Kagan credits ancient Greeks for liberal education

The study of Western civilization is central to a liberal education, according to retired Sterling Professor Emeritus of Classics and History  professor Donald Kagan.

Before a crowd of approximately 40 students Wednesday afternoon, Kagan discussed the importance of Western civilization and traced its lineage from the Hellenistic Period through the English Revolution. Kagan, who retired last spring after teaching at Yale for 44 years, is a National Humanities Medal winner and widely recognized authority on Ancient Greece. In his speech, Kagan said the idea of a liberal education did not exist outside of the West until it was introduced to the world by Western culture.

“It does not seem to be understood that the very idea of liberal education is a unique product of Western civilization,” he said. “The abandonment of such a study would be a terrible loss for all of humanity.”

Throughout history, the standard form of government has been monarchical, and republics were unknown outside of the West, he said. According to Kagan, the concepts of individual freedom and secular government first came from the Ancient Greeks. Citizens of Greek city-states had relatively little wealth inequality, fought without professional mercenaries and demanded a role in political decisions, he said.

Still, Kagan was quick to add that Judeo-Christian civilizations were instrumental in the continuation of these ideas. During the early Roman Empire, Christianity was a persecuted religion that was independent of the state. Despite the fall of the Romans and the rise of Christianity, the Church was never truly dominant, Kagan said.

The Protestant Reformation posed further challenges to the Catholic church, he said.

Beyond the broad history of Western civilization, Kagan focused on the ideas of individual liberty, rational thought and objectivity. He pointed to a quotation at the temple at Delphi that reads, “know thyself, nothing in excess.”

Kagan said the Greek way of looking at things required a change from faith and intuition to a reliance on reason. Scientific theories cannot be arrived at by meditation alone, he said.

Still, the Greeks understood that humans were simultaneously powerful and fallible.

“[Man] is capable of the greatest achievements and the worst crimes. Knowing he will never achieve perfect knowledge and understanding, but always determined to continue to search for such things,” said Kagan, “To me, that seems an accurate description of the human condition.”

But the idea of individual freedom also reveals a dark side to Western civilization, Kagan said. Though prioritizing liberty makes civilizations susceptible to inequality and instability, Kagan said most people around the world today want to benefit from the achievements of Western science and technology.

The talk sparked immediate debate among students about reason, individual freedom and faith in science. Students interviewed said Kagan’s remarks provided an interesting perspective.

Ugonna Eze ’16 said he enjoyed Kagan’s thoughts on the relationship between governing power and individual ideas.

Alfred Delle ’17 said the talk raised several questions about what freedom means and how society should understand the concepts of “West” and “East” today.

Kagan taught at Yale from 1969 until 2013.

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