On History & Education: An Interview with Victor Davis Hanson, Part 1

This past February, Cana Academy’s Andrew Zwerneman sat down with renowned historian Victor Davis Hanson and conducted an hour-long interview, recorded as part of our Sources series on history and culture. Recently, we transcribed the interview and thought that our readers would find the text of interest. What follows is part one of three.


AZ: Dr. Hanson, thank you for joining me today. In fact, thank you for hosting this event here at the Hoover Institution where you serve as a fellow.

VDH: Thank you for having me.

AZ: Let's begin by defining a key term—classical. I once heard you remark that it means what is lasting, what is best or highest. Could you elaborate on that, please?

VDH: Well, we use classical in every kind of context: classical cars—it comes from a Latin word classis, meaning ship or fleet, actually category. But what makes one car classical and another not, or what makes a house a classical Victorian and another just a regular Victorian house? I think there is a general consensus that something over time and space is acknowledged as enduring, and that would mean in the case of the ancient world—Sophocles' Antigone or Homer's Iliad. Wherever that is read or known across time and space, it's recognised as something that is pertinent, relevant for the particular age at any time, so it's really about endurance. It's something that by general consensus won't go away.

AZ: Is there something like a highest purpose to classical education, something that we would want our students to attain and that prepares them most for the world?

VDH: Classical education by definition is not going to be vocational in the sense of business or engineering. So it's always going to be a little different, however we describe it—at the high-school level, college, bachelor's, master's degree, Ph.D. or just autodidactic. But the purpose of it is sort of outlined in Cicero’s Pro Archia, and it's to make a person have a liberal temper: not in the modern sense of liberal, of course, but to be open to new ideas and yet to try to place experiences, ideas, and thought in a context. So the classical mind says, “This is the debate against or for abortion, or this is a problem with North Korea,” to take in contemporary examples. How can I analyze those or appreciate those within a typology, within the classical mindset? This is Thucydides' take on human nature, or this is what Homer says about war, or this is what Sophocles says about war. So it offers the classically trained person something to work with so that you're not in Groundhog Day, always rediscovering the world every day.

And then, besides that practical aim, there's an aesthetic to it: It's trying to teach people that it's not just what you end up as or what you accomplish in the material sense, but it's how you do it. It's a method, it's a process, it's an attitude of seeking beauty wherever you can find it. As Socrates says, it's treating people the way you would like to be treated. And so it's an ethos. And you want to inculcate some kind of ethos about aesthetics and the way people treat each other—bring philosophy down from clouds to the human spirit.

AZ: In many classical education circles, advocates often zero in on the trivium and the quadrivium. It's kind of the well-defined framework by which we understand classical education. The standard there is fundamentally a scholastic one, but do you have a different concept? Do you have a more historical or more expansive notion of classical education?

VDH: I think I do, and part of it is that, although I was trained as a philologist here at Stanford… I taught for 21 years, mostly minority students. And by the statutes of the California State University you have to average 25 students in a class. And that's very hard when you're trying to teach introductory Greek or introductory Latin to nontraditional students, so you become an emissary. So, I would try to redefine a classical program or protocol as sort of an archaeological component so people could see the practical story of the past and the history, literature, and language. And that is somewhat similar to the medieval approach, but it was the idea that I could take a student and say, “Here's a trireme. Now you use those four approaches and tell me what you know about it.” They would say, “Well, here's the archaeological remains,” or “here's a duplicate that's in Athens today,” or “here's what Thucydides says about a sea battle,” or “here's what a person uses as a literary metaphor using a trireme, and here's what the Greek word for it is.” I was trying to at least develop some kind of frameworks, so whatever problem came up they would not just think it's just general and vague and not know what to do. [T]he purpose obviously was to transfer that way of thinking, of a finite way of looking at the world to other fields, whether it's politics or human relations.

AZ: I like that term you used, “emissary.” It's clear that many of your students would not be the typical classical education student—the profile of a student taking the liberal arts—and you were really trying to carve out culture among them where they wouldn't get it otherwise.


VDH: In 1984, when I also needed a job, I was hired as a part time Latin teacher. So I needed the students to justify what later became a department or a program of about five professors full time, but you had to tell people why you should invest two to three thousand hours in Latin and Greek per year. What's the purpose when their parents are saying, "We're scrimping and saving and these are the first people in our family [to go to college]. Why don't you tell them to go into law or into engineering." And you try to explain that they can do that with classics. They can do anything, because they've mastered the written and spoken word. They have a framework of history and literature to collate events with, and they have a sense of the aesthetic. We would always try to have students speak English. Many of them were not native English [speakers], and we would say, “Don't repeat vocabulary. Seek Latin variatio and use alliteration, or use rhetorical tropes.” We were trying to create the spoken and written word as an art form.

AZ: That’s wonderful. I think a lot of us are first introduced to Victor Davis Hanson by way of lectures we've heard online, or maybe we saw you as one of the commentators in the wonderful series on the Greeks, and we think of you as an historian, and I wanted to know if you could talk a little bit about the important reasons, the most important reasons young people should study history as part of the classical training.

VDH: [W]hen we start our education, whether it's formal or autodidactic, it's just a blur. And what we want is structure. And when we look at the past we want to ask ourselves what are the main events in the world? Are the Greeks and the Romans within that? And then we go into the dark ages, medieval, so I would always want to have a system in our own minds at least that we're going to be systematic. We're going to start with the Greeks and there's nowhere else really, a little bit in the Middle East, but there's no written record as we call it, true history, until Herodotus, and then we want to progress. And so if you can establish a framework, when you tell a student this is what Greek history is, and this is what Roman history is, and the other stuff is not history—and it might be very impressive to have Hittite cuneiform text, but we don't have the individuals apart from the state reinterpreting contemporary or past events often to the displeasure of people in power. That's history. And we want to use this framework now. Now that we've done it with Greece and Rome you can do it for any period.

Then the other thing: I think it's really important to teach people that a historian is not a scribe and he's not a recorder. What the historian does is he picks and chooses. Thucydides has a twenty-seven and a half year history of the Peloponnesian War. In theory it's twenty-seven and a half years, but he doesn't cover really eleven of the years; he breaks off in mid-sentence. Some things become very important in history, like the Melian dialogue. But if we were to look at other sources, that didn't seem to be that important. So we try to teach the students, we try to remind ourselves that what the historian chooses to emphasize or leave out or exaggerate or critique is part of a literary creative process. You don't just open the book and say, "He said it and therefore it's true, he says this and that's important." You want to be an active, proactive reader saying, "Thucydides says this, but my gosh he didn't say that, and he left out this." I think that discrimination really is important to inculcate very early.

AZ: So it's probably fair to conclude that you would consider history to be a liberal art. Some practitioners of classical studies don't.

VDH:  I do. I think it's a literary form as well. So the historian, whether it's Thucydides who I think has one hundred and forty-one speeches of some sort, indirect or direct, he's an artist and so he tells us himself, sort of in contradictory forms: "I made these speakers say what I thought they said based on my research ability, but in other cases I make them say what they should have spoken given the circumstances." And so he's trying to use his skills as an artist to recapture something that he might not have actually heard, that he feels represents some sort of higher truth. And then you can discuss whether that's legitimate or not. But again it's in the confines of the literary artist. I think that's true of all the great historians whether it's Gibbon or Parkman or Prescott. We've forgotten that they were great stylists and they had imagination. That narrative art of sweeping histories has been sort of lost because of compartmentalization and the idea that history has to take place within the confines of a Ph.D system.

AZ: In teaching Herodotus and Thucydides, did you ever run into the challenge with your students where having read Herodotus, they didn't take to Thucydides because of the big style difference?

VDH: I did, all the time. Most people when they read stories in Herodotus about Solon or Gyges, it's obviously stories from Herodotus that are more entertaining, especially the 300 at Thermopylae that seem to be most important. So when they would read Thucydides' narrative, the non-speeches: "This happened and the next year when the corn got ripe they did this and this," they are not attracted to Thucydides as much. That being said, after they were in the program, meaning a classical education program of literature and history, after two or three years they began to look back at Thucydides’ speeches—Pericles' Funeral Oration, the Mytilenian debate, the Stasis at Corcyra—and they felt that they were much richer than Herodotus. I don't know whether that's an accurate estimation or not, but it usually seemed to me that students in their third and fourth year became addicted to Thucydides, especially his speeches and his prose style, at least both in Greek and how it was translated into English—in a way that they found Herodotus not so challenging or not so insightful. Of course, that's an age old debate. Whether it's accurate or not, it just seems that students start out liking Herodotus better but then some end up appreciating a more subtle or sophisticated approach.

AZ:  And I think students who are enamored of the emergence of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle might take to Thucydides a little bit more because of the stage, the drama that's being set for the rise of philosophy. Do you think that's true?

VDH: I do. I think especially his pessimistic view of human nature is more overt than Herodotus', and his idea that the gods don't really direct things. Although there is hubris and there's nemesis that follows, it's still a human thing, as he says at one point in his History. So they're very interested in Thucydides because you keep seeing human nature being what it is, and you can predict what Nicias is going to do once he outlines his hesitancy; he's a good man who will do a bad thing. And you can understand that Alcibiades is a reckless and dangerous person that's got innate talent. That's true with all these people. Pericles is a brilliant leader who really is an aggressive imperialist. He has a strategy that should in almost every case work, but it will not work against the Spartans in this particular war. He's full of this tragic sense that bad people can be useful, and good people can do bad things, and great people can lead you to doom. Spartans should be unimaginative and plodding because of the system that produces them, then all of a sudden you see Gylippus, Brasidas or Lysander, and it turns out that oddballs and smart bastards, maybe half citizens, whatever their circumstances, they're more brilliant than anybody. That's what's always exciting about Thucydides is the paradox, the contradiction.


Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy. Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution; his focus is classics and military history. A renowned historian and social commentator, Dr. Hanson's scholarly work ranges from historical studies on the Peloponnesian War to the demise of classical studies in the American academy. Just this last fall his latest book was released: it's titled The Second World Wars: How The First Global Conflict Was Fought And Won.

Header image of Thucydides, Cicero, and Herodotus composed of images by CaptmondoJbribeiro1, and Marsyas, respectively. Banner created by Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman. Image of Cicero used under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image of Herodotus used under CC BY SA-3.0Image of Victor Davis Hanson courtesy of the Hoover Institution