In response to:
Greek to Him from the August 18, 1966 issue
To the Editors:
M.I. Finley’s review of Enter Plato (NYR, Aug. 18) really boils down to a complaint that it was written by a sociologist. His review was a stew of old bones, spiced with blissful ignorance, mixed with a large dash of contradictions, and heated by fantasy.
The fantasy: Enter Plato, Finley alleges, “is not a marriage between history and sociology but a take-over bid.” Governed by this ludicrous judgment, Finley’s review adds up to a case of bad nerves.
Old bones: My thinking, says Finley, is fundamentally “ahistorical.” This is not exactly a criticism of startling originality for a historian to level at a sociologist. Historians have been saying this about sociologists at least since Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. (No, I compare only the criticisms, not the books.)
Blissful ignorance: Finley totally misconstrues the aim of Enter Plato. While acknowledging that I have “been able to formulate and elaborate on a considerable number of interesting and enlightening ideas and social-psychological models…,” he says these are not “peculiar to the Greeks.” Finley entirely misses the point that I was not interested in stressing the peculiarities of the Greeks but only in developing such models, from a study of their behavior, which have value precisely because they are not limited to the Greeks or to Plato (see my pages 170-171). When Finley compliments me for my ideas and models, and then adds that these are not peculiar to the Greeks, he is clearly blissfully unaware that he is in effect agreeing that I accomplished what I in large part set out to do. That the entire tone of his review is so sniping and complaining must, therefore, imply that he rejects not the accomplishment but the intention of the book. And this, in turn, implies, as I have said, that his real charge is that I am a sociologist. For it is in the nature of the sociologist’s craft to formulate and risk such generalizations.
More on blissful ignorance: Finley complains that I use the term division of labor as a “euphemism” for social stratification. Obviously this means that Finley thinks that the two are synonyms. He happens to be dead wrong. One need not be a sociologist, but merely has to have read Adam Smith, to know better. Indeed, just having read Enter Plato would have sufficed.
On howling contradictions: At one point, Finley complains of my “indifference to social classes and class conflicts.” “Most surprising,” he says, “in a sociologist.” Here we can see one major source of Finley’s trouble—he is so concerned to tell us what real history and even real sociology should be that he cannot pay close attention to the book at hand. The very first chapter of Enter Plato deals with—and is even called—“The Civil War in the Polis.” Stranger still, Finley blatantly contradicts himself concerning my insensitivity to stratification in two other places. In one, he acknowledges that “Professor Gouldner does not have to be told that there were class differences and conflicts among the Greeks…,” and about Greek slavery, which, of course, is central to Greek stratification. Which Finley can we take seriously?
I cannot, of course, in a brief space, answer the rest of Finley’s criticisms, but can only add that they are all too often of this caliber. The sociological specter that Finley sees haunting classical studies is a figment of only his own failure of nerve.
Alvin W. Gouldner
M. I Finley replies:
I have the reputation of being a sociological fifth columnist among the historians and Professor Gouldner himself says he found my “anthropologically informed outlook…of great aid.” The one riposte I did not expect, therefore, was “a stew of old bones…his real charge is that I am a sociologist.” It was Professor Gouldner, not I, who made the claim that his analysis is “historically anchored.” So I took a look at the anchorage among other things. After all, the sub-title of the book is “Classical Greece and the Origins of Social Theory” and Part I, two-fifths of the whole, is called “The Hel-Jenic World.”