Yale Historian Donald Kagan, Mixing the Old And the Neo

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005

Yale historian Donald Kagan, who sits in one of the most prestigious university chairs in America, who is almost universally admired for his books on the ancient Greeks and the Peloponnesian Wars, who won the National Humanities Medal three years ago, gave the 34th annual Jefferson Lecture last night. It's hard to imagine a more successful or celebrated historian, and yet, just as he has for decades, Kagan still sounds peevish. Will he ever get over the audacity of other professors, who think the ancient Greeks and Western civilization are not the only things worth studying, to confront the old, settled way of doing things?

Speaking at the Washington Convention Center, Kagan's subject was right in line with the usual topics taken up in previous Jefferson lectures (a $10,000 honor sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities). He gave a stout talk, "In Defense of History," with lots of sideswipes at the old boogeymen of conservative academics. He got laughs for little digs at the relativists (who believe that other societies may have equally legitimate values and truths) and the multiculturalists (who think the traditional canon is not so weak as to bear with a little expansion). He saved especial scorn for poor deluded literary theorists and misguided historians who stray from the usual, worthy subjects: "high politics, constitutions, diplomacy, war, great books and ideas." Perhaps he was having a little argument with the Harvard poetry scholar, Helen Vendler, who argued in last year's Jefferson Lecture that poetry should be placed first among the various disciplines in the humanities. Nonsense, says Kagan.

His argument for the primacy of history is simple: Poets may get at deep human ideas, but you can't really check poetic truth except by intuition or emotional response. Philosophers may be good at giving intellectual structure to our understanding of the world, but they don't check in with the raw stuff of daily life with sufficient frequency. "The literary experience is primarily aesthetic and emotional, not intellectual or practical," he said of the poets. And philosophers too often get diverted from the path of wisdom into the swamps of metaphysics, which has led to "massive disagreement," "no progress" and "cynicism." Spoken (in short, pugilistic four- or five-word bursts) like a man of action, a man who has spent his career warning against the bad habit of liberal democracies to go wobbly in the face of danger.

Up to this point, Kagan's lecture was boilerplate -- and who really cares whether poetry or philosophy or history sits at the top of the humanities heap? Is it really a contest?

But then came Kagan's kicker: The real importance of historians is in leading the charge against the "mindlessness promoted by contemporary political partisanship." This is rich, coming from a beloved father figure of the ascendant neoconservative movement, and the co-author of "While America Sleeps," a 2000 book comparing the complacency of Britain after the First World War with the supposed complacency of the United States after the Cold War. Written with his son, Frederick W. Kagan, this book begins with the disturbingly alarmist line, "America is in danger." Prescient words, it might seem, given the events of September 2001. But Kagan's book had almost nothing to say about terrorism. He was stumping for a strong military and for not squandering the peace dividend. The book was very much a traditionalist argument about traditional military power.

No matter. No one with an overarching Gloomy Gus view of the world has ever been completely wrong. Granted, Kagan's book, and his life's work, have contributed to an environment in which fear of vague potential threats often overwhelms sane evaluation of real threats (Kagan went on and on about potential WMDs in Iraq in his book, though they were never found). The neoconservative worldview espoused by Kagan -- despite his protestations about the importance of history standing aside from political partisanship -- is airtight. Pessimists can always count on the accumulating tragedies of history to efface memory of one little mistake.

Moral certainty is today's big intellectual and political fetish. Politicians tell us of certainties big and small, the certain presence of certain dangers that threaten our society, which is certainly the best of all possible societies. Kagan has made a career of this business. Which makes one line left out of the speech (but included in the printed remarks distributed at his talk) fascinating. In his conclusion, he noted that as the power of religion to provide moral truth declined, people needed something else, and so they turned to history for moral object lessons. "History, it seems to me, is the most useful key we have to open the mysteries of the human predicament," read the omitted text. Has the ascendancy of religious fundamentalism among Kagan's allies in the conservative movement made the humanistic certainty of that line unsayable? Has history come full circle, and is the old dinosaur now an accidental outsider? It would be poetic justice, at least.

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