Path to History
“Throughout the human experience people have read history because they felt that it was a pleasure and that it was in some way instructive,” says Donald Kagan. “Without history, we are the prisoners of the accident of where and when we were born.” Known to his students as a “one-man university,” Kagan has illuminated the history of the ancient Greeks for thousands of students and readers.
Kagan began studying the classics while he was an undergraduate at Brooklyn College. “I felt drawn to these remarkable people,” says Kagan, who saw a “tragic spirit” in the ancient Greeks in the way they approached mortality. “They faced the fact that death would come, and it was terrible, but the fact that death would come did not mean that what we did while we were alive was unimportant.”
Kagan’s best known work is his monumental four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War. He admires Thucydides, the original historian of that war, and credits him with changing how history is written. “Thucydides stood on the edge of philosophy. He was sufficiently a historian to feel compelled to establish the particulars, to present the data as accurately as he could, but he was no less, and perhaps more, concerned to convey the general truths that he had discovered.”
“It’s not an accident I spend most of my life reading Thucydides. Most people who are interested in history start with him,” continues Kagan. “Herodotus is first, but there’s a continuity between Thucydides and the way he carried out his work and serious historians afterwards.”
Born in Lithuania in 1932, Kagan was the first in his family to attend college, earning his master’s degree in classics from Brown University, and his doctoral degree in history from Ohio State University in 1958. He holds honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees from the University of New Haven and Adelphi University. Before coming to Yale in 1969, Kagan taught at Pennsylvania State University and Cornell University. From 1988-93, Kagan served as a member of the National Council on the Humanities. He has won numerous awards and fellowships, including four teaching awards at Cornell and Yale. President George W. Bush presented him with a 2002 National Humanities Medal.
Kagan’s recent books include Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy (1991), On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (1995), While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today (2000, with Frederick W. Kagan), and The Peloponnesian War (2003), a one-volume history of the war. He also has published numerous articles and commentary for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Public Interest. Kagan lives in Hamden, Connecticut, with his wife, Myrna.
Once a liberal Democrat, Kagan changed his views in 1969. According to Jim Lobe, cited by Craig Unger, Kagan’s turn away from liberalism occurred in 1969 when Cornell University was pressured into starting a Black Studies program by gun-wielding students seizing the Willard Straight Hall: “Watching administrators demonstrate all the courage of Neville Chamberlain had a great impact on me, and I became much more conservative.” He was one of the original signers of the 1997 Statement of Principles by the neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century, co-founded by his son Robert Kagan. On the eve of the 2000 presidential elections, Kagan and his son, Frederick Kagan, published While America Sleeps, a call to increase defense spending.
Known for his prolific research of the Peloponnesian War; Kagan is also famous for his work On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, a comparative history examining four major conflicts (the Peloponnesian War, World War I, the Second Punic War, and World War II) and one non-conflict (the Cuban Missile Crisis) with the purpose of identifying how and why wars do or do not begin. Remarking in 2015 on the work, Kagan summarized the causes of war by quoting Thucydides: “You know, Thucydides has this great insight. I wish I could get people to pay attention – he has one of his speakers at the beginning of the war say, ‘Why do people go to war? Out of fear, honor, and interest.’ Well, everybody knows interest, and fear is very credible. Nobody takes honor seriously.” Kagan believes honor—better understood as “prestige”— was crucial in beginning World War I, for example.
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awarded Donald Kagan the National Humanities Medal in 2002, and selected him to deliver the 2005 Jefferson Lecture,. Kagan titled his lecture, “In Defense of History”; he argued that history is of primary importance in the study of the humanities. In his The New Yorker review, George Steiner said of Kagan’s four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War: “The temptation to acclaim Kagan’s four volumes as the foremost work of history produced in North America in this century is vivid.”
Until his retirement in 2013, Kagan was Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University. His “The Origins of War” was one of Yale’s most popular courses for twenty-five years. Over an even longer timespan he taught “Introduction to Ancient Greek History” and upper level History and Classical Civilization seminars focusing on topics from Thucydides to the Lakedaimonian hegemony. (Text via Wikipedia)
Appreciation: The Scholar and the Teacher
By Barry Strauss
I first met Donald Kagan in the fall of 1974 when I arrived at Yale to begin the doctoral program in ancient history. Perhaps “met” is not quite the right word: although not yet the nationally known figure he is today, Kagan was already a phenomenon. “Encounter” may be a better way to describe an introduction to one of the most intellectually challenging educators I have ever known. Or “matriculate,” because Kagan was little short of a one-man university.
During my years at Yale in the mid- to late-1970s, Kagan seemed to be in perpetual motion. He was chairman of the classics department, master of Timothy Dwight College, advocate of freedom of speech, gadfly, scholar, author, editor, raconteur, political commentator, sports fan, film buff, and family man, and one of the most popular and highly regarded teachers on campus. He was exuberant in his causes and rapid-fire in his wit. And yet, ask a question and, seemingly without any hesitation, he would answer in the prudent and measured words that would have taken most of us the better part of an afternoon to put together.
There is something of the Renaissance about Kagan, classicist though he is, and not just that overused term, “Renaissance Man,” although he is the soul of versatility. And it isn’t just his fondness for the Florentine statesman and historian Francesco Guicciardini, whose maxims he often quoted back then. Rather, he has a humanist’s passion for Greco-Roman antiquity, an orator’s way with words, a diplomat’s shrewdness, a neo-Platonist’s idealism and, last but not least, a sense of humor to leave Puck in the shade. He displays, moreover, patriotism enough to rival a Florentine’s love of his city-state. And in those days of the 1970s, in the shadow of Vietnam and Watergate, it was as courageous as it was unfashionable to be patriotic, especially for an Ivy League professor. To sum it up, Kagan demonstrates the combination of realism and principle that is, perhaps, the hallmark of the Renaissance.
After the 1970s Kagan went on to serve as dean of Yale College and acting director of athletics at Yale. He began appearing on the op-ed pages and in magazines as well as on radio and television. And he added a number of major awards to his already deeply impressive collection of honors, most notably, the National Humanities Medal for 2002, and now, the Jefferson Lectureship, the highest honor the federal government bestows in the humanities. All of this not only offers well-deserved recognition to extraordinary achievement, but it strengthens the conclusion that there are, in fact, many Don Kagans, from the athlete to the administrator, from the public intellectual to the godfather of campus conservatism, from the vigorous defender of the teaching of western civilization to the expert witness on foreign policy before a committee of the U.S. Congress. But there are two aspects of this remarkable man that have, I think, remained constants in his career: the exceptional scholar and the nonpareil teacher.
Kagan’s lectures are legendary. As a performer he has superb delivery, perfect timing, and complete connection with the audience. He is full of wit and humor, by turns almost vaudevillian and master of the deadpan joke. Few will forget his way of asking good-natured student volunteers to form a hoplite phalanx, in order to show how ancient armies tended to lean to the right as they marched so each man could cover his unprotected side by the shield beside him. Yet if part of Kagan’s appeal is laughter, another part of it is that he takes himself seriously. For Kagan, ancient history is not just diverting but enlightening, even essential, because studying it makes us better citizens. His lectures are as substantive as they are dramatic, whether they test hypotheses about the causes of war or chart the rise and fall of a civilization. And when, in the last lecture of his introductory Greek history course, he asks students to shed a tear for the death of the polis, you feel strangely moved.
Kagan is the rare teacher who is as good in seminar as he is in lecture. It may be surprising that such a good speaker designs his seminars to keep him offstage. Instead, the students do the talking. Each week two students write short essays on issues relating to the week’s seminar topic, and those essays, submitted in advance for photocopying, become part of the common reading. Two other students serve as discussants, and that gets the ball rolling in class. Kagan usually intervenes toward the end of seminar, although sometimes only to get enthusiasts reluctantly to move on. And there are his trademark “votes,” such as having the class vote on ancient matters of life or death such as Thucydides Mytilenian debate or the trial of Socrates.
The seminars take a leaf from the book that Kagan co-authored with Brian Tierney and L. Pearce Williams in 1967, and which enjoyed four editions, Great Issues in Western Civilization. Each chapter takes a provocative and debatable question and illustrates the clash of opinions with opposing selections from contemporary sources and modern historical scholarship. Examples include “Was Athens a Democracy?” and “The Causes of the First World War.” The point is to get the reader to make up his or her own mind by examining the evidence directly. It is a singularly democratic approach to learning.
Kagan is very generous to his students. Many of us tell our students that they consider them to be friends. With Kagan, those were not just words. He took us to lunches at Mory’s along with guests such as A. Bartlett Giamatti, a literary scholar and baseball writer, later president of Yale and of the National League as well as commissioner of Baseball. He invited us to teas at the Elizabethan Club and football games at the Yale Bowl. Or, rather, I should say, he conducted open-air seminars on the history and strategy of football, using Yale and its opponent of the day as a living laboratory. Beforehand I thought football was a game; afterwards I realized that it was an art.
Kagan has certainly left a mark on us. Among Yale graduate students who worked with him in my day alone, half a dozen or more of us earn our living as university professors of ancient history or classics, and half a dozen others are professional historians of Germany, Italy, Russia, or the United States. But our numbers also include a top executive of one of the nation’s leading charitable organizations and the American ambassador to one of the world’s largest Muslim states. If we were to add Yale undergraduates who wrote a senior thesis with Kagan in that era, we would find, among others, an archaeologist, a historian of the modern European military, a U.S. attorney, and an urbanologist. Following Kagan’s footsteps as an all-rounder, two of those who have not pursued careers in ancient history have nonetheless published well-regarded scholarly books about ancient Greece. Two of the professors double as rowing coaches. And this, of course, is to say nothing of Kagan’s students from the 1960s, when he taught at Cornell, or at Yale from 1980 until today.
In any case, few of the people who are familiar with Kagan have actually met him, since he is best known as an author. He has published more than fifty books and articles. While ancient history is the central theme, his writings range over such subjects as political theory, the philosophy of education, the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War, contemporary American diplomacy and military affairs, terrorism, human rights, civil disobedience, baseball, and detective novels. He is co-author of one of the most successful textbooks on the history of western civilization, now in its eighth edition. He is also co-author, with one of his sons, of a book on the weaknesses of American foreign and military policy in the 1990s and the looming threat of conflict with China.
One of his most intriguing books evolved from an undergraduate lecture course. On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, published in 1995, grew out of his comparative history course. Few other historians could have pulled off so ambitious a course: like the book, the course examined the beginnings of four terrible wars (the Peloponnesian war, the second Punic War, and the World Wars) with a war that didn’t happen as a “control” (the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962). No other professor, I suspect, could have made the course so enjoyable. The opening lecture, for example, compares methodology in the humanities and social sciences by asking students whether baseball great Ted Williams was a clutch hitter. But all is not lightness, far from it: the thesis of the book is not for the faint of heart. Peace, Kagan argues, is not the natural state of mankind. Unless we make an effort to preserve peace we will sink into war. What is needed is a vigilant and tireless struggle that includes military preparedness as well as diplomacy. Such a lesson is rarely popular, especially not in a free, open, easy-going democracy like our own.
The centerpiece of Kagan’s scholarship is his four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War. Published between 1969 and 1987, these books are the standard account of the twenty-seven-year struggle (431-404 B.C.E.) that split the Greek world, ended Athens’s Golden Age, and inspired one of the most profound observers of war and the human condition, Thucydides. Writing in The New Yorker, critic George Steiner called these books “the foremost works of history produced in North America in this century.” These books were encapsulated in a single volume in 2003, the best-selling Peloponnesian War. As the titles of the earlier four volumes indicate, they are a narrative history: The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (1969), The Archidamian War (1974), The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (1981), and The Fall of the Athenian Empire (1987). What the titles cannot indicate, however, is the prodigious amount of scholarship that has gone into the books.
To reconstruct the Peloponnesian War means not only mastering Thucydides’ great work and the sizable scholarly literature on it. It means commanding a variety of other ancient sources of evidence on the war, from the famous, such as Plutarch or Aristophanes, to the obscure, such as Diodorus Siculus or the Suda, and covering a range of media, from inscriptions to coins to archaeology and a hypothetical reconstruction of an ancient Greek galley. Not only is Kagan on top of this material but he wears his learning lightly. His prose is readable, his scholarship profound. He masters both the large picture and the telling detail. While letting the reader observe the historian at work, Kagan never loses sight of his primary responsibility to offer an analytical narrative of the war rather than a series of specialized studies.
And analysis is what is indeed on offer. The focus is on policy and on the statesmen and generals who implemented it. The big questions are the various strategies employed during the war and the interplay between domestic politics and foreign policy. Although the volumes are well-rounded accounts of military history, from battle and weaponry to diplomacy and finance to scandal, their forte is the history of strategy.
Kagan is well served by the breadth of his interests. In addition to being a classicist, he is well read on the history of strategy, from Vegetius to Clausewitz and from Sun Tzu to Mao. He is also an observer and frequent writer on contemporary strategy, which makes him unusually sensitive to the realities of power. Nor are Kagan’s own experiences in academic administration irrelevant. Few historians have better understood that, even in the fifth century B.C.E., politics was the art of the possible and war was never made in a political vacuum. And yet, no historian would ever have rejected more emphatically the idea of politics without principle or war without strategy.
Who better than a historian-classicist-administrator, who is also a student of the shifting strategies of today, to understand a man of classical antiquity who was a historian with a keen interest in politics as well as a former admiral? That man, of course, is Thucydides. He is not simply Kagan’s main witness but in a real sense, his colleague.
One of the achievements of these volumes is the debate with Thucydides. Respectful, knowledgeable, and vigorous, these books are arguably the closest we will ever come to a point-by-point dialogue with the great Athenian about his judgments and conclusions. For instance, Kagan challenges Thucydides’ judgment that the Sicilian Expedition was simply a bad idea or Thucydides’ verdict that Cleon had nothing to recommend him as a strategist. Kagan argues instead that Cleon’s aggressive policies were what Athens needed after its first strategy of a defensive posture had failed; he even suggests that far from being Periclean , as Thucydides would have it, Cleon represented the strategy that Pericles would have turned to had he still been alive. As for the Sicilian Expedition in which the Athenian forces were destroyed, Kagan sees it, rather, as a good idea that was miserably executed.
Kagan’s first and probably best-known challenge to Thucydides is the central thesis of the first volume, arguing against Thucydides’ conclusion that the Peloponnesian War was inevitable and the result of sweeping historical forces. Kagan prefers to see the war as the result of a series of individual choices and miscalculations that, until nearly the last minute, could have been reversed. As he writes in The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War: “The Peloponnesian War was not caused by impersonal forces, unless anger, fear, undue optimism, stubbornness, jealousy, bad judgment, and lack of foresight are impersonal forces. It was caused by men who made bad decisions in difficult circumstances.”
The sentences offer a good example of the liveliness and clarity of Kagan’s prose. Note also his balance and fairness in his appraisal of Thucydides: “We should also remember that the great majority of the evidence that permits us to reject the Thucydidean interpretation is provided by Thucydides. The purpose of Thucydides was to set before us the truth as he saw it, but his truth need not be ours.”
In terms of methodology, Kagan is profoundly and proudly conservative. Although up-to-date on the latest scholarship, he often cites the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century historians of ancient Greece. Think of someone like George Grote, the English banker and Parliamentarian who also wrote a classic, multi-volume history of ancient Greece. There was Eduard Meyer, an encyclopedic scholar of the ancient world in nearly all of its variety as well as vice-chancellor of the University of Berlin. There was Karl Julius Beloch, a cranky genius who lived in self-imposed exile from Germany in Rome and wrote classic studies of ancient demography as well as a history of Greece and a too-often neglected series of vignettes of Athenian politicians. But perhaps Kagan’s closest model among the earlier giants is Georg Busolt. He was an expert on Greek constitutional history; some of his work has not yet been superseded. Busolt’s masterpiece was a history of Greece. For their sheer judiciousness as well as their precision and vigor, Busolt’s three volumes remain a model of the historian’s craft. And Kagan often commended them to his students as the example of what we should aim for in our own work.
He himself achieves it–and then some. Because Kagan’s volumes on the Peloponnesian War are as sober, scholarly, and well-reasoned as Busolt’s work, they are the essential modern treatment of the subject. They ask big questions about war and peace, strategy and policy, personality and statecraft, democracy and the defense of free societies, they are repositories of wisdom. In bringing to life a chronicle of amazing deeds and a pageant of astonishing characters–none more astonishing than Thucydides himself–they are a matchless combination of classical restraint and natural character.
But then, so is their author. Magisterial, commonsensical, learned, entertaining, courageous, inimitable–the list of adjectives about the man could go on and on. But if I were to sum up in one word the feeling that we all have about studying with Don Kagan, it would be this: “lucky.” To quote Guiccardini: “Since there is nothing so well worth having as friends, never lose a chance to make them.” How glad we are to have had a teacher who lives by this motto.
Excerpts from Kagan’s Work
Perciles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy
Ancient and modern critics of democracy have shared a basic attitude. Both have distrusted the ordinary person and overridden his autonomy in search of a higher goal: a utopian idea of justice. For Plato, that meant government by a small group of philosophers who would rule in the light of a divine, unchanging knowledge. For Marxian theory, it meant a utopia of equality and total liberty without exploitation or alienation. In its earthly manifestation that came to mean the rule of the “proletariat”–in fact, a small dictatorial “revolutionary vanguard” led by such men as Lenin, Mao, and Castro–governed such utopias as the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Cuba. Both critiques of democracy share the beliefs that individual freedom and self–government are secondary to the construction of a truly just society, and that there is a small class of people who alone know the right goals and how to achieve them.
Most defenders of democracy deny that there is an art or science of government, known or knowable only by some elite group. They believe that good government and the achievement of a good society require the participation of all citizens. The elements of democracy–individual liberty, equality before the law, equal opportunity, the right to vote, and the right to hold office–are not the means to a higher end. Rather, the system of democratic self–government is an end in itself. Human dignity and flourishing require a reasonable level of economic well–being and the exercise of those human qualities that are needed for a life of freedom and autonomy. Politics, therefore, not economics, is primary. No political system can guarantee prosperity, but a democratic system can at least provide a part of what is needed.
The story of the Athenians in the time of Pericles suggests that the creation and survival of democracy requires leadership of a high order. When tested, the Athenians behaved with the required devotion, wisdom, and moderation in large part because they had been inspired by the democratic vision and example that Pericles had so effectively communicated to them. It was a vision that exalted the individual within the political community; it limited the scope and power of the state, leaving enough space for individual freedom, privacy, and the human dignity of which they are a crucial part. It rejected the leveling principle pursued by both ancient Sparta and modern socialism, which requires the suppression of those rights. By rewarding merit, it encouraged the individual achievement and excellence that makes life sweet and raises the quality of life for everyone. Above all, Pericles convinced the Athenians that their private needs, both moral and material, required the kind of community Athens had become. Therefore, they were willing to run risks in its defense, make sacrifices on its behalf, and restrain their passions and desires to preserve it.
While America Sleeps
America is in danger. Unless its leaders change their national security policy, the peace and safety its power and influence have ensured since the end of the Cold War will disappear. Already, increasing military weakness and confusion about foreign and defense policy have encouraged the development of powerful hostile states and coalitions that challenge the interests and security of the United States, its allies and friends, and all those with an interest in preserving the general peace. Without American support, the friends of democracy and human rights will cry in vain for protection against the forces of repression, which persist and will intensify in areas from which American power will have to be withdrawn for lack of strength and will. Despite that withdrawal, those forces will continue to identify the United States as the source of a modernization that threatens them, as the propagator of values they find evil and abhorrent, as their principal enemy. Over time the technologies of which the United States and its allies are the chief possessors will fall into these unfriendly hands and may be used against them directly.
In the past, the collapse of an international system that suited the United States deprived Americans of access to markets or caused American casualties on faraway battlefields. In the future, it will bring attacks on the American homeland, not merely by terrorists, but as part of deliberately planned and carefully executed military strikes against critical targets in the United States of America. The happy international situation that emerged in 1991, characterized by the spread of democracy, free trade, and peace, so congenial to America, has begun to decay at an alarming rate and will vanish unless there is a change of course. The costs of failure now are far higher than ever before.
The American economy enjoys a greater prosperity than any it has ever known–if this is an “era of constrained resources,” then resources are and always will be constrained. Economically, conditions will never be better than this. America can maintain ground forces adequate to her global needs, as well as air and naval forces that, unlike England’s, brook no challenge from any existing foe. Above all, America has suffered no such recent calamity as World War I. The continued wounds received from the “Vietnam syndrome” are self–inflicted and unnecessary. There is no reason whatsoever why America should not accept the burden fate laid upon her in 1991 and pay the price for doing so. The price of failure to accept it will be very much higher.
This warning, in many respects, is already too late. The cost of repairing our military deficiencies will already be staggering. The international situation has already begin to slip from our control. The Gulf coalition has shattered; NATO and the United States risk drifting apart. Challengers to the status quo proliferate, along with weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. The English had this dubious advantage over today’s America, that England was bombed in World War I–there was no need to argue on behalf of the need for air defense (although the solutions proposed and adopted were inadequate all the same). Americans today, at least judging by the actions of their leaders, do not understand their risk in this regard. In the war of 2020, certainly, of 2010, possibly, perhaps even earlier, America will not be immune to direct attack anymore. And it has done, so far, much less than the British at an equivalent point to address that danger.
America’s course now is much harder than it would have been had it followed a prudent path after the Gulf War. Its Iraq policy is in ruins; it will not be resurrected. The threat from North Korea has only been delayed. In the wings, Russia, which was friendly in 1991, is increasingly restive. China grows ever stronger and more technologically capable–sources of conflict with her are obvious. If ever there was a “strategic pause” it is gone. Now the United States must begin to gird itself for the next round of conflict.
The Peloponnesian War
From the perspective of the fifth–century Greeks the Peloponnesian War was legitimately perceived as a world war, causing enormous destruction of life and property, intensifying factional and class hostility, and dividing the Greek states internally and destabilizing their relationship to one another, which ultimately weakened their capacity to resist conquest from outside. It also reversed the tendency toward the growth of democracy. When Athens was powerful and successful, its democratic constitution had a magnetic effect on other states, but its defeat was decisive in the political development of Greece, sending it in the direction of oligarchy.
The Peloponnesian War was also a conflict of unprecedented brutality, violating even the harsh code that had previously governed Greek warfare and breaking through the thin line that separates civilization from savagery. Anger, frustration, and the desire for vengeance increased as the fighting dragged on, resulting in a progression of atrocities that included maiming and killing captured opponents; throwing them into pits to die of thirst, starvation, and exposure; and hurling them into the sea to drown. Bands of marauders murdered innocent children. Entire cities were destroyed, their men killed, their women and children sold as slaves. On the island of Corcyra, now called Corfu, the victorious faction in a civil war brought on by the larger struggle butchered their fellow citizens for a full week: “Sons were killed by their father, and suppliants dragged from the altar or slain upon it.”
As the violence spread it brought a collapse in the habits, institutions, beliefs, and restraints that are the foundations of civilized life. The meanings of words changed to suit the bellicosity: “Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness.” Religion lost its restraining power, “but the use of fair phrases to arrive at guilty ends was in high reputation.” Truth and honor disappeared, “and society became divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow.” Such was the conflict that inspired Thucydides’s mordant observations on the character of war as “a savage schoolmaster that brings the characters of most people down to the level of their current circumstances.”
On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace
Our study of the episodes examined here suggests some general observations about the origins of wars and the preservation of peace. The first is that in a world of sovereign states a contest among them over the distribution of power is the normal condition and that such contests often lead to war. Another observation is that the reasons for seeking more power are often not merely the search for security or material advantage. Among them are demands for greater prestige, respect, deference, in short, honor. Since such demands involve judgments even more subjective than those about material advantage, they are still harder to satisfy. Other reasons emerge from fear, often unclear and intangible, not always of immediate threats but also of more distant ones, against which reassurance may not be possible. The persistence of such thinking in a wide variety of states and systems over the space of millennia suggests the unwelcome conclusion that war is probably part of the human condition and likely to be with us for some time yet.
Most thinking and writing about the subject, however, has assumed tacitly that peace is the natural state of relations among states, that war is an aberration that can be escaped by improving the character of the decision makers, by the evolution of society away from bellicose traditions and institutions, and by avoiding entangling or provocative actions. The suggested solutions since the eighteenth century chiefly have been the education of peoples and their leaders to produce an understanding that war is not only terrible but also wicked, irrational, and unprofitable. Assuming that people go to war chiefly for some rational purpose, usually to gain some material advantage, this approach counts on education to produce a more correct rational understanding of the interests of those involved. To that extent alone is it active. Apart from education the chief course advised to maintain peace is restraint: the avoidance of actions that will destroy the peace that is in the natural order of things.
The evidence provided by the experience of human beings living in organized societies for more than five millennia suggests otherwise. Statistically, war has been more common than peace, and extended periods of peace have been rare in a world divided into multiple states. The cases we have examined indicate that good will, unilateral disarmament, the avoidances of alliances, teaching and preaching the evils of war by those states who, generally satisfied with the state of the world, seek to preserve peace, are of no avail.
What seems to work best, even though imperfectly, is the possession by those states who wish to preserve the peace of the preponderant power and of the will to accept the burdens and responsibilities required to achieve that purpose. They must understand that no international situation is permanent, that part of their responsibility is to accept and sometimes even assist changes, some of which they will not like, guiding their achievement through peaceful channels, but always prepared to resist, with force if necessary, changes made by threats or violence that threaten the general peace.
George Will’s Baseball–A Conservative Critique
It was a time of heroic greatness and consistent excellence, when dynasties were challenged by other dynasties. The war between the Yankees and Dodgers extended from 1947 through 1956, a decade–the very length of the war between the Greeks and Trojans. It is true that most of the action took place in New York City among the Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees, and that Will [columnist George Will] is devoted to the Chicago Cubs. But in the twelfth century B.C. all the action was at Troy, and you didn’t have to root for Troy or Argos or Ithaca to appreciate the show. Of course, the Cubs haven’t won a pennant since 1945 or a World Series since Teddy Roosevelt was president; no doubt such a lengthy frustration makes a man disgruntled and causes him to lose his judgment.
How else can we explain Will’s failure to appreciate the lost grandeur of baseball in the fifties? For the last time the national game held its place as part of nature, timeless and regular as Newton’s universe. In the beginning God created sixteen major–league baseball teams, eight in the National League and eight in the American. Baseball was played on natural grass and mostly in the daytime. Each team played every other team in its league twenty–two times a season, eleven games at home and eleven away; the seventy–seven games at home and seventy–seven away made for a perfectly symmetrical season. The Yankees ruled this world as the Olympian gods ruled theirs. The mighty Dodgers and Giants challenged their supremacy as the Titans and Giants challenged the Olympians, and to no more avail. The Yankees ruled with steadiness, serenity, and justice, and only the unworthy gnashed their teeth in envy and prayed for chaos to shatter the unwelcome order.
Then, at last, the forces of disorder held sway. The Yankees, a pale copy of the great teams, won their last pennant of the era in 1964. Then came Götterdämmerung: burning cities at home, frustrating and divisive wars abroad, one president forced not to seek reelection and another to resign his office, debasement of the schools and universities, the rise of a drug culture, the collapse of sexual decorum and restraint. If, in a future age, Western civilization should come to an end, some perceptive scholar will point with certainty to the era that marked the beginning of its decline. The first clear sign came in 1953, when the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee; the next year the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles. Beginning in 1961 new teams were added, and in 1969 each league was divided into two divisions. The Dark Ages had begun. It is not clear that we shall ever see a Renaissance. It boggles the mind that a serious thinker who passes for a conservative could applaud such a decline.
The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides stood on the edge of philosophy. He was sufficiently a historian to feel compelled to establish the particulars, to present the data as accurately as he could, but he was no less, and perhaps more, concerned to convey the general truths that he had discovered. His passion for truth, his careful distinction between remote and immediate causes, his refusal to explain human events by celestial intervention have all led modern scholars to see him as very much like a modern historian. The fact is that in many ways he is far less modern than Herodotus. The canons of modern historical scholarship demand the presentation of a fair sample of the evidence.
Evidence must be presented on both sides of an argument, and the interpretation must emerge from a demonstration that one thesis is better founded than another. Where there is conflicting evidence, the sources must be cited and reasons given for preferring one over the other. Relevant material known to the historian must be reported even though it contributes to a thesis that he believes mistaken. It should be perfectly plain that Herodotus complies with these demands far more than does Thucydides, who, in fact, violates every one of them at some time or another. Herodotus loves the phenomena in themselves; he is chiefly concerned with composing an interesting and honest narrative. He also wants to suggest some general truths, but that purpose is secondary. Thucydides has a different purpose. The phenomena and the narrative are not ends in themselves, but means whereby the historian can illustrate general truths.
This is not to say that Thucydides means to deceive. Quite the opposite is true. He is determined that the reader will not be deceived, so he selects his material in such a way as to emphasize and clarify the truth. We must remember that his immediate audience knew much more than we do about the events that led to the Peloponnesian War. When Thucydides treated the Megarian Decree with such contempt, they were fully aware of all the evidence on the other side, and Thucydides knew it. His peculiar emphasis was not an attempt at deception but at interpretation. We should also remember that the great majority of the evidence that permits us to reject the Thucydidean interpretation is provided by Thucydides. The purpose of Thucydides was to set before us the truth as he saw it, but his truth need not be ours. If we are to use his history with profit, as we can and must, we must distinguish between the evidence he presents and the interpretation he puts on it. Only then can we use it as a “possession forever.”
- Kagan, Donald. (1965). The Great Dialogue: A History of Greek Political Thought from Homer to Polybius. New York: Free Press.
- Kagan, Donald. (1969). The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
- Kagan, Donald. (1974). The Archidamian War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
- Kagan, Donald. (1981). The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
- Kagan, Donald. (1987). The Fall of the Athenian Empire. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
- Kagan, Donald. (1991). Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. New York: The Free Press.
- Kagan, Donald. (1995). On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. New York: Doubleday.
- Kagan, Donald and Kagan, Frederick. (2000). While America Sleeps. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Kagan, Donald, Craig, Albert M., Graham, William A., Ozment, Steven, and Turner, Frank M. (2000). The Heritage of World Civilizations.
- Kagan, Donald, Ozment, Steven, and Turner, Frank M.. (2003). The Western Heritage. New York: Prentice Hall.
- Kagan, Donald. (2003). The Peloponnesian War. New York: Viking Press.
- Kagan, Donald. (2009). Thucydides: The Reinvention of History. New York: Viking Press.
- Kagan, Donald. (2013). Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece. Princeton University Press.
Interview with Dr. Kagan – ‘On Learning from the Greeks’
Kagan spoke with late NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about the teaching of history.
Bruce Cole: How did you get to be an historian?
Donald Kagan: From the time I was a little boy I found myself reading history when I had a choice. I read a lot of things, but history had a special appeal for me.
Then, as so often is the case, a teacher made a difference. In high school I had a teacher who taught us modern European history. I was so taken with the various qualities that he had and a way of thinking that I had not heard before that it caught my attention. Nobody I knew had ever gone to college, so the notion of being a professor simply didn’t occur to me, but I thought I would be a high school history teacher just like Mr. Silverman.
Cole: You talk about history being fun and history being enjoyable. Isn’t that one of the real reasons people read history?
Kagan: Oh, yes. Throughout the human experience people have read history because they felt that it was a pleasure and that it was in some way instructive. The profession of professor of history has taken it in a very different direction. There’s never been such a gap between people who write history as a profession and people who read history. To most people, history doesn’t seem like fun, and it doesn’t seem to have very much to do with what they are interested in.
Cole: Why is that?
Kagan: The profession took a particular turn that I don’t think was inevitable or necessary, away from what it had been in the primary sense–the telling of a story, a narrative act. History had its own way of explaining things. The way historians explain things is by telling a story. They ask a question to which the answer is a story. That is to say, it’s a series of human reactions to particular circumstances that take place in time and thereby produce a narrative and a story.
Somehow I think the power of the physical sciences attracted people’s minds, and anything that wasn’t a science somehow wasn’t serious. So people decided that what we historians do had to be a science. The more that misfit took place, the further it went away from the traditional concept of history.
Cole: You had to give history a kind of legitimacy in the academy?
Kagan: That’s right. It had to be something as serious a science seemed to be.
Cole: When do you date that to?
Kagan: You could say, I suppose, that there were professional historians in the nineteenth century, particularly, I would say, in Germany, where they invented the PhD. These were people who made their livings first of all as professors at universities, and, second of all, as people who wrote history. That didn’t require that they should turn away from the traditional approach, and many of them did not. I think the big turn came somewhere in the twentieth century after the First World War, and again, I think, as a reaction to the power of science.
Cole: This goes across all the humanities disciplines?
Kagan: That’s right. It just seemed easier to many people to do it with history than it did with some of the other humanities. The other humanities didn’t go the way of science. They went off into other strange directions. When I think about it, everybody would consider the great historians who have ever lived–Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Gibbon, Macaulay–none of them got a PhD.
Cole: Don’t you think, though, that one of the reasons that the sale of books on history is so vigorous today is because people are reading history for pleasure?
Kagan: That’s right. They read those books that fit their interest in history. They don’t read other books.
Cole: I have this idea–it comes from John Lukacs–that history is our fourth dimension and that we have to be historians. We can’t get to work in the morning unless we have memory, a home.
Kagan: In my judgment, the best history is one that tells a story and combines it with analysis. The natural way for an historian to analyze things includes answering with a tale. The combination of telling an interesting story and answering questions along the way that an intelligent person is interested in hearing about–that’s history at its peak, in my opinion.
Cole: If you were cast away on a desert island and you had only one book by an historian–
Kagan: One book, eh? Oh, that’s hard.
Cole: How about two? I’ll let you have two.
Kagan: I guess it’s not an accident I spend most of my life reading Thucydides. Most people who are interested in history start with him.
Herodotus is first, but there’s a continuity between Thucydides and the way he carried out his work and serious historians afterward. He maintains that power. I could not give him up. I love the way he writes.
Beyond that, I would want to have the historical essays of Thomas Babington Macaulay.
Cole: That’s very interesting. How about Gibbon?
Kagan: Gibbon is a more cultivated taste. His style is too fancy for my particular taste. The story is a grand story, but I don’t find that as you move along it’s as captivating as many others.
Cole: The greatest user of irony ever, though–
Kagan: –is Gibbon.
Kagan: No wonder. I don’t have proof of this but I’m convinced his favorite writer must have been Tacitus, who has that same quality. But the styles are very different. Tacitus is very terse and ends up with a sting in the tale. I guess Gibbon does a lot of that, too, but Gibbon is wonderfully satirical.
Cole: Wonderful. Let’s get back to you. You had this inspiring teacher, Mr. Silverman. Then what happened?
Kagan: There was another teacher as well. I went to college to prepare to be a high school history teacher with a particular interest in modern European history. In those days, the New York City school system was really excellent and demanding. They had a curriculum that required all potential history teachers to take many a course. So I thought, why don’t I start at the beginning? I thought I would take ancient history. I went to the wise old heads among the students in this field and I said, ‘What about that?’ They said, ‘No. Ancient history is fine, but wait until you’re a senior because maybe she will have retired.’
This remarkable woman–Professor Meta Elizabeth Schutz was her name– had this reputation of being an ogre, just a terrifying person. She was a maiden lady from Maine, and, indeed, she gave out the signals of a very hard-headed lady. I took her course, and I was overwhelmed by how serious she was about what she was doing. Part of it was to communicate to us the history, and part of it was to improve us as students, which she thought meant also as people.
She didn’t let anything go by. She was as demanding of us both in terms of knowing what was in the books and in our expressing ourselves, in the quality of our thought.
I wanted to be like her. She was my model. I often wonder if she had been teaching something else whether I would have been captured equally.
Kagan: As it turned out, she was teaching Greeks and Romans, and they just grabbed me, especially the Greeks. I felt drawn to these remarkable people.
I would put her first in terms of pushing me in that direction.
Cole: Did you find that same kind of inspiration in when you went off to graduate school? Were there models there, too, for you?
Kagan: There were, although I really didn’t need it much anymore. I had been so excited by what happened. It changed my life. I determined that I was going to be a professor of ancient history no matter what it took. And it took a lot. I was in the second semester of my sophomore year, and I had never studied Latin or Greek. I discovered that I would need to be able to master Latin and Greek and French and German and probably Italian, too. It was really quite a crazy and bold step.
Cole: Were you the first person in your family to go to college?
Kagan: Yes, I was.
Cole: Me, too.
Kagan: So you know how we appreciate it.
Kagan: Well, let me tell you one more teacher story, because I personally am walking proof of how important teachers can be to students. I was so far behind in the classical languages, and somebody said, “Well, why don’t you go over to somebody in the classics department and ask for help?” This seemed strange, but I thought I would.
I went to a teacher and told her my story, and she said, “Yes. I will help you.” She must have been a woman in her sixties, and she had suffered stroke, so that she wasn’t getting along very well. She said, “If you will come to my house at eight o’clock in the morning”–classes began at nine at my college–“I will teach you Latin as fast as you can learn it.” In the remainder of that semester, we covered the whole year of Latin in less than a semester. She did this out of the goodness of her heart. That gave me the chance, a fighting chance if I kept slugging away, to get to where I wanted to go. It tells you something about what a real teacher can be like.
Cole: This has been your model for teaching. And I am sure you have given back this many times.
Kagan: I doubt that I could have been as worthy and as important as they were, but I’ve tried.
Cole: What led you to your interest in the Greeks, in particular, of all the possibilities there?
Kagan: As I read about them, more and more I became struck by certain aspects that were central to their culture. When I try to explain it to people, I use the term “the tragic spirit.” The Greeks, unlike most people, were very well aware of two things at the same time. One is that human beings are capable of truly great things–by “great” they meant great good things and great terrible things. They accepted that. At the same time, human beings were not divine. They were mortal, and they were capable, as I say, of terrible things as well as good.
Most civilizations have coped with the problem of death by diminishing it or denying it. Either they say, well, yes, we die, but it’s not important because we’re not important. The other is to deny mortality, and to say, no, we can be immortal in certain circumstances.
The Greeks really had no sense of immortality. At the same time, they maintained a sense of the importance of human beings and the great beauty of life. In other words, they faced the fact that death would come, and it was terrible, but the fact that death would come did not mean that what we did while we were alive was unimportant. That attracted me enormously.
Cole: Was that your first area of interest, the Greeks?
Kagan: Yes. I never gave up my boyhood love for modern European history, but I put that aside. My first serious professional interest was the Greeks, and then behind them the Romans.
Cole: What can we learn? What can modern students learn about battles of more than two thousand years ago?
Kagan: Well, not an enormous amount from the battles themselves, I think. There are some common human things to be learned: One has to do with the uncertainty in human events in general and in war particularly. Surprising things happen and battles are sometimes the ones that reveal that.
The Greeks ought never to have defeated the Persians. We shouldn’t have known a thing about the Greeks. Before their civilization emerged, it should have been obliterated by the extraordinary superiority of the Persian Empire. But at places like Marathon and Salamis and Plataea, they defeated an outfit that outnumbered them in men and resources to the most astonishing degree. Well, there’s something to be learned in that, too.
Cole: The ancient Greeks and democracy are always very much talked about. In what ways are the ancient Greeks foreign or familiar to us?
Kagan: That’s a good historian’s question. I can see that you are a true historian because you really always ought to ask that question about anybody at a different place or a different time: What’s the same and what’s different?
We, to some degree, are like what we are because we inherited certain things from the Greeks and the Romans. One of them that’s so striking is the whole area of politics.
Politics as we understand it was invented by the Greeks. It’s a Greek word meaning things that have to do with the polis, the polis being a civic community that is made up of individuals, none of whom is the subject of a single master. If you go outside of the Greeks, you will find that every civilization has some kind of monarch and that he usually is thought to be divine or that he derives his power ultimately from the accord of a divine creature.
That is not true in the Greek city-states when we first see them. They don’t have kings. They always have a council. They always have an assembly. The people have to, at some point, participate in the decisions of what the community does. We take it for granted that’s the normal way.
But that’s the abnormal way.
Cole: That’s one of the reasons I think that our democracy here is sometimes not valued enough. Democracy seems just to be the natural way of things. But this certainly is not the case.
Kagan: No. It’s very important to recognize this is the unnatural way of things. Even if you look at the Western tradition it’s only been true for a very small part of Western history. You have two hundred, three hundred years of this kind of thing with the Greeks. Then you have a couple hundred years in the Roman Republic when something like that is happening. And the next time you see it is in the eighteenth century when the United States gets it.
Cole: Why do you think this happened?
Kagan: Ah, that’s the miracle of all miracles. I used to say this when I would be joking with the students. I’d say, “This is a miracle.” It was the best I could do in the old days, but I’ve seen an explanation that really appeals to me by a contemporary Greek historian, Victor Davis Hanson. Victor has written a wonderful book called The Other Greeks, in which he essentially explains this phenomenon. He connects it with the development of the independently owned family farm, a brand-new thing in the world at the time. It happens roughly at the same time that the Greeks are developing a new style of warfare based on what they call the hoplite phalanx, which is a close-ordered formation of heavily armed infantrymen that requires for success the same kind of person who is this independent family farmer, who has never existed in the world before.
This same man then soon demands that he participate in the decisions of his community. All these three things–citizen, soldier, farmer, and an independent family farmer at that–come into being over a century or so. That is what makes possible the whole concept of self-government.
Cole: This is also a theory about the lethality of democracies in war, right?
Kagan: Hanson feels that there is something special about democracies in warfare. I think that’s interesting but less totally convincing. The story of how the Greeks got to be what they were I find much more important and much more convincing.
Cole: That’s fascinating. That’s familiar to us. What’s foreign to us?
Kagan: I think immediately of two great gaps between us and anybody in the ancient world. First, the Judeo-Christian tradition was unknown to them. Their approach to ethics, to religion, is very different from what the Western tradition has come to be. The other big difference was the Industrial Revolution. I’m wrapping into this the agricultural revolution–these related events that happened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Why are these so terribly important? Those developments made it possible for human beings to think, as we regularly do think now, about increasing the total amount of wealth available.
The Greeks, like everybody else before them, imagined there was only a certain amount of wealth in this world and anybody who got more did so at the expense of somebody else.
Cole: A finite amount, a zero-sum game.
Kagan: That’s the way they thought about things. Our hopes for peace–which God knows haven’t been met very frequently–have to do at least with the notion that it’s conceivable that people will not need to fight each other over material things because there may be enough material things for everybody. Such a notion would have been totally foreign to the Greeks. That’s one difference.
The other is the Judeo-Christian tradition versus theirs. Here is a simple way of illustrating the difference. If you stopped a Greek on the street in the fifth century or fourth century and said, “What is justice?” as, indeed, Plato does in his Republic, the Greek gives the answer that Plato reports, which is, “Justice is doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies.” Both halves of that are equally important. The Sermon on the Mount hadn’t been spoken, much less heard, and, if the Greeks had heard it, they would have thought it the silliest thing imaginable.
Cole: That’s fascinating. Say an undergraduate were to put the question: should we still care about the Greeks?
Kagan: It’s easy enough to make the case, I think, of why intelligent people should want to know about the Greeks. Think of all the things that they invented that we now take for granted. In addition to things like self-government, they invented the writing of history as we understand it. They invented tragedy. They invented comedy. They invented most forms of poetry as we understand them today. They invented the novel. They pioneered in science, in a whole range of sciences, in ways that even if their science isn’t our science any longer, their way of thinking about the natural environment is what is at the root of modern science today. No other civilization came up with that.
We want to know how these things came about and what sort of people did this. Fortunately, we have some of the best exemplars in these different fields. If you want to read tragedy, I think Sophocles is not a bad place to go. If you want to read history, Herodotus and Thucydides are very good places to go. They are not so strange and foreign as to be unreadable.
There are students who have never read anything like that before, and they are fascinated. There’s no escape. That would not be possible with other societies.
Cole: Do you find that there is a renewed interest in ancient history, the Greeks, specifically?
Kagan: I really don’t think so. I think it varies from place to place, chiefly with who is teaching. I think the way that universities work today–you know better than I–is people take what they like.
Cole: Right, or what they think will help them get a job.
Kagan: And since there is no pragmatic pressure to take anything to do with the ancient Greeks–there’s no in-hand profit that’s obvious–the overwhelming reason they’re going to do it is if word gets out that there’s a good teacher teaching it. Where there are good teachers in the subject, the subject flourishes. Where there are not, it doesn’t.
Cole: I know you take the view that history should be preeminent.
Kagan: Without history we are the prisoners of the accident of where and when we were born.
Cole: We have no bearings.
Kagan: That’s right. I think, by the way, a liberal education is about freedom: that word “liberal” is connected to the word “freedom.” Is this education suitable for a free person? Well, you have to liberate yourself first from the prejudices of the world in which you live. And the word “prejudice” ought not to be regarded as necessarily negative. We couldn’t live without certain kinds of prejudices. On the other hand, if all we have is our prejudices, we lack freedom entirely. We need to examine the experience of human beings in context and times different from us.
That can be done by looking at many, many, many civilizations. But I think some of them have special advantages: one of them is remoteness. If it’s pretty much like ours, it’s a little less valuable than one that’s not much like ours or has many, many differences.
Kagan: On the other hand, if it’s too remote, it may seem strange or amusing because we simply can’t relate to it. Many civilizations in history are very worthy but so different from ours that we really can’t get very far. The Greeks are very useful to us because of the combination of similarity and difference. But many of the things that derived in large part from the Greeks are not a powerful part of the tradition in which we now live, not because people have rejected them, but because people never even heard of them.
Cole: They just don’t know about them.
Kagan: They just don’t know anything about it.
The most valuable thing that has come to me in confronting questions of the world in which I live is to be aware the Greeks confronted many of these problems. Here’s what they thought and here’s what they did, and already I have been given an alternative to what is the common thinking. If I had my way, I’d know as much as I could about as many civilizations as possible, because that’s the most liberating thing I could do.
Cole: You once held an unusual role for a professor of history and classics. You were the Yale athletic director.
Kagan: That’s right.
Cole: How did that happen?
Kagan: That was an accident. I’ve always been a fan of sports. As a boy, I played any sport that I could. So sports were important to me. This took the form, when I came to Yale, of being glad when I was appointed to the faculty committee on athletics, which helps to manage the athletic program.
At a certain point the athletic director left his post and there was no time to make a proper search for a professional replacement. We were in a tough spot. The president came to me and he said, “Please, you’ve been on this committee longer than anybody else. Would you do this?” After considerable gulping, I said yes.
Cole: Did your vast knowledge of ancient civilizations and Greece help you in that job?
Kagan: You know, I think it helps me in everything. I think it helped me there, too. I am a strong supporter of college athletics properly done, and I think we do them properly at Yale. When sports are being managed properly, intercollegiate competitive athletics are a good thing. The Greeks engaged vigorously and powerfully in athletics in search of a kind of human excellence. Our athletics program does the same.
Cole: I understand that in your leisure time you like to read mysteries, that you’re a Nero Wolfe fan. I was just curious as to whether you see parallels between the historian and the mystery writer.
Kagan: Sure. The truth of the matter is I read widely among detective stories until I ran into Nero Wolfe. He was so much better than everybody else that I lost interest in all the others. I never much cared about whodunit. I don’t love to guess who did it or work the solution. I enjoy the characters. Nero Wolfe and Archie are what those books are for me–the interplay between these two personalities. It’s a more sophisticated and enjoyable version of the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson relationship.
Cole: Some of your students have been telling stories out of school, stories about your setting up a hoplite phalanx even in class. Is that correct?
Kagan: Oh, sure. That’s a very important audience-participation activity.
Cole: How many students does it take to make a hoplite phalanx?
Kagan: We can make do with about a dozen.
Cole: Do you arm them?
Kagan: No, no. We can easily fake the whole thing. (Laughter.)
Cole: This has been great. And I can’t tell you how excited we are about the Jefferson Lecture.
Kagan: I’m looking forward to it as well.
Lecture Text: ‘In Defense of History’
I am most grateful for this great honor. When I think of the list of my brilliant predecessors I feel as most Yale freshmen do soon after arriving on campus. They look about them at their remarkably talented fellow-classmen and nervously ask themselves, “did the admissions office admit me by mistake?” At any rate, I come as a defender of the faith, of the humanities as they were understood ever since the invention of the concept many centuries ago. Their goals were nicely stated by the Renaissance humanist Pietro Paolo Vergerio some six centuries ago as the purposes of a liberal education:
We call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man, those studies by which we attain and practice virtue and wisdom, that education which calls forth, trains and develops those highest gifts of body and mind which ennoble men and which are rightly judged to rank next in dignity to virtue only, for to a vulgar temper, gain and pleasure are the one aim of existence, to a lofty nature, moral worth and fame.
The training of the intellect was meant to produce an intrinsic pleasure and satisfaction but it also had practical goals of importance to the individual and the entire community, to make the humanistically trained individual eloquent and wise, to know what is good and to practice virtue, both in private and public life.
Such was the understanding of the ancient Greeks and of the Renaissance humanists but not, I fear of many teachers of the humanities today, who deny the possibility of knowing anything with confidence, of the reality of such concepts as truth and virtue, who seek only gain and pleasure in the modern guise of political power and self-gratification as the ends of education.
Among them it is common to reject any notion of objectivity, of truths arrived at by evidence or reasoning external to whims or prejudices. One famous professor deplored such an idea as foundationalism, defined as, “any attempt to ground inquiry and communication in something more firm and stable than mere belief or unexamined practice.”  Such views are proposed by literary critics, but their significance is much broader than for the interpretation of literature; they assert that all studies are literature, all, therefore subject to the same indeterminacy as all language. Even death is merely “the displaced name for a linguistic predicament.”  It should not be surprising, then, to learn that “the bases for historical knowledge are not empirical facts but written texts, even if these texts masquerade in the guise of wars or revolutions.” What we know of history, after all, we learn from written accounts whose rhetoric “allows for two incompatible, mutually self-destructive points of view, and therefore puts an insurmountable obstacle in the way of any reading or understanding.”  Including, I presume, any reading or understanding of the quotation I just read.
Such ideas have made their way even into the study of the Classics, but I remain grateful that I have spent much of my life in the exploration of the ancient civilizations, especially that of the Greeks. Because they are at the root of modern civilization, so like us in many ways and so different in others, they offer a perspective removed from the prejudices of time and place that threaten to distort our understanding and yet continually relevant and illuminating to those who will examine them with a mind open to the possibility that useful wisdom can be found in their thought and experience.
Let me offer an example of how a study of the ancient world may help our understanding: the question of the role of the artist in his society. Ever since the beginning of the Romantic movement the dominant belief has been that a true poet or artist, whatever his genre, must be a rebel against the established order of society. Writers of the past who don’t fit the model seem always to be merely the victims of their place in corrupt societies or stooges of those who rule them. The modern critic who discovers this is, of course, free from such influences. To me, and to the poor writers of the past, ignorant of their pitiful roles, art, and especially literature, has an autonomous place apart from politics and sociology, even from philosophy. Its power comes from its ability to choose its own subject, style and purpose. Literature that is shaped merely by its author’s time and his place within his society, by his prejudices and purposes, is a poor and weak thing that deserve the social scientific analysis and pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo that pass for literary criticism in our day.
But true artists are not bound by such things. They see through and beyond the prejudices and passions of their own time and place and are bound only by the limits that bind all human beings at all times in all places: the reality of nature and of human nature. There is a natural world outside of human will and desire; man’s genius can manipulate it to a considerable extent, and the results can be wonderful, but they are inevitably constrained by the enormous power and mystery of nature and by the limits imposed by man’s own nature. For confirmation I turn to the tragic poet Sophocles and especially his drama Antigone. There his chorus describes the dilemma:
Wonders are many on earth, and the greatest of these
Is man, who rides the ocean and takes his
Through the deeps, through wind-swept valleys of perilous seas
That surge and sway.
He is master of ageless Earth, to his own
The immortal mother of gods by the sweat of his brow,
As year succeeds to year, with toil unending
Of mule and plough.
He is lord of all things living; birds of the
Beasts of the field, all creatures on sea and land
He takes, cunning to capture and ensnare
With sleight of hand;
Hunting the savage beasts from the
Teaching the mountain monarch in his lair,
Teaching the wild horse and the roaming ox
His yoke to bear.
The use of language, the wind-swift
motion of brain
He learnt; found out the law of living together
In cities, building him shelter against the rain
And wintry weather.
There is nothing beyond his power. His
Meets all chance, all danger conquers.
For every ill has found its remedy,
Save only death.
O wondrous sublety of man, that draws
To good or evil ways! Great honour is given
And power to him who upholds his country’s laws
And the justice of heaven.
But he that, too rashly daring, walks in sin
In solitary pride to his life’s end,
At door of mine shall never enter in
To call me friend.
Man’s ingenuity and power are great, but both his power and life are limited. Such is the basis for the Greeks’ tragic view of life. There is no excuse for passivity, for human beings can help shape the environments that shape them and they have the opportunity and the power to defy their societies and their unjust laws, as Antigone does in defying Creon. He has overridden the unwritten divine law by forbidding the burial of her brother, killed in a rebellion against his state. She chooses to bury her brother and accept a horrible death as the penalty, and we marvel and admire her for it.
So far, it is possible to think of Sophocles as the kind of artist favored today–the champion of revolt against man’s fate, so often in our time taken to be the revolt against his society and its ways. True artists, like Sophocles, however, are not propagandists but pursuers of deep, usually complicated, understandings of the human condition. Sophocles’s play reveals such complexity. There is something to be said for Creon. His decree is meant to preserve the security of the state and society, the minimal requirement of civilization, the thin veneer that protects us from the plunge into barbarism and savagery. Modern artists tend to assume that the established order is always wrong. Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann in An Enemy of the People made it clear that the rule applies even to democratic establishments with his passionate assertion that “the majority is always wrong.” But the greatest artists are prepared to search for the truth of the human condition wherever the trail may lead. They do not prejudge the outcome. The establishment or the defiant rebel may be right or, as is typical of real tragedy, each may be right in his own way, even as the two rights clash disastrously. Sophocles’s portrayal of the struggle is so even-handed that some ancient scholars thought that Creon’s case is the stronger and that the play should be called Creon, not Antigone. That must be wrong, for Antigone alone displays the willful, defiant, single-minded, unrelenting, uncalculating determination to do what she must, regardless of consequences, that is characteristic of Sophoclean heroes. But the point is that Sophocles wrestles with the issues and depicts their champions with such honesty as to do justice to the depth, difficulty and universality of the subject and his characters.
Such an artist does not reflexively take the side of any rebel against the established order. It may be that the establishment is right. More likely, there is a degree of right on both sides, so that the difficult task for human beings is to gain a deeper understanding of what is at stake, both for individual and society, to understand that the needs of individual and society are both competitive and complementary and to contemplate the resulting dilemma with the seriousness and awe it deserves.
In Antigone, Sophocles is concerned, in the first place, with the temptation that power can place in the way of a political leader like Creon to do whatever is necessary, even to violate divine law, in the interest of the state. That would be a comfortable position for a writer in our times. But Sophocles understands the enormous cost when an individual tramples on human law, even in defense of the most fundamental human needs. The resulting clash leaves us neither with a burning determination to overthrow the regime nor to suppress all insurgency. It leaves us emotionally stimulated and then drained, and it leaves our minds alerted and sobered. We have become deeper individuals and wiser citizens.
André Malraux said that “All art is a revolt against man’s fate.” If he is right, Sophocles’s plays, the other tragedies, and much of ancient Greek literature are not art. Malraux seems to me to reflect the Romantic view that is determined to see the artist as an individual apart from, superior to and in rebellion against the established order. Sophocles, like Aeschylus and Thucydides, was very much a part of his society. He fought its battles as a soldier, he understood and appreciated its necessity and excellences even as he probed its dilemmas and weaknesses. His plays, among other things, helped their audiences to understand and come to terms with man’s fate. It is man’s fate, part of the tragic human condition, to revolt and struggle against its negative elements. But human excellence, virtue, even survival depend on the establishment of a decent social order and its defense even against the most passionate and sincere rebels who would smash it in search of some imagined perfection beyond human grasp.
Because he was part of the society in which he lived and understood its needs and virtues he could compel his fellow citizens honestly to confront its conflicts and its deepest contradictions. They did not suppress, scorn, or, what is worse, ignore him. Instead, they honored him with prizes, election to the highest military and political office and with deep and abiding reverence. Would that all this were possible for modern artists and their audiences in the world today.
To understand this question, which involves both literature and philosophy, one must study history, my own special field of interest, the dearest to my heart. I want to make the case that history, defined not meanly in the current style as an infinitely malleable tool to be used to achieve current political ends, but as the Greek founders of the genre did, can be the most valuable approach to achieve the proper goals of the humanities.
The world we live in is a difficult place to try to make a case for the value of history. Through the centuries its claim has rested chiefly on its search for truths arrived at by painstaking research conducted with the greatest possible objectivity, explaining events by means of human reason. Its various goals, as the late Arnaldo Momigliano put it, were “to provide an example, constitute a warning, point to likely developments in human affairs.” The ancient Greek historians, the earliest and still among the greatest, set the agenda, taking as their subjects large events affecting great numbers of people in dramatic and powerful ways.
Herodotus, the first true historian, wrote of the war in which a band of small Greek city-states defended their freedom against the assault of the vast and mighty Persian Empire. He wrote, he said, “so that time may not blot out from among men the memory of the past, and that the fame of the great and marvelous deeds done by Greeks and foreigners may not be lost, and especially the reason why they fought against each other.” Here, from the very beginning of the genre, we can discern the special place occupied by history among humanistic studies. Like literature, specifically the epic poetry of Homer, it has the responsibility of preserving the great, important and instructive actions of human beings, individually and in the mass so that we may marvel at them and learn from them. It sets the historian the task, however, not merely of describing events in evocative language that will impress them on human hearts and arouse an emotional response but also, like philosophy, to explain their meaning by the use of reason.
Thucydides, a younger contemporary of Herodotus, took on the same assignments. He wanted to memorialize the great event of his day, the war between Sparta and Athens.
Thucydides tells us that he undertook his history:
in the belief that it would be great and noteworthy above all the wars that had gone before…. For this was the greatest upheaval that had ever shaken the Hellenes, extending also to some part of the barbarians, one might say even to a very large part of mankind.
No one who has read his dramatic accounts of the debates in the various assemblies, and especially his heart-rending account of the destruction of the Athenian forces that invaded Sicily will doubt his literary artistry in achieving that goal. But Herodotus’ story had a happy ending, while Thucydides’ tale was far grimmer. The account of the Persian War seems filled with sunshine; the report of the Peloponnesian War seems to have been written in twilight. Herodotus, like Homer, tells good stories for their own sake, whether he believes them or not. Most of his explanations of events credit human agents alone, but, again like Homer, he leaves plenty of room for the intervention of the gods. Thucydides ruthlessly excludes everything not clearly relevant to his task and employs cold reason alone in his explanations. Herodotus obtained the necessary information by asking people who seemed to know something he was interested in, sometimes reporting more than one account of things without choosing among them, sometimes making a choice based on the exercise of reason and what seemed likely. This was not good enough for Thucydides. “As to the facts of what happened,” he said, “I did not learn them from any chance informant nor did I think it proper to write down what seemed probable to me but by investigating each of them with the greatest possible accuracy, both those events at which I was present myself and those I learned about from others. And the discovery of these facts was laborious, since eye-witnesses to the same events did not give the same reports of them, either because of partisanship or failure of memory.”
Thucydides understood that his careful attention to factual accuracy came at a literary price. “Perhaps,” he says, “the absence of the fabulous from my account will seem less pleasing to the ear.” But he judges the sacrifice necessary to achieve a higher goal, a philosophic one with great practical application: “If those who wish to have a clear understanding both of the events of the past and of the ones that some day, as is the way in human things, will happen again in the future in the same or a similar way, will judge my work useful, that will be enough for me. It has been composed not as a prize-essay in a competition, to be heard for a moment, but as a possession forever.”
These lines seem plainly to be a critique of Herodotus and then a bold claim to contribute to rational, philosophic understanding. Even beyond that, I believe, they lay claim to practical usefulness in dealing with real human problems in the real world. These are the missions for the historian: to examine important events of the past with painstaking care and the greatest possible objectivity, to seek a reasoned explanation for them based on the fullest and fairest possible examination of the evidence in order to preserve their memory and to use them to establish such uniformities as may exist in human events, and then to apply the resulting understanding to improve the judgment and wisdom of people who must deal with similar problems in the future. That is the legacy the Greek historians handed down to their successors which, when practiced well, makes Clio the Queen of the Humanities, standing between and slightly above her noble handmaidens, the muses of literature and philosophy.
So say I, but not everyone has agreed. Critics of history have been legion, running the gamut from the sophisticated, wickedly witty Voltaire, who asserted that: “History is a pack of tricks the living play upon the dead,” to the simpler remark of Henry Ford that “History is bunk.” A more serious critique, favoring literature, came soon after the invention of history from Aristotle’s Poetics, which says:
A poet’s object is not to tell what actually happened but what could and would happen either probably or inevitably. The difference between a historian and a poet is not that one writes in prose and the other in verse. Indeed the writings of Herodotus could be put into verse and yet would still be a kind of history, whether written in meter or not. The real difference is this, that one tells what happened and the other what might happen. For this reason poetry is somewhat more philosophical [philosophoteron] and serious than history, because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts.
By a general truth I mean the sort of thing that a certain type of man will do or say either probably or necessarily. That is what poetry aims at. A particular fact is what Alcibiades did or what was done to him.
Aristotle, of course, would have claimed the same advantage for philosophy which must also be more philosophos than history. He had great learning and wisdom but, like Homer, even he occasionally nodded. The primary source for what Alcibiades did and suffered, in fact, is Thucydides, and it is hard to believe that Aristotle did not read his history. If he did, this assertion is truly astonishing for, as we have seen, Thucydides took the greatest pains to discover what particular people did precisely in order to establish general truths about human behavior. He stood at a position on the road from literature to philosophy. Like the poet he was free to select his topic, to define its boundaries, to treat some events and topics at greater length than others, to emphasize some things and touch lightly on others. Unlike the creative writer, however, the historian may not invent characters or events or chronology but must report with the greatest possible accuracy the doings of real people, keeping to the true order in which they happened. To the extent that he fails in those responsibilities he is not a bad historian but no historian at all.
Yet, if he follows the rules, carefully establishes the facts and reports them in their true chronological order and does no more, he is still not a historian but a chronicler. It is not enough to record a certain level of events each year, however accurately. The historian must select a topic of importance. Even a narrative history must organize and arrange events in such a way as to reveal their significance most effectively. He must try to explain why things happened as they did and what may be learned about human affairs and behavior in general from the events he has studied. In this respect his work must be philosophical.
But unlike philosophers and their post-enlightenment offspring, the social scientists, who usually prefer to explain a vast range of particular phenomena by the simplest possible generalization, historians must be prepared to explain the variety of behavior in various ways. The well-known lines of the ancient Greek poet Archilochus present the two fundamental choices: “The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog only one:/ one big one.” This may work in the animal kingdom, but in the world of human affairs, wildly complicated by the presence of individual wills and of different ideas of what produces or deprives people of happiness and honor, in what does interest consist and of what there is to fear, extremely general explanations are neither useful nor possible. Historians, in the first instance, need to be foxes, using as many tricks as they can to explain as many particular things as accurately and convincingly as they can. Then, they should try to find revealing examples from the wide variety of human experiences to support generalizations of varying breadth. They should not expect to find the one big trick that will explain everything, but the lesser generalizations that can be tested by other understandings of the evidence and by new human experiences as they arise, which can still be interesting and useful. It is this mixed path taken by the historian, chiefly of the fox but with a necessary element of the hedgehog that promises the best results.
The poet, inspired by a unique personal perception and understanding, may shed a more intense and powerful light on some human affairs than the most careful and serious historian. We may admire its brilliance and originality, but are his revelations right? When we think so, it is by intuition that we are convinced or by some feeling that the poet’s perception accords with our own experience. But everyone has his own intuition and experience. The literary road to the understanding of human things calls for generalizing from a single perception. It can be galvanizing, inspiring, but not satisfying to the mind. The literary experience is primarily aesthetic and emotional, not intellectual or practical.
Philosophy is a word and concept harder to define but among the many definitions I find in my dictionary the following strikes me as most central: “inquiry into the nature of things based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods.” The pursuit of philosophy does not preclude the study of human experience to provide material for contemplation and analysis by ordered reason, but experience is clearly subordinate and ancillary. Even Aristotle, who for centuries was known as the philosopher and liked to begin his inquiries with reference to the experience and thought of real people, did not investigate these widely or deeply but just until they produced the inevitable intellectual difficulties, the aporiai, to which he then applied his great powers of logic and reason. There are great advantages for our understanding of the nature of things in it: pointing out sloppy thinking and helping to correct it; the ability to analyze things that appear unitary or to bring together others that seem hopelessly disparate; the search for simpler, more general principles than those available to the empirical students of human experience, among others. But philosophy inevitably leads to metaphysics, the investigation of first principles and the problem of ultimate reality, which over the millennia has led to massive disagreement, no progress, cynicism and rejection. Wags have described the pursuit of metaphysics as looking in a perfectly dark box for a black cat that doesn’t exist. More seriously, the situation has driven professional students of philosophy to such despair as to reject entirely the most basic and compelling questions as impossible, in fact as non-existent, merely the result of bad thinking or improper grammar. In that spirit the Enyclopaedia Britannica defines philosophy narrowly as “the critical examination of the grounds for fundamental beliefs and an analysis of the basic concepts of such beliefs.” Aristotle must have rolled over in his grave when he first learned of the thin gruel modern teachers have made of his rich philosophical porridge. Fortunately, a small band of scholars have not given up the search for wisdom that is true philosophy, but their tribe is small and their enemies legion. A field of study in such shape can not help us much in our efforts to comprehend the human condition.
None of this is to say that history is without its problems for our purpose. Although, in its moderate way, it has not suffered so badly as philosophy from the linguistic analysts or literature from the pseudo-philosophers, it has not escaped the assaults of post-modernism in its various forms. A major assault is in the area of subject matter and attitude. The traditional great events and subjects: high politics, constitutions, diplomacy, war, great books and ideas, are not to be considered, except to show why they must be excluded as the product of dead white males engaged in the permanent process of oppressing good ordinary people of one kind or another. The purpose of the enterprise is not to seek the truth with the greatest objectivity one can muster but to raise the consciousness of the oppressed, to bring them the self-esteem they will need to overthrow the current version of this ancient establishment.
Some historians may not be convinced by these beliefs, observing that post-modernists assert that there is no such thing as truth, only self-interest, prejudice and power, that there is no objectivity, that all statements of fact or value are relative and claims to the existence or search for objective truth are part of the racket by which the ruling groups try to retain power. Such doubters may point out that the opinions of those making these claims should be ignored since, by their own admission, their claims can not be objective or true but merely devices to gain power.
Although historians in universities have given far too much ground to such mindlessness promoted by contemporary political partisanship, as historians they are better situated than their colleagues in the other humanities to recover their senses. They know that the current fad of skepticism and relativism is as old as the Sophists of ancient Greece and had a great revival with the Pyrrhonism of the sixteenth century. On both occasions their paradoxical and self-contradictory glamour yielded in time to common sense and the massive evidence that some searches are more objective, some things truer than others, however elusive perfect objectivity and truth may be.
Historians have reason to know this and to resist the blatantly subjective and untruthful assault of the modern-day sophists, confident that if they hold, or return, to their traditional methods, which allow them to correct errors in our beliefs about the past, or, sometimes, to bring new evidence and perceptions, that may have the effect of refining or even confirming what has been believed. For history is a discipline in which the improvement of understanding is not impossible, random, nor merely cyclical, but cumulative.
Perhaps you will think that my own approach is not entirely objective, that it is shaped by what the French call a déformation professionelle, so let me say at once that it goes without saying that literature, philosophy and history have long been valuable roads to the understanding of the human condition, and all make important contributions, but I confess that as to their relative merits my mind is not completely open. Perhaps my view could be compared with that of the clergyman who listened to a heated debate among his fellow divines, each claiming the superiority of his sect. At last, he intervened with these words: “Friends, let us not quarrel among ourselves in this sectarian fashion. We all seek to work God’s will, you in your several ways, I in His.”
But I believe there is more to my claim than mere prejudice related to professional deformation. Two millennia ago the Roman historian Livy’s introduction to his great narrative account of his nation’s history included this observation:
What chiefly makes the study of history wholesome and profitable is this, that you behold the lessons of every kind of experience set forth as on a conspicuous monument; from these you may choose for yourself and for your own state what to imitate, from these mark for avoidance what is shameful in the conception and shameful in the result. (1.10)
That is a view of the purpose of historical study that went out of favor with professionals in the nineteenth century and is not thought respectable in our time. As a result it has been increasingly harder to persuade people that they have anything to learn from history. At the same time, the retreat by professors of history from the tradition of writing narrative accounts that explain the past by telling a story has further repelled potential readers. This has not, however deterred millions of people hungry for historical writing from reading those historians who will interpret the past by narrating a story and are alert to the moral implications, personal and political, of the story they tell. And why should it be otherwise? The fact is that we all need to take our moral bearings all the time, as individuals and as citizens. Religion and the traditions based on it were once the chief sources for moral confidence and strength. Their influence has faded in the modern world, but the need for a sound base for moral judgments has not. If we can not look simply to moral guidance firmly founded on religious precepts it is natural and reasonable to turn to history, the record of human experience, as a necessary supplement if not a substitute. History, it seems to me, is the most useful key we have to open the mysteries of the human predicament. Is it too much to hope that one day we may see Clio ascend her throne again and resume her noble business at the same old stand?