Notebook October 2021
Donald Kagan, 1932–2021
Remembering the late historian and classicist.
One of the chief downsides of getting older—I am now seventy-two—is that one’s friends die. On a Friday evening in early August, near midnight, it was the turn of Donald Kagan, aged eighty-nine. I am still having trouble accepting that he is gone.
I first met Don in the spring of 1968. I was a freshman, then, at Cornell. He was teaching an introductory course in Roman history—as it happens, for the very last time. I was enrolled in the class and assigned to his section, and I was mesmerized. Don was an entertaining and provocative lecturer. He knew when and how to introduce the ham, and what he had to say was invariably interesting and informative.
The section meetings in his course were organized around historical puzzles. We were asked to read the evidence and to try to make sense of it; thanks to its paucity, we could spread it all out in front of us. We were in the position of intelligence analysts at Langley. We knew odds and ends—in our case, the flotsam of fragmentary information carried down the ages by time—and we were called upon to make sense of it all. There was rarely an obvious right or wrong. There were, instead, the plausible, the remotely possible, and the completely absurd. We were not simply memorizing the facts. We were doing what all historians do. We were trying to describe what must have happened on the basis of a documentary record limited in quantity and not entirely reliable. Our task was educated guesswork. We had to put together a jigsaw puzzle, but most of the pieces were missing, and so we thrashed about in pursuit of illuminating analogy. What was required was sound judgment, and one learned it by making a case and considering all of the possible objections.
We were trying to describe what must have happened on the basis of a documentary record limited in quantity and not entirely reliable.
Don loved this, and so did I. He was, I later learned, a baseball fanatic, and I can easily imagine him as a boy collecting baseball cards and trying to figure out what a given player was apt to accomplish on a particular day given what he had done in the past. He liked horse racing for the same reason. You could review the record of each of the horses in every kind of circumstance, and you were called upon to predict their performance with an eye to matters such as the condition of the track on that particular day. It was, he once observed, a test of your prescience as an historian. As you can imagine, I was hooked. Who wouldn’t be?
The following year, the six-year Ph.D. program in which I was enrolled co-sponsored a program devoted to classical Greece, and I signed up. That meant that I took a year-long seminar with a man then unknown to me, named Allan Bloom, on Plato’s Republic. We read his translation of the book in mimeograph until the middle of the year when it appeared in print. With Don, I had another such course on Thucydides. It was in this year that Cornell University Press published The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, the first of the four splendid volumes he wrote concerning the great struggle between the Athenians and the Spartans.
Taking these two courses from these two men was heaven on earth, and the experience was rendered particularly intense by the fact that an event of some historical interest was unfolding before us. In April, there was an armed black takeover of the student union, Willard Straight Hall. Ostensibly, it was aimed at overturning a decision made by the university judicial board to reprimand a handful of black students who had used toy guns to terrorize some members of the university community. In fact, it was a naked bid for power, and the leader of the takeover threatened the lives of three senior faculty members by name in an interview broadcast by the university radio station.
As it happens, I had been a columnist for The Cornell Daily Sun and a member of the appeals board within the university judicial system, although I had given up the latter responsibility when I was named associate editor of the paper a few weeks before the building seizure. So, into the maelstrom I was dragged. Don, who had shortly before accepted a full professorship at Yale, remained on the sidelines—watching in horror, transfixed, as the administration capitulated to the demands of the insurrectionists and as the faculty, after offering resistance, gave way in turn. I fought, writing column after column lambasting in Churchillian tones the cowardice of the university’s president, drawing attention to the long-term implications of his surrender in the face of the violence threatened, and pressing, along with others, for his resignation. Along the way, I became fast friends with figures such as Allan Sindler, Walter Berns, and Allan Bloom—all of whom resigned from the faculty (the first two in the middle of interviews on national television).
During this period, I saw Don in class and spoke with him frequently after it ended. When the debacle was over, I expressed the fear that the depth of my involvement and my ongoing position on the student daily would mean that I would spend the rest of my college career tilting at windmills and neglecting my studies. He suggested that I transfer to Yale. When I embraced this suggestion, he made a phone call or two and then got in touch with me. “You’re in,” he said. “Now you have to apply”—and that is what I then did.
At Yale, I took the equivalent of seven courses in my first term, and, until my senior year, I joined no organizations. I was there to learn. Don and I met for lunch fairly frequently. Before the crisis at Cornell, we had both been liberals, and in the immediate aftermath neither of us thought of ourselves as anything else. But the events of 1969 had transformed the lives of both us—more or less in the same way. When the murder trial of Bobby Seale was taking place in the spring of 1970, when radical leaders from far and wide descended on New Haven and Kingman Brewster offered them hospitality, Don and I concluded that we had seen this B-movie before, and I scuttled off to Boston for the weekend.
We kept in close touch during the three years I spent at Oxford studying philosophy and ancient history on a Rhodes Scholarship. When I returned to Yale, thinking that I would do a Ph.D. in German history, Don hired me as a teaching assistant. By this time, his introductory course in ancient Greek history had so large an enrollment that it had to be taught in the law school auditorium, the largest venue on campus; the same was true of another course that he had put together—Historical Studies in the Origins of War, where I also served as a teaching assistant.
The latter course was designed to encourage comparative thinking and to initiate the education of budding statesmen. Don paired the Peloponnesian War with World War I and the Second Punic War with World War II, then tossed in the Cuban Missile Crisis so that the students could contemplate a war that very nearly happened. Later, Don turned the course into a book no less important than his multi-volume history of the Peloponnesian War. Entitled On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, it is a work that I employ to this very day in teaching the course that he designed.
He was less attached to his own opinions than to the process of probing and sifting the evidence, and he was open to changing his mind.
Eventually, appalled that prospective German historians were being pressed into doing social history, I abandoned that field and returned to ancient Greek history. Working with Don Kagan was a delight. One could argue with the man. He was less attached to his own opinions than to the process of probing and sifting the evidence, and he was open to changing his mind. We had a disagreement concerning the method by which the Spartans selected their ephors. The reigning orthodoxy stipulated that they were directly elected. But Plato in the Laws contended that their selection resembled a lottery. I argued that this ruled out direct election. Don stuck with the reigning orthodoxy but finally said, “OK, OK, leave it in the dissertation.” A few months later, as I was madly preparing a lecture one evening for the first ancient Greek history lecture course I ever taught, the telephone rang. It was Don. “You’re right,” he exclaimed. “Right about what?” I asked. “About the selection of the ephors,” he said. “Of course, I’m right,” I replied.
One morning while I was still in graduate school, he called me. He was under the weather, the war course was underway, and he asked that I go to the law school auditorium to cancel class. That day, he was slated to give his final lecture on the origins of the Peloponnesian war. I offered to step in and fill his shoes. “Can you do it?” said he. “Sure,” I replied, “but you know that I have a different take.” “Do it,” he replied. “They will get my reading of the situation anyway from my Outbreak volume.” His aim was to provoke thinking—not to indoctrinate.
Don Kagan was also a man of courage. Freedom of speech was under siege at Yale, and Kingman Brewster, the president, was more than willing to give ground to the radicals. In the fall of 1974, Don resolved to take him on. He engineered an invitation from the Yale Political Union, and he gave a speech, which I attended, denouncing in polite terms Brewster and his minions for standing aside while visiting speakers were shouted down. It was an exceedingly risky move. College administrators may not be able to fire tenured professors outright, but they are skilled in making them miserable. Don might very well have been driven out, and he knew it. Instead, however, to his great credit, Brewster appointed a commission, headed by C. Vann Woodward, to come up with a report. At least in principle, that document forms the basis for university policy in the case of such incidents to this very day.
At Yale, over the years, Don went from strength to strength. He was regarded as indispensable—especially when things had gone awry. He took over the Directed Studies Program and saved it from destruction. He became the master of Timothy Dwight College and, at a critical moment, even the director of athletics. He did two stints as the chairman of the classics department, and he served as the dean of Yale College.
His last years at the institution, however, Don spent in the wilderness, more or less isolated, teaching gigantic classes, writing on a wide variety of subjects, and defending liberal education against those intent on greatly narrowing the range of debatable political opinions. In a time of increasing madness, his was an all-too-rare voice of sanity—and, outside the university, when he spoke or wrote on liberal education, on the unique achievements of Western Civilization, or on the need for a superintending international power, it received a great deal of attention.
Forty years ago, when my father died, my mother told me, “You will not know the meaning of the word loneliness until both of your parents are gone.” Perhaps because I was on the verge of marrying a wonderful woman when my mother died, I did not feel great loneliness then. But I do so now. For more than half a century, I had in Don Kagan a surrogate father. I doubt that I will see the like again.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 2, on page 78
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