Victor Davis Hanson: Equally at Home with Ancient History and Contemporary Politics, a Reader of Greek and Latin Who Exhibits a Strong Popular Touch, a Man with Unsually Deep Roots and Phenomenally Broad Interest, He's Hardly Your Everyday Academic

The American Enterprise, January-February 2004 | Go to article overview

Victor Davis Hanson: Equally at Home with Ancient History and Contemporary Politics, a Reader of Greek and Latin Who Exhibits a Strong Popular Touch, a Man with Unsually Deep Roots and Phenomenally Broad Interest, He's Hardly Your Everyday Academic


Victor Davis Hanson has written on topics as diverse as the ancient Greeks, military history, farming, immigration, and the world post 9/11. In addition to being a prolific author, he is a professor and co-founder of the Classics Department at California State University, Fresno. Much of Hanson's worldview, including his initial attraction to the classics, is rooted in his experience growing up on the family farm in Selma, California, where he was born and raised and still lives with his wife and three children.

Hanson's books include: Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (2003), An Autumn of War: What America Learned from September 11 and the War on Terrorism (2002), Who Killed Homer?: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (1998), and The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (1995).

He is currently working on a book about the Peloponnesian Wars. Hanson will retire from his 20-year teaching career in May to become a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Professor Hanson was interviewed for TAE by Los Angeles journalist David Isaac.

TAE: What first aroused your interest in the classics? After all, you were a farm boy in Selma, California, taught in a largely Mexican-American public school system--not exactly the most likely background for such a career path. HANSON: It was a wonderful practical schooling with some pretty rough characters, though not one steeped in literature and language. But there were two things in college I immediately appreciated as a freshman. One was that the Greek tragic sense of self resonated with a lot of the values I learned from farming: We all age. We all die. We all have responsibilities. We don't have as much free will as we imagine, because we are obligated to honor and protect our family, our nation, and especially the weaker among us.

The second thing was that I had grown up in a blunt, free-speaking family. And I noticed that the Greeks, contrary to modern American literature, practiced no self-censorship; honesty, not pretense, was valued. Old age was not called the "Golden Years." It was considered ugly and debilitating. People accepted that those who were weak would be beaten in war. Homer and Sophocles, Thucydides especially, were not afraid to describe reality as they saw it. Even then I noticed that freshness and appreciated it, even when I disagreed with it. TAE: How did that Greek tragic sense grow out of your experience of farm life? HANSON: Farmers only got paid one time a year: when the crop came in. It seemed that almost every year my parents or grandparents would say, "When we get the raisins in, we'll build this house, or buy that thing." Then something always happened. Either it rained, destroying the crop, or there was a labor shortage, or the price collapsed, or it would freeze in the spring, or somebody would get sick and die. And these disasters were beyond the ability of men to correct. I grew up with the idea that there are certain forces in the world that are beyond our control. You don't find such a tragic sense in our current world of professed utopian perfection. TAE: Your book Fields Without Dreams describes your experience trying to make a go of it with your brothers on the farm even as the fruit market collapsed. You conclude that the small farmer is finished, yet also that the viability of our system of government may depend on the continuation of the small farm, which not only grows food but also excellent citizens. What values will we lose with the eclipse of the yeoman farmer? HANSON: The small farm had one added dividend: it demanded that you work with nature to produce something good and necessary like food. Farmers weren't naive environmentalists, and they weren't rampant developers out to destroy nature either. They struck a balance.

So often in our society we don't have practical people involved in conservation. In fact we don't use that term very much anymore. …

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