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Conversation

On Learning from the Greeks

HUMANITIES, May/June 2005 | Volume 26, Number 3

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole spoke recently with this year's Jefferson Lecturer, Donald Kagan, about the teaching of history. Kagan has taught at Yale for thirty-six years and is the author of eleven books, among them his four-volume magisterial work, The Peloponnesian War.

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.

Cole: Yes.

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.

Cole: Maybe.

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.

Cole: Exactly.

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.

Cole: Yes.

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.