Some fifteen years ago, in the course of reading up the history of technology, I came across an article by M.I. Finley, of whom I then knew nothing, on 'Technical Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World', reprinted in his essays on Economy and Society in Ancient Greece. Looking up my notes, and rereading the article today, I now see that I missed most of the points. Yet the overall impression it made has been confirmed by everything I have since read by Finley. I was astounded and then delighted by the multiple virtues he brought together: above all, the sheer force of argument, but also the compactness of presentation, the simplicity of language, the striking common sense, and the precision with which comparative and theoretical argument was brought to bear on the problem at hand. Of his Classical scholarship I was, and remain, an incompetent judge. Obviously this is of crucial importance in a field in which long familiarity with the sources appears to be a condition for saying anything worthwhile (although anything but a late developer - he received his MA at 17 - Finley published virtually nothing before the age of 40). Yet he can be read with immense profit by the reader who is content to take his scholarship for granted, and who seeks in his work a source of comparisons and counter-examples - the stuff of which generalisations about society are made and unmade.
LRB 3 June 1982 | PDF Download