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March 15, 2007

Donald Kagan: Yikes

Donald Kagan is Yale's former dean and a well-known professor of ancient Greek history. He's also a prominent neoconservative and the father of two other prominent neoconservatives (Fred and Robert). In explaining his political trajectory, Kagan has told stories about his experience at Cornell in the late sixties in which he implicitly compared black activists there to Hitler.

So I already knew he's one weird scary dude. But it turns out his weird scariness goes deeper than I'd imagined. Here's why:

One of the world's most famous political books is the History Of The Peloponnesian War by the Greek historian Thucydides. And one of the most famous sections in it is the Melian Dialogue. It's studied in many college classes as the classic debate between moral claims and realpolitik.

The dialogue takes place between representatives of the Athenian empire and the island of Melos. The Athenians demand that the Melians choose between being Athen's vassals and being destroyed. The Melians reply they have no quarrel with Athens, wish only to remain neutral, and appeal to morality:

MELIANS: should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right.

The Athenians scoff at such ideas:

ATHENIANS: know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must...

Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.

In the end, the Melians refuse to give in. The Athenians then conquer the island, put all the men to death, and sell the women and children into slavery.

This is clearly a bleak, frightening tale, in which there is no morality in human affairs, and hideous cruelty goes unpunished. You'd expect a professor of Kagan's stature would wrestle long and hard with the implications of this.

But you'd expect wrong. Kagan wrote a book called The Peloponnesian War. Here's what he says about the Melian affair:

...a campaign against Melos provided the Athenians with the outlet they needed for their energy and frustration...

The Melians, alone of the Cycladic islanders, had refused to join the Delian League...

A further conflict was inevitable, for the Athenians could not long allow their will and authority to be flouted by a small Cycladic island.

And that's about it.


(I learned about the Kagan book via a review, via Brad Delong.)

Posted at March 15, 2007 03:03 AM | TrackBack

Not that he was projecting his sentiments about some other island or anything.

Here's the final paragraph of his 1994 book "On the Origins of War," copied from a customer review on Amazon: "The Cuban missile crisis demonstrated that it is not enough for the state that wishes to maintain peace and the status quo to have superior power. The crisis came because the more powerful state also had a leader [Kennedy] who failed to convince his opponent [Khrushchev] of his will to use its power for that purpose."

I wish we could send everyone with this sort of morality off to an island where they would rape and kill and eat one another and leave the rest of us to do what we do best -- make out, give away our time and energy, and try to do right by our neighbors. Alas I suspect that we are evolutionarily doomed to having about half the population be warrior-ish binaristic jerks while the other half are dreamy relativistic cheese-eaters.

Posted by: hedgehog at March 15, 2007 04:07 AM

Scary as well to consider that he's one of the authors (Kagan, Ozment, Turner) of a popular Western history textbook. No wonder that what I learned in school as "Western Civ" was mostly the continuing saga of the strong crushing the weak!

If I were intellectually curious, this might make me wonder what else was going on in the background that I haven't heard about yet.....

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at March 15, 2007 08:42 AM

The Fletcher Memorial Home for Incurable Tyrants and Kings. (now the final solution can be replied)(Pink Floyd)
The Kagans of the world could be useful mopping floors.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 15, 2007 12:36 PM

I think Mike Meyer's on to something: give that man a mop! Not knowing Kagan's background in detail, he strikes me as somebody who's spent much too much time within extremely secure and powerful institutions. Ten days truly on the outside would change his tune.

Binary thinking is a failure of imagination; Kagan clearly cannot imagine himself as "the weak," hence he feels no need to preserve the moral basis for protection. He's an Athenian, right? Until he's a Melian...

Posted by: Mike of Angle at March 15, 2007 02:14 PM

But Mike of A, that doesn't explain why right-wing binarism is uniquely attractive to those who feel like they could become Melians. I don't think that sensation necessarily comes from real world experience, though economic dislocation, increases in immigration, and other real-world events are usually identified as the triggers. I think some large number of people have a tendency toward paranoia and just can't trust the world. Rather than confident strength, they project a quivering violence. Hence the global market for SUVs, home security systems, Rush Limbaugh (and his ilk around the world), and war.

Posted by: hedgehog at March 15, 2007 02:28 PM

The Western Civ class I encountered as a freshperson in college in the fall of 1965 required a reading of Thucydides. Lo and behold, there was the mirror of what I saw going on around me - the past and the present are part of the same thing, and there are persistent patterns in human activities - same as it ever was. I guess I'm still glad I read it then, even though I continue to struggle with the necessity of the facing the fact that "this is the future - you got to live it, or live with it" [as the Firesign Theatre said - or else get out of the way, I add as a third option]. Genius is pain, as pseudoJohn Lennon put it. This is the condition all we potential sentient beings must contend with.

Speaking of books one hears of by reading Brad De Long's blog, by following a link in the comments section of that same posting about Thucydides

I got to a review of a book on how Orwell is highly esteemed in Burma these days -

Emma Larkin. Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop. London: John Murray. 2004...begins with her discovery that Orwell has the reputation in Burma of being a "prophet" due to his three most famous books: Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four. According to Larkin, "It is a particularly uncanny twist of fate that these three novels effectively tell the story of Burma's recent history" (p. 2).

I thought you'd be interested.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at March 15, 2007 02:48 PM

"a campaign against Melos provided the Athenians with the outlet they needed for their energy and frustration..."

speaking of parallels, I'm reminded of that loathesome WaPo op-ed by Richard Cohen not too long ago about how the US needed to blow off steam viz. 9-11. Yikes indeed.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at March 15, 2007 03:29 PM

Kagan and other neo-con-oriented classicists (like Victor Davis Hanson, who recently wrote his own history of the Peloponnesian War, "A War Like No Other" -- and which I reviewed for the Spectator) combine a traditionalist conservative belief in the immutability of human nature (the Greeks were brutal and amoral, thus so, inevitably, will we be), with a simplistic moralism that seeks to justify such brutal behaviour (Athens = democracy = America = good; Sparta = dictatorship = Iraq = bad). It's a logic similar to the right wing's public defense of torture: "torture may be justified to prevent a greater evil; but of course WE don't torture, because we're good... But if we DID, it would be justified."

And no, they never imagine themselves as the ones being tortured or invaded.

Posted by: Ian Mason at March 15, 2007 06:31 PM

those quotes you picked out sounded too current to be true, but they're not...

Kagan’s perspective on events and personalities at first suggests an admirable desire to see the war with fresh and unsentimental eyes. But after a while it becomes hard not to ascribe his revisionism to plain hawkishness, a distaste for compromise and negotiation when armed conflict is possible. His book represents the Ollie North take on the Peloponnesian War: "If we’d only gone in there with more triremes," he seems to be saying, "we would have won that sucker."

ultimately if the human world succumbs to global warming, we can blame the viet-cong.

Posted by: hibiscus at March 15, 2007 06:57 PM

I had to peek at Dr Kaplan's bio, noting that he immigrated from Lithuania and is the first of his family to have an education. It appears that his views on war are those of a scholar and not a participant, so his advocation of the use of force does not mean that he or his relatives will ever actually pick up an M-16 to carry out his theories. Such chores are for lesser men, the cannon fodder who do not go to college but to an early grave.
Re: the comment about his being irritated by black radicals at Cornell in the late 60's, first I have to observe for a professor to be intimidated by both blacks on campus is really not very manly; second this could be an outgrowth of his upbringing. His worldview, as that of his erstwhile offspring, does seem to be more at home in 1932 Lithuania than in 2006 USA.

Posted by: entlord at March 16, 2007 02:12 PM

Kagan is a jew. His family fled Lithuania to avoid Hitler and Stalin. He knows what evil and tyranny is. He knows the US defeated both and he knows it was a good thing.

Unlike the authors of your postings who clearly know very little.

Posted by: George at May 16, 2007 11:21 AM

Little do any of you know about ancient history. Learning about such complex event as the Peloponnesian Wars requires years of studying, not skimming through a mere review. it appears that Professor Kagan's views and opinions are too complicated for any of you to comprehend fully. Please, before you comment on the Melian Dialogue, read some more - the Mytilenian Debate or the Sicilian Expedition at least. Kagan's work (which is well worth 40 years he put into it) represents many different points of view, and he does not portray black and white picture of Athens and Sparta. He is by no means a proponent of using force at all times, as it would be evident to anyone who has read his Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. I hope that upon reading that you won't be as ignorant.

Posted by: at August 1, 2007 05:19 AM