When There Were Giants: Three Great Classicists

Victor Davis Hanson
The New Criterion
October 2021

Classics is not just an abstraction of values, legacies, literature, and history. Whether it comes alive or stays moribund in the modern age hinges on the success or failure of classicists in the classroom, in public fora, and in print. In that context, classics has suffered a great loss this year, with the death of three quite different but equally gifted and dedicated classicists. The Yale historian of Greece Donald Kagan died in early August, and he leaves an enormous void that will be impossible to fill. A number of obituaries by scholars and former students have surveyed his magnificent life. A few journalists have added occasional epithets such as “neoconservative”—an odd sobriquet when it is hard to detect any contemporary ideological bias in his signature four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War and other works.

In truth, what was spectacular about Kagan’s career were the contributions that de- rived from his natural intelligence, his superb mastery of the chief sources from fifth-century B.C. Athens, his devotion to the wider dissemination of scholarship to the public, his love of and advocacy for undergraduate teaching, his traditionalist commitment to family and country, and his moral courage in weighing in on contemporary controversies, without worry over reactions from an often ideologically monolithic faculty and administration.

Most graduate students of Greek history in the mid-1970s and 1980s were assigned by their advisors the orthodox works of leading historians such as M. I. Finley, G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, and Peter Garnsey. This brilliant post-war generation of interdisciplinary Oxford and Cambridge historians focused on the prejudices and inadequacies of our ancient sources and incorporated into their histories the contributions of the social sciences, demography, economics, statistics, studies of rural life, ideology, and anthropology.

Like Kagan, they often sought to make their scholarly views accessible to the general public. But unlike Kagan, they did not write in the narrative traditions of the grand European historians of Greece, such as Karl Beloch, Georg Busolt, George Grote, and Eduard Meyer. The nineteenth-century idea of a multivolume story of ancient history perhaps had given way to the model of the invaluable Cambridge Ancient History, where teams of experts were assigned only areas in their published expertise, with instructions to condense their scholarship into accessible narratives.

In sum, as a graduate student I was discouraged by advisors from reading Kagan’s supposedly passé style of historiography. Yet when I later did, I eventually appreciated that it opened up a world that I had missed, revealing my own abject ignorance.

Kagan devoted over twenty years of his life to a four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War, in an unapologetic commitment to narrative history, with emphases largely on politics and war. He wove the ancient testimonies of Thucydides, Diodorus, Plutarch, and less-well-known fragmentary historians with epigraphic sources to provide an engaging account of some ninety years—prior to, during, and after the twenty-seven-year-long Spartan–Athenian catastrophe.

Kagan, again in then-unfashionable ways, focused on the various parties and interests within the major city-states, who brokered their respective foreign policies of their poleis and were guided by less tangible motivations that transcended class interests to include honor, fear, and perceived self-interest.

He implicitly rather than overtly reminded the reader that current realist ideas like the role of a balance of power, of deterrence, of alliances, and of preemption were hardly modern, and in fact were ancient notions, innate to human nature itself. And he focused on paradoxes: good men (such as his beloved Pericles) can make terrible decisions. Bad men (e.g., Cleon) can come up occasionally with insightful strategies. Ill-conceived wars can still be won (perhaps the only thing worse than the commitment of the full resources of the Athenian Empire to an optional war with democratic Syracuse was the loss of that conflict). Sound strategy and victories can be forfeited by illogical but entirely human decisions (e.g., the last three years of herky-jerky Athenian strategy during the Ionian War at sea). Sometimes supposed tactical genius can be too cute and lead to misinformation, miscommunication, and misadventure (as in the case of the general Demosthenes at Syracuse).

The idea of free will predominates in Kagan’s histories. Unlike Marxist determinists, Kagan resisted the notion that anything is “inevitable,” or that leaders are themselves captives of larger social, economic, and ideological forces. Instead, wiser decisions could have prevented the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (perhaps contra the judgment of Thucydides himself, given that peace is somewhat unnatural and requires the hard work of statecraft when adversaries have so little in common).

Second, Kagan brought his classical reverence for tradition, Western institutions, and erudition to contemporary controversies. He politely but firmly criticized George Will’s influential enthusiasm for the idea that a more scientific approach to contemporary baseball had improved a constantly changing game and indeed enhanced fan enjoyment in the evolving national pastime.

When the Bass family of Texas gave a multimillion-dollar contribution to Yale to support a greater emphasis on and instruction in Western civilization—only to see it contorted for interests other than those of the donors’ intent—Kagan was outspoken about the lost opportunity of such rare munificence. And yet he privately understood, in the Thucydidean sense, that people in the wrong can appeal to a principle that people in the right must sometimes unfortunately concede: the Bass family’s generosity was still subject to the whims of the ungracious Yale recipients. The faculty were correct that donors cannot, at least absolutely, set the exact parameters and details circumscribing faculty governance, even when it is self-destructive. And so the generosity was returned to the donors.

As a young professor at Cornell, Kagan’s opposition to the radical takeover of the university’s campus was not just brave, but prescient. Many of the excesses of the current woke movement follow precisely the logical trajectories of what Kagan, the advocate of free expression and racially blind meritocracy, warned about a half-century ago. He was inspired by Thucydides’ warnings about the epidemic of deadly relativism during the stasis at Corcyra, where factions destroyed institutions that they themselves would eventually sorely miss.

Third, Kagan might not have identified as a populist, at least politically, but he certainly was in the conduct of his own life. While he was an unapologetic champion of erudition, of higher learning, and of the advantages of elite culture and civilization, he retained his Brooklyn roots, the pragmatic common sense of his youth, and interests outside academia. I spent a year with him at a research center on the Stanford campus between 1992 and 1993 and watched him chat with groundskeepers and cooks about their jobs. He pressed me about farming, tractors, and the ins and outs of viticulture. How, he inquired, did one harvest raisins and olives—to the point that I once joked, “I am also an occasional classicist, Don.”

Meanwhile we talked about the two books we were working on: each afternoon, a half hour on his work in progress about the causes of wars and a half hour on my study of the agrarian roots of the Greek city-state. What I also learned from these discussions was his insistence on speaking politely but boldly, on questioning orthodoxy—if orthodoxy seemed groupthink rather than induction—and on valuing common sense and practicality over theory and abstraction. He used the term “wrong” often when praising the erudition of a great classical scholar who unfortunately came to improbable conclusions—as if displays of vast knowledge sometimes blinded the historian to the obvious. Good sense, Kagan often reminded me, was the important attribute of a historian.

He always ended our afternoon meetings with advice, new to me at the time, that if our short lives were to have any meaning, then we must first always honor family, country, our parents, and ancestry—and where we come from. And if academic colleagues thought these loyalties quaint, he warned, then the problems were, of course, theirs and not ours—at least not entirely.

His family and Yale students and colleagues knew him better than I did, and have commented on his life and scholarship in greater depth and with more authority (such as Paul Rahe, writing later in this issue). For me, Kagan was the consummate friend, a moral person who always sought to persuade without either offending or backing down.

Donald Kagan was a rare man of integrity, a great scholar, and unsurpassed as a teacher. Academia was lucky, in the past, to have faculty of his caliber in prominent roles on campus. I wonder what we will do when there are no more Donald Kagans, given that many young classicists have never come across anyone like him.

John Patrick Lynch, the University of California, Santa Cruz, classicist and former Cowell College provost, also died this summer, after spending over a half-century in teaching, administration, and devotion to the Santa Cruz campus. Lynch might be termed as liberal as Donald Kagan was conservative. But such identifications are meaningless in their particular careers, because they felt strongly that ideology had no place at all in the mentoring and assessment of students. I never heard either offer a positive or negative judgment of current or former students in terms of their political persuasions.

Lynch was hired at age twenty-six by the recently birthed University of California, Santa Cruz. He finished his thesis at Yale and began teaching that same fall out in then-raucous coastal California, which proved a new experience for the Great Barrington native.

Lynch’s assigned mission was to inaugurate a classics program at the new UC Santa Cruz campus. These were the heady days of the late 1960s and 1970s, when the new scenic campus, for a short time, was one of the most difficult in the state to gain admission to (I spent all summer on the waiting list on appeal after being initially rejected). There were no grades—only pass-fail assessments with evaluations. But the result was not laxity, at least originally, but oddly more rigor: a meticulous professor like Lynch, released from a grading scale, could be far more accurate in his appraisals, whether in exuberance for brilliance, or in unabashed condemnation for failure, or in pointed suggestions for mediocrity.

I met Lynch the year after he began teaching at Cowell College, one of the residential colleges at UCSC, when I had enrolled as a freshman and had just turned eighteen that first month of school. He was both our dormitory preceptor and Western Civilization core instructor. So I saw him almost daily during my first year in residence. John had already generated a student and faculty following from his initial year—to be frank, a cultlike cadre who worshipped him, as I soon discovered. Certainly, I had never before heard of, much less seen, any teacher with long hair, a beard, sandals, and such casual dress. I expected the worst.

Yet immediately his conduct belied every such stereotype of a “hippie” on the Santa Cruz campus. John was devoted to strict academic standards, followed to the letter the rules of his institution, and insisted on class attendance: all work was to be turned in on time, and student investments were to be commensurate with the endless hours that he spent grading our essays with lengthy and detailed commentaries. At a student get-together, I once heard a hip classics major say to John, “Pass me more pizza.” He answered curtly with a slight frown, “OK, but I need a paper from you—now!”

John’s thesis was then being published as Aristotle’s School, part of a lifelong scholarly interest in ancient Greek philosophical schools— their organization, philosophical focuses, contributions to Western philosophy, and physical spaces—in classical and Hellenistic Athens. When he critiqued the unique organization of the new Santa Cruz experiment it was often in reference to past philosophical undertakings. And he sometimes noted dryly that the educational and institutional legacies of Plato and Aristotle had not always ended in success, at least as originally envisioned.

I think he was the finest undergraduate teacher I ever had—combining mastery of his field, calm in class, and a worry more for students than for himself. Just as importantly, he helped recruit to Santa Cruz those with similarly extraordinary teaching skills and devotions—the vivacious and infectiously enthusiastic scholar of ancient drama Mary-Kay Gamel and the historian of Roman literature Gary Miles—to help start a classical languages and literature program, one that became a campus treasure and was widely known in the field as one of the most challenging and imaginative programs in the nation.

Personally, Lynch was modest, sometimes quiet and shy, but always principled and unafraid in times of debate. His agenda, as I increasingly appreciated later, was to introduce the highest standards possible of classical scholarship, language, and literature instruction to nontraditional students in the broadest sense of the word (UC Santa Cruz of the early 1970s was, well, a very funny place)—as a way of drawing out talents from the underappreciated.

Like Donald Kagan in his lifelong devotion to his beloved wife Myrna, Lynch was a true partner to his wife Sheilah, who, as an alumna, shared his devotion to UC Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz community. Their Catholic faith and devotion were unmatched. And, like Kagan who worshipped his loyal and accomplished sons Robert and Fred, Lynch too talked nonstop of his son Brendan and daughter Bernadette, not to brag, but in his own admiration of the conduct of their lives.

In 1984–85, when I sought to start a classics program at CSU Fresno, I simply retraced the steps that I remembered from John Lynch. And I confess that for the first time I finally fully appreciated the time, sacrifice, and generosity that he had extended to us all, who had been mostly ignorant of what large teaching loads at relatively low pay entailed.

John had one great peeve: any notion of watering down philology or classical standards to accommodate student fads and trends. Instead, he was convinced that talent had nothing to do with class, much less race (he grew up in an impoverished Irish-Polish family), but everything to do with hard work, natural ability, and the willingness of mentors to offer sound advice and politely tone down students’ unwarranted estimations of themselves, while buoying them out of illogical depressions. When John and Sheilah visited our farm, I remember my usually formal mother walking up to him and saying, “I seem like I know you after all these years, since we owe you so much, Mr. John Lynch. You were our son’s friend. You offered him a lesson of what learning and life were about.” And so it was, and I have owed him ever since.

When I learned of John’s death a friend said of my shocked state, “Victor, after all, he was your hero.” I don’t think I had ever thought of him that way until then. I realized, yes, of course, he always was. Most of what I tried to convey to students I learned from him. I was his emulator, although with far less success.

Still another great classicist, Leslie Threatte, unfortunately died this year as well. Undergraduate classics students of John Lynch would have first met the UC Berkeley professor and classicist Threatte (a Harvard Ph.D.) in spring 1972, when he used to visit the Santa Cruz campus and watch the “Athanatoi” (“The Immortals”), our intramural softball team. John Lynch pitched. Leslie gave up after playing an inning or two (athletics were not his forte). Instead, he talked to us classics majors about his envisioned monumental project on Greek grammar and philology (at a softball game in Santa Cruz, no less, and to teenagers). I remember a graduate student who remarked in an aside on Threatte’s enthusiasm for such a huge grammar, “No one does that stuff anymore.”

In those years, Threatte also looked the part of the hippie, with long hair, Levis, and T-shirt. But at evening classics get-togethers in Santa Cruz he modestly answered all questions about Greek and classics—and usually stunned students into silence with his exactitude and detail. He talked casually of ancient Greek grammar, Greek epigraphy, and the modern Greek countryside as if he were commenting on English idioms and the Florida landscape. His modern Greek was native-like—and yet he never volunteered to display such fluency, instead needing to be prodded.

When Threatte referenced his own teachers Sterling Dow or Eugene Vanderpool, or Berkeley colleagues such as the greats Kendrick Pritchett and Ron Stroud, it was always in deference and honor for having known such scholars. That esteem seems obvious, but during the youth rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s, it was singular that a young professor, to private groups, would express such admiration of those of an older and supposedly staid generation. For Threatte, there was some unspoken class of superior philologists, whose mutual respect transcended the Sturm und Drang of the chaotic 1960s and 1970s.

Threatte was a permanent summer and sabbatical resident of Athens, and a go-to resource for students at both the College Year in Athens and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens on topics such as the Epigraphic Museum or a vexing passage in a Greek inscription and many others beyond. He once guided three of us on a January hike to the Cave of Dyskolos, the backdrop to Meander’s Dyskolos, on the slopes of Mt. Parnes near the ancient deme of Phyle. As we hiked, he gave continuous commentaries on the various Greek cult caves of Pan and the underwhelming nature of Menander’s comedy, along with mini-lectures on botany, piano playing, birdwatching, and the particular Greek dialect of a passing shepherd or herdsman. When one student smashed a flower with her boot, he sighed “We have killed another rare Attic winter crocus.”

He was a regular hiker on the famous Eugene Vanderpool walks of the Attic countryside. When we entered the occasional provincial museum, he would give an impromptu sight reading of a Greek inscription on stone, as if it were nothing more than easy English.

Leslie in 1978–79 hired my wife and me to clean his apartment each week while he was in the States and we were in Athens, and then again enlisted us to proofread the galleys of his monumental The Grammar of Attic Inscriptions, Volume I: Phonology. (Volume II: Morphology followed in 1996.) It is no exaggeration to say that Threatte’s grammar proved one of the most prodigious works of classical Greek philology of the late twentieth century. As an experiment once, I took just one copied page of the manuscript to the American School library and tried to replicate his research work on examples of Greek phonetic spellings; it took four hours. I told my wife, and she remarked of the stack of galleys on the table, “All this would consume an entire life, then?” And it did.

Leslie had a reputation for being sarcastic, curt, and occasionally cynical, but these traits only came out as a defense mechanism when he sensed ostentatiousness and snobbery, especially when directed at students.

In 1984–85, after farming full-time for four years after graduate school, I had begun to teach Latin as a part-time instructor (for $435 a month) and was trying to start a classics program at CSU Fresno, while still farming 180 acres of orchard and vine crops and helping to raise a family of five, all amid an agricultural depression. We had not heard from Leslie in a few years, but apparently he heard that I was finally returning to classics.

Out of the blue, he called our home in spring 1985 and asked if he could visit and help promote the idea of starting a classics program at Fresno. He was then the chairman of the Berkeley classics department and came down on the train. For the next two days he charmed administrators at CSUF on the importance of classics, did two local radio programs, and met with our mostly Mexican-American students (peppering them with questions about Spanish grammar, etymology, and vocabulary). When he left, the provost sighed, “Well, if a scholar of that caliber believes classics is possible in Fresno, then let’s see if he’s right,” and she soon granted two full-time positions in a new program that previously had garnered only one quarter-time slot.

In 2004, I once asked a renowned Berkeley classicist in his nineties about Threatte the teacher, scholar, and person. He said something to the effect that only fools had misjudged him; beneath his slightly southern accent (Leslie grew up in Florida), his sometimes modest dress, and his sharp repartee was one of the great classical philologists of our age, a master pianist, a dedicated teacher for those possessing his requisite seriousness, and a kind person who gave freely to all of his expertise.

As I wrote in my essay “Classical patricide” for The New Criterion of September 2021, classics is now again in one of its periodic “crises” of declining enrollments, financial cutbacks, ideological rancor, and institutional fratricide—albeit this time perhaps more suicidal rather than homicidal. The discipline is often tagged as being elitist or exclusionary. That charge is not valid in my experience from a half-century of Greek and Latin study. We should remember that classics cannot be separated from the classicists who teach, publish their scholarship, and seek through their advocacy to keep the study of classical antiquity alive. For all the talk about the death of classics, one reason that there remains even a debate about its present and future is that there still are a few great classicists, whose professional and ethical examples resonate among students, colleagues, and the public, and so draw more people to the field than can others less gifted or more self-interested, who often have the opposite effect on prospective students and scholars.

Donald Kagan, John Lynch, and Leslie Threatte were all products of the middle or lower-middle classes. They were classically liberal in their outreach to all students, but with understandable interests in those who, like themselves, had once faced financial or family hardships. For all their political differences, they believed in the idea that America gave rare opportunity and that its citizens were most gratified when those least expected to succeed proved successful. The three were great believers in the leveling power of education, and the notion that political, ethnic, and class differences fade when people share like interests and excel through their own hard work. Of course, they were not Pollyannaish. At various times in their careers, they fought university establishments and perceived unfairness or indifference.

I hope that it is not true that these Ivy League scholars and graduates were one-time artifacts of the peculiar era of post-war optimism, national confidence, and the good will of twentieth-century America. All contemporary classicists have known their own Kagans, Lynches, and Threattes, and just as we lament the last World War II veterans who are now fading away, and along with them all their firsthand memories of those ghastly but important years, so too I fear that a generation of teachers and scholars who transcended politics and were united by scholarship and near-missionary zeal for undergraduate teaching will not or cannot be replaced.

In their own everyday kindness, unassuming ways, and extraordinary devotion to classical antiquity, these three men were giants.

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2 thoughts on “When There Were Giants: Three Great Classicists”

  1. While listening on Sunday to your Saturday podcast with Sami Winc on this subject, I thought, “In another life, I’d like to study classics.” Then I thought, “Why not this one?”, and found a beginning Latin online course which started yesterday, maybe 30 hours after my initial inspiration. At 63, I have no time to lose. As for so many great ideas, I have you to thank, Professor Hanson

  2. I came across Donald Kagan’s Wall Street Journal commentary published on Dec 28, 1994 entitled “Why Western History Matters”. I still have the article which I cut out of the paper. It launched a personal 27 year reading project for which I’m eternally grateful. That concise summary of why the classics matter should be required reading for all high schoolers. My reading project continues. I would have loved to have taken a class from Donald Kagan, but now I’ll take a look at his Peloponnesian War volumes. Victor Hanson’s books have also been part of my reading project, especially the War Like No Other.

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