Moses I. Finley (Wikipedia)


“It was fundamental to Plato, and to the mainstream of classical Greek philosophy after him, that men are created unequal; not merely in the superficial sense of inequality in physique, wealth or social position, but unequal in their souls, morally unequal. A few men are potentially capable of completely rational behaviour, and hence of correct moral judgment; most men are not.” ― M.I. Finley, The Ancient Greeks
Table of Contents:
The Impact of Moses Finley:   Robin Osborne, The British Academy, Jan. 15, 2017
Homer for Everyone:  Peter Thonemann, TLS, Feb. 24, 2017
A Memorial Address for Sir Moses Finley: Jack Cargill, The Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries [1986]
My History Hero: Sir Moses I Finley (1912–86):  chosen by Mary Beard, History Extra, Jan. 6, 2012

______________________________________________________The Impact of Moses Finley
Robin Osborne
The British Academy, Jan. 15, 2017

There is no denying the impact of Moses Finley (1912–1986). His books sold – and continue to sell – enough copies to support a Junior Research Fellowship at Darwin College, Cambridge, where he was master from 1976 to 1982. In the 1960s, his voice was known to any listener to the Third Programme, his articles and reviews familiar to any reader of the weeklies and broadsheets. Numerous pupils remember his as the teaching that made most impression, the intellectual inspiration that set them on their way to academic careers. For the last 60 years it has been impossible for an undergraduate to touch on Greek history without being set to read something that Finley wrote. His books and articles were not merely reprinted in his lifetime, but have been re-issued in a whole range of formats since his death. No living ancient historian – and only Arnaldo Momigliano among the dead – can match his place in the citation indices.

But what exactly was it about Finley and his work that secured this lasting impact? The centenary of Finley’s birth fell at a time when the UK academic establishment was having to think about impact as never before, because of the decision that the research assessment exercise, ‘REF 2014’, would measure not just the academic quality of research publications and of the research environments that university departments offered, but also the reach and significance of the impact that their research had made. So while conferences in the USA investigated Finley’s early career there, and a conference on the continent examined his work and its continental reception, it seemed apt to direct the UK commemoration of his life, held in Cambridge where he spent his last 30 years, to examining how he achieved his impact.

What emerged from the three days of discussion in Cambridge, and is now between hard covers as M.I. Finley: An Ancient Historian and his Impact, offers something of a cautionary tale. For Finley’s impact came not from the publication of any one seminal book, but primarily from the force of his personality and the authority which his own peculiar academic formation and the dramatic circumstances of his entry into the academic world in the United Kingdom gave him. Whether as lecturer in the classroom, as supervisor in his office, as broadcaster in front of a microphone, it was with his commanding intelligence and the moral force of his pronouncements that Finley captivated and commanded attention. That charismatic authority continues to make his work compelling today.

A child prodigy who hit New York news headlines when he achieved his M.A. at Columbia University at the age of 17, Finley was initially trained in law and then subsequently through the 1930s, when he worked as a fact-checker for The Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences and an editor and translator for the Institute for Social Research, in social science. Although as early as 1932 he was declaring that ‘the study of ancient history has reached an impasse’ and (as Moses Finkelstein) he first published on Greek history in 1935, Finley (as he had then become) embarked on his PhD only in the late 1940s. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

Homer for Everyone

Peter Thonemann
TLS, Feb. 24, 2017

If you ever feel tempted to idealize the educational curriculum of the 1950s, may I recommend as an antidote Maurice Platnauer’s Fifty Years of Classical Scholarship, published in 1954. In this monumentally depressing book, fourteen contributors assess the “progress” that Classical Studies had made over the previous half-century. No fewer than nine of its fourteen essays are dedicated to Greek and Latin poetry. “Greek Philosophy” gets a chapter of its own, as do “The Greek Historians”, “The Roman Historians”, “Greek Orators and Rhetoric” and “Roman Oratory”. Art and archaeology are nowhere, aside from seven pages on “Homer and the archaeologists” and a few pretty pictures of vases to illustrate some poems.

“The Greek and Roman Historians”: the chapter titles say it all. All too clearly, the task of the ancient historian circa 1954 was simply to expound and interpret the Great Books, Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus and the rest. As the author of the chapter on “The Greek Historians” blithely remarks, “Where one writer is so pre-eminent as a source for our knowledge of a period as is Thucydides, all work done on that period must necessarily be in some sense a commentary on him”.

As a result, the subject matter of ancient history was firmly divided into the U and the non-U, depending on whether it happened to be covered by a Great Book or not. Fifth-century Athens? Very U (Thucydides). The Greek world after Alexander the Great?

Irremediably non-U (Justin’s Epitome of Pompeius Trogus). High Roman political history? Definitely U (Cicero, Sallust, Tacitus). Late Roman social history? Definitely not (ghastly Christians, bad Latin).

For many British academics, the word “impact” has been forever tarnished by its association with the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. But if ever a discipline was begging for a good impactful kick up the backside, ancient history in 1954 was it. The REF, notoriously, never managed to come up with a plausible set of criteria for measuring impact. How about the following metrics: (1) number of second-rate professors infuriated by your work; (2) number of brilliant sixteen-year-olds inspired to take up your subject; (3) number of people still trying to refute you thirty years after your death. We could call it the “Moses Finley Index”. Because more than any other single individual, it is Finley we have to thank for shaking ancient history out of its mid- century belletristic torpor, and restoring it to a position of respectability among the historical sciences. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

A Memorial Address for Sir Moses Finley
Jack Cargill
The Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries [1986]

UNLIKE my distinguished predecessors today, I cannot claim the pleasure of having known Sir Moses Finley as a friend or colleague. My role is to discuss Finley as an ancient historian. I was honored to be asked to undertake this portion of the program, although I am well aware that I am only one of several persons teaching in the branches of Rutgers University who might equally well have been called upon. We are all, in a sense, his successors; I view that as both a privilege and a responsibility.

Thanks to certain fortunate circumstances, I was in fact able to have some contact with Sir Moses. Before he delivered his Mason Gross Lectures at Rutgers in April of 1972 (out of which came his book Democracy Ancient and Modern), he had delivered, earlier that same year, his Sather Lectures at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was at the time a Ph.D. student in ancient Greek history. Therefore, I was privileged to be in the audience of his first lectures in America after his nearly twenty years of “exile,” lectures which were to become The Ancient Economy. The attendance and the enthusiastic response given that set of lectures exceeded those for any other Sather Lecture series during my long stay in Berkeley. Later, I was one of those who recommended to the Rutgers University Press the publication of a second (expanded) edition of Democracy Ancient and Modern in 1985—it is in print and available, and is in fact a textbook in one of my courses right now. When Finley died this past summer, I had only recently received an article offprint from him, in response to one I had sent to him. A card was attached to the offprint, reflecting Finley’s last academic title, Master of Darwin College (Cambridge); where the card read “With the Compliments of the Master [,] Professor Sir Moses Finley,” the words “the Master” had been crossed out, and after “Compliments” was inserted a handwritten “and thanks.”

The first thing that must be said about Finley the ancient historian is that he represented the top of the profession. The great Italian scholar Arnaldo Momigliano, reviewing three of Finley’s books in the New York Review of Books of Oct. 16, 1975, minced no words, calling him “the best living social historian of Greece and the one most prepared to face the methodological problems which social history implies”; Momigliano went on to assert that Finley had 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.” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

My History Hero: Sir Moses I Finley (1912–86)
chosen by Mary Beard
History Extra, Jan. 6, 2012

Sir Moses I Finley CBE, FBA, was an American classical scholar who moved to England in 1955. He taught at Cambridge and was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1971. His most notable work is The Ancient Economy (1973), in which he argued that status and civic ideology governed the economy in antiquity rather than rational economic motivations.

When did you first hear about Moses Finley?

I read his book The World of Odysseus at school and it was an eye-opener. I hadn’t ever realised that you could take epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, composed almost 3,000 years ago, and ask them historical questions. It had never occurred to me that, if you read carefully, you could find all sorts of clues about the kind of society that had produced the poems – its economy, government and law. When I saw Finley in the flesh, in lectures at university, it was even better. He opened up all those subjects that I hadn’t before recognised as part of ancient history: slavery, revolution, poverty, for example.

What kind of person was he?

Engaging, straight-talking, dogmatic. He had come to Britain from New York at the time of the McCarthyite witch-hunts in the 1950s: it made him a wonderful combination of the brilliant boy from the Bronx and crusty Oxbridge academic. I think he shocked some corners of the ivory tower with the trans-Atlantic frankness. “That idea is rubbish,” he would happily say.

What made him a hero?

He showed me that studying the ancient world was something I didn’t have to be remotely ashamed about.

His idea was to make students see that ancient history mattered, that it was a subject worth getting cross about, and (perhaps even more important) that you couldn’t understand Greece and Rome if you didn’t understand the modern world too. No one before had ever suggested that reading Marx or Freud was something I should be doing for my ‘real’ work, not as an optional extra. It was an eye-opener.

What was his finest hour?

I guess Moses would have thought that giving the Sather Lectures at Berkeley in California was the high point of his career. They became a famous book called The Ancient Economy – which attacked the usual idea that ancient economic life could be understood in more or less modern terms (with proto-capitalists, mercantile classes, imports and exports and so on). This, for him, was where Marx, Weber and co came in – not to show that the ancient world was like the modern, but to give us the tools to show how different it was. I’m not so sure. In a way it has dated more than his other writing.

He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1971. For me, his finest hours were those he spent in the lecture hall turning our views about the ancient world upside down. … [To read the full interview, click the following LINK – Ed.]


Daniel Tompkins Discusses Moses Finley:  Fred Rowland, Temple U, Mar. 19, 2015— Classical scholar M. I. Finley (1912-1986) was involved in many of the momentous intellectual, political, and social issues and debates of the 1930s and 1940s.

The World of Moses Finkelstein:  The Year 1939 in M.I. Finley’s Development as a Historian:  Daniel P. Tomkins, excerpted from Classical Antiquity and the Politics of America:  Waco, Tx:  Baylor University Press, 2006 — Sir Moses Finley’s involvement with American politics consumed a brief but fateful period in his life.

Moses Finley on Slavery: A Personal Note:  Arnaldo Momigliano, Journal Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies, Volume 8, 1987 – Issue 1: Classical Slavery, June 13, 2008 In Aspects of Antiquity, Moses Finley included the essay “Aulog Kaprellios Timotheos, Slave Trader.”  It is the least polemical of Finley’s essays on slavery.

The Portable Greek Historians:  M.I. Finley, NY:  The Viking Press, 1959

North American Scholar: Finley, Moses Isaac, Rutgers, Database of Classical Scholars

This week’s Communiqué Isranet is Communiqué: Un accord prochain concernant la démarcation de la frontière martitime israélo-libanaise est-il possible?

CIJR wishes our friends and supporters Shabbat Shalom!