In response to:
The Greeks and Us from the October 16, 1975 issue
To the Editors:
Any reader at all interested in the ancient world must rejoice that Professor Arnaldo Momigliano was not deterred by the fact that one of the books in question was dedicated to him from contributing to your columns [NYR, October 16] his masterly appreciation of the three important works on ancient history lately published by another eminent ancient historian, Professor M. I. Finley. It shows the vast learning, acute intelligence, and gaiety disarming in one so erudite that make everything he writes compulsive reading; and I was specially delighted to learn that Professor Finley is too rational to satisfy the young lions of Italian Marxism with their strong infusion of neo-Hegelian dogmatism. But classical scholars are the sort of people who will look a gift-horse in the mouth, and I write about two things in the review that puzzled me a little.
Firstly, I am a little afraid the slighting reference to the use made by some people of the prosopographic method of writing history in the second column may suggest to some readers what I am sure the writer did not intend to imply, that this method has no valuable results to show. Professor Momigliano meant, I imagine, to warn against the mechanical misuse of the method by the young and innocent, and not to depreciate the work of a Namier or a Syme. Despite all differences of approach, he himself wrote only two years ago, “Ronald Syme wrote superbly and authoritatively when he used prosopography to clarify a revolutionary movement—the upsurge of new social strata under Augustus” (English Historical Review, 1973, p. 115; compare his review of The Roman Revolution reprinted in Secondo Contributo alla Storia degli Studi Classici, 1960, 207 f. and his remarks in Studi Romani 14, 1966, 1-3). In the wrong hands, the kind of history that concentrates upon economic problems can be quite as bad as—and even more boring than—bad prosopography.
I was particularly interested in the last two sections of the review, in which Professor Momigliano touches on the problem of how we can define our own intellectual situation in regard to the Greeks; what do we gain, he asks, by admitting that we like them? He argues that since “anything Greek we meet in our past is inextricably combined with Rome and with Christianity,” then “classicism, even 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.”
If in order to learn anything about the Greeks we have to approach them backwards, all the way through Christianity and through Rome, only someone as learned as Professor Momigliano has any chance of success. I am nowhere near as learned, and have to try to do it simply by reading those Greek documents earlier than the Roman and Christian periods that have come down to us, while doing my best to prevent my reading from being colored by my knowledge of anything that happened later. This is what Nietzsche did, as it seems to me, with considerable success, and many scholars since his time have continued on his lines.
Like Professor Momigliano, Nietzsche found the Greeks more remote than most scholars of his time supposed, and did not see them as golden means, perfect models, or anything of the sort; he makes this clear in The Twilight of the I dols, published in 1888, the year before his final breakdown. But as early as 1872, when he published The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche had drawn attention to basic features of the early Greek world outlook, specially important in relation to tragedy, which no previous scholar had seen with the same clarity. He saw that though the Greek gods were “just,” justice meant also that they maintained the order of the universe they ruled, guarding their own privileges against the encroachment of proud or ambitious humans. What gave the tragic hero the chance to prove his heroism was the very certainty of annihilation, unmitigated by any hope of redemption.
Nietzsche strongly attacked the historicism of his own contemporaries. Though he rejected the view of antiquity taken by the age of Goethe and Winckelmann, he was, like them, a classicist in that he studied the classics not for academic purposes but to extract from them what could be useful for the life of his own time. In making his own philosophy he used many different materials, and transformed them in so doing. But among his sources the world outlook of ancient Greece had an important place, and through Nietzsche it has affected many people living even now who have no direct acquaintance with Greek literature.
I have given my reasons for thinking this in an article called “Nietzsche and the Study of the Ancient World,” first published in the Times Literary Supplement for February 21, 1975 and soon to appear in Nietzsche and the Classical Tradition, edited by James C. O’Flaherty and published by the University of North Carolina Press. If I have “turned Nietzsche’s classicism into an academic triviality,” then I have by no means succeeded in doing what I set out to do, and I shall be grateful if Professor Momigliano, who is older and wiser than I am, will explain why I have failed.
Christ Church, Oxford
Arnaldo Momigliano replies:
I thought I had chosen my words carefully.
1) On prosopography I wrote: “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.” Sir Ronald Syme’s Roman Revolution appeared in 1939, and I have no need of repeating my appreciation of this masterpiece. But in my review of Syme’s book in Journal of Roman Studies 1940, 73, I also expressed my fundamental objection to prosopography as a method of interpreting history: “Prosopographical research has the great virtue of reaching individuals or small groups, but does not explain their material or spiritual needs: it simply presupposes them. History is the history of problems, not of individuals or of groups. If the tacit assumption of much prosopographical research is that people are moved by personal or family ambition, the assumption is not merely one-sided: it substitutes generic trends for concrete situations.” The mass of prosopographical research on Roman history which appeared between 1940 and 1960 confirmed the correctness of my judgment. Even at its very best (and its very best in those years was in France, in the books by H.G. Pflaum on the Roman procurators and by A. Chastagnol on the prefects of the city of Rome), it contributed little to our understanding of political and social history. One of the interesting developments of the Sixties is that Syme’s best pupils moved to precise problems of social and intellectual history (such as the economic exploitation of the provinces or the second sophistic) and began to face the question of the relations between elites and masses.
2) On Nietzsche I wrote: “and even the Hellenism of Nietzsche is turned by his admirers into an academic triviality.” By admirers of Nietzsche I meant of course those who accept Nietzsche’s vision of the world and interpret the classical world accordingly. It is hardly necessary for me to add that the test of the true admirer of Nietzsche is what he thinks of Socrates. I am not aware that the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford has ever interpreted any aspect of the classical world according to categories and values proposed by Nietzsche. The fact that he has written an article explaining to the general public what Nietzsche did as an interpreter of the classical world is not equivalent to interpreting the classical world according to Nietzsche.
It would have been more relevant to ask me what I make of eminent scholars such as K. Joël, W. F. Otto, K. Reinhardt, and E. Bignone who were really under Nietzsche’s spell. But in their case Professor Lloyd-Jones probably agrees with me that the impact of Nietzsche’s ideas was too discontinuous and mixed with other influences to determine the character of their interpretation of the classical world. I have tried to say something on K. Reinhardt in a paper about to appear in Rivista Storica Italiana.
January 22, 1976