(being continued from 28/01/15)
5.3. Nineteenth-century liberalism
Finlay’s commitment to civil, religious, commercial and political freedoms was
broadly liberal, and in his anti-central and pro-local views, Finlay was echoing
a key liberal formulation.96 His stress on the need for energy and vigour, and his fear of ‘the stationary’, is also clearly influenced by Mill’s On Liberty, where
‘Chinese stationariness’ is seen as the main threat to progress.
However, given his application of these ideas to the Greek context, he did
not share the concerns of prominent liberal thinkers about restraining the
effects of ‘commercial society’. Tocqueville and Mill were concerned in
particular that commercial society would result in the ‘tyranny of the majority’
and passive individualism. In contrast, for Finlay the majority were so
oppressed in Greece that they had not yet developed the sort of ‘tyranny’ that
Tocqueville and Mill had in mind. Further, he did not view the tendency to
individualism and an over-concern with the private sphere as the result of
‘commercial society’ and its political counterpart, ‘democracy’. Instead, he had
to confront what he saw as apathy in the public realm in a society which was
manifestly in an earlier stage of its development. One of his solutions to this,
as we saw, was a liberal-inspired stress on local institutions as cultivators of civic
virtue. However, where these were concerned, he had to confront, where
Tocqueville and Mill and others did not, a belief that these had existed for years
and that they had not been effective, as we saw.
This explains his recourse to republican traditions of thought: their
emphasis on the active involvement of citizens in government enabled him not
only to insist, with contemporary liberals, that local institutions were
important, but also that they must be organised in such a way as to allow the
active flourishing of virtue. This stress on the importance of individual
character and virtue in politics accounts for the notion that he developed
–discussed above– that there was a ‘religio-socio-moral’ sense, inculcated by the
family, the parish and ‘civic education’, which was prior to politics, but was
what politics relied on. This different strain in Finlay’s conception of ‘the
political’ is significant and interesting for the way it responds to some of the
shortcomings of the traditional liberal model, when only applied to the British
context. It further enhances our sense of the complexity and variety of strains
of liberalism embedded in British philhellenism, which has been a feature of
Finlay’s combination of liberal and republican strains of thinking is
particularly interesting in the light of recent scholarship in the history of
political thought. Liberal and republican characterizations of ‘freedom’ were
traditionally supposed to be what set the two ‘types’ of thinking apart.
However, the neat polarization of ‘republicanism’ with ‘positive’ liberty and
‘liberalism’ with ‘negative’ liberty has recently come under increasing attack.
For example, Quentin Skinner has shown that the republican tradition in fact
included a significant emphasis on liberal individualism, while Eugenio Biagini
has argued that Gladstonian popular liberalism had a considerable attachment
to community and ‘positive’ liberty.98 Finlay’s intellectual position seems to me
to bear out the validity of this scholarly development. Although committed to
civil, religious, commercial and political liberties, broadly speaking, his
conception of ‘liberty’ was not merely freedom from material insecurity and
poverty. It was, as we have seen, significantly indebted to the tradition of
republican civic virtue.
5.4. A varied inheritance
Finlay thus owes clear debts to the Scottish Enlightenment and contemporary
liberalism, but he has a complex relationship with them, forced by his
confrontation with the Greek past to re-mould aspects of their legacy. Further,
elements of romanticism about the Greek people are clearly evident in his
History, and his notions of virtue and progress both have a firm religious
imprint. Here again we are cautioned against assuming that Finlay’s views, as a
‘liberal’, are immediately predictable and simple to understand; rather they
were tempered by a host of other traditions of British thinking, not least by the
supposedly antithetical impulse of republican civic virtue.
6. The uses of the past
Drawing on these various elements of his intellectual inheritance, in what ways
did Finlay create a history which could be considered, as he hoped it would be,
“instructive … [to] the statesman and the political economist”?99
First, one of the most important, general consequences of Finlay’s historical
studies was his commitment to understanding the present as a progression out of the past. This was important because a number of significant philhellenes
had a quite different attitude, viewing the past rather as something that could
be jettisoned in a new future which was to be unfettered by history. This was
most particularly true of Bentham, who had significant involvements with the
Greek struggle.100 For Finlay, though, an understanding of ‘modern’ Greece
required sympathy to, or at least understanding of, context. A practical example
is his attitude to Greek economics in the nineteenth century, which he saw as
deeply rooted in a fiscal oppression that had been endemic for years (and which
Ottoman maladministration had added to, rather than been entirely
responsible for). In contrast, others saw it as the result of the temporary
dislocation of the 1820s. Finlay’s view was the more pessimistic, but, as William
McGrew has said, not without its attractions.101
Second, and more directly, Finlay wished to emphasize the lesson that
centralization was harmful, “separating the feelings and interests of the
administration from the sympathies and prosperity of the people”.102 This
lesson was particularly potent at the present time, he said, in the light of the
European drift towards centralization: for it showed that “Despotism has a
powerful agent in administrative centralization, and two strong camps in
political servility and popular anarchy”.103
Byzantium was thus a negative exemplum, a lesson in ‘how not to be’, for
free countries. Despite its administrative capacity, no political system would
ever nurture ‘freedom’ if it did not encourage active political responsibility on
the part of its citizens.104 As such, Byzantium functioned as an inverse to the
positive exemplum of classical Athens in Britain, which rather provided a lesson
in ‘how to aspire to be’.
However, Finlay argued that, viewed in a different light, Byzantium could
offer a useful lesson in political institutions which, although not admirable,
were nevertheless effective. The Byzantine period taught posterity that “a wellorganized
central government can with ease hold many subject nations in a
state of political nullity”.105 He had made clear in an earlier pamphlet why this
could be a useful lesson:
The picture is instructive, as affording the most remarkable example
of a government securing to itself a durable existence by the force of
its own administrative arrangements, without forming any national
ties, or claiming any sympathy of race with its subjects. It may serve
as a lesson to the rulers of India, and inspire them with the hope,
that if their administrative machine be as wisely constructed and
their administration of justice as suitable to the exigencies of the
times, as at Byzantium, their power may be perpetuated for many
Byzantium, then, while a negative lesson for the British in their homeland, could
provide a positive lesson for the British in the context of their imperial concerns.
Something of the way Finlay was read by his British contemporaries is
suggested by his reviewers. Few of them, in fact, seem to have dwelt on these
lessons he hoped to transmit. Instead, they praised Finlay for tackling the
ostensibly dispiriting topic of Greek decline. As The Spectator put it, “The
decline of an empire, like the decline of life, is generally considered an
unfavourable subject for an author”. Other reviewers overwhelmingly accepted
that this was a tale of ‘decline’, using metaphors of senility, decay and disease.107
Conversely, many cited classical Greece as the reason – the only possible reason,
it seems – why one might be interested in modern Greece, and acts of personal
heroism in the Revolution were seen to elevate the tale to the “glorious days of
Grecian liberty and of Grecian valour”.108
However, although Finlay was praised several times not simply for narrating
‘decline’ but for explaining it,109 there was an audible silence among the reviews
about precisely what his ‘lessons’ were. Overall, what is noteworthy about
Finlay’s notices is how little they commented on the argument of the volumes
– their focus on continuity, on ‘morality’ and ‘character’, on local institutions,
on the evils of centralization.
There is a dramatic contrast between these British responses to medieval
and modern Greece and those of contemporary Greeks. In Greece, eighteenthcentury
Enlightenment thinking had had something in common with British
Hellenism in its Western-inspired animus against Byzantium. Her intellectuals
had looked decisively to the ancient world as the defining pole of national
existence.110 Byzantium was triumphantly reclaimed, however, with
Paparrigopoulos. His ground-breaking history was published in five volumes
between 1860 and 1874 and emphasised both the continuity of the Greek
nation, and, crucially, the importance of the Byzantine tradition within that.111
Paschalis Kitromilides has characterized this text as “the most important
intellectual achievement of nineteenth-century Greece”. Its importance lay not
only in the historiographical field, but in the ways in which it was used to
legitimate new political ideology, encouraging national unity at a crucial
moment for the emerging Greek nation state. Kitromilides puts it thus:
“Through the feeling of loss [for Byzantium] the reader is also taught to
appreciate the great empire’s most admirable achievement: the unification of
the Greek nation, the healing of classical Hellenism’s bitter disunity, the
realization in the bosom of the Christian Empire of that most noble and elusive
of social ideals, national unity, solidarity and cohesion”.112
Finlay was aware of these developments in Greek historiography. Broadly,
he shared with Paparrigopoulos an emphasis on ‘continuity’ in Greek history,
and a particular interest in the iconoclast emperors. Both thus refuted Gibbon’s
charges that Byzantium lacked enterprise and the capacity for selfrenovation.
113 However, Finlay’s tale did not offer the ebullient confidence in national unity that was the key-note of Paparrigopoulos’ work. Finlay was more acerbic, and although there was something of a sense of Greek achievement, the tale was overwhelmingly less positive about continuity and unification.114 Not least as a result of these historians’ works, the historiography of Byzantium fulfilled very different symbolic and ideological functions in British and Greek society in the nineteenth century.
Having arrived in Greece an optimistic philhellene, Finlay certainly came to
know disillusion. In part this was a general effect of having experienced the
bruising realities of political engagement. It was also surely related to his view
that good government was so rare and so exceedingly hard to achieve.
Nevertheless, he remained in Greece, committed to the cause of national liberty
and to the study of the whole range of her past – even if he was also a severe
critic of his own work.115 It seems to me more accurate and realistic to
acknowledge that, as a result of his practical and scholarly engagements with
Greece, he tended to both pessimism and optimism, disillusionment and
enthusiasm. An attempt to cast him as either consistently ‘philhellene’ or
‘mishellene’ is reductive.
Further, we enrich our understanding of these strains in his thought if we
consider them not merely the result of personal propensities, but of an
intellectual inheritance. He reflected on both the optimistic and pessimistic
strains of Scottish thought, and tempered them in the light of his study of the
history of Greece. He also chose to weld a republican-inspired idea of ‘civic
virtue’ with contemporary liberal propensities in order to meet the challenge of
applying liberal thinking beyond the context of Britain. It is not enough simply
to label Finlay as a ‘liberal’: recent scholarship, such as Rosen’s and Biagini’s, has
shown what a complex phenomenon nineteenth-century liberalism could be,
and we need to attend to the particular contours of Finlay’s case. Moreover, his
work shows the influence of his romanticism, Christianity and knowledge of
developments in Greek historiography. We thus have a case study of an unusual
philhellene who devoted his life to an attempt to understand and articulate the
questions with which we began – the place of the Greek past in the present.
96 Indeed, in one of his notebooks, Finlay had transcribed a passage from an article by Mill (Edinburgh Review, April 1862): “Recent history bears out the assertion, that an overcentralized government is amenable to no check short of a revolution; and it is lured to its ruin by an appearance of unlimited power, up to the very moment when it is abandoned by all mankind” (Finlay papers, A.30).
97 The variety of liberal viewpoints held by British philhellenes was stressed by Fred
Rosen with regard to those British philhellenes he discussed in Bentham, Byron and Greece
(of whom Finlay was not one).
98 Q. Skinner, “The Republican Idea of Political Liberty” in G. Brock, Q. Skinner and M.
Viroli, eds., Machiavelli and Republicanism, Cambridge 1990; Eugenio Biagini, Liberty,
Retrenchment and Reform. Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860-1880,
99 1: p. xv.
100 See esp. F. Rosen, Bentham, Byron and Greece, on Bentham.
101 W. McGrew, “Greek Economic Historiography for the First Part of the Nineteenth
Century” in A. L. Macrakis and P. N. Diamandouros, New Trends in Modern Greek
Historiography, The Modern Greek Studies Association in cooperation with Anatolia
College, n.p. 1982.
102 1: p. xvf.
103 1: p. xvi.
104 See esp. 1: p. 104 on this.
105 1: p. xviii.
106 “Observations on the Characteristic Features of Byzantine History”, Transactions of
the Royal Society of Literature, p. 64 (my emphasis).
107 The Scotsman (Saturday, 25 June 1852) talked of the Byzantine Empire’s “long
senility”, while The Rambler saw its decline as the inevitable “decay” of the inorganic: “Like all human things which have originally no natural growth, but are the work of arbitrary or external power or compulsion, it […] was dependent upon its organisation rather than its vitality for its very existence” (The Rambler, New Series, Vol. II, no. IX (Sept. 1854), pp.258-271 (this quote p. 261)).
108 The Athenaeum (14 December 1861). Cf. The Press (21 December 1861).
109 For example, the Athenaeum (Saturday, 23 August 1851) put it that the study of
‘decline’, like that of disease, “may teach many a valuable lesson”.
110 See A. Politis, “From Christian Roman Emperors to the Glorious Greek Ancestors”,
G. Huxley, “Aspects of modern Greek Historiography of Byzantium”, and P. M.
Kitromilides,“On the intellectual Content of Greek Nationalism: Paparrigopoulos,
Byzantium and the Greek idea”, in D. Rick and P. Magdalino, eds., Byzantium and the
Modern Greek Identity, Aldershot 1998, pp. 25-33.
111 On Paparrigopoulos, see esp. P. Kitromilides, “On the Intellectual Content of Greek
Nationalism”, op. cit. and his “Historiographical Interpretations of Modern Greek Reality:
An Exploratory Essay” in A. L. Macrakis and P. N. Diamandouros, eds., New Trends in
Modern Greek Historiography. Also C. Hatzidimitriou, “From Paparrigopoulos to
Vacalopoulos: Modern Greek Historiography on the Ottoman Period”, ibid.
112 P. Kitromilides, “On the Intellectual Content of Greek Nationalism”, p. 30.
113 On this aspect of Paparrigopoulos, see esp. G. Huxley, “Aspects of modern Greek
historiography of Byzantium”, p. 17.
114 I hope that further consideration of Finlay’s relationship to Greek historians will be
a focus of future work.
115 He often described his work as a “melancholy” task (e.g. 7: p. 125f ), and in his papers
(Finlay papers, E.58) he calls it a “thankless and dispiriting task”. For his harsh judgements of his own achievements, see e.g. the Preface to Vol. 1 and the conclusion in Vol. 7.