Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Philosophy is serious stuff. I mean, just look at this guy. See how serious he is? You know he's got to be a great philosopher. And he is. This is Thucydides, an ancient Greek philosopher and historian from the 5th century BCE.
Thucydides lived in the Greek city-state Athens, the indisputable center of philosophy and education in the ancient world. Many Athenian philosophers are remembered as the founders of specific areas of study, and Thucydides is no exception. He was one of the first to devote serious attention to the political theory of international relations and established important philosophical precedents in this field. Seriously.
To understand Thucydides' ideas about politics and international relations, we first need to understand his stance on ethics, the philosophy of morality. Now, when we think of morality, we tend to think of philosophies that strictly define right and wrong. But Thucydides had a slightly different take. Throughout his writings, this philosopher meticulously examined the cause and effect of actions, but only as they could be observed. This means that unlike most ancient Greeks, he really didn't blame the gods for anything.
His focus was on observable data, which actually makes him a very early precursor of the scientific method, although he never would have used that term. So, instead of seeing morals as some universal, natural force, Thucydides saw them as the effect caused by a person's physical and social environment.
To Thucydides, ethics was a study of how various factors in a person's life influences their morality. So, he actually had a fairly skeptical viewpoint on morals. Right and wrong were therefore not simply universal truths, but something slightly different to each person, depending on your experiences. Other factors, such as social influences and basic needs like hunger, also influenced each person's beliefs about right and wrong. Now, Thucydides does not specifically say that there are no universal truths in terms of morals, but again, he is much more skeptical than other philosophers. This rather serious take on ethics sets the tone for Thucydides' views on international relations.
Thucydides' main focus as a philosopher and historian was the politics of international relations. And he lived at a great time for this - Athens had recently become so powerful that it started conquering the other Greek city-states, resulting in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta during his lifetime. From his observations and research, Thucydides came to the conclusion that political behavior is driven by fear and self-interest. Modern intellectuals call this idea political realism, and Thucydides is considered one of the founders of this school of thought.
So, here's the basic idea: Each individual person constructs their ideas about morality from their experiences and emotions, and this morality defines their political behavior. This justifies political actions guided by fear and self-interest as moral. The political behavior of many individuals together then determines how a state, like Athens, interacts with other states.
According to political realism, and according to Thucydides, this process means that states are most concerned with their own security, so priorities become things like collecting resources and building armies. This leads to the assumption that the international community is always naturally antagonistic. States can, of course, learn to work together, but the default setting is fear and rivalry. Thucydides saw all of this first-hand as Athens' ambition threw the Mediterranean into war, and political realism has been a guiding political philosophy ever since. No wonder he looked so serious.
Thucydides was a 5th century BCE Athenian philosopher and historian who developed some pretty serious ideas about ethics and international politics. As a meticulous researcher who only believed in observable cause and effect, Thucydides believed that most morals were a result of personal experience, social influence, and basic needs, as opposed to universal truths of right and wrong created by the gods. This led him to develop a political theory today called political realism, which states that political behavior is driven by fear and self-interest. This idea applies to individuals but also to entire states and explains foreign relations and international politics.
Thucydides developed this idea while watching the Greek city-states fight each other in the brutal Peloponnesian War. So, his skeptical view of morals is understandable, and political philosophers have found his ideas to be relevant many times throughout history. Even today, with the international community becoming more and more important, we still take Thucydides and his theories very seriously.
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