Tuesday, 4 May 1999

M.I. Finley: The Use and Abuse of History (1975)

Edition: Hogarth, 1986
Review number: 243

The Use and Abuse of History is a collection of articles written by Finley in the early seventies on the subject of historiography, many dealing with the relationship between ancient history (in the sense of the history of classical civilisation) and other subjects. His views are often critical of standard viewpoints on his subject, and they are always interestingly and cogently argued.

The three articles which are most concerned with the philosophy of history and its applications are also those that, judging by the back cover of the book, the publisher expected to be of the greatest interest. The Ancestral Constitution is about the way that history - or, more accurately, cultural traditions about history - have been used in political debate. Finley chooses three examples where those on one side of an issue had been advocating a return to an "ancestral constitution": Demosthenes cited by both sides of an argument over the abandonment of democracy by Athens near the end of the Pelopponesian War; supposed Anglo-Saxon ideas - based on faked documents and misunderstandings - about common law and the royal prerogative used by Royalist legal theorists at the time of the Restoration; and ideas attributed to Thomas Jefferson at the time of the American New Deal. Finley is interested in questions including why historical precedent was considered so important, how they got away with such bad history, why they chose these particular examples. The title of the essay Utopianism Ancient and Modern speaks for itself (this article has a fair amount in common with those which criticise the methodology of ancient historians) while The Heritage of Isocrates concerns the influence of his categorisation of the knowledge needed for adult life as a man of affairs, and the way that (through forming the basis of the Roman and medieval trivium) it has influenced education ever since.

The major theme of the remainder of the articles, which I personally found more interesting, is an examination of and criticism of the methods used in ancient history. This can be divided into two main categories. First, there are essays about the relationship between ancient historians - distinct, Finley argues, from the historians of other periods because their training is primarily literary rather than historical - and other disciplines, specifically anthropology and archaeology. Both of these subjects seem to an outsider to have a clear relationship to historical research, particularly when analysing cultures like classical Greece which have strong connections with the pre-literate cultures that preceded them. However, in both cases, ancient historians regard practitioners of these subjects from a somewhat jaundiced viewpoint, and vice versa. There is a tendency for archaeology to try and emancipate itself from history (for example, by classifying itself as a science rather than as part of history). This, Finley argues, tends to focus it on cataloguing rather than explaining artefacts. Ancient historians tend to know little about anthropology, and tend to view it as bringing in dangerous points of view to sully the purity of the classics. (In somewhat Nietszchian terminology, you could say that classicists have concentrated on the Apollonian side of ancient Greece and Rome, the serene, ordered beauty, and are suspicious of the Dionysian, the wild unruly and dangerous, to the point where they have tended to virtually deny its existence.)

Secondly, there are articles dealing with problems within ancient history itself, including specific issues which arise from mistakes in method (articles on legal issues, claiming that too great a use is made of very late documents to make up for the scarcity of earlier information, and an article on Sparta, which is just about the only Greek state which tends to be analysed through anthropological parallels which Finley believes to be misapplied).

Other articles include one on Generalisations in Ancient History. With scarce source material, these are difficult (if not impossible) to avoid, but professional historians should at least be aware that they are making sweeping statements which may not be universally true. A specific example of this is attacked in The Ancient Greeks and Their Nation, the use of the word "Greek". To us today the word implies a similarity of culture and institutions far beyond what was in fact the case. It is quite problematic to understand what being Greek meant to an ancient Greek; what is easiest to see is that it was of profound importance to them.

Each essay is thought provoking; Finley's writing is never an end in itself, but contains many intriguing ideas which could be fruitfully investigated further.

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