Neville Morley, Antiquity and Modernity. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Pp. xiv + 182. ISBN 978-1-4051-3139-1. US$79.95 / UK£40.00.
Rodrigo Sebastián Braicovich
Universidad Nacional de Rosario, Argentina
Morley sets out the aim of his study in the first chapter of his book (‘Untimely knowledge’), which serves as an introduction to the core of the problem to be addressed throughout his study: ‘This book aims to consider the way that, in the 'long nineteenth century', ideas of modernity were developed and explored through the consideration of the use of the classical past and the definition of differences, contrasts, and continuities’ (p. 18). Although the authors that appear more prominently throughout the book are Nietzsche and Marx, it covers a significant number of thinkers from diverse disciplines (economy, history, philosophy, aesthetics, etc.) who would not, at first sight, have much in common, such as Schiller and David Ricardo, or John Stuart Mill and Wagner. Morley's proposal is to chart the multiple alternatives that such authors (among others) offered by way of answering to a central question: is the study and understanding of the past necessary or, at least, relevant to the understanding of the present?
The author takes his start from the decisive fact that the last decades of the 18th century manifested an increasing and shared sensation that the changes that had been witnessed in the previous centuries had led (for better or worse) to a radical rupture with the past, a qualitative change that seemed to do away with every possible common ground between classical Greek social organizations and the complex economic, social, and political structures given birth by the advent of capitalism. Such discontinuity implied that the past was literally dead, as far as the new sciences of politics, sociology, and economy were concerned, which meant, in turn, that the study of classical antiquity could no longer sustain its place as a point of reference in cultural and social matters, nor as a source to understand and operate on contemporary issues. Morley's central claim, however, is twofold: in the first place, he shows that this awareness of a radical discontinuity between past and present was not, in fact, hegemonic; in the second place, he suggests (and this is the major task he has to set out to prove) that even when classical antiquity was considered to belong to a now closed stage of human history, it still had a major role to play in the process of modernity's self-definition. As Morley sets intends show in the following four chapters, three main attitudes towards antiquity were possible: it could represent an instrument to identify and measure the changes that had taken place by contrasting with a proposed (metamorphic) image of Antiquity; it could stand as an alternative to the present order of things, when the latter was viewed negatively (that is, when Modernity was seen as having failed to fulfill its promises); it could operate as a means of denunciation of the non-natural status of modern civilization, that is, as evidence that the present forms of social organization, economic structures, and cultural interaction were not an expression of the only possible state of affairs, and that they could be radically overturned or improved by means of reform.
In the second chapter, ‘The Great Transformation’ (pp. 21-47), Morley analyses three major tendencies within the economical thought of the century: the first of them consists in considering the development from classical antiquity to modern capitalism as a process that does not exhibit any fundamental qualitative ruptures. This alternative (which Morley illustrates mainly through Adam Smith and Malthus), allowed for a study of antiquity as a legitimate source from where to draw empirical evidence and historical examples. The second tendency (expressed by the following generation of political economists, such as Ricardo and Say) consisted in asserting the complete irrelevance of the classical past concerning political economy as a science. Curiously, this conclusion also derived from the the premise that there were no ruptures that could set both civilizations apart; only that, in this case, this served to dismiss the historical evidence and philosophical reflections of antiquity as unnecessary to the discovery and establishment of the universal laws of economy. The last tendency identified by Morley is expressed in Marx's historical turn in the consideration of the problem of modernity, through which antiquity became not merely a necessary 'stage that had to be overcome', but, more positively, a pattern of discernment of the real and apparent changes brought about by capitalism, and as a 'source of hope', since it shattered the illusion of the eternity and natural character of capitalism.
In Chapter 3, ‘Before Alienation’ (pp. 48- 87), perhaps the most rich and stimulating section of the book, Morley focuses on the particular sensation of disappointment experienced by many writers concerning another aspect: whereas the superiority of modern economical organization was relatively undisputed, such development abruptly came into question when considered from the perspective of its social and political consequences. This feeling could take the form of a denounce of the unfulfilled promises of modernity, or it could be expressed through an accusation directed at its (essentially) deceptive nature: contemporary forms of unskilled work were viewed as equivalent to ancient forms of slavery; the freedom that modernity claimed to have conquered for the individual was seen as nothing but a retreat into the isolation of the private sphere; the division of labor (which was promoted by some as the main responsible for the progress of capitalist societies) was considered as the disguised cause of an alienating, one-sided development of the individual's personal development. What was the role, if any, that classical antiquity could play in this critical scenario? Morley identifies two main (non-excluding) alternatives: antiquity could either become a source of inspiration for possible transformations of social and political institutions (be it through a revolution or a reform), or it could help understand the historical source of the moral, social, and political ailments of the present order. In the first case, the tendency towards an all- pervading process of impersonal, artificial, and uniform rationalization, was contrasted with the organic, 'natural', cooperative social bonds of classical Athens; in the second case, certain patterns that were seen as dormant, or latent, in the historical development of classical antiquity (most prominently in the economical and social changes brought about by the Roman empire) were identified as a likely (inevitable) source for certain negative characteristics of modern social institutions: the gradual disintegration of the sense of community; the substitution of socially oriented values with passive and inward looking virtues, and so on. The chapter ends with a critical note by Morley which (mainly via Nietzsche and Marx) seeks to make clear that all such uses and images of antiquity as a given factum of history are necessarily the product of a historical (self-serving) reconstruction, in the same degree as any of the notions of modernity proposed by way of contrast.
Chapter 4, ‘An Aesthetic Education’ (pp. 88- 116)), projects the diagnosis presented in the previous chapter to the sphere of ‘culture’ (here understood in broad terms as those aspects of social life other than politics or economy). Although it is in this sphere that classical antiquity acquires a (partially) uncontested place as the supreme yardstick with which to measure the progress and improvements produced by modernity, Morley indicates that it is precisely there that the various images of antiquity became the product of a distorting idealization, not only by enhancing those features of classical antiquity that contrasted with certain other negative characteristics of modernity, but also providing a view of classical Greek civilization that set it apart from any other past or contemporary society. However this may be, the question became how to recover (in the sphere of culture and the arts) at least a fragment of the 'spirit' that had made classical Greece what it once was, or, from a more historically aware perspective, how to reproduce those cultural features from within a social order built upon radically different political and economical structures.
In Chapter 5, ‘History as Nightmare’ (pp. 117-40), Morley discusses the moral, methodological, and political consequences of the construction of the global accounts (the 'grand narratives') which aimed at an understanding -- and exposition -- of the covert logic that could be seen to guide and direct the whole course of the history of mankind. The author analyses the premises that made such accounts possible, pointing in particular to the widely shared conviction that history represented a line of constant progress, and to the fact that modern historians considered themselves as inhabiting a fundamentally different situation than their predecessors in that they could now have a global outlook that had not been available to their pre-modern predecessors. However, Morley also touches upon two other alternatives manifested by eighteenth century thinkers: one was that such progress might not be endless, and that a downfall process (a return to barbarism) might follow the summit reached by contemporary civilization; the other alternative was that the path described by the history of mankind was not one of progress, but rather one of decline. The chapter closes with an analysis of Marx's and Nietzsche's attitude towards the study of history and the possible risks implicit in having a misguided attitude towards the past.
In the final chapter, ‘Allusion and Appropriation’ (pp. 141-63), Morley offers a critical analysis of the problem of the historical and possible evaluations of classical antiquity (of the limits and methodological difficulties inherent in every reconstruction), and, continuing a possible objection raised in the preface (pp. xi-xiii) directs the question to his own enterprise, asking whether any given reconstruction like the one undertaken in this book might not be built upon purely accidental elements. The book closes with a ‘case study’ of the divergent uses given by several writers of the period to the problem of slavery in classical antiquity (where Morley concentrates mainly on the attempt made by John Stuart Mill to soften the nature and consequences of the existence of slavery in classical Greece) and a brief critical note of Marx's and Nietzsche's approaches to antiquity in general. What is important to notice is that the schema outlined above was not clearly laid out for the writers of the analyzed period (some of them even leaned occasionally towards more than one of the proposed alternatives, a fact that the author fails to underline), and it is precisely one of Morley's virtues to have been able to produce an ordered account of the different possible lines of approach. However, although the author himself acknowledges that his role ‘has, at times, felt less like that of a writer of history [ . . . ] than like that of the organizer and chair of a large international conference’ (p. xiii), the reader is left at times with a sensation of a certain lack of direction when faced with the numerous alternatives presented by Morley. In particular, it feels as if a map is wanting, a logical map that might put some order into the multitude of feelings and attitudes reported by the author. Nevertheless, such a sensation is most certainly not Morley's fault, since it does not seem actually possible to unearth any such unifying thread; to pretend otherwise would probably imply distorting the evidence. In any case, as the author points out at the beginning of his book, perhaps the only stable and unifying feature of modernity is ‘the conviction of its own existence and significance’ (p. 13); modernity knows that it is something different, something unprecedented, but it cannot reach a consensus as to what exactly it is that sets it apart from Athens, from Rome, or, for that matter, from pre-modern Europe. Throughout his book, and thanks to a brilliant selection of sources, Morley manages to convince the reader that the image of Antiquity (be it in the form of a spectre, an irretrievably lost golden age or a necessary phase in the history of civilization, among other alternatives) is decisively present in the mind of modern thinkers, and that such element must be given due weight when considering retrospectively the process of the self- definition of modernity in the eighteenth century.
Although it could be argued that Morley's analysis lacks an instance of critical assessment in certain moments (a more detailed account, for example, of the probable reasons that induced the shift to a completely anti-historical approach experienced in the generation of Ricardo and Say), I believe that the book has two main virtues: it not only brings to light the richness and diversity of the eighteenth century alternatives concerning the question of the relationship between classical antiquity and modernity, but will also (hopefully) contribute to an enriched debate and a more profound understanding of the concept of modernity.