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The Scholar and Teacher

By Barry Strauss | HUMANITIES, May/June 2005 | Volume 26, Number 3

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. Peace 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 with home he feels at home. 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.

About the Author

Barry Strauss is professor of history and classics at Cornell University. His most recent book is The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece.