Saturday, March 10, 2007

 

A Perspective from M. I. Finley

Following up on issues raised by reading Thucydides, I’ve just read the first edition of M. I. Finley’s Democracy Ancient and Modern, which was published in 1973, the same year as Finley’s most famous work, The Ancient Economy. (There is an expanded, revised second edition, but not in our library.)

Born Moses Finkelstein in New York City, Finley taught at Columbia and City College, where he encountered members of the Frankfurt School who were working in exile in America, and from whom he developed an interest in the sociology of the ancient world. In 1952, he was teaching at Rutgers. He was summoned before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, where he was asked if he was a Communist. He refused to answer, and was fired. He went into his own exile, in England, teaching at Cambridge and eventually becoming a British citizen, and a knight. He died in 1986.

Democracy Ancient and Modern was written primarily to address a contemporary trend among political scientists whereby public apathy was considered a beneficial element in democracies, enabling the qualified elite to govern unhindered. Although it might be too much to associate Finley with the modern counter-movement for a fully deliberative democracy, he certainly seemed to be sympathetic with its ideals.

Although discussing the trial of Socrates, his experiences in the McCarthy era, and his observations of the contemporary Vietnam war, seem near the surface of this conclusion to the first edition.

A genuinely political society, in which discussion and debate are an essential technique, is a society full of risks. It is inevitable that, from time to time, the debate will move from tactics to fundamentals, that there will be a challenge not merely to the immediate policies of those who hold the government power but to the underlying principles, that there will be a radical challenge. That is not only inevitable, it is desirable. It is also inevitable that those interest-groups who prefer the status quo will resist the challenge, among other means by appealing to traditional, deeply rooted beliefs, myths, values, by playing on (and even summoning up) fears.

The dangers are well known; impiety trials are but one manifestation. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” No doubt, but like all truisms, this one offers little practical guidance. Vigilance against whom? One answer, we have seen, is to rest one’s defences on public apathy, on the politician as hero. I have tried to argue that this is a way of preserving liberty by castrating it, that there is more hope in a return to the classical concept of governance as a continued effort in mass education. There will still be mistakes, tragedies, trials for impiety, but there may also be a return from widespread alienation to a genuine sense of community. The conviction of Socrates is not the whole story of freedom in Athens.

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