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Awards & Honors: 2005 Jefferson Lecturer

Donald Kagan Excerpts

Perciles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy

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Humanities Magazine May/June 2005 cover

May/June 2005

By Donald Kagan

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.

From Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. Copyright © 1991 by Donald Kagan. Reprinted with permission.

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.

From While America Sleeps. Copyright © 2000 by Donald Kagan and Frederick W. Kagan. Reprinted with permission.

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."

From The Peloponnesian War. Copyright © 2003 by Donald Kagan. Reprinted with permission.

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.

From On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. Copyright © 1995 by Donald Kagan. Reprinted with permission.

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.

From "George Will's Baseball--A Conservative Critique" by Donald Kagan. Reprinted with permission from The Public Interest. Copyright © 1990 by National Affairs, Inc.

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."

From The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan. Copyright © 1969 by Cornell University. Used by permission of Cornell University Press.