Qui êtes-vous, Sir Moses?
- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 8 No. 6 · 3 April 1986
SIR: I’m sure many will applaud C.R. Whittaker’s stirring appreciation of Professor Sir Moses Finley, clearly one of Britain and Europe’s foremost historians (LRB, 6 March). In these post-Westland times, it is refreshing to recognise the positive value over many years of one enduring example of British ‘inward investment’ from across the Atlantic, in the shape of a scholar who has immensely enriched the study of ancient history in these islands. But I fear Whittaker says more than he intended, when he slipped so effortlessly from ‘English-speaking’ to ‘British’ historians. Except in the obvious case of the history of Great Britain, whatever is meant by British historiography (does one have to be a British passport-holder?) unless work funded, directly or indirectly, by the Government? If so, why does he skate so breathlessly over the real ‘historical backcloth’, which he describes so carefully in France, Italy and Germany? It is false to blame the practitioners for a failure of nerve, when in recent years they have been starved of the resources and officially discouraged by Sir Keith Joseph from doing their job in the imaginative manner that Whittaker desires. The promise of the Sixties and Seventies has not simply evaporated: it has been ruthlessly suppressed.
And Whittaker is less than generous, as well as rash, in speaking of the late Martin Frederiksen’s review of Finley’s The Ancient Economy as if it were some reactionary’s manifesto ‘lambasting’ Finley’s own. Finley has himself often advised caution and commented upon the difficulties in the evidence available to the economic historian of antiquity. Frederiksen’s enthusiasm for new ideas in ancient history, whether from historians of other eras and places, from sociology or the vastly increased bulk of new archaeological research, will be remembered by all who knew him. He certain encouraged my own developing interest in Finely’s historical oeuvre in my years as a pupil of his at Oxford, and was fully supportive of my eagerness to pursue that interest further by moving over to work with Finley’s himself from 1974. That was the very moment when he was engaged on writing the review in question. Frederiksen was wholly sympathetic and admirably open towards Finley’s approach, especially as far as it concerned Greek society and economy: his doubts involved particular aspects of interpretation in Roman history, in which he himself was an expert. The quarrel was never over theory as such, but over its application in specified instances. Surely historians are entitled to disagree?
There has always been a depressingly predictable state of open hostility between the Oxbridge universities in the matter of ancient history. Oxford has tended to value traditional scholarly excellence, while Cambridge has stressed innovation, imagination and flair since the Sixties. But ancient history is fortunate to have both (and many other major departments up and down the UK). I can see no value in the outmoded perpetuation of what I can only describe as Oxbridge sectarianism. Historians should be attempting to explain to public opinion why their subject, like the other humanities, deserves its fair share of public support, in the universities and elsewhere. That can be best done by allowing each to do the sort of history to which they are best suited. In the longer term, if one wishes a future Secretary of State for Education, and the UGC as his or her agent, to fund new avenues in history (including the history of the ethnic minorities in Britain?), then Whittaker should be making out that case to his MP (or his potential MP). Waging guerrilla war with his historical colleagues is counter-productive.
Whittaker speaks wistfully of the engagé historian: but there is no shortage of those at the moment, most of them once firm supporters of the present government. Sometimes one wishes that historians could keep their politics out of their methodologies. I say that as one who is not ashamed to admit being a democratic socialist, but I am a professional historian too. Other countries have different traditions, but I don’t think I would wish England different in this respect. The spectre of Oxbridge tribalism is distasteful, just as much so as that of Belfast or Liverpool or Grantham. Can we allow politics to get back to the real issues that are affecting ordinary citizens’ lives today?
That was the principal theme of Finley’s Politics in the Ancient World – and I feel sure he would agree, if asked to comment on modern British/Irish politics directly.
Department of Ancient History, Queen’s University, Belfast
SIR: For some inexplicable reason most historians these days, but not Sir Moses Finley, have a kind of death wish by which, if presented with a little space and a wider audience, they do everything possible to alienate their readers. C.R. Whittaker did have the grace to admit that what he wrote had very little to do with the book by Finley which he was ostensibly meant to review, and about which the reader will learn only that at one point Sir Moses gets a little angry with some of his fellow historians. Instead he set himself the task of explaining why it is that Finley is revered on the Continent but not in England. Four thousand words later, I was not much the wiser. I did learn for the first time that ‘Karl Christ’s Von Gibbon zu Rostovtzeff, published in 1972, contains no index entry to Weber.’ I also learnt that there is something called ‘New History’ for which apparently one has to invent one’s evidence: this is called by Whittaker ‘a daunting labour’, though on the face of it I would have thought it less daunting than the ‘Old History’ in which one actually had to discover the evidence and then go through the troublesome process of trying to evaluate it. No doubt much would have become clearer to me if I had attended the Belagio conference and had listened there to the important words of Peter Temin. Unfortunately, I did not have the privilege of attending, so that a passing reference to that conference does not do much to illuminate for me the subject of Finley and his works. Nor, indeed, does the reference to Mr Temin, or to Mr Simmel, or to Mr Marrou, or to Mr Glénisson, or to Mr Veyne, or to Mr Mauss, or to Mr Lévy-Bruhel, or to Mr Nippel, or to Mr Christ, or to any of the other 76 names, by my reckoning, that Whittaker drops in the course of his article.
To throw in the names of Marx and Weber, or whoever, in the way that Whittaker does, advances neither argument nor understanding. They might just as well be part of some kind of code, understood, I hope, by Whittaker, and perhaps by one or two other ‘New Historians’, but only by them. Not only is the article pretentious, and boring, but it is also incredibly lazy. What the code does is to allow Whittaker to avoid the more difficult task of actually providing us with a comprehensible and, with a bit of luck, perhaps even stimulating answer to the question that he himself posed. This kind of academese is of no service to Sir Moses, who, whether he be ‘New’ or ‘Old’, never goes in for it. It is also no service to history at a time when it needs all the friends that it can get.