Sir Moses Israel Finley, FBA (born Finkelstein; 20 May 1912 – 23 June 1986) was an American-born British academic and classical scholar. His prosecution by the McCarran Security Committee led to his move to England, where he became an English classical scholar and eventually master of Darwin College, Cambridge. His most notable work is The Ancient Economy (1973) in which he argued that the economy in antiquity was governed by status and civic ideology, rather than rational economic motivations.
He was educated at Syracuse University, where, aged fifteen, he graduated magna cum laude in psychology, and at Columbia University. Although his M.A. was in public law, most of his published work was in the field of ancient history, especially the social and economic aspects of the classical world.
Finley taught at Columbia University and City College of New York, where he was influenced by members of the Frankfurt School who were working in exile in America. He then taught at Rutgers University.
On 5 September 1951, an ex-communist, Karl Wittfogel, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee that Finley was a communist. On 28 March 1952, Finley appeared before the Committee and invoked the Fifth Amendment regarding his connections to communism. On 7 September 1952, Lewis Webster Jones, the president of Rutgers University, announced his intention to appoint Trustee and Faculty Committees to review the cases of professors involved in government inquiries. On 15 November 1952, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover met with Jones to discuss the cases. On 12 December 1952, Rutger's Board of Trustees resolution declared, "It shall be cause for immediate dismissal of any member of faculty or staff" to fail to co-operate with government inquiries. On 31 December 1952, Rutgers fired Finley. Rutgers University records show:
On 3 December 1952, the Special Faculty Committee issued a report stating there should be no charges against Heimlich or Finley and that the University should take no further action in the matter. However, the Trustees, who had the final say in the matter, issued a resolution on 12 December 1952: "it shall be cause for immediate dismissal of any member of faculty or staff" who invokes the Fifth Amendment before an investigatory body in refusing to answer questions relating to communist affiliations and that Professors Heimlich and Finley would be dismissed as of December of 31, 1952 unless they conformed to thevnew policy. Neither chose to do so. There was protest at the decision by members of the faculty, who formed an Emergency Committee on the matter.
Finley immigrated to Britain, where he was appointed university lecturer in classics at Cambridge (1955–1964) and, in 1957, elected to a fellowship at Jesus College. He was reader in ancient social and economic history (1964–1970), professor of ancient history (1970–1979) and master of Darwin College (1976–1982).
He broadened the scope of classical studies from philology to culture, economics, and society. He became a British subject in 1962 and a Fellow of the British Academy in 1971, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1979. He was a doctorate adviser to Paul Millett, now a senior lecturer in Classics at the University of Cambridge.
Among his works, The World of Odysseus (1954, revised ed. with additional essays 1978) proved seminal. In it, he applied the findings of ethnologists and anthropologists like Marcel Mauss to illuminate Homer, a radical approach that was thought by his publishers to require a reassuring introduction by an established classicist, Maurice Bowra. Paul Cartledge asserted in 1995, "... in retrospect Finley's work can be seen as the seed of the present flowering of anthropologically-related studies of ancient Greek culture and society".
Following the example of Karl Polanyi, Finley argued that the ancient economy should not be analysed using the concepts of modern economic science, because ancient man had no notion of the economy as a separate sphere of society, and because economic actions in antiquity were determined not primarily by economic, but by social concerns. This text later came under scrutiny, with varied criticism coming from, amongst others, Kevin Greene, who argues that Finley underplays the importance of technological innovation, and C. R. Whittaker, who rejects the concept of a "consumer city".
In 1932 Finley married Mary (née Moscowitz, who later changed to her mother's surname, Thiers), a schoolteacher, and the two enjoyed a happy and mutually reinforcing marriage. On the day of her death he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, and he died the following day on 23 June 1986 at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge. The New York Times obituary adds: "He had suffered a stroke the previous day, an hour after learning of the death of his wife."
Finley was also the editor of numerous volumes of essays on ancient history.