September 13, 2012

Profile in Classics: Victor Davis Hanson

We in the West forget the wisdom of the ancient past at our own peril.

Victor Davis Hanson says he lives in the nineteenth century—a fact that can get him into some trouble.

“Let me give you an example,” he says.

Hanson was in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart one day when he saw a young woman struggling to move a big screen television into her Honda. When he went over to help her, he noticed that she was holding an EBT card, a government-issued debit card for cash and food stamps. 

Hanson told her, “You shouldn’t be using the food card to buy the big screen TV.” She told him to mind his own business. Despite her anger, Hanson persisted: “If you didn’t do that, you would more be self-reliant.”

Reflecting on that experience, he says, “In the nineteenth century, this would never have happened—the government giving you an EBT card to subsidize a lifestyle beyond necessities.”

 profile in classics: victor davis hanson by emily esfahani smith  
 Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Hanson may live in the nineteenth century, a time when duty and honor were moral imperatives, but he has made his academic career studying the ancient past. The lessons of Fourth Century BC Greece and Fifth Century AD Rome—civilizations and their falls due to affluence, leisure, and poor political leadership—are never far from the mind of this classicist and military historian.

That’s especially true when he thinks about Greece, the sick man of Europe today. “What’s happening in Greece is fascinating. The Greeks started rioting because they couldn’t borrow more money from Germany to fund their incredible public payrolls, lavish pensions, and other goodies.” The Greeks, Hanson argues, were essentially acting like spoiled children; they should have been writing thank you cards to their fiscally prudent northern neighbors who facilitated their EU entry, but they instead took to the streets in violent protest, invoking images of the Germans as Nazis.

Not that this should have surprised anyone. “The more you give people, the more entitlements they want,” Hanson says. “They never say, ‘Thank you, that’s so generous.’ They just think, ‘Gosh, don’t ever take that away. We need more.’” This culture of dependency, a byproduct of the entitlement state and what Hanson calls our “therapeutic culture,” is simply a display of human nature at its worst.

“The Greeks of the ancient world understood human nature,” Hanson says. “They knew that people want freedom and affluence, but that when you combine the two, you can have decadence.” The ancient Greeks knew that virtue required a strong moral order that protected people from themselves—from their own follies and vices. Hanson specifically cites the importance of a “shame culture” in checking human behavior.

“I may have the money to stay at home all day and watch Oprah and get pizza delivered to my couch,” he explains, “but I better not because it’s a sort of decadence. I may have enough money and freedom to line up at the mall to buy the latest Adidas-brand tennis shoe, but I shouldn’t do that.”

We in the West don’t have that sense of duty and responsibility today, he argues, which has serious implications for our political future. Though the situation is not as bad in the United States as it is in Greece, Hanson thinks America is losing its spirit of rugged individualism. The welfare state has driven people from the self-reliance that sharpens democracy to the dependency that blots it out. “We are emasculating our citizens,” he says gloomily. “I’m very worried about the future of civilization.”

Agrarian Wisdom

A large part of the problem is nature—or, at least, our isolation from it due to the rise of technology.

Though today, Hanson is known as a conservative polemicist published by National Review, City Journal, and The Weekly Standard, among others, he originally came into the public spotlight as an agrarian writer in the Nineties. His 1997 book Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea is a powerful memoir and eulogy for the agrarian way of life.

The registered Democrat describes his political philosophy today as “agrarian conservatism,” a way of looking at the world he was born into.

“My parents taught me at a very early age that no matter how educated you are, you have to live in the real physical world.”

He elaborates: “I was brought up on a farm. I was taught which way the wind was blowing. Southern wind means warmth and rain. I was taught how much dew settled, the phases of the moon. Why the birds are roosting. If you have rented bees to pollenate the plums, then the blossoms must be open. When I think of a date like February 27, I always think ‘this is Santa Rosa’s plum blossom time.’ May 1st? That there’s only been one frost in my memory after May 1st. When I get up in the morning, these are the things I think about.”

Hanson grew up on a 135-acre farm in Selma, California, a working class town where he still lives for part of the year. From the age of five, he has been engaged in the hard physical labor of working the land. “I have plucked peaches, put pesticides on crops, driven tractors, and pruned with people from Mexico.” Nearly all of the students in his public elementary and high school were Mexican-American. “The people I see most days of the week these days out in rural Selma—few of them have high school degrees.”

After finishing his undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz, he headed to Stanford University, where he received his PhD in classics. But instead of seeking a tenured-track academic position at an elite university, Hanson returned to Selma to manage the family farm with his twin brother. That only lasted four years, however. When the price of the raisin grapes dropped from $1,300 a ton to $450, plunging his native San Joaquin Valley into an agricultural depression, Hanson was forced to put his Stanford degree to use.

So he got into his pickup truck and headed to the closest university around—CSU Fresno—and asked the academic dean for a job. Hanson was dressed in his farmer’s overalls. As he approached campus, the tools were clanking around in the back of his truck. The dean and others did not believe that Hanson had received a doctoral degree from Stanford. So the farmer went back home to get his diploma for proof and it did the trick. He got a job teaching Greek and Latin to mostly Mexican-American immigrant students.

This was in 1984. “Back then, Fresno had no classics program to speak of,” Hanson says. “Between 1984 and 2004, I was at school 5 days a week. I had 8-10 classes a year. I was teaching mostly minority students about art history and ancient art. Ten years after I got there, I had a program with 6 full time professors. Our students were getting into top law schools and graduate programs.”

A key ingredient to the success of his students was that Hanson sought high standards. And he did not suffer fools gladly, especially when he was standing at the podium to teach.

If a Mexican-American student mispronounced a word—whether in English or Latin—Hanson corrected him in class. If a bored student pulled out his cell phone during a lecture, Hanson confiscated it. If a student complained about how he was being treated by his other jealous peers, Hanson explained that jealousy is part of human nature. If a student missed class because his car broke down, Hanson wanted to know why he didn’t have a contingency plan.

“Our reliance on technology makes us incredibly vulnerable, with little back-up when things fail. We don’t realize how vulnerable we are,” he says.

The world of farming and academia may seem to be at odds. As Hanson notes, “What makes you a failure in one makes you a success in another.” And yet there is some convergence—at least for Hanson. The agrarian basis of our civilization, which he describes in his 1995 book The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization, is central to our culture. “This is a fact that a lot of people may not recognize today,” he says.

Farming did not just shape the West economically and politically, by establishing property rights and other institutions of democratic government, but small landowning gave the West a set of moral principles to live by.

“Agrarian wisdom requires self-reliance. If you’re sick, there is no sick leave. If you have the flu, you still have to irrigate. You don’t have a guaranteed income. There is no retirement, no health care. You can’t blame anyone for your failures. If you decide to plan 20 acres of almonds, you have to decide whether to risk the $80,000. If it goes bad because of the weather, you can’t blame the economy. It was your choice.”

While Hanson had his Stanford PhD to fall back on when his farm failed, others in the region have not been so lucky. As of 2007, six counties in the valley ranked among the poorest counties in the country. In Fresno, nearly a third of the population lives below the federal poverty line (according to figures from 2009).

To Hanson, the point is that nature runs the family farm like a tyrant, and it does not grant any bailouts of the kind Greece or the big U.S. banks received. Farmers know all about nature’s cruel absolutism, its metronome relentlessly ticking toward the end that we are all destined to meet. This instills a tragic sense in farmers—a sense that the ancient Greek poets captured beautifully in their verses, which few students are required to read anymore, a fact that Hanson laments in his 2001 book, Who Killed Homer: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom.

Human Nature in the Raw

Greek literature was almost always about war, another aspect of ancient life that was also heavily influenced by agrarianism, as Hanson argues in his 2001 book Carnage and Culture. In the ancient world, one out of nine people were necessary to produce food. Because the soldiers were also all farmers, “war was seasonal,” Hanson says. Farmers could not be away from the farm during harvest time.

War was also very controlled: “Every aspect of war was determined by farming, like how you stockpiled your food and when you launched campaigns.” Hence, Greek  agrarian hoplites favored quick infantry battles in which victory was decisive.

Today, war and farming are no longer central components of a citizen’s way of life in the West. Only a small portion of the population is needed to perform the basic tasks of state: one out of 100 people in America farm, and there is no longer a military draft. “You can take over 300 million Americans and disconnect them from the agricultural economy, and they’re not going to starve; just a very few can feed them all,” he explains. Technology has made food abundant and has turned war into a remote spectator sport, experienced behind the glare of a 3D film or a videogame for most men, fortunately.

The separation of farming and war from daily life has had moral consequences on Western culture. In the past, the prevalence of farming and war meant that territory and honor were very important. “The ideas are very different today. If you say that we can’t leave Afghanistan because it would dishonor the people who have already died there, or those you promised to protect, you would get laughed at in the intellectual circles.”

Our distance from war also puts us at a distance to certain realities of being human. “War fascinates people because it is a time when all language and artifice vanished and everything comes to the surface. It creates savage passions. It is human nature in the raw, and it fascinates and rightly repels people. In war, you see more than usual levels of heroism, cowardice, and industry.”

But technology has deceived people into thinking that human nature has changed. He gives an example: “People say that predator drones have revolutionized war by a sort of remote control killing, and I say it hasn’t. Yes, the delivery system has changed. But the rules of war—and the human minds behind the drones—have stayed the same.”

The Ideal Citizen

Classical wisdom, formed on the farm and on the battlefield, is not only the basis of democratic governance, but it is also central to good citizenship. Today, you don’t have to be a soldier or a farmer to be a good citizen, but you should give back to your community in some way, Hanson argues.

He counts the principles of ancient Greek citizenship off on his fingers: “First, beware of success. Success can lead to self-destruction and divine retribution. When things are going well for you, be modest, because it’s not necessarily always from your talent, but also from your luck.” That’s a lesson Greek heroes learned the hard way.

Second, “Don’t have inflated expectations of human nature. Humans are not born, as Rousseau thought, as good people who need to be liberated. Rather, they need to be civilized. Thucydides knew that civilization was very thin. You need to preserve it. We are one blink away from savagery.” He sharpens his point by citing Occupy Wall Street. “Did you see all of the feces and debris on their campgrounds? Is this what 2,500 years of democratization and science have led to?”

“The point is that human nature is capable of doing as much damage as good if it’s not carefully embedded within civilization.” The 2008 Greek riots show how quickly order can dissemble in chaos and violence.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, a citizen of ancient Greece had more responsibilities than rights. Fulfilling those duties embodied civic virtue: “You, as the ancient Greek,  must participate in government and vote. You must raise a family. You must not break the laws. You should own land and produce food for the country. You must be in the militia. In exchange, the ancient Greek received freedom and protection.”

Mindful of his duties to the state, for instance, Socrates refused to flee Athens when he was being sentenced to death unjustly, even though he had the opportunity to. “Today, there’s a sense that you don’t owe anyone anything.” As Hanson has written elsewhere, “every Greek man, woman, and child now owes about $40,000 to the northern Europeans, with almost no means of paying back that huge sum.”

Finally, the ancient Greeks were skeptical of utopianism. “They didn’t think education can really change human nature. They knew that we are simply human beings with appetites and that what a person says is not necessarily what he does or how he lives.”

Hanson points out that Greece, once the cradle of Western civilization, has abandoned these ancient and time-tested principles. This brings to mind the fourth requirement of good citizenship: an awareness of history.

If Hanson were in charge, he would put the Greeks to work learning the lessons of the past. “The solution to a lot of these problems is reading good literature. I would assign them to read the Iliad by Homer, the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, the Annals by Tacitus, the Leviathan by Hobbes, The Prince by Machiavelli, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon—and, of course, we don’t read enough 19th-century novels, like Joseph Conrad’s books.”

Are We Civilized?

Civilization is a precarious accomplishment, as Thucydides and Edmund Burke both knew—it is difficult to secure and easy to lose. Are we at a tipping point? “We, of the modern world, don’t have a consistently civilized people. We think we do, but they have often never been tried. I worry about that.”

When an Italian cruise ship sunk off the coast of Tuscany earlier this year, there were reports of men pushing past women and children to access lifeboats. “There was not a lot of Titanic-style chivalry on board,” Hanson notes wryly. “They were all supposedly civilized. Apparently not.”

The decline in civility—in the idea of being a good citizen—has taken a particularly tough toll on men, who have not adjusted to today’s post-industrial economy as fluidly as women have. “As society has been cut off from the drudgery of nature and the tragic view of things, it has become whiney. This is probably sexist, but it’s had a more direct effect on the males of the species who have had their muscular world radically redefined.”

“All the young men I knew growing up knew how to do these things. But the young kids I see today don’t know how to run a lawn mower or a chain saw. Today’s male lives at home. He kinda’ sorta’ dates a girl, kinda’ sorta’ doesn’t date her.  He is becoming superfluous as a bread-winner and family head."

In the ancient world, farming and war instilled a sense of duty and responsibility in men. Today? “Men don’t know much about farming, and few are in the military, but most know a great deal about video games,” says Hanson.

Hanson comes back to the virtue of self-reliance and the toll its absence is taking on society: “Today’s suburban American has a therapeutic view of the world. We think we all die in our sleep at 90 years old without ever being sick. We don’t expect to lose our jobs. When these things happen, we go to counseling, thinking life’s not fair. Or we look to the government for help.”

“The society’s attitude toward the citizen—that we will guarantee you a degree of material and psychological security—is something that we can’t honor.” He adds: “I think that we are emasculating the citizen.”

Aside from studying history and the good literature of the past, Hanson thinks that we should find heroes to admire that are paragons of self-reliance. For his part, Hanson looks to truck drivers and hardware store owners. “I just stopped by a truck stop in a wild area near where I live, and the guy who owns a shop there has been robbed three times. And yet, he stays open. He simply gets a bigger gun than the one he had last time. That spirit of audacity is what we’re lacking—the sense that ‘I’m going to make it. I’m going to take the consequences on my own.’”

Hanson’s forthcoming book dwells on another type of hero: “The Savior Generals,” as he calls them. These men—like Themistocles, George Washington, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Matthew Ridgway—were all men of action, just like the truck drivers, hardware store owners, and farmers that Hanson admires so much.

“They all have one thing in common,” he tells me. “They were blunt and they lived the lives that they advocated.”  One could say the same thing about Fresno’s classicist-in-chief.


Emily Esfahani Smith is the managing editor of the Hoover Institution journal Defining Ideas. Her writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, Daily Beast, and New Criterion. Emily contributed a chapter titled “Performance Art: The Faux Creativity of Lady Gaga” to Acculturated, a book published in 2011 by Templeton Press. A recent Dartmouth College graduate, she was editor of the Dartmouth Review.


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