On History & Education: An Interview with Victor Davis Hanson, Part 3

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. Catch up on the first two parts of the interview here and here. What follows is the final part.


AZ: On the purposeful end of things, and in terms of students graduating from a classical school or maybe from a classical program at a university, would you be encouraged to see more of those students, in terms of the future of that country? In other words, is there something about the national culture that would really benefit from more students graduating from classical programs?

VDH: It would. I think what people worry about is that language is becoming bastardized—it's just a rough grunt, Twitter form of pre-grammatical communication when you turn on the television news or you see debates. I used to refer students to the William Buckley and Gore Vidal debate. I didn't care what their politics were. But that repartee, that wit, that personal invective, the use of vocabulary and allusion, metaphor, simile was very effective. And they were glued when they saw that. And so I think it's really important that we have a generation that are starting to read. We look at the English language and it's really becoming something that's almost Neanderthal. It's just that we're training a young generation that has a vocabulary of about 800 words. Can't we expand that to 4,000? [A] thesaurus could expand that vocabulary, and it would help you enrich your argument. So I think that's very important.

The other thing is that we're really starving for people that have reference. We suffer from the arrogance of the present. So everybody says this is the worst scandal in history. This is the worst thing that's ever happened to America. This is the worst president we've ever seen. Wouldn't it be more effective to say, "This reminds me of Millard Fillmore"? Or maybe, "He's getting into James Buchanan territory.” Even if your audience doesn't know it, they might develop some interest. But we don't have any comparative typology because we don't know anything about the past. So in a practical sense, I'd like to see students emerge from...high school...with the ability to speak well, the ability to refer people to events in the past, and the ability to be empirical and not just deductive or just hyper partisan. And one of the things I think is one of the great themes of classic literature is irony, "eironeia," the Greek idea that things are not quite what you think all the time. Things that should not happen do happen, and the unexpected should be considered the expected, whether it's military campaigns or it's just in daily life. And so we have to get this idea that, maybe for the wrong reasons, if you're a right wing conservative, for the wrong motives Bill Clinton could have done something that was good for the country. And if you're a left wing partisan, how ironic that maybe somebody in the middle class got a break from a Trump tax cut. I think we're just—we're not open to the ideas of paradox or irony. We are open to this idea of cynicism and sarcasm. It'd be better to extend that to include irony.

AZ: There might not be anyone in the country as learned and helpful as you are about the history of the Peloponnesian War. And I was wondering if you could share with us some thoughts about how to lead students into the study of Thucydides in particular. Early on in his history, he lays out a concept of history, and I think you've mentioned already that something of his anthropology in his view on human nature. Can you explain a little bit more about his concept of history, and whether or not history itself has proven that concept to hold up pretty well?

VDH: Well, he makes a very famous statement in the first book section. He says that his history is going to be valuable, and it's going to be forever. And the reason is not that we are going to think the Peloponnesian War, which he says is the greatest war in the Hellenic experience, is the greatest war. He's smart enough or astute enough to know that people will change. The players will be different. There will be greater wars, but what will make his history valuable across time and space is that he captures human nature and human motivation. Once you understand the Peloponnesian War and the central ironies of the central themes of it, then you can apply that to almost any history. So whether we like it or not, he believes that history is didactic: it assumes one overarching principle, that human nature will not change.

And that's a very unpopular concept today. Most people think that the hardwiring in our brain is changing because of video games, or cell phones, or new disciplines, our increased diet, and that with radically changed material conditions we can pretty much replace human nature. So we have all of these social science efforts to make us wealthier, healthier, better people. But Thucydides says, "No, you can put people within certain parameters, but they're going to act predictably and they're going to be driven," as he says about Athenians who think they have to maintain their empires. Why did they do these things? He has two speakers say this explicitly: they do it for a sense of honor, or perceived self-interest, or they act out of fear. I think he's right about that. That's what makes it timeless.

AZ: Alright, so you're fresh off of a wonderful study on the Second World War, or as you put it, the Second World Wars. So put Thucydides to the test there. How does he illuminate both the political events leading up to the war and to its execution and its outcomes?

VDH: Well, I think he believes in deterrence. Why does Sparta invade in 431 B.C. in a way that they hadn't in the last 20 years? I think the answer is that, rightly or wrongly, they feel that they can! They can go into Attica, and nobody is going to stop them. They know that there's a naval deterrent, but they're not convinced that's an immediate deterrent. In other words, the Athenians have not been able to establish the principle: "You don't set foot, not one foot in my property," which they apply to the Thebans later on in the Delian [League]. I mean, Pagondas the general and Hippocrates the Athenian general have matched speeches about deterrence. When Sparta thinks that they can get away with it, and Athens then retaliates, you have an asymmetrical war. And the chief question, the mystery of his history, is who's going to adapt first? Will Athens be able to create an army and go down and destroy Sparta and free the helots in the fashion that Epaminondas two and a half generations later will? Or will Sparta develop a navy and dissect the Athenian Empire and starve it out? It turns out, again ironically, that the blinkered Spartans are more versatile, and they are better at enlisting allies than the supposedly cosmopolitan Athenians.

And when we look at World War II, it's the same question. These very limited continental powers, Italy and Germany, take the European theater. And, in the case of Germany, they’re nursing wounds over Versailles. They have a headstart, and they have a fascistic idea that the spirit is much more important than the material. And the question simply is, “Are we going to be able to destroy the democracies and not become arrogant in the process before the mighty giant of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain together combine against us?” And it looks like they pull it off from 1939 to probably somewhere around June of ‘42, and then, of course, hubris kicks in. They do very stupid things like declare war—the Germans and the Italians declare war on us rather than vice versa. They earlier invade the Soviet Union, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, the fascists are basically controlling the world: they have what is now the EU, much of North Africa. The Japanese empire is even larger than the Third Reich. If you say where are Japan, Germany, Italy? It's the Arctic Circle, the Sahara desert, and it's the English Channel to the Volga River by 1942. And yet, they miscalculate and get themselves into a war, a "Sicilian expedition" or "invasion against the Scythians" with about the only countries that can destroy them, and that's the 400 million people of Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Then they make another classic Thucydidean error, and they start a war without asking a fundamental question in the manner that Athens did: “How can I destroy the ability of my enemy to make war? How can I go into their homeland and destroy them so they cannot field an arm?” And the answer is, does Germany have an aircraft carrier? No. Does Italy? No. Do they have a four engine bomber? No. Does Japan have a four engine bomber? Are any of them able to bomb factories on the other side of the Ural Mountains in Russia? Can they reach Detroit? No. And the opposite is true of the United States. Can they reach Berlin? Tokyo? Can the Soviet Union? Yes, they can.

They start a war with a power, and especially the United States, economically, whose potential they have no idea about. And yet they somehow translated border wars, and in the case of Japan inheriting orphan countries from defunct countries like France and the Netherlands that don't exist anymore in 1941 as autonomous countries, and they've been scavenging the colonial spoils, and then they translate that success into a global war, as if they can produce 90 percent of the world's aviation fuel, or they can build a Liberty ship every three days, or a B-24 bomber every hour. They have no concept about that.

AZ: Do Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle illuminate or anticipate by their writings the profiles of major players like Hitler and Churchill?

VDH: I think they do. Especially in a formal sense, if one were to read Aristotle's Politics or his Ethics, where he talks about typologies of government, what oligarchy does, what aristocracy does, what demagogues do, and what radical democracies do. And he pretty much also forecast what happens in the mentality, as does Thucydides, of someone in Britain or France around 1933 or ‘34 when they won World War I. They are starting to feel a little bit guilty about the Versailles Treaty, and we have this asymmetrical situation where the people who lost World War I feel aggrieved and they want to fight again, and the people who won do not want to fight. And the more that you appease, the more you try to rationalize the interest of the enemy, the more that Chamberlain did that, the more a classical mind would say, "You're showing a great magnanimity, but unfortunately, given the nature of the person you're showing it to, it's going to be seen as weakness to be exploited rather than a concession to be appreciated and reciprocated." And again that requires a pessimistic estimation, and an idea that countries keep safe by deterrence, because there's always a weak link in the chain of the global community of one aggressive power that will try to take advantage. You can get very innocent, noble people killed if you allow them to be vulnerable. So what I like about classical literature is how it cuts through modern pretensions of morality and basically says that if you lose the rule of law as happened to Corcyra, or you have an arrogant person, a Xerxes, they're going to take and take and take. There's going to be violence and violence and violence once this thin veneer of civilization is peeled away. You're going to need people to stand up and do some very terrible things to stop it and restore civility, and realize that peace is not the natural situation, as Plato says. It's a parentheses.

AZ: I have a final question for you. If there is one symbol that was born in Greek antiquity that stands as a source of normative authority for our time, it's philosophy, the love of wisdom, a way of life as Socrates put it. Perhaps our culture forgets about the affective part of the relationship to wisdom. What is your mind on that? How best can we foster a love of wisdom among our students?

VDH: Philosophy had existed before Athens, mostly in Sicily and especially in Ionia along what is now the Turkish coast. But what happened in Athens is, at least as Aristophanes caricatures it (as Plato reminded us), he brought it down from the heavens. It's no longer cosmology, or what we would call geology, or any of the hard sciences. It's the philosophy of how to get along with people. It's a human experience. And what Socrates was trying to do is fabricate a code of behavior and ethics, and it was predicated on a pessimistic view of human nature, of course. But it was also sort of a pre-Christian idea, that ultimately you don't want to do anybody any harm—not because you're better than they are, not necessarily because a divine spirit told you to do that (although there is this divinity, we're all imprinted with a moral sense on birth), but it's also reciprocal, it's utilitarian. If you were to do something wrong, you're going to warp your inner soul and there's going to be consequences. In a utilitarian Socratic sense, the system won't work if everybody does what you do. If you cheat on your income taxes, you're going to have to have some kind of accounting, maybe in the hereafter because you did something that was morally wrong, but then you have to also assume that you're special and that nobody else can cheat on their income taxes, because if everybody were to do that there won't be any revenue for the state. And your own family will be hurt. So it's this awareness that you are a member of a polis, a polity. There's a code of behavior that is predicated—that everybody has to assume that they act in a certain way—predicated on what they want other people to act like as well. And if you start to make hubristic exceptions for your own behavior, then you have to assume that other people are going to do it. And this is the veneer of civilization that is going to be torn off, and it's going to start to descend into the Hobbesian law of the jungle. That's a very valuable idea. Philosophy is moral, in the sense that we have souls and a duality between the physical and the corporal. But it's also practical, because it's a way, it's a handbook of how people in a community have to act to preserve it.

AZ: Just a quick follow up. So you described that moment as a kind of a pre-Christian moment, and the life of Socrates, the thought of Plato and Aristotle were happily and very fruitfully absorbed into Latin Christian culture centuries later. Do any of the great classical Christian writers shape your mind, about how you think about things? Augustine on history, or Aquinas on the order of things, or that the great medieval tradition of the relation between faith and reason?

VDH: Yeah they do. St. Thomas Aquinas but earlier: Jerome, Augustine, even Boethius' Rota Fortunae and a lot of the Byzantine writers, and they can be in almost any subject. And what do I mean by that? Why did they appeal to me? It's that if we look at the gospels of Jesus Christ, the canonical gospels—Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John—there's not a systematic blueprint of what we're supposed to do. That has to come later. That requires somebody to say, “How do I translate [this] in a practical way?” It's a radical idea to practical circumstances. So if somebody comes up to me and says, “My son died when he wasn't baptized,” I look in the Gospels, but I can't find an answer. Does he go to heaven? Or, “I've been a sinner for ten years, and yet I'm dying now of cancer and I want to repent.” These are practical questions that the church was faced with, and to answer them they had an advantage, because they had the systematic approach to learning and inquiry that we talked about earlier: the empirical method, inductive method, and examples to draw on from classical literature. But more importantly, they had a moral body of thought that had said, going back to Plato and even earlier to Pythagoras, that there are souls that we have. And as I think Plato says, they're like musical tunes: you can't hear them, you can't see them. If I say "Hey Jude" we all know what it is, but it doesn't become reified until you have a musical instrument, and that musical instrument is the body. So this thing that you can't smell, can't touch, can't see—as soon as we have a violin or a lyre or a guitar, then we can see it. And that's what our bodies are, but that we don't ever confuse that the guitar can make music on its own. It's just an instrument.

That proved very conducive as a framework to interpret Christianity, and the thought of Jesus Christ, because he came from a separate tradition. The combination of Jerusalem and Athens really codified Christian thought and made it a practical idea, and it incorporated ideas within classical thought that aren't in other bodies of thought in the non-West: That people are noble not just because Jesus said it in the Sermon on the Mount but because there was a prior tradition that said, "Watch out for affluence.” So that sort of welding or melding of the two systems together was one of the most brilliant and mysterious developments in the history of Western civilization.

AZ: Wonderful. Thank you Dr. Hanson.

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. Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.

Banner image of St. Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine by Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman. Image of Thomas Aquinas PD-100.