Victor Davis Hanson
National Humanities Medal
Victor Davis Hanson, one of America’s best known and most prolific historians, grew up on a farm in Selma, California. His parents—a school administrator and one of California’s first female judges—made sure that he and his bothers worked hard. “If they saw you sitting around, they’d ask, ‘What are you doing?’” Hanson still labors with that question in his ear.
What unites his work—farming, scholarship, teaching, journalism—he also learned on the farm. “I see my whole career as integrated. I grew up on a farm and inherited a tragic view from my parents and grandparents. Studying the classics for eight years, both here and abroad, and teaching them for twenty years, all reiterated the sense that human nature was unchanging and the human ordeal predictable. Whether it was working on a farm or reading Sophocles or Thucydides, the message kept being reiterated in different ways: Nothing really changes.”
Born in 1953, Hanson intended to be a lawyer, but at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he gravitated to the classics. He received a doctoral fellowship to Stanford and then spent two years in the late 1970s doing research in Athens. After he earned his PhD, though, he “realized that there wasn’t a lot of work for a classicist.” Also, his grandfather had passed away, so, he says, “I just went back and worked on the farm.”
Hanson’s scholarship, though, had already yielded a fundamental insight into life in ancient Greece. An Italian classicist, Emilio Gabba, had read his dissertation and arranged for its publication. “I was out on a tractor and my wife told me, ‘Some guy is on the phone and wants to publish your thesis.’ He wanted $2,000 to cover the costs, and I told him to forget it. Later they waived the fee, and that’s how Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece got published.”
Classicists had assumed that war in the Greek city-states brought on famine as ancient armies systematically destroyed orchards and vineyards. Hanson knew the backbreaking work required to uproot vineyards and fell trees. He questioned what was possible with primitive tools. “I tried to put myself in their place, to emphasize the physical ordeal of life in the ancient world.” His dissertation—and its follow-ups The Western Way of War, 1989, and The Other Greeks, 1995,—began a complete reinterpretation of war in classical Greece.
“Hanson’s work on the role of the small family farmer in the development of democracy is the most important work in Greek history in my lifetime,” notes Yale University classicist and NEH Jefferson lecturer Donald Kagan. “Nobody told that story before Hanson, and its significance is hard to exaggerate.”
When the price of raisins declined by two-thirds in the early 1980s, Hanson found himself needing work. He drove over to the nearest school, Cal State Fresno, and offered his services. He started teaching Latin classes and ended up founding a department.
“CSU Fresno has a high number of minority students and poor kids,” he says. “We had to make the argument to a Hispanic kid that he should invest a thousand hours a year in Greek when he nevertheless had student loans to pay and a job to work, and when his family couldn’t see any correlation between reading Aeschylus and success. But the basic skills one needs to be successful in society are not always vocational. You will succeed or fail by the degree to which you reason, speak, and write well. The Greeks give us a blueprint for such mastery. The mechanics of classics are practical; they will improve your knowledge in every discipline.”
Hanson continued writing too. He wrote books about the classics, farming, immigration, but most particularly about war. “The Western Way of War sold very well, and my agent convinced me that was the way to go rather than more essays on agricultural life.” Carnage and Culture, published in 2001, examined nine battles from Salamis to Tet and tried to understand why Western armies had emerged victorious in each. It became a best seller in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, turning a classics professor into a much-sought-after public commentator on war and politics. He retired from CSU Fresno in 2004, and today he writes regular columns, essays, and even a blog.
Hanson is not sanguine about our culture. “I don’t see enough people standing up to defend the West. We don’t realize how tenuous its legacy is and how it has to be transmitted from generation to generation. The nature of man doesn’t change, and that’s reassuring, since we know the necessary conditions that can save him from himself. The legacy of the West is a guidance system through the natural perils of human nature and behavior.”
By Robert Messenger