionally, just war theory within the framework of Christian thought has focused on 1) The cause, 2) The goal, and 3) Proportionality of response.  One may fight defensively, but not start wars.  One can fight to defend the innocent, but not merely to extend one’s power.   If a rival invades with 1000 troops, you cannot counter with 100,000 and destroy him utterly.  Did Sparta or Athens begin the war?  Can either side lay claim to fighting a just war?
  • Corinth was a city-state covered in faded glory, anxious to reclaim it, and one that burned with indignation at Athens for wearing the mantle of ‘top dog.’  Does Corinth share any similarities with China and Russia today?  How should Athens have dealt with the overly touchy Corinth?How do the ideas of just war fit into the context of the Peloponnesian War?  How do they fit into the modern period? What constitutes an ‘attack’ upon us?  Would a cyber-attack be an act of war that would allow us to kill others? What does the possibility of weapons of mass destruction do to the concept of pre-emption in war?  Are the old guidelines relevant today, or do they need rethought?
Dave Mathwin
Toynbee, “The Idolization of the Parochial Community”
Unhappily, Polytheism begins to produce new and pernicious social effects when its domain is extended from the realm of Nature-worship to a province of the realm of Man-worship in which the object of worship is parochial collective human power. Local worships of deified parochial communities inevitably drive their respective devotees into war with one another. Whereas Demeter our common Mother Earth is the same goddess in Attica and in Laconia, the Athene Polias of Athens and the Athana Chalcioecus of Sparta, who are the respective deifications of these two parochial communities, are bound to be rival goddesses in spite of their bearing the same name. The worship of Nature tends to unite the members of different communities because it is not self-centred; it is the worship of a power in whose presence all human beings have the identical experience of being made aware of their own human weakness. On the other hand the worship of parochial communities tends to set their respective members at variance because this religion is an expression of self-centredness; because self-centredness is the source of all strife; and because the collective ego is a more dangerous object of worship than the individual ego is.
The collective ego is more dangerous because it is more powerful, more demonic, and less patently unworthy of devotion. The collective ego combines the puny individual power of each of its devotees into the collective power of Leviathan. This collective power is at the mercy of subconscious passions because it escapes the control of the Intellect and Will that put some restraint on the individual ego. And bad behaviour that would be condemned unhesitatingly by the conscience in an individual culprit is apt to be condoned when it is perpetrated by Leviathan, under the illusion that the first person is absolved from self-centredness by being transposed from the singular number into the plural. This is, however, just the opposite of the truth; for, when an individual projects his self-centredness on to a community, he is able, with less sense of sin, to carry his egotism to greater lengths of enormity. ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’;5 and the callousness of committees testifies still more eloquently than the fury of mobs that, in collective action, the ego is capable of descending to depths to which it does not fall when it is acting on its individual responsibility.
The warfare to which parochial-community-worship leads is apt to rankle, sooner or later, into war to the death; and this self-inflicted doom is insidious, because the ultimately fatal effects of this religion are slow to reveal themselves and do not become unmistakably clear till the mischief has become mortally grave.
In its first phase the warfare between deified parochial states is usually waged in a temperate spirit and is confined within moderate limits. In this first phase the worshippers of each parochial god recognize in some degree that each neighbour parochial god is the legitimate sovereign in his own territory. Each local god will be deemed to have both the right and the power to punish alien human trespassers on his domain who commit a grievous wrong against him by committing it against his people; and this consideration counsels caution and restraint in waging war on foreign soil. It tends to prevent war from becoming total. The bashful invader will refrain, not only from desecrating the enemy’s temples, but from poisoning his wells and from cutting down his fruit trees. The Romans, when they had made up their minds to go to all lengths in warring down an enemy community, used to take the preliminary precautions of inviting the enemy gods to evacuate the doomed city and of tempting them to change sides by offering them, in exchange, honourable places in the Roman pantheon. When a local community has been exterminated or deported in defiance of the local divinity and without regard to his sovereign prerogatives, the outraged parochial god may bring the usurpers of his domain and scorners of his majesty to heel by making the place too hot to hold them except on his terms. The colonists planted by the Assyrian Government on territory that had been cleared of its previous human occupants by the deportation of the Children of Israel soon found, to their cost, that Israel’s undeported god Yahweh had lost none of his local potency; and they had no peace till they took to worshipping this very present local god instead of the gods that they had brought with them from their homelands.
Thus the conduct of war between parochial states is kept within bounds, at the start, by a common belief in the equality of sovereign parochial gods, each within his own domain. But this belief is apt to break down, and, with it, the restraint that is imposed by it. They break down because the self-worship of a parochial community is essentially incompatible with the moderation commended in such maxims as ‘Live and let live’ and ‘Do as you would be done by’. Every form of Man-worship is a religious expression of self-centredness, and is consequently infected with the intellectual mistake and the moral sin of treating a part of the Universe as if it were the whole—of trying to wrest the Universe round into centring on something in it that is not and ought not to be anything more than a subordinate part of it. Since self-centredness is innate in every living creature, it wins allegiance for any religion that ministers to it. It also inhibits any living creature that fails to break away from it from loving its neighbour as itself, and a total failure to achieve this arduous moral feat has a disastrous effect on social relations.
A further reason why it is difficult to keep the warfare between parochial states at a low psychological temperature is because parochial-community-worship wins devotion not onlyby ministering disastrously to self-centredness. It wins it also by giving a beneficent stimulus to Man’s nobler activities in the first chapter of the story. In the histories of most civilizations in their first chapters, parochial states have done more to enrich their members’ lives by fostering the arts than they have done to impoverish them by taking a toll of blood and treasure. For example, the rise of the Athenian city-state made life richer for its citizens by creating the Attic drama out of a primitive fertility-ritual before life was made intolerable for them by a series of ever more devastating wars between Athens and her rivals. The earlier Athens that had been ‘the education of Hellas’ won and held the allegiance of Athenian men and women, over whom she had cast her spell, for the benefit of the later Athens that was ‘a tyrant power’; and, though these two arrogant phrases were coined to describe Athens’ effect on the lives of the citizens of other Hellenic city-states, they describe her effect on the lives of her own citizens no less aptly. This is the tragic theme of Thucydides’ history of the Great Atheno-Peloponnesian War, and there have been many other performances of the same tragedy that have not found their Thucydides.
The strength of the devotion that parochial-community-worship thus evokes holds its devotees in bondage to it even when it is carrying them to self-destruction; and so the warfare between contending parochial states tends to grow more intense and more devastating in a crescendo movement. Respect for one’s neighbours’ gods and consideration for these alien gods’ human proteges are wasting assets. All parochial-community-worship ends in a worship of Moloch, and this ‘horrid king’ exacts more cruel sacrifices than the Golden Calf. War to the death between parochial states has been the immediate external cause of the breakdowns and disintegrations of almost all, if not all, the civilizations that have committed suicide up to date. The decline and fall of the First Mayan Civilization is perhaps the only doubtful case.
The devotion to the worship of Moloch is apt to persist until it is too late to save the life of the civilization that is being destroyed by it. It does break down at last, but not until a stage of social disintegration has been reached at which the blood-tax exacted by the waging of ever more intensive, ferocious, and devastating warfare has come palpably to outweigh any cultural and spiritual benefits that the contending parochial states may once have conferred on their citizens. . . 
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