Editor’s note: The following remarks were delivered at The New Criterion’s gala on April 23, 2014 honoring Professor Kagan with the second Edmund Burke Award for Service to Culture and Society. They were concluded by a brief question-and-answer section, excerpts of which are included here.

It has been common in my lifetime to be informed and reminded of the special, autonomous place of artists and art, and especially of literature, apart from and above politics. Its power comes from its ability to choose its own subject, style, and purpose. Literature that is shaped merely by its author’s time and his place within his society, by their prejudices and purposes, is said to be a poor and weak thing that deserves the social scientific analysis and pseudo-
philosophical mumbo-jumbo that pass for literary criticism in our day.

But true literary artists are not bound by such things. They see through and beyond the prejudices and passions of their own time and place and are bound only by the limits that bind all human beings at all times in all places: the reality of nature and of human nature. There is a natural world outside of human will and desire; man’s genius can manipulate it to a considerable extent, and the results can be wonderful, but they are inevitably constrained by the enormous power and mystery of nature and by the limits imposed by man’s own nature. The words of the tragic poet Sophocles in his drama Antigone come to mind. There his chorus describes the dilemma:

        Wonders are many on earth, and the greatest of these
Is man, who rides the ocean and takes his way
Through the deeps, through wind-swept valleys of perilous seas
That surge and sway.
        He is master of ageless Earth, to his own will bending
The immortal mother of gods by the sweat of his brow,
As year succeeds to year, with toil unending
        Of mule and plough.

        He is lord of all things living; birds of the air,
Beasts of the field, all creatures on sea and land
He taketh, cunning to capture and ensnare
        With sleight of hand;
        Hunting the savage beasts from the upland rocks,
Teaching the mountain monarch in his lair,
Teaching the wild horse and the roaming ox
        His yoke to bear.
        The use of language, the wind-swift motion of brain
He learnt; found out the law of living together
In cities, building him shelter against the rain
And wintry weather.
        There is nothing beyond his power. His subtlety
Meeteth all chance, all danger conquereth.
For every ill hath found its remedy,
        Save only death.
        O wondrous subtlety of man, that draws
To good or evil ways! Great honor is given
And power to him who upholdeth his country’s laws
And the justice of heaven
        But he that, too rashly daring, walks in sin
In solitary pride to his life’s end.
At door of mine shall never enter in
To call me friend.

Man’s ingenuity and power are great, but both his power and life are limited. Such is the basis for the Greeks’ tragic view of life. There is no excuse for passivity, for human beings can help shape the environments that shape them and they have the opportunity and the power to defy their societies and their unjust laws, as Antigone does in defying the ruler Creon. He has overridden the unwritten divine law by forbidding the burial of her brother, killed in a rebellion against his state. She chooses to bury her brother and accept a horrible death as the penalty, and we marvel and admire her for it.

So far, it is possible to think of Sophocles as the kind of artist described in Man’s Fate by André Malraux—the champion of revolt against man’s fate, so often in our time taken to be the artist’s revolt against his society and its ways. True artists, like Sophocles, however, are not mere advocates and propagandists but pursuers of deep, usually complicated, understandings of the human condition. Sophocles’ play reveals such complexity. There is something to be said for Creon. His decree is meant to preserve the security of the state and society, the minimal requirement of civilization, the thin veneer that protects us from the plunge into barbarism and savagery. Modern artists tend to assume that the established order is always wrong. Ibsen’s Dr. Stockman in An Enemy of the People made it clear that the rule applies even to democratic establishments with his passionate assertion that “the majority is always wrong.” But the greatest artists are prepared to search for the truth of the human condition wherever the trail may lead. They do not prejudge the outcome. The establishment or the defiant rebel may be right or, as is typical of real tragedy, each may by right in his own way, even as the two rights clash disastrously. Sophocles’ portrayal of the struggle is so even-handed that some ancient scholars thought that Creon’s case is the stronger and that the play should be called Creon, not Antigone. That must be wrong, for Antigone alone displays the willful, defiant, single-minded, unrelenting, uncalculating determination to do what she must, regardless of consequences that is characteristic of Sophoclean heroes. But the point is that Sophocles wrestles with the issues and depicts their champions with such honesty as to do justice to the depth, difficulty, and universality of the subject and his characters.

Such an artist does not reflexively take the side of any rebel against the established order. It may be that the establishment is right. More likely, there is a degree of right on both sides, so that the difficult task for human beings is to gain a deeper understanding of what is at stake, both for individual and society, to grasp that the needs of individual and society are both competitive and complementary and to contemplate the resulting dilemma with the seriousness and awe it deserves. In Antigone, Sophocles seems to me to be concerned, in the first place, with the temptation that power can place in the way of a political leader like Creon to do whatever is necessary, even to violate divine law, in the interest of the state. That might be a comfortable position for a writer in our times, depending, of course, on which party is in control of the state. But Sophocles, no less, understands the enormous cost when an individual tramples on human law even in defense of the most fundamental human needs. The resulting clash leaves us with a burning determination neither to overthrow the regime nor to suppress all insurgency. It leaves us emotionally stimulated and then drained, and it leaves our minds alerted and sobered. We have become deeper individuals and wiser citizens.

Malraux says that “All art is a revolt against man’s fate.” If he is right, Sophocles’ plays, the other tragedies, and much of ancient Greek literature are not art. Malraux’s view, it seems to me, reflects not so much the Enlightenment but the Romantic movement that is determined to see the artist as an individual apart from, superior to, and in rebellion against the established order. Sophocles, like Aeschylus and Thucydides, was very much a part of his society. He fought its battles as a soldier, he understood and appreciated its necessity and excellences even as he probed its dilemmas and weaknesses. His plays, among other things, helped their audiences to understand and come to terms with man’s fate. It is man’s fate, part of the tragic human condition, to revolt and struggle against its negative elements. But human excellence, virtue, even survival depend on the establishment of a decent social order and its defense even against the most passionate and sincere rebels who would smash it in search of some imagined perfection beyond human grasp.

Because he was part of the society in which he lived and understood its needs and virtues Sophocles could compel his fellow citizens honestly to confront its conflicts and its deepest contradictions. They did not suppress, scorn, or, what is worse, ignore him. Instead, they honored him with prizes, election to the highest military and political office, and deep and abiding reverence. Would that all this were the way for modern artists and their audiences in the world today.

Questions & answers

QUESTION: You’re a great student of history. Has there been a civilization in history like the United States that occupies the position it occupies today? And could you speculate about what would happen in the case of a retreat by the United States from its position?

KAGAN: I’m really delighted to answer the first part of your question because it’s something most people have not asked and have not tended to the significance of it. There has never, to my knowledge, been any civilization like the United States has been, chiefly in the years since 1945. For this there are a few reasons. One reason is that America is an extraordinarily large, powerful, wealthy, and skilled society, the likes of which the world has never seen. It has reached a level of prosperity unheard of at any time throughout history. All of these things make it stunningly different from any example from any time. If you want to add to it, as I do, it has been, from its first days, committed to an approach to politics—in the broadest sense of the word—which are popular as opposed to specially limited to royal families or noble clans and the like. There has never been a society so free of such things, and the American approach is strange in that way. And finally—I think this is not nearly appreciated enough—its geographical position is unique, which changes so much in its character and in its relations to the world. It is so isolated from the rest of the world by these two great oceans that it means two things: One, it hasn’t had to concern itself so desperately with defending itself as most states have had to do, and Americans for the most part have been free of the terrible distortion that that imposes on a society. Secondly, because we are so far away, we are much less threatening than any great nation has been before. You don’t have to worry about the Americans invading you unless you destroy their buildings with a bomb. So all of these things make the United States simply unique in human history. It creates opportunities for the United States by virtue of the advantages it gains, and it presents a set of different kinds of problems than that of other nations. One of those problems—and it is an inherent problem which will not easily be put aside—is that it is easy for Americans to say we don’t need to be concerned with what goes on across those seas. That is not insane, it is only foolish. So I would say that all of those things help to explain why I think America is unique.

Now what would happen if there were no America? I think it would simply be a return to the law of tooth and claw which defined the relationship between peoples around the world ever since the beginning, at least of civilization, and probably before. Between 1945 and 2014, about seventy years or so, there has been no war between great powers. Do you know how long it’s been before this period when you could say that? There were no great powers, that’s the last time! So this has been a stunningly benevolent period of time during which this peculiarity has been true: The Americans, for whatever reasons, have been the most powerful nation in the world—it is very important to realize when you are talking about nations and international relations the number one power is military—and the United States has more or less understood that its interests are best served by maintaining peace. Not because we are peaceful, but because we are satisfied with the way things are in the world and have been willing to run risks and to pay a price to preserve a condition that we like that much. And my judgment is there isn’t a very good reason why a situation like this couldn’t continue for quite a long time. But the inherent danger in our situation is the appeal of imagining that all of this is some kind of automatic inevitable thing and the only reason for getting involved in someplace else is wicked and evil and can have no positive outcome. But you need to totally misunderstand what’s going on the world to reach that conclusion.

QUESTION: What is your biggest concern about the future of America intellectually?

KAGAN: I have grim ideas about its intellectual future. I could go on and on about the terrible things that have happened in the realm of higher education and I have reason to believe also lower education as well. The issue here is simply that education of any kind that deserves the name requires the presentation of competitive understandings of the kinds of things people try to learn in whatever schools they attend. There can be no education if there is a received truth which is simply being passed on from one generation to another, and that is more and more what is happening in the world.

As an educator, if you are around long enough, everybody knows all about you at whatever college you’re teaching. So students know about me, and when they come into my class, they expect to hear something strange—I’ve talked to enough of them to know that they might not have known this about themselves, but they were hungry to hear something different. It’s not necessarily true that they would agree with me about anything, but they would suddenly realize, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, there’s another way of seeing this, and there is something wrong with the way I’ve been told this.” That is important, and it’s also so much more interesting than hearing the same stuff over and over again in a different way.

I love to tell this story, and you are going to have to hear it now because I like it so much. This is a true story about a couple of my friends at Cornell years ago. It was a summer session and one course was being taught by my old student and friend, the late Al Bernstein. He was teaching a course in Western Civilization to his students and one of the students—he was teaching Plato’s Republic that day—popped up after Bernstein had given his spiel about what it was about and he said, “You know, Mr. Bernstein, I don’t think that’s really right. The fact is, when Plato says the things that you have been criticizing he really didn’t mean for you to believe that what he said was what he meant. That was just for the ordinary person, but for the person with the perception and the capacities he meant the exact opposite.” So Bernstein says, “Who told you that?” And the kid says, “Well, I learned that from Professor [Allan] Bloom.” And Bernstein says, “Look, you don’t understand. What Bloom told you, that was meant for the ordinary person, but for the person of real perception, he meant the opposite.” That’s just a wonderful story in itself because it tells you what it’s like to have great teachers teaching you. But the rest of it is very important because there is real education going on there. The student comes from Professor A and he hears something different when he goes to Professor B, and most of the time students are cowed to say “Gee, that doesn’t sound right to me.” But if they can say “Professor A disagrees with you 180 degrees,” now we’ve got something going. I call that education. You don’t get much of that where I work.

QUESTION: What do you think about the recent trend among some private secondary schools to eliminate Classics from the curriculum, and what does it mean for the future of Classics?

KAGAN: It’s obviously a terrible threat to the future of Classics, and of course I regret that, but I think it’s a more important issue than just that and I suspect you might agree with me. The Classics stand at the roots of western civilization. Western civilization is what it is in very considerable part because of what it inherited—the most fundamental things which it inherited, which differentiate it from any other civilization that ever appeared on the face of the earth. Even though they worshipped gods and were religious themselves, I’m talking about this sort of fundamental humanistic approach because of their placing concerns and their expectations on man, and, secondly, because of their insistence upon reason as the most reliable device for human beings to cope with human problems.

I don’t want to go on selling the product any more, I simply want to say it is a terrible loss. Learning Latin and Greek is not what it’s about; it is about learning a way of looking at the world that is incredibly significant and is unique. So it will be terrible when it happens. I say “when” because the barbarians are not at the gates—they run the place. The truth is, for those of us who believe anything like what we’ve been talking about tonight, there is no choice but to fight it, to fight it every way you know how as hard as you know how. And I hope you realize that as you do that, you are not just being conservative or a stick in the mud or out of it. You are the defense of civilization. Any hopes that there are for the human race continuing in a good direction depends on not losing this very difficult war.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 10, on page 13
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