Qui êtes-vous, Sir Moses?

C.R. Whittaker

  • Ancient History: Evidence and Models by M.I. Finley
    Chatto, 131 pp, £12.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 7011 3003 2

Julian Barnes’s recent best-seller, Flaubert’s Parrot, quotes a letter from Flaubert to Feydeau: ‘When you write the biography of a friend you must do it as if you were taking revenge for him.’ Sir Moses Finley has been my teacher, colleague and friend for close on twenty years, and while I am not intent on taking revenge on his behalf, I can’t claim to be able to write dispassionately about his work, on the occasion of the publication of his new book, Ancient History: Evidence and Models, and of the republication in paperback (with additions) of Democracy Ancient and Modern and The Ancient Economy. 1985 has been something of an annus mirabilis for Finley. Not only has Evidence and Models brought his total number of books to a round dozen (not counting books of collected articles and edited papers), but the year has seen translations of Politics in the Ancient World flamboyantly launched in France and Italy, where he was fêted by academics and the popular press in a manner normally reserved for politicians or pop stars. This brings the number of translations of Politics in the Ancient World to about ten, including one in Catalan. Full-page, sober interviews in Le Monde and La Repubblica might have been expected; the interest shown by Rinascita and La Révolution, given Finley’s radical credentials, is not so surprising; but there aren’t many scholars who receive the accolade of being quoted by Elle. Qui êtes-vous, Sir Moses? demanded the headline of Valeurs Actuelles. Can we imagine such an interest in an academic historian being voiced in Britain?

The answer to this question seems to me far more interesting than trying to write the sort of conventional review for which I am palpably the wrong person. I prefer to enquire why such differences between the Continent and this country exist and to examine the work of Finley against the historiographic backcloth which forms much of the subject-matter of his latest book. In France at least, the reason for these differences is not hard to seek, given the dominance of the Annales school in post-war French historiography. For them, the aim was une histoire à part entière – embracing all human activity – as Lucien Febvre expressed it: the duty of the historian was to record ‘the total social fact’ – a phrase from Marcel Mauss which reflects the anthropological influence of Durkheim with its special emphasis on structures. Both Raymond Aron and more recently Paul Veyne admit the influence of the sociological methods of Dilthey, Simmel and Weber in underscoring the specificity of historical events. In De la Connaissance Historique H.-I. Marrou attacks the narrow concept of what constitutes historical evidence, stressing that in history the initiative does not belong to the document but to the questions posed by the historian. ‘A document,’ he says, ‘is any source of information from which the mind of the historian is able to draw something concerning the knowledge of man’s past.’

In Evidence and Models the rapprochement between Finley and the Annales school is evident. The chapter on ‘Progress in Historiography’ engages in a debate with Veyne. Other chapters concern use and abuse of sources in ancient history and come close to Marrou’s concept of the equivalence of sources against the philologist’s narrow preference for Classical texts. The chapter entitled ‘How it really was’ is as explicit a polemic against l’histoire événementielle and German historicism as any Annaliste could demand. The final chapter on ‘Max Weber and the Greek City-State’ is one more demonstration of the abiding importance of Weber in the formation of Finley’s historical sensibility, while also, perhaps, a declaration of independence.

The Annales historians gave respectability to the pre-modern past and established it in the centre of the French intellectual stage. ‘Tradition,’ said de Certeau, ‘survives in the practices and ideologies of the present.’ The movement was given birth by Medieval historians, such as Bloch, Febvre and Braudel. It reached its climax in the ‘Braudelian empire’ of the VIe Section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, producing such towering figures as Labrousse, Duby and Le Roy Ladurie. Ancient history has been carried along in the nouvelle vague of Medieval history – not surprisingly, as Momigliano recognised in 1961, given the seminal influence of Fustel de Coulanges, who admitted no such periodisation in French historiography. Of the ten or so most prominent contemporary exponents of Nouvelle Histoire listed by Jean Glénisson, two are ancient historians: Veyne and H.-I. Marrou.

But there is also the role played by French Classical scholars in the development of Durk-heimian sociology which underpinned the movement towards structural history. Louis Gernet, editor for many years of L’Année Sociologique, colleague of Marc Bloch at the Fondation Thiers and associate of Mauss, Halbwachs and Lèvy-Bruhl of the Cahiers du Socialiste, was also the pioneer of ancient Greek social-anthropological studies while holding various university posts in Classical philology. Finley’s first two books, Studies in Land and Credit in Ancient Athens (1952) and The World of Odysseus (1954), were both favourably reviewed by Gernet in L’Année Sociologique. The second book, woven around a theme of Marcel Mauss, won wider public recognition through an article of 1963 published by Vidal-Naquet in Annales.

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