What did Kagan mean by his comments about Nihilism? I found them a little ambiguous.
He said, "Nihilism rejects any objective basis for society and its morality. It rejects the very concept of objectivity. It even rejects the possibility of communication itself, and a vulgar form of Nihilism, I claim, has a remarkable influence in our educational system today, a system rotting from the head down, so chiefly in universities, but all the way down to elementary schools. The consequences of the victory of such ideas, I believe, would be enormous."
Classics - Introduction to Ancient Greek History
Stacey Warren - Expert brainly.com
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(I refer to these comments from the first lecture, by the way.)
Hi there--I'm right there with you when you say that they're a bit ambiguous and, I think, the statement necessarily has to be ambiguous since it's so categorical and emphatic. Based on what I know about Kagan (and a good number of classicists), they tend to be conservative both politically and intellectually. Precisely because he is a champion for the very foundations of Western Civilization, he necessarily looks askance upon developments in the academy that, one could say, started in the late 19th-century with Nietzsche and which reached a head in the both Europe and the United States in the latter half of the 20th-century with poststructuralism, deconstruction, feminist criticism, postcolonial criticism (all of this is usually bundled under the catchall term "Theory") etc. I am by no means knowledgeable beyond soundbites in these schools but one main animating thread seems to be a suspicion of how knowledge has been constructed and passed on. Language as a basis for the manipulation and perpetration of power (so, from the feminist standpoint, language as a site of patriarchal domination and, for the post-colonialist, as a site of political and exploitative control). How this starts affecting literary studies, for example, is a suspicion of how canons were formed in the past--if all these reading lists have been crafted by *white* *men*, how can the humanities, in the light of historical events in the 20th century, recalibrate the way it understands and structures itself? These schools draw on Nietzsche, because he was one of the first to challenge existing grand narratives with withering attacks. For Nietzsche, there is no transcendent "Good" or "Evil." For him, these notions change from age to age and are often related to how power and control is structured in society.
For a conservative like Kagan, this leads to a whole host of problems, as this trajectory of thought is a few wrong moves away from moral relativism and, finally, Nihilism, where there is no meaning to be had. Standards become eroded. Canons that have formed over the millenia become recalibrated... so you see some professors assigning certain previously neglected female or minority writers in place of canonical authors. Again, I'm generalizing when I say "Kagan" thinks this and that... I don't know and haven't ever heard this from him directly. It's a speculation and generalization...but I hope it helps.
And, to go further, when Kagan refers to Nihilism, I think he does it to be polemical. What he calls Nihilism, many others would call good sense. The Nihilists, in Kagan's sense, would be those stereotypical radical-leftist, pot-smoking college professors who call the U.S. a neo-imperialist power. In favor of a suspicious critique and interrogation of existing modes of discourse, they are allied against conservatives like Kagan, who fight to uphold the conservative tradition and, logically, classics form an integral part to this worldview.
I'm not agreeing with one side or the other--I think the rhetoric on both sides gets a bit overheated. To round out my answer, just thought I'd point out that when Kagan invokes "Nihilism," I feel he does it polemically, not literally.