December 18, 2006

Thucydides, epochal wars and the Twentieth Century

Phillip Bobbitt in the Daily Times makes an interesting but ultimately highly unsatisfying argument. He argues based upon a reading of Thucydides that there are such things as epochal wars- he gives other examples of such wars, the Hundred Years War between Britain and France, the Thirty Years War in Germany, and suggests that what makes them epochal is the way that a historian or historians unite them together in a construct, showing that all the wars depend upon the same reason. For Thucydides for example, Bobbit argues the Peloponesian war was a unity because it resulted from the unhealthy rivalry between the city states of Greece in the fifth century BC.

Bobbitt is right to point out to us that wars and periodisation within history are artifacts created by historians. They flow not from the essential nature of things but from the historian's ability to classify them- so that for example the Hundred Years war describes a period of alternating war and peace between England and France not a continuous war. The thirty years war though it does describe continuing warfare for thirty years, still includes wars between various states in which the actors came in and out of the minuet of conflict like dancers at a ball, everyone changing partners but the dance continuing. The same might be said to a degree of the First and Second world wars, there were discontinuities within the makeup of the coalitions on either side.

Essenses though are things that historians fly away from. Much of the historiography of our own time has been about the breaking up of large conflicts into pieces or the unification of previously disparate conflicts and periods. One can through understanding the Dutch position in the Thirty Years War, as Jonathan Scott has, elucidate the under currents of British civil war politics. John Morrill and Conrad Russell have forced us to see that the English Civil War was a war of three Kingdoms, not just a war confined to England. Other historians focus in and draw out the unique features say of the Somme to British culture. Historians continually move their microscope in and out, attempting to capture the place of a detail within a larger period. Periods are fluid, so Jonathan Israel moves the enlightenment's origins back to the 1650s even as Jonathan Clarke moves the end of the ancien regime in England forward to the 1850s.

Bobbit's epochal wars and his reliance on a single imagination to make them ends up losing what is so instructive about history which is its variety. Not merely a variety of subject studied, but also a variety of imaginations to study it. A variety of simularities across period noticed and variety of ways of defining human experience. History is about the knowledge of the particular, but to know the particular one must appreciate the general and always in the historian's mind there is a dialogue both between the details he knows and the wider picture he infers from his own research, and also between his own research, his own picture and that of others.

We should not fossilise our own attitudes too readily- history is a pilgrimage but the point of pilgrimage isn't arrival- its travelling.


Anonymous said...

Human beings, including some historians it would seem, prefer to see patterns in observations as a first stage in rationalising what they observe. Historians and scientistst may have much in common here. The danger both face is that they may come to believe that their rational explanations that fit current observations are 'true'. The observer may impose rationality where none may actually exist - indeed some have argued that the observed world can be describede by rules that are so rational that they cannot have arisen solely by accident, but must have arisen through design. I like the analogy of the telescope.

james higham said...

So we need to be Robert Louis Stevensons here? Are there any common elements then between all wars?

Gracchi said...

Anonymous I think we agree- the key thing is that history and science are processes by which we make sense, impose rationality, upon a world made up of discreet facts. There are two temptations- the first is to think that there aren't any rational explanations and to give up and the second is to be too addicted to our own rational explanations. In many ways those are the Scylla and Charybdis of historical or scientific study.

James I think there are common elements but you have to be cautious and continue reexamining what you think about those elements- for instance one hundred years ago you might have heard the idea that wars were what happened when nation states conflicted, four hundred years ago they were what happened when religions drew up against each other. You have to recognise that an explanatory framework is only that and be ready to ammend it.

Matt M said...

You have to recognise that an explanatory framework is only that and be ready to ammend it.

Seems like a great maxim to keep in mind when approaching any rational study of something, be it history, science or whatever.

dreadnought said...

An interesting post! Of course you are absolutely correct when you detail the historian’s interactions between his own picture and research (of primary and secondary sources) and those of others. But there is always the danger of falling into traditional or common perceptions held by society. I say this as you referred to the “unique features of the Somme to British culture”. ‘Social’ historians or ‘lesser’ military historians may have it that the Somme was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish with incompetent generals destroying the flower of British manhood to achieve very little etc, etc, which is probably the accepted and widely held public view of the battle. Whereas a ‘good’ military historian, whilst acknowledging that the Somme was indeed terrible, might argue that it had to be fought to save France (and committing the ‘new army’ earlier than planned) and it was the start of the education process of the BEF to become the mighty fighting machine it was 2 years later. The former view has, as you say, been “fossilised” into culture with the latter remaining virtually unknown.