Victor Davis Hanson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Victor, welcome to our program.
Thank you for having me.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born right where I am right now, a little rural hospital fifteen miles southwest of Fresno. I live in the same house that my great-great grandmother built, and so my children are the sixth generation to still live there.
And it's a farming family.
It is. It was always a farming family, and I farmed for a number of years, and I still own some of the land. It was divided up recently when my parents died, but I still own 60 acres of the original 180.
What did the land produce?
Raisins and tree fruit. My brother and I and my cousin [farmed it] from 1980 to '86 or '87, and then they continued to farm it. They just quit last year.
Looking back, how do you think your patents shaped your thinking about the world?
I was very lucky, I had very wonderful parents. My mother was a Stanford Law School graduate, and my father was a University of Pacific Master's-degree graduate. My mother was a judge, and my father was an administrator. But they lived on this farm, so they gave us these antithetical messages. One was: "Don't think you're better than anybody else. You have to get your hands dirty; you have to work on the ranch. Education is the only hope, both practically and spiritually." So it's been both a gift and a burden to be attached to this big piece of land. You can't really leave it, and you feel guilty when you're away, but there are advantages as well.
You never forget hard manual labor in that kind of enterprise, I guess.
No. My mother, as I said, was a leading justice in Central California, and at 62 she would go with me and sell plums and peaches at the Santa Cruz Farmers' Market. That was the idea, that there had to be a balance between the physical and the abstract.
Where did you do your undergraduate work?
They had just opened UC Santa Cruz, and my father said, "This is the closest UC, and I don't want you to go to Fresno State." I had an older brother there, and also I had a twin brother, and he said, "All three of you can go there, and we'll buy a house." We saw one for $25,000 that had a payment of $150 a month, and so the three of us moved in, and we rented out two rooms, and that paid for our education.
Very good. Those were the days.
Those were the days.
What led you to classics? Why did you choose that as a field? Was that in graduate school?
No, no, no, no. It was very funny, I grew up in a rural high school, and I took as many advanced placement tests as I could. I didn't really know what they were, so when I graduated I realized I had two-and-a-half years of college credit. When I got over to UC Santa Cruz, I didn't have to take any classes that I didn't want to.
The student upheaval was just ending -- it was 1971 -- and there were these wonderful classes from Ivy League professors in Greek and Latin, so I just started to take them my freshman year. I didn't have to take a GE [general education class]. The next thing I knew, I took four years of very narrow Latin and Greek language and literature. About halfway through that course of study, they advised me that if I continued, I could go to graduate school. The idea that somebody would pay me was new to me, so I did it.
So then you went to graduate school at Stanford?
Yes, at Stanford, and did a Ph.D. And as I was doing this, I wasn't being just practical. The message from Greek literature, Euripides and Homer and Sophocles and Thucydides was tragic and practical, and it wasn't the message that I was getting from contemporary American society. So it was almost a refuge of sorts.
What did you do your dissertation on?
It was a philologically based program, so everybody was supposed to be a textual critic. I did not want to reestablish the text for the hundredth time of a particular author. I wanted to study war, and I grew up on a farm, and I had a thesis advisor who had just arrived and said, "Why don't you just study agricultural devastation of the Attic countryside during the Peloponnesian War?" And I did, and as a sort of penance, I had to have the first chapter on the philological study of all the Greek words for ravaging. UC asked me to come out with it, and I came out in 1998 with a new edition.
And that book is The Western Way of War.
No, actually, it's called Warfare and Agriculture.
Oh, I see. Okay.
Then I edited a book called Hoplites, and I wrote The Western Way of War later.
Okay. So what is evolving here as you make this journey is an interest in classics, a real knowledge of farming, but also an interest in war. I get the sense of recollections of war from family members who had been lost as solders, or, for example, your father, who had served in World War II. Tell us about that.
Well, I was growing up in this rural family, and at Thanksgiving, or dinner, or every day, there was at one end of the table my grandfather, Frank, who was gassed in the Argonne in 1918, and he had trouble breathing. And then my father was next to him, and he had flown thirty-nine missions in a B-29 over Tokyo. And then they would talk about Victor, who I was named after, who was killed on Okinawa. And then there was Vernon, who had been in the Aleutian campaign.
Everybody there had certain attitudes about Europe, war, hard work, and that was the frame of reference. But I was more bookish, I guess, so I would study these things they would tell me. I'd come back at dinner and say, "Dad, did you know on March 11, there was actually 742 B-29s?" And so it was a mixture of firsthand recollection with abstract study.
But you were interested in it.
I was. I was fascinated about human nature and conflict, and especially war as an arbiter, the ultimate disagreement, and that sometimes it had a utility: things were solved by war.
My parents made us go to school in a very rough neighborhood -- about 75 percent of the people had just arrived from Mexico, and [attended] the public school system [with us]. My father kept engraining in us that when you were at the local schools, it didn't matter who you were, it didn't matter how bright you were, it didn't matter that you got straight As, it didn't matter anything. When you got out on the school ground there would be people who [despite] all the things that made you a good person -- good grades, following the rules, being polite -- would hate you for it because they would see that as weakness or arrogance. Nobody would be there to help you, and you had to not only protect yourself, but try to help people who were not able to protect themselves. I got a hundred lectures about bullies. So I had a lot of fights when I was very young.
I still live in the same neighborhood, and my children go to the same schools, and they're much worse.
So you're suggesting that even as a young person, ideas that you had about the world were tested by reality.
They were, because I saw a lot of things on the farm. Farming is the most dangerous of all occupations, and I saw people maimed. It happened that my brother cut his finger off the other year. And that was a constant -- injury -- and then going to school, fights. Trying to keep this farm was not an economic issue. My grandfather would say, "We'll see if you can keep it the way I did. People will come and try to take it away from you." So they had a Hobbesian view that nothing was static, there were forces out there that always wanted to take things, and people who tried to stop them. And this was a tension in the world that would never end.
Was this background conducive/supportive to your focusing on Greek studies? As you went through this literature, as you mastered this material, did it resonate with this experience? The Greeks really did focus on agriculture and war.
Yes. I notice a couple things. Everything in classics that had been about war was written mostly in German in the nineteenth century, and had very wonderful [ideas], but was discredited because of Germany's later performance in World War II, and World War I, even. Nobody had written anything about agriculture, because they didn't have any practical [experience]. As I started to investigate it, I realized that Greece is at about the same latitude as where I grew up. It was a Mediterranean climate. I knew a lot about vines and wheat and olive trees, I was interested in war, and the field was wide open. I remember going back to one of the advisors at Stanford and saying, "There's not one title in the card catalogue with the word "agriculture" in association with ancient Greece since 1922." I was trying to override their skepticism about studying that.
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