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Kagan’s Higher Naiveté

In preparing to teach a course on ancient Greece and Rome, I was fortunate to have come across a series of  lectures given by Donald Kagan. Kagan is Yale’s premiere classicist and among the world’s foremost scholars on ancient Greece. I watched every one of the 24 lectures that Kagan offered his undergraduates and I can only hope that they were as riveted as I was.

Kagan shifted my paradigm on studying classical civilizations. You see, as one who has devoted much of his life to understanding modern times, I have relied on a very rich (and increasingly accessible) historical record. When I began studying Greece I was a bit overwhelmed by the wildly contradicting accounts of even the most basic facts. Though I am still overwhelmed, I take much solace in Kagan’s position, as delineated below:

“There is this critical school that says, ‘I won’t believe anything unless it is proven to me.’ At the other extreme, there’s me, the most gullible historian imaginable. My principle is this. I believe anything written in ancient Latin or Greek unless I can’t.

Now, things that prevent me from believing what I read are that they are internally contradictory, or what they say is impossible, or different ones contradict each other and they can’t both be right. So, in those cases I abandon the ancient evidence. Otherwise, you’ve got to convince me that they’re not true.

Now, you might think of this as, indeed, gullible. A former colleague of mine put the thing very, very well. He spoke about, and I like to claim this approach, the position of scholarship to which we call the higher naiveté.

The way this works is, you start out, you don’t know anything, and you’re naïve. You believe everything. Next, you get a college education and you don’t believe anything, and then you reach the level of wisdom, the higher naiveté, and you know what to believe even though you can’t prove it. Okay, be warned; I’m a practitioner of the higher naiveté.

So, I think the way to deal with legends is to regard them as different from essentially sophisticated historical statements, but as possibly deriving from facts, which have obviously been distorted and misunderstood, misused and so on. But it would be reckless, it seems to me, to just put them aside and not ask yourself the question, ‘Can there be something believable at the root of this?'”

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