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The Greeks and Us

Democracy Ancient and Modern

by M.I. Finley
Rutgers University Press, 118 pp., $6.00

The Ancient Economy

by M.I. Finley
University of California Press, 222 pp., $2.95 (paper)

The Use and Abuse of History

by M.I. Finley
Viking, 254 pp., $10.00

When Moses Finley came to England from Rutgers University in 1954 as a refugee from the McCarthy persecution he had just published his Studies in Land and Credit in Ancient Athens (1952) and was about to publish his World of Odysseus (1954). Taken together, these two books showed him to be the best living social historian of Greece and the one most prepared to face the methodological problems which social history implies. This was recognized by a restricted group of specialists which included the men who gave him a choice between Oxford and Cambridge (he settled in the latter and in 1970 succeeded A. H. M. Jones in the Chair of Ancient History). But even his warmest supporters did not expect that in less than twenty years Finley would become the most influential ancient historian of our time, equally respected and studied on both sides of what used to be called the Iron Curtain.

Indeed Finley returned propheta in patria in 1972 when he delivered the Sather Classical Lectures on “Ancient Economy” at Berkeley and the first Mason Welch Gross Lectures on “Democracy Ancient and Modern” at Rutgers University. The two volumes which emerged from these lectures in their turn received in England the Wolfson Literary Award for History—a major prize. Together with a third volume, The Use and Abuse of History—a collection of essays on the methodology of the interpretation of ancient sources—these books represent Finley’s most mature and systematic thought.

It is certainly too early to measure, and even to foresee, the combined impact of these three books: up to now they have been reviewed separately, as far as I know. But it is not too early to say that their mere appearance at very short intervals is bound to create a new perspective for Finley’s work. Each of them has of course its roots in his previous research. In fact, The Use and Abuse of History contains only one previously unpublished paper. This is “Anthropology and the Classics,” the Jane Harrison Memorial Lecture for 1972.

The Ancient Economy extends and systematizes Finley’s analysis of the categories of ancient social life (orders defined by privileges versus status-groups; masters and slaves; landlords and peasants; town and country). Even Democracy Ancient and Modern elaborates motifs already to be found in Finley’s papers on Athenian demagogues (Past & Present, 1962) and on the trial of Socrates (now in Aspects of Antiquity, 1968). But The Ancient Economy goes far beyond anything said before by Finley on the place of the state in ancient economic life, and perhaps also on town and country. Democracy Ancient and Modern, being the first explicit analysis of ancient democracy to appear for a long time, adds a new dimension to his work. Finley himself discovered, I believe after having written his essay, that his nearest predecessor was, incredibly enough, a German scholar whose book was published in Berlin in 1940: Bernhard Knauss, Staat und Mensch in Hellas (reprinted Darmstadt, 1964).

I for one would certainly like to know more about Finley’s formative years, which included, apart from conventional training in Roman law and ancient history at Columbia under A. A. Schiller and W. L. Westermann, a period of work with Max Horkheimer at the International Institute for Social Research in New York. More decisive perhaps was discussion and collaboration with K. Polanyi at the time when he was developing the model of pre-market economy later exhibited in Trade and Market in the Early Empires (1957).

But there is no need to go into biography to understand why even in the early 1950s Finley should appear so superior to any contemporary who was writing on the social history of Greece. In the 1940s very little had happened in that field. Whatever valuable insight Marxist students of Greek literature such as G. Thomson and B. Farrington had been able to contribute to the interpretation of Greek society was exhausted with Aeschylus and Athens by G. Thomson (1941). Later neither they nor the postwar Soviet historians added anything of importance. In retrospect it can be considered a blessing that the “prosopographers” did not take over Greek social history as they did Roman history in the Forties and Fifties. The result would have been, as with Roman history, a third-hand rehash of Robert Michels’s notion of elite with the attendant elimination of all the real problems about production, distribution, and consumption of wealth, and about mental equipment. The maxim that in all regimes an oligarchy lurks behind the façade normally has the effect of persuading the would-be historian to remain very near the façade.

All the same, the decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris about 1953 made it only too evident that most Greek scholars were unequipped to interpret the new documents. They were unable to appreciate the difference between the Homeric society with which they were familiar and the Mycenaean texts made (at least up to a point) intelligible by Ventris. Finley was one of the first to indicate that the Oriental palace economy was a better reference for the Linear B tablets than the Homeric poems. It was Finley again who later developed the argument that treating the Homeric poems as expressions of a society does not entail believing that they describe a real war.

This is an example of what Finley has been doing throughout his career—namely bringing clarity, method, and expertise into simple questions which had been muddled up. Another example, deservedly famous, is his paper (now reprinted in The Use and Abuse of History) on “The Alienability of Land in Ancient Greece.” Against the prevailing opinion, which assumed inalienability of land to be the “original” situation in ancient Greece, Finley made it clear, and almost obvious, that there is no evidence worth mentioning for this “original” inalienability, whereas there is good evidence for inferring that the city-states, by confining to citizens the right to own land, increased the restrictions on alienability.

Finley very seldom raises questions of method as such. Though he can handle Marx and Max Weber and any line of Anglo-Saxon sociological thought with enviable familiarity, his concern is for the interpretation of the evidence. He is a sharp interpreter of ancient texts. He has written books and papers on ancient Sicily, on the Bronze and Archaic ages of Greece, on ancient historians, on slavery, etc.—not on how to apply Marx or Weber to ancient history. This is enough to separate him from the mainly programmatic writings in England and in America from the Marxist point of view. Even the recent issue of Arethusa on “Marxism and the Classics” (Spring 1975) is mainly filled with papers in which the authors explain how they would like to write on Marxist lines about Sparta, Roman slavery, the decline of the ancient world, and so on. Finley never explains how he would like to proceed. He does it. He is also in the habit of admitting that he does not understand something or has no explanation for it.

There is therefore not much point in trying to classify Finley according to one of the current labels. He has had a prominent part in destroying any surviving illusions about the legitimacy of interpreting Greek and Roman economy as a capitalist economy. He has therefore gained the reputation of being a “primitivist” and has been bracketed with J. Hasebroek and K. Polanyi against, say, K. J. Beloch and M. Rostovtzeff. No doubt some of his most famous contributions to the study of ancient economy are of the “primitivist” type. He has discovered gift-exchange as an economic institution in the world of Odysseus; he has shown that hypothecation, or the pledging of property, was used in Athens for unproductive purposes (such as security for dowries) rather than for investment.

But his Greeks and Romans are not primitive. In his Jane Harrison Lecture he has taken an impish pleasure in putting anthropology in its place: “because anthropology illuminates one period (or one aspect) of the classical world, it does not automatically follow that it also illuminates all other periods (or aspects).”

He certainly does not always try to reduce the importance and complexities of trade in Greece. In his paper on “Trade and Politics” at the Second International Conference of Economic History in 1962, he made it clear that the question is not how much trade but who traded with whom. Trading with kings, for whom commodities are only one of the instruments of power, is not the same as trading with fellow traders. Greek traders faced both situations, and many intermediate ones. In a model discussion on Sparta he repudiates the usual equation of Sparta’s militarism with absence of trade. Finley allows the Spartans to trade and get rich to their hearts’ content. He sees the peculiarity of Spartan militarism in its function of controlling and repressing the helots. When Sparta became involved in lengthy wars outside the Peloponnese, the precarious internal equilibrium was disrupted.

With the Greeks firmly replaced on the pedestal of civilization, Finley can begin to enjoy himself. He likes them for the variety of their achievements and the complexity of their organization. He does not try to decide whether they were a nation or an aggregation of cities—the problem of German historiography in this century. He describes the conflicting loyalties inherent in belonging to several groups at the same time. He sees that what is most appealing in Greek society is inseparable from what is most unpleasant. The great Greek innovation of a self-governing community, by the mere fact of including both the rich and the poor, institutionalized strife (stasis). Democracy would not have worked without an abundant supply of chattel-slaves.

If I am not mistaken, this is the central point of Finley’s historical vision. The Greeks are to him, as they were to the German Romantics, the nearest neighbors. Not, however, because they are or can be our transcendent model, but because they are our immediate predecessors in our attempts to achieve a rational organization of life. Their institutions, their moral attitudes, their reasoning and aesthetic tastes are all affected in one way or another by the presence of slavery. Yet the Greeks are not invariably inferior to us. We can still improve ourselves by taking their example into account. Where we are definitely better than they were—for instance in doing away with slavery—our success is partly due to improved technology, which in its turn is the development of Greek science.

An essential paper for the understanding of Finley is his “Utopianism Ancient and Modern” originally published in The Critical Spirit: Essays in Honor of Herbert Marcuse in 1967 and now republished in The Use and Abuse of History. Finley not only vindicates the permanent function of Utopia as the condition of progress (in Oscar Wilde’s words, “Progress is the realization of Utopia”) but explains why ancient Utopian thinking is inevitably founded upon the idea of the inequality of men. Poor resources, low technology, and the consequent lack of any base for growth except in conquest blocked the development of any idea of progress and closed the path to any reform which would lastingly eliminate the strife between the rich and the poor: democracy remained conditioned by slavery. “In the present day, and for the first time in history, all problems are technically soluble.”

But if modern democracy no longer needs its slaves, it still needs the popular participation, the grass roots, of its Athenian counterpart. The whole book, Democracy Ancient and Modern, which even in the title refers back to “Utopianism Ancient and Modern,” is written to fight the thesis that democracy can work only if the majority is apathetic and an elite effectively takes over. Here the Greeks, though more “primitive,” can teach us something: “There will be mistakes, tragedies, trials for impiety, but there may also be a return from widespread alienation to a genuine sense of community.” Finley seldom blows the shofar, but when he does the solemnity is unmistakable. At the end of an article on “The Jews and the Death of Jesus,” which first appeared in these pages (NYR, January 28, 1965, now in Aspects of Antiquity, 1968), he says: “The dead past never buries its dead. The world will have to be changed, not the past.”

It is evident from the last quotation that the Greeks are not alone in proposing to Finley questions bearing on our time. He is exceptionally well informed about the Ancient Near East and is as good a Roman historian as any. His (first?) article in 1934 on Mandata Principum was on Roman law and he remains one of the few contemporary ancient historians who can talk to students of Roman law in their own language. Rome is explicitly included in his Ancient Economy and plays a large part in Aspects of Antiquity. Yet only the Greeks warm Finley’s heart. They are the real subject of his historical meditation. He sees the Romans in Greek terms, as political animals whose economics is subordinated to the game of political power and social prestige (with a larger part of mere display of opulence). His favorite examples are Cicero, Pliny the Younger, and their “unpolitical” caricature, Trimalchio. Romanization, even in its economic aspects, is not his problem. He has little to say on the less vocal money-lenders, builders, traders, and farmers who transformed Europe and North Africa under the shadow of the pax romana.

Acute as his remarks on things Roman are, they are not comparable to his loving, detailed, and qualified appreciation of the Greeks. For the same reason he refers to Asiatic forms of production and to feudalism only in so far as is necessary in order to understand the Greeks. This is another trait of his historiographical style which confirms his distance from Marxist habits of thought. Fundamentally, he likes to compare the Greeks directly with the modern Western world as it emerged from the French Revolution. It is worth noticing that the Italian translator changed the title of The Ancient Economy into L’Economia degli antichi e dei moderni—presumably with the author’s consent.

Italian reactions seem to confirm my interpretation. In Italy, where one must go back to E. Ciccotti at the beginning of this century to discover serious Marxist writing on ancient history, the young leftists at first greeted Finley’s books with enthusiasm. They found in him that guide to ancient social problems for whom they had been vainly looking at home. But after the first expression of delight and surprise, the voices of disappointment are becoming loud, as reviews by noted Marxist Hellenists show.1

I was able to observe the hostility of the disappointed at first hand when I conducted a seminar on The Ancient Economy in the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa last January. To the young Marxists Finley does not offer the expected scheme of development in which the social classes and their internal contradictions are allowed to operate dialectically. His critics of course make a ludicrous mistake in taking him for a conservative, but he is certainly not a historian of revolutions. Though he is very good at perceiving the internal tensions of a specific society, he is chiefly interested (not approvingly) in the habits of mind and institutional factors which prevent quick change. He is the first to recognize that changes happen even if we do not want them. But at the bottom of his heart he cares only for the changes made by rational decision. In a very thoughtful and informed lecture about problems of education (now in The Use and Abuse of History, pp. 193-214) he says: “We are all inextricably locked into the past, and the choice is between imprisoning oneself in the past and taking rational, innovatory steps into the future.”

This brings us to the real question about what is indisputably the most valuable writing on ancient history since 1945. If I am correct, there is a constant implication in Finley that it is the special rationality of the Greeks which may be compared with our rationality and may even be used to improve our rational behavior. This rationality is celebrated in eloquent pages of The Ancient Greeks (1963), but, as far as I remember, Finley did not return to it explicitly later—except to deny that rationality in the narrower Weberian sense was normally applied by the Greeks to their economic transactions. Yet it seems to me that without the implicit assumption that the Greeks were the nearest to us in their rationalism, there is no justification for Finley’s choice of the Greeks as the most suitable nation with whom to compare our ways of life, aspirations, and woes. We need consequently to know more about the constituent features of Greek rationality and their relation to the categories of Greek social life described by Finley in The Ancient Economy.

No doubt some help in this matter may come from the work of the French scholar J.-P. Vernant2 and his school (in which P. Vidal-Naquet is the most independent personality). Finley and Vernant take each other as complementary, at least to a certain extent, and Vidal-Naquet has played a decisive part in interpreting Finley’s thought for the French (notably in his paper in Archives Européennes de Sociologie, 6, 1965, pp. 111-148).

But, as it happens, Vernant and his followers have been increasingly preoccupied with mythical thought in so far as it expresses ambiguity, equivocation, and polarity. They have spent many years in the study of Métis (Ingenuity), who mythically summarizes the ambiguities of ordinary life and has perhaps more to do with Lévi-Strauss’s bricolage than with Finley’s rationality. Therefore Vernant now complements Finley in the specific sense that he deals with aspects of the Greek mentality which do not figure actively in Finley’s interpretation of Greek civilization. He may help to illuminate border zones of the territory explored by Finley, such as the reversal of roles in rituals, the escape to Arcadia, and the tragic exploration of what is superhuman without being divine. But I doubt whether we shall learn much from Vernant that Finley has not already taught us about the relation between Greek rationality and our rationality. We are still left to wonder why what was rational to the Greeks is supposed to look rational to us.

I do not feel any difficulty in sharing what can be called the vulgar appeal of the Greeks for the liberal mind. They were in the habit of discussing matters among themselves and they elaborated formal rules for correct reasoning. They had a sense of measure in their relations with their fellow-beings which resulted in an understanding of pain and misfortune. They were not harassed by priestly hierarchies and did not regulate their lives by constant reference to divine signs and orders. As Finley remarks somewhere, there is enough in the very patchy biographical information about Sophocles and Socrates to authorize us to call them superstitious. All the same, they were not inspired by superstition in their most decisive words and actions.

I am, however, less clear about what we gain by admitting that we like the Greeks. In theory Finley is perfectly correct in emphasizing that Gaetano Mosca, that great master of my Alma Mater, did not—when he insisted that every society has an organized minority that rules—account for a democracy like the Athenian which was not controlled by an inner oligarchy. Yet face-to-face democracy is beyond our possibilities, and all that the Greeks can give us is a word of encouragement. We are left to our own devices for the solution of our own problems.

If we then concentrate, as I think we must, on defining our intellectual situation in relation to the Greeks, I find that placing the Greeks too near results in a distortion of perspective. The ancient Greeks made it unequivocally clear that they wanted to be left alone. They were monolingual and marked off the other nations as barbarians. As I pointed out in my recent paper in Daedalus (Spring 1975), we have the Greeks as ancestors and masters because Romans and Jews in different ways decided to appropriate Greek culture. Romans and Jews became bilingual (with Greek as their second, or even their first language). A great deal of sheer intellectual effort was involved, but this process of appropriation ultimately resulted in two events which have no explanation in ordinary intellectual processes: the Roman conquest of the Greek East and the creation of the Christian Church. Conquest and conversion made Greek culture our own culture. Anything Greek we meet in our past is inextricably combined with Rome and with Christianity.

Thus classicism, when it is more than an academic triviality (and even the Hellenism of Nietzsche is turned by his admirers into an academic triviality), is by definition a confrontation with Rome and Christianity even before it involves the Greeks. Finley and myself, being Jews, have behind us the good old tradition of the Jewish epikoros. But even we must reflect that Elisha ben Abuyah, who was never tired of singing Greek songs, lived in the second century AD.


Bearing Gifts January 22, 1976

  1. 1

    See V. Di Benedetto, Rinascita, April 4, 1975; D. Lanza, Belfagor, November 1974, and subsequent discussion with Finley, ibid., May 1975.

  2. 2

    Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs (Paris, 1965); Mythe et société en Grèce ancienne (Paris, 1974); (in collaboration with M. Detienne) Les Ruses de l’Intelligence, La Métis des Grecs (Paris, 1974).

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