By Mary Lou Beatty
"In my soul I'm an ancient Greek," Donald Kagan has said. "The Greeks are more immediately relevant than anything in between."
Kagan has been teaching the virtues of the Greeks for the past thirty-five years at Yale University, where he is the Sterling Professor of Classics and History.
"The Greeks began with the remarkable asssumption that the human being is not trivial," Kagan points out. If a person did something splendid for the city, the deed would be recorded and remembered. "That was the basis of their idea of achieving immortality." Kagan adds, "It is an argument not for quietude but for excellence."
Kagan, who is this year's Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, has long been engaged in the pursuit of excellence. Kagan talks about the necessity for thoughtful discussion of history, and as a professor has been vocal in his support for a core curriculum. At Yale, the Directed Studies Program he revised surveys the literature, history, politics and philosophy of Western civilization from ancient Greece to modern times, focusing on key ideas and primary sources.
"One of the most powerful ways people educate themselves is through conversation, discussing ideas," Kagan says. "That can't happen if people are not looking at the same things."
He has received four awards for undergraduate teaching at Yale and for his earlier work at Cornell University. For his achievements in conveying the knowledge of the humanities to a larger public, he was honored in 2002 with the National Humanities Medal.
Kagan has written eleven books of history covering diplomacy and war from ancient times to the present, from his magisterial four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War to While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today, written in 2000 with his son Frederick.
Kagan holds the view that the old definitions of honor among nations shifted in the twentieth century. "The victorious nations in the Great War were themselves democracies, dependent for their legitimacy on the support of the whole people, and this circumstance gave birth to a new set of ideas as to what was honorable in the conduct of nations," he wrote in Commentary a decade ago. "War itself, in the new conception, was believed to be morally wrong, its causes connected with the aggressiveness natural to authoritarian and despotic regimes. Democracy, by contrast, was right and good in itself and also a force for peace. Over time, the idea took root that the only just war was a war in defense of democracy and self-determination."
The Greeks did not find peace to be a natural state of existence and Kagan has his own misgivings. He points out in The Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace that, statistically, war has been the more common state of affairs. For peace to prevail, he believes, what is needed among peaceseeking states is "the will to accept the burdens and responsibilities required to achieve that purpose."
While the Greeks by and large saw little chance for peace, Kagan considers their views of statecraft pertinent. "Especially Thucydides," he says. "He understood that any international system is determined by the way power is distributed and used."