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The End of an Era – The Passing of Historian Donald Kagan

On August 6, historian and Ancient Greece scholar Dr. Donald Kagan passed away at the age of 89. Dr. Kagan was one of the luminaries of American academia.

He was a leading scholar of Ancient Greece, but his claim to fame was his work on neo-conservative thought and his analysis on the role of war in modern history. Kagan was part of a group of intellectuals who departed from the left and became the intellectual and ideological backbone of an important segment of the Republican Party in the 1980s. This group of intellectuals and the body of work they created had a lasting influence on American foreign policy.

Ancient Greece and a Love for the Humanities

Kagan got his Ph.D. at The Ohio State University in the 1950s and embarked on an academic career that lasted for decades. He taught at Cornell University and later Yale University.

Kagan was a prolific writer and published many books. One of them was his four-volume account of the Peloponnesian War that lasted from 431 B.C. to 404 B.C. Critic George Steiner described it as “the foremost work of history produced in North America in the 20th century.”

Kagan’s work on Greece discussed not only military history but also political thought. In a 2012 video interview Kagan gave to his alma mater, he explained how his love of the classics had grown over time.

His view of the humanities was grounded in the classical views of liberalism that saw common culture – high common culture, to be exact – as essential to the creation of a complete person, especially for anyone who wishes to be considered an educated person.

For decades, Kagan lamented the decline of the humanities. Other intellectuals, such as American philosopher and writer Allan Bloom, explained that the decline of the humanities is coupled with the demise of national identity and a core moral code that is shared by society.

Kagan’s Political Positions

Clay Risen of The New York Times noted that Kagan’s political positions were difficult to describe. Risen said, “He was hard to pin down, though. He disliked Richard Nixon and, more recently, Donald Trump, but he was a fan of Reagan, whose commitment to a strong military and willingness to confront the Soviet Union seemed to him to embody the Greeks’ ‘mental and intellectual toughness in confronting the human condition.’”

Over time, Kagan became known as a neo-conservative. This description refers to a group of thinkers, many of whom were originally aligned with the political left. These intellectuals became conservatives in light of the Cold War, the rise of neo-Marxism, the decline of cultural hierarchies of classical liberalism and the anti-war cultural shift that occurred in the 1960s.

Kagan’s reputation for neo-conservatism – he did not always agree with that description – made him a known figure in that intellectual circle. Kagan also supported the idea that spending funds on defense is an essential part of protecting peace.

In a National Review interview, Kagan explained the difference between a liberal and a conservative. He noted: “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’s Books

Kagan created a dynasty of neo-conservative thinkers. Both his sons, Robert and Frederick, are leading scholars in conservative think tanks.

In 2001, Kagan and his son Frederick wrote what became a very popular book: “While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today.” This book presents an argument that made Kagan famous, not just as a scholar of ancient Greece but as a person who had the ear of policymakers.

The book promoted the idea that American foreign policy has to use war or the potential of it as part of its foreign policy. Borrowing from the famous saying “war is the continuation of politics with other means” attributed to Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, Kagan explained in his book (and also in his very popular course in Yale on war) that the natural disdain from war does not mean conflict should be avoided at all cost. A strong and mighty military force is essential for the preservation of peace.

Perhaps less popular but a broader treatment of the phenomena of war is Kagan’s 1996 book, “On the Origins of War: And the Preservation of Peace.” After publication, the book became a classic.

As an historian trained in the 1950s, Kagan analyzed war as a phenomenon, not limiting himself to one era or geographical location. He focused on the role of honor and memory and how these concepts are so central to the human experience, which is why war is such a difficult phenomenon to abolish.

Contrary to most contemporary historians who shy away from overarching comparisons, discussions of human nature, and commonalities that surpass societies and historical periods, Kagan had no problem comparing the wars of ancient Greece and Rome to modern-day world wars. Kagan went against the concept of achieving peace by decreasing armies and weaponry and noted that the best way to preserve peace is with a big army. Deference is the only guarantee for peace; any other fanciful idea ignores the core foundations of human characteristics.

The Kagan Legacy

Kagan’s passing comes against the backdrop of a new Republican party, one that has evolved far away from neo-conservatives such as George W. Bush, Sr., Dick Cheney and Caspar Weinberger. It is hard to predict who will have a new role in the future of the Republican Party. However, the intellectual legacy that historians like Kagan leave behind should be a necessary part of every policy maker’s decisions, whether or not those policy makers agree or not with Kagan’s philosophy.

Dr. llan Fuchs is a faculty member in the Legal Studies program and a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., LL.M. and Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the university, he teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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