A Funny Thing about French and British Classicists

I explain here how I came to find that a 1973 work of British classicism is available in a cheaper and more recent edition in France than in Britain, and decided for the first time that I need to read a French translation of an English text.

It all comes from exploring the classicist background, in the 19th and 20th centuries, to Michel Foucault’s work on antique ethics and political thought.

This little story starts in London last Summer when I was looking round the second hand section, of Waterstone’s bookshop in Bloomsbury , for an interesting possibly out of print book presenting some major work of classical scholarship to compare with Foucault.  What I stumbled upon was The Greek City and its Institutions by Gustave Glotz (Routledge 1965).  I read it with increasing interest as a text that seems broadly in line with Foucault’s understanding.

What I noticed then was that Glotz belongs to a great stream of French classicism which is part of Foucault’s context,  Glotz published La cité grecque in 1928; and it can be taken as a ‘democratic’ reading of antiquity in reaction to the work Fustel de Coulange’s Ancient City of 1864, which has a traditionalist, pietist, conformist view of antiquity.  Coulange’s book has a reputation outside classicism as a work of sociology and political thought which drew me to reading it.  Glotz’s book is in print in French, a 1988 edition (Albin Michel).

On looking at Claude Mossé’s preface to that edition, I noticed the importance of Moses Finley for French classicists, particularly his book Democracy Ancient and Modern (a title which refers to Benjamin Constant’s early 19th century essay, ‘On the Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of Moderns’ which has its own considerable interest).  So I checked Amazon UK, and thenAmazon France, because it might be a good idea to get the French edition to understand how Finley was taken up in the classicist tradition preceding Foucault.

What do I find>

English language edition, Princeton University Press, 1985, one year before Finley died.  No edition since with added scholarly apparatus. Price £ 19.90

French language edition. Payot 2003.  Preface by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, himself a great name in classical studies. Price € 8.08 (the pound sterling is worth about 1.15 Euros).

So the French edition is more than half as cheap, is more recent, and has some additional thoughts from a great classical scholar.  I certainly would not have predicted that, I will try to work out what is behind this little but intriguing oddity.

>Ancient Greece and Rome: Civic Freedom or Unlimited Religious Government?

>I’ve just been reading Fustel de Coulange’s classic 1860s account of Ancient Greek ethics, religion, tradition, and politics in the city state (The Ancient City).  Click for the edition I’ve been reading.  Click here for free text in French in various formats.  Click here for free pdf in English. 

I’ve been reading a lot about ancient politics, and democracy, or probably a lot for a non-specialist, as background to some work on Michel Foucault, on ancient politics, and general interest in the political theory implications of what Benjamin Constant referred to as the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns.  Constant referred to the unlimited authority of the social body in the ancient world, including the city republics of Rome and Greece.  He did also make some differentiation between different republics, and particularly picked out Athens as closer to modern liberty, which Constant considered to largely consisting of freedom from state interference, and freedom to pursue self-determined ideals and life projects .

Coulange takes the idea of unlimited authority of the social body as the essential aspect of ancient city states.  He sees them as born from communities of pietistic tradition, in which worshipping the same gods, absolute paternal authority, closeness to where ancestors lived, respect for ancestors, and suspicion of foreigners in relation to  natives were fundamental.

Coulanges emphasises the continuity of this situation from the earliest settled human communities, in India, as well as in Greece and Italy, right up to the Roman Empire.  Ancient emocracy he sees as just a variation on this emphasising that in democratic Rome and Athens a foreigner could not have political rights, because such a person could not have the same gods, and it would therefore be impious to allow them into political office.

Variations also appear, which maybe challenge the more monolithic aspects of Coulange’s account.  These include the rise of Sophism in Ancient Greece which led to challenges to the moral basis of city law, and in reaction to that a Platonic search for justice above law.  Christianity, which was part of the late Roman Empire is seen as undermining the old form of state piety, because of the transcendental nature of the Christian god.  Coulanges also notes the the Epicurean and Cynic schools advocated abstention from politics before Christianity challenged the absolute status of the ancient state.  Coulanges’ account of the Roman Empire, refers to it as a system which was uniquely able to integrate many religions into its religious-state system.  He traces this back to the mythical and pre-historical origins of Rome from Latins, Etruscans, Sabines, `Greeks and Trojans.  Coulanges sees this mixture, which appears in some form in the legends and myths of early Rome (the founders Romulus and Remus were descended from the Trojan Aeneas, in their early years the Romans abducted the Sabine women, and then allied with the Sabine people, some kings were Etruscan etc).

Roman history and mythology certainly puts an extraordinary emphasis on duality of various kinds.  (Trojans and Latins; Romulus and Remus, Romans and Sabines, the two consuls who took over the powers of the early kings in the republican period, a dictator always appointed a master of horse).  Quite how sound Coulange’s own claim is, I don’t know, but it’s certainly worth investigating.  His claim of the uniqueness of Rome is perhaps difficult to reconcile with his generalising arguments, but it is certainly an intriguing and productive tension.

A historical classic with many ideas in sociology, political theory, anthropology, and so on.  Well worth comparing with Nietzsche (particularly Nietzsche’s account of antiquity in Genealogy of Morals, Essay I. ), as well as with Weber, and with Foucault himself.