Donald Kagan, the great historian of the ancient world, has died.
I took his famous intro course on Herodotus and Thucydides when I was a Yale freshman. Kagan’s stunt was to pull some random young men out of the audience — the course was always given in one of the largest lecture halls, so many wanted to take it — and arrange them onstage as if in a line of a hoplite phalanx.
I remember two serious points after almost 50 years. Unless they have been contradicted by better evidence, or they recount something that is physically impossible, always accept traditional accounts as a working hypothesis. And, despite Thucydides’s greatness — Kagan revered him — Herodotus was superior in this respect: He would offer evidence that contradicted his own conclusions (the Spartans say this, the Corinthians say this, but I believe the Athenians who say this . . .). His counter-explanations sometimes turn out to be the correct ones. Thucydides, the master artist and philosopher, has to know everything, and for that reason sometimes doesn’t.
I stayed in touch with him in numerous other ways. My friend Greg Hyatt, from Methuen, Mass., told me once that he was praying for a Yankees victory (unheard of in his part of the world). The reason: Kagan, atheist and Yankees fan, had said he would believe in God if the Yankees won. So Greg resolved to help him.
Kagan wrote a wonderful essay on Joe DiMaggio, correcting a famous John Updike essay on Ted Williams. Williams, Kagan argued sternly, was all about his batting average, whereas DiMaggio’s arete inspired his teammates.
Kagan was the master of Timothy Dwight, one of Yale’s residential colleges, which in my senior year put on a production of Kiss Me, Kate. I was Frederick Graham, the self-regarding ham (why they cast me in that role I have no idea). For the cast party, Master Kagan gave us a case of champagne.
For many years, Kagan was an unpaid teaching assistant for Elizabeth Altham, one of his former students (and one of WFB’s last amanuenses), who became herself a teacher at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, a conservative Catholic school in Rockford, Illinois. Kagan’s assignment was to pinch hit on questions regarding the ancient world. So a teacher’s influence spreads through his students to new generations.
Kagan gave a farewell lecture at Yale at the end of his tenure, in the hall where he had demonstrated hoplite phalanxes, surveying the shifting role of the university throughout history. The modern university, he concluded, most resembles Oxford and Cambridge in the 18th century. Students in both learn nothing much, but network with rising fellow members of the elite. It was an impish envoi — disproved by his own splendid career. R.I.P.