When William F. Buckley Jr. wrote about people — especially in appreciation or remembrance — he liked to begin with “the first time”: the first time he met them. In that spirit, I will recall the first time I met Donald Kagan.
He said he liked my music criticism — but he had a complaint: “You’re too nice to modern composers.” I said, “That would come as a surprise to them.” He threw back his head and laughed.
I said I had a question for him: “Was Edith Hamilton good? Good and worthwhile? Do you admire what she did?” Yes, he said, absolutely. Edith Hamilton (1867–1963) was an American educator and writer who, in 1930, published a best-selling book: The Greek Way. She later wrote others, including The Roman Way.
Full-time academics are sometimes resentful of best-selling authors and popularizers. Donald Kagan was not such a person.
He was one of the leading classical historians of our time. He spent most of his career at Yale — from 1969 until his retirement in 2013. For three years, he was dean of the college. Kagan knew plenty about Rome, but his real love was Greece, and at Yale he had the luxury of teaching Greek history, only.
On August 6, Professor Kagan passed away at 89.
About two and a half years ago — in March 2019 — I went to see him at his home outside Washington. It was a beautiful early-spring day, and we sat on his patio. We recorded a podcast. To be in Donald Kagan’s company — as thousands of his students can attest — was a treat. A joy and an education.
He was born in 1932, in Lithuania. He came to America with his mother when he was two. (His father had died.) I asked him what his life would have been like if they had stayed in Lithuania. “Death,” he said immediately. “They killed all the Jews they could get their hands on.”
The Kagans lived in Brooklyn, N.Y. — the neighborhood of Brownsville, specifically. Brownsville was a slum, composed of working-class people, Kagan explained. Most of them were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.
When Kagan and the other immigrant kids reached 7th grade, they went to a school that was 50 percent white — not that Jews were considered “white” by everybody — and 50 percent black. There was not much fighting, said Kagan. The two groups kept mainly to themselves — except in sports, where they mingled.
“Basketball was the religion of Brownsville,” said Kagan. He was devoted to it, and so was most everybody else. There was a star player, Ziggy Banks (“Ziggy” for “Siegmund”). He went on to play in the Garden, said Kagan (Madison Square Garden, the big time).
Everyone in Brownsville was dirt-poor. There was no money, at all. But those kids were the luckiest in the world, said Kagan. Immensely privileged. Because the adults revered education. And that was the kids’ ticket out.
Talking with me on his patio, Kagan was eloquent on education (as on everything else). “You would be terribly handicapped if you were not educated,” he said. “People can take advantage of you if you’re ignorant.” Education “is self-defense. It’s like carrying a gun.”
Look, said Kagan: “If you get the right education — the education that suits you — it will enrich your life in so many ways, and so deeply, you’d be a fool not to seek it out.”
Don Kagan, the Brooklynite — the Brownsvillian — went to Brooklyn College. He planned to be a high-school history teacher. In conversation with Kagan, I thought of another leading historian, Eugene D. Genovese. He too was from Brooklyn — Dyker Heights — and he too went to Brooklyn College. One of his most important teachers there was Arthur C. Cole, an historian of the Civil War.
Kagan remembered “Mr. Cole,” as he called him. “He was one of those great old Yankees,” he said. “There weren’t all that many Protestants in our world.” There were Irish and Italian Catholics. Cole, said Kagan, was “an old American,” and “that cut a lot of ice with me.”
He said this with a hearty laugh.
At Brooklyn, a history major had to take Western civilization and then a variety of courses, covering many periods and places. They wouldn’t let you be an ignoramus, Kagan said. These days, if you’re an ignoramus, no problem.
And how did he come to be a classical historian — an historian of the ancient world? This, said Kagan, tells us something about “the role of chance in our lives.”
There were so many history courses to choose from, after you took Western civ. Where to begin? Don Kagan thought he would go in order: from the ancient world on up. He consulted some older students about this. Should he begin with Greece and Rome? “Um, that’s fine,” they said, “but you might want to wait a year or two. Maybe she’ll be retired by then.”
“She”? That was Meta Elizabeth Schutz, “a maiden lady in her sixties,” as Kagan put it to me. She was formidable, no-nonsense — kind of a battle-axe. Anyway, Kagan, undaunted, signed up.
“The first thing I noticed was that the room was too big for the number of students in it. And that squared with what I’d heard about her.” Not many were undaunted. Not many were cut out for Miss Schutz.
She had no desire to be your friend. She wasn’t there to cuddle you. She was a severe, exacting teacher. She would not wait for you to raise your hand. She would call on you. And you’d better have the answer.
One young woman began her answer tentatively, saying, “Well . . .” Miss Schutz interjected, “It is not well!”
Kagan resolved to be ready for this lady. She would not show him up. He studied and studied. And when she called on him — he gave the answer she needed, and gave it with kind of a tough-guy attitude. “Yes,” said Miss Schutz. Then she moved on, matter-of-factly, to the next student.
She did not celebrate young Kagan’s answer. She did not pat him on the back. She expected you to know. That was normal. And if you didn’t know — that was abnormal. She treated her students — many of them poor immigrant kids — as if they were products of Choate and Groton, studying at Princeton. She had high standards — normal standards, she would have said — and expected you to meet them.
Long story short, Kagan grew to appreciate Meta Elizabeth Schutz a great deal. And he determined, then and there — that very semester — to be an ancient historian.
When he was a professor, did he, too, call on students, without waiting for them to raise their hand? No. “I wasn’t man enough to be Meta Schutz.” But he had his own methods.
I asked Donald Kagan about war and peace. He spent many years — a career — thinking about them. Some say that war is the natural condition of man. Peace is a mere interlude between wars.
“Too clever,” said Kagan. “War and peace I think we have to look upon as alternating conditions of the human race. Neither one of them should ever shock us.”
He was a big believer in preparedness — in deterrence. Americans, he pointed out, were reluctant to prepare. They could not be troubled to think about dark possibilities. Part of our problem, said Kagan, was our location — our “blessed location,” as George Washington said, between two great oceans. Said Kagan: “It’s hard to frighten us in any rational way.” This can be a problem in that Americans are prone to letting their guard down.
I remembered a quip of Jack Kemp: He said that he was “a dove — a heavily armed dove.” Kagan chuckled, saying, “If you’re heavily enough armed, and blatantly ready to employ your arms, you can afford to be a dove.”
When it comes to war, Kagan said, never forget the question of honor. Men go to war out of “fear, interest, and honor.” Don’t forget that last one. Said Kagan, “People have fought great wars over a chunk of territory that isn’t worth spit because of an attachment it has in somebody’s mind or in history or something like that.”
Continuing, Kagan said, “We’re filled with memories. Memory dominates our lives in so many ways: trivial, important, frightening, encouraging — there it is. My experience with the human race is, one of the hardest kinds of memory to erase is dishonor. Yes, people enjoy remembering their honor, but it’s nothing like how they remember dishonor.”
I related to Kagan a joke — a joke that you can apply to most any nationality, because the sense is well-nigh universal. I heard it as an Irish joke, from an Irish American: “What’s Irish Alzheimer’s? You forget everything but a grudge.”
Laughing, Kagan said, “We cannot brush aside people who have put us down, one way or the other.” And anyone who leaves the question of honor out of his thinking on international relations “is a damn fool.”
Kagan was a conservative — at least as that term was understood from, let’s say, the ’70s to the ’10s. “They call me a conservative,” Kagan told me. “They used to call me a liberal. I haven’t changed my views at all.”
Definitions of “conservative” and “liberal” are always slippery, but I asked Kagan to take a crack at it. The first thing a conservative is, he said, is not a liberal. “That’s not nothing!” And the mood of a conservative is apt to be: Above all, do no harm. Don’t make things worse.
A liberal is likely to have a program; a conservative is likely to have none. A liberal wakes up with twelve things he wants to do to change the world; a conservative is likely to say, “Have a nice day.” The conservative knows that the world could stand a lot of improvement — but he is wary of piling on more difficulties, in an effort to bring about the improvement.
Of course, there are times when you have to fight — when you have to make changes, and counter evil. But be sure the fight is right.
Kagan also said that there are no-goodniks in both camps — on both left and right. “Swine on both sides,” is the way he put it.
He saw the universities captured, to a large extent, by radicals and extremists, bent on changing a campus “180 degrees.” Radicals and extremists on campus, he said, are increasingly “numerous, vocal, visible, and aggressive.” He was a beacon for students — and for fellow faculty members, I’m sure — who wanted a saner, fairer, more education-oriented environment.
When we met on the patio, I asked whether he was doing a lot of reading. “When you’re in my business,” he said, “that’s what you do when you have the time” — read. “I used to read more novels than I do now, but I don’t like most novels that I read now. That’s probably just old age.”
He said he was reading more and more history. “I seem to have an unlimited appetite for knowing what people were like and what they did and what they suffered at different times in different places.”
As we were nearing the end of our visit, I asked him for his favorite ancients. He said his answers would not surprise me. They were Greek, and they related to politics. The Romans knew how to kill people, said Kagan. But the Greeks — ah, they knew politics. And “politics is important for me.”
The first name: Pericles. “More than any other individual you can think of,” said Kagan, “Pericles is responsible for the development and success and influence of Greece.” Talk about influence: “When a kid takes my course on ancient Greece, he’s learning American history, in a certain sense.”
And then? Thucydides. “If you ask people who invented history, they’ll say Herodotus, and they’ll be right.” But Thucydides influences us “more directly and fully.” He was “filled with wisdom and understanding,” handing down “useful, real knowledge, mostly in the realm of politics,” rather than military affairs.
In talking about Pericles and Thucydides, said Kagan, “I don’t want to be unfair to the other guys I love, back in that world, but I’m runnin’ low.”
Okay, a final question: Favorite basketball player? Kagan mentioned Dave DeBusschere, who played both in the NBA and in Major League Baseball. In basketball alone, he had “multiple skills,” said Kagan. “For instance, he was big and strong,” for the time period. “So that meant rebounds, baskets under the basket, hook shots, jump shots close up,” and so on. But “he could also have been a guard.” He was 6 foot 6 — pretty tall for those days — but he could shoot outside, pass the ball, do anything.
Moreover, he was “incredibly physical,” before the game became even more so. “It wasn’t so much that he was trying to kill you. He just wasn’t going to let you stop him.”
It was so great to hear Donald Kagan talk, and hear him laugh. Wonderful laugh! Frequent laughs! To be in his company was “a joy and an education,” as I said near the beginning of this piece. Also: If ever the phrase “a gentleman and a scholar” was invented for anybody, it was for Kagan. The last words he said to me, I think — wrote to me — were “Long may you wave.” I said the same back to him. And I think he will be waving — shining, flourishing — on and on.