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.

Since then, one of the major themes of the New Historians, several of whom, like Vidal-Naquet himself, were involved in and perhaps disillusioned by the événements of the Sixties, has been a firm rejection of Marxist determinism and of the facile projection of past models into present economics and politics. In the Seventies the search was on to comprehend mentalités, and with this Finley’s most influential and most controversial book, The Ancient Economy, first published in 1971, struck a chord. Constructed on models derived from Karl Polanyi and Max Weber, both of whom had exercised a strong influence on Finley in his early career, the book aimed to demonstrate that the economic behaviour of the ancient Greeks and Romans was determined not, as we instinctively assume, by concepts derived from 19th-century laissez-faire economics but by the social attitudes prevailing in those societies. It is this theme of the specificity, la radicale altérité, of the Greeks and Romans which the French press has seized on as a catchword to epitomise the central motif of Finley’s Democracy Ancient and Modern and Politics in the Ancient World. The same phrase, la radicale altérité, is used by François Hartog, in the introduction to his recent edition of La Cité Antique, to describe the aims of Fustel de Coulanges. Finley’s undisguised admiration for Fustel de Coulanges – though he savaged some of Fustel’s ideas in an influential article – was bound to attract the French.

Historiography in Italy is altogether more complex and it is difficult, despite the marvellous clarity of Arnaldo Momigliano’s studies, to trace the subtle, often bitter undercurrents of rivalries left swirling in the wake of the assassination of Benedetto Croce, ‘secular pope’ of Italian culture, at the posthumous hand of Gramsci when the prison notebooks were published in the late Forties and Fifties. The student revolts, Red Brigades and neo-Fascist movements of the Sixties and Seventies have given Italian historical writing a ‘presentism’ even more immediate than that of France during the événements: they have also given it an appeal outside the confines of the lecture theatre. Many historians, including ancient historians like de Martino, have played an active, sometimes a leading political role. The scholarly historical journal Quaderni di Storia sells an astonishing 5000 copies. As in France, ancient historians like Cicotti have edited specialist monographs for non-Classicists, like the remarkable series of translations in the Biblioteca della Storia Economica – almost unimaginable in Britain. Despite the stern trench warfare and intellectual thuggery between Left and Right vividly described by A.W. Salamone, the Istituto Gramsci has played an enlightened role, on the instructions of the Communist Party, in encouraging an open, non-ideological tradition of scholarship, which includes running a special section on ancient history under Andrea Giardina, as well as liberally sponsoring a remarkable series of seminars. No doubt one reason for the central role of ancient history, or more properly of Roman history, is that it fits easily into the powerfully nationalistic character of Italian historiography, evident in the Storia d’Italia project of Einaudi and in plans for a multi-volumed history of ancient Rome.

Finley’s reception in Italy, possibly because of his predominantly Greek interests, has been relatively cool compared to that in France, and it was not really until the publication of his book on ancient Sicily in 1968, part of a three-volume history initiated by Denis Mack Smith, that he attracted much attention and won the support of the publishing house of Laterza. Finley was one of the first English-speaking historians to be aware of the importance of the works of Ettore Cicotti, to whom he returns in Evidence and Models for his study of ‘War and Empire’. While rejecting the historicism of Croce, Finley’s refusal to accept the text of Marx as inviolate, and his preference for some Weberian models, have made him a figure of suspicion among the Marxist colonels of ancient history – in Italy and elsewhere.

To understand his repudiation of those whom we might consider to be his natural allies we have to understand something of Finley’s background. Whether or not Martin Jay is correct in The Dialectical Imagination in crediting the Frankfurt Institut für Sozialforschung with such an influential part in the revitalisation of Marxism in the Thirties and Forties through the development of what they called Critical Theory (so named for a sensitive American public), they were certainly part of a more general European movement, exemplified in the writings of Lukacs, Gramsci and Ernst Bloch, which saved Marxism from the deadening effect of Soviet-style historical materialism by a more imaginative and selective reading of the texts: this was the milieu in which Finley received his early training, when employed at Columbia from 1937 to 1939 by the Institut in exile. This eclecticism of his has since led him into fierce controversies with orthodox Marxists in Italy and France.

There is a paradox here. What attracted the younger generations of the Sixties and Seventies to Finley, in both France and Italy, was his stress on political commitment and his articulate opposition to élitist theories of democracy advanced by Pareto, Michels and Mosca (and still fashionable in the work of Hannah Arendt). These theories are based on the assumption of apathetic masses who allow themselves to be led by experts. Here, his own credentials to speak were impeccable. The active part he had played when forming and organising the American Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom had produced his explusion from Rutgers University ten years later, when he refused to answer questions before the Senate Committee on Internal Security, having been denounced by Karl Wittfogel. Yet, as Momigliano recalled in 1975, in a review of Democracy Ancient and Modern for the New York Review of Books, Finley disappointed Italian Marxists like Di Benedetto, Lanza, and those looking for a ‘historian of revolutions’. He determinedly opposed the notion that there were quick and facile lessons to be applied from Athens or Rome in support of modern causes. More recently, his challenge to the relevance of the Marxist concept of classes for an understanding of the logic of ancient slavery and economic change has aroused the fury of the old-fashioned French Marxists of Besançon and a younger generation of Italian Marxist archaeologists led by Andrea Carandini.

But at least Finley was talking the same language as the French and the Italians, and making friends as well as enemies. In Germany there were few friends to be made. Nazism had purged German historiography, along with the other arts, of the political radicalism inspired by the ideas of Marx and of the sociological sensibility created by Weber. Post-war German historiography was monopolised by the scientific historicism associated with the name of Von Ranke, and was obsessed, as Georg Iggers describes it, with the uniqueness of German national phenomena. The ‘poverty’ of historicism, if we follow Karl Popper, lies in its scepticism of all theories of history. Confusing theory with interpretation, historicists have rejected subjective selection of the evidence and prefer the positivist view that it is possible to distill pure, value-free facts of ‘how it really happened.’ Even today it is neo-Rankean figures, such as Gadamer, who hold the centre ground, not those, like Wolfgang Mommsen, Dieter Groh or Hans-Ulrich Wehler, who have challenged the possibility of Wertfreiheit in history. Groh himself is deeply suspicious of Annales-type structural history and returns as so many Germans do, to the theme of Absicht – the intentions of men as an explanation of historical behaviour.

Germany’s loss was America’s gain, since so many brilliant scholars, like those of the Frankfurt Institute or the Vienna Circle, found refuge from Hitler’s Germany in the universities of the United States – over fifty of them according to Jay, including such towering figures as Herbert Marcuse and Franz Neumann, by whom Finley was influenced at Columbia. Several years later another exile from Nazi Europe, the Austrian Karl Polanyi, who had served as a WEA lecturer in Britain during the war, came as visiting professor to Columbia and ran a series of seminars on economic history and anthropology.

We should not be surprised, therefore, at the mutual lack of enthusiasm and sympathy between Finley and many older German ancient historians. We can see his impatience with the Verstehen school in his abrupt dismissal of elaborate theories to prove that the paths to Athenian and Roman imperialism were paved with good intentions. His first foray onto the international history conference circuit – at Stockholm in 1960, where he had been introduced by the Cambridge Medieval historian Michael Postan, another Eastern European and the man who discovered Marc Bloch for English-speaking historians – ended in open conflict on the congress floor when the West Germans, led by Vittinghoff with Joseph Vogt in the background, made a ruthless attempt to suppress any Marxist commentary on ancient slavery by pamphleteering the delegates in advance. Fifteen years later Finley made his position clear with a devastating critique of Vogt’s pet project on ancient slavery, which was being carried out at the Mainz Academy: this was ‘scholarship in its narrowest, positivist version’, ‘mechanical fact-grubbing’. He condemned the warped conception of Marxist theory in Vogt’s Humanismus und Menschenbild as a fantasy of the pro-Nazi Classicists of the Twenties.

The attacks on some of the heroes, past and present, of German ancient historical writing – Eduard Meyer and Hans Delbruck among them – which one can see in Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology and in Evidence and Models, together with Finley’s preference for Karl Marx, Karl Bucher, Werner Sombart and Max Weber, were not likely to endear him to the German academies of the Sixties and Seventies. It is especially ironic when one thinks that, although Theodore Mommsen is said to have forecast that the young Weber would be the man to succeed him as the doyen of Roman history, it is Finley, according to Wilfried Nippel, one of the new generation of German scholars, who has revived interest in Weber among ancient historians in Germany. Karl Christ’s Von Gibbon zu Rostovtzeff, published in 1972, contains no index entry for Weber.

Britain stands somewhere between France and Germany. The relationship between Finley and the ancient history establishment has been uneasy and slow to develop. One reason for this was the isolation of ancient history from the rest of historiography through its traditional attachment to faculties of Classics, which created an ambience wholly alien to what had stimulated the formation of his own historical consciousness. In the TLS, in 1966, he pilloried the omission of ancient history from the syllabus of the History Faculty and from virtually all the mainstream historical journals. Momigliano was making the same complaint in London, where he had taken up the chair in University College in 1962. The fault, however, was not one-sided. Ancient historians, said Finley, instead of engaging in fundamental debates about the nature of, say, Athenian imperialism, were writing ‘sentimental piffle’ or battling over obscurantist issues like the date of a stone cutter.

The unwillingness of the majority of English-speaking ancient historians to abandon positivism and historicism – the process Carl Becker has described as ‘hoping to find something without looking for it ... the oddest attempt to get something for nothing’ – is the inevitable consequence of a philological and text-bound training. But it is only one step behind the traditional conservatism of British historiography as a whole. While Momigliano in 1961 was forecasting that the Annales school would be ‘the central forge of future historians’, E.H. Carr’s lectures in the same year on ‘What is history?’ failed to mention the name of a single Annales historian. Since then, and despite the achievements of Hobsbawm, Hilton, Hill, Keith Thomas and E.P. Thompson, it has still been possible for Geoffrey Barraclough in Main Trends in History to surmise that ‘if a consensus were taken today it would almost certainly show that the majority of professional historians is sceptical of, if not positively hostile to, the more recent trends.’

There has, of course, been a shift towards infrastructural history in the past two decades, a movement away from the history of politics and institutions towards the investigation of latent forces submerged beneath the surface of society, partly under the influence of American sociology. And Finley has undoubtedly put ancient history on the map for modern historians, however cautious his Classical colleagues may be. But a good deal of the New History – particularly in the field of urban or regional history, for all the marvels of such tours de force as the two volumes on Birmingham by C. Gill and Asa Briggs – is strongly empirical and conforms more closely to Trevelyan’s concept of ‘history with the politics left out’ than to the totalising history demanded by Marc Bloch. With it has come the computer and cliometrics, quantification and statistics. But initial enthusiasm among Modern and Medieval historians has become tempered with prudence since the discovery, as Le Roy Ladurie puts it, that ‘a huge supplementary brain within reach of the first imbecile ... would end up multiplying idiocies.’ Obviously this is not to write off the achievements of teams like the Cambridge Group for the study of population history, or historians of the family like Laurence Stone. But there is a sense in which social and economic historians have driven themselves into a corner and destroyed the coherence of history by the increasing fragmentation of their specialisms, as contributors to the Belagio Conference on the New History recognised. The need, as Peter Temin said on that occasion, is to get economics to take account of the diversity of human behaviour.

It was the integration of the history of social behaviour and economics which Finley aimed to achieve in The Ancient Economy, and the same goal now leads him, in Evidence and Models, to condemn the current fashion for phoney statistics in ancient history. This is only the opening salvo in a bombardment of those sheltering in the fool’s haven of new quantitative or serial history – concerned with the price of slaves, the productivity of labour or the levels of trade. Regional and pseudourban histories like Frazer’s massive Ptolemaic Alexandria earn equal contempt. The irony is that, while a new generation of ancient historians – many of them his pupils – are waking up to the existence of New History, the usual twenty years or so after their modern colleagues, they are falling into the same traps. Between ancient history and other later periods, Finley claims, is an ‘unbridgeable divide’, since ‘the necessary data are unavailable except in a small number of situations.’

It would be wrong to give the impression that ancient history in Britain has moved very far. It is not yet engagé and does not rouse passions as it does in France and Italy. The objects of Finley’s special ire in Evidence and Models are those ancient historians – all too many, still – who persist in historicist or antiquarian ways, ‘creating a morass of unintelligible, meaningless, unrelated “facts” ’. The suspicion remains that Finley, while respected and honoured outside for his power as a communicator, is still regarded as not quite pucka by the grand masters of British ancient history. Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology was not reviewed in the TLS. The Ancient Economy was lambasted by the late Martin Frederiksen in the Journal of Roman Studies on the positivistic grounds of insufficient facts. The two most hostile reviews I have seen of Politics in the Ancient World came from English historians, who attacked Finley for his failure to account for this or that Roman political institution, or for his unwillingness to agree with Hannah Arendt’s romantic view of the innate sense of the Athenian demos in permitting themselves to be led by experts.

It is not so much whether these criticisms are valid but whether they are contributing to the same debate. Surely what deserves discussion is the central idea of Politics in the Ancient World: that of l’invention de la politique (the French title for the translation) by the Greeks and Romans. The problem for New History is that, since literary sources are mainly about dominant personalities and events, the social historian has to generate his own evidence, a daunting labour which cannot be achieved by relying on common sense or by assuming that human beings have always reacted identically in every society. It is here that the Weberian concept of ideal types, to which Finley owes so much, comes into its own, in going beyond the empirical data to abstract models of behaviour in order to establish the specificity of each case in history. Unless the models are addressed, the contestants pass each other by in the fog.

Among the books referred to in this article are:

Democracy Ancient and Modern by M.I. Finley, Hogareth Press, second edition, 208 pp., £4.95, September 1985, 0 7012 0663 2.

The Ancient Economy by M.I. Finley, Hogarth Press, second edition, 272 pp., £4.95, April 1985, 0 7012 0625 X.

Politics in the Ancient World by M.I. Finley, Cambridge, 1983.

Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology by M.I. Finley, Chatto, 1980.

International Handbook of Historical Studies, edited by G.G. Iggers and H.T. Parker with contributions by J. Glénisson and A.W. Salamone, Methuen, 1980.

The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923-1950 by Martin Jay, Heinemann, 1973.

The New History: The 1980s and Beyond, edited by T.K. Rabb and R.I. Rolburg, Princeton University Press, 1982.

Main Trends in History by Geoffrey Barraclough, Holmes and Meier, 1979.