A friend sent me the link to a New York Times opinion piece inspired by Greece’s current unexpected leading role in the global financial crisis. In it, a Professor of history discusses Greece’s oft forgotten vanguard function at the forefront of modern European development, beyond just its ancient cradle of culture cliché - from Greece’s 1820 revolution against the Ottoman Empire rousing the whole of Europe and ultimately leading away from empire-building to the birth of homogenous democratic states; to its position as the only European country to have beaten one of the axis powers, Italy, in WWII and stirring up a German-subjugated Europe; to Greece becoming the first post-WWII Cold War battlefield as American money and advisors poured and its air force napalmed ‘communist’ villages in the Greek Civil War; to overthrowing its military junta in the mid-70s in finally and firmly cementing the democratic ideal in all of Europe; to Greece’s early inclusion in the then EEC pragmatically paving the way to the current more inclusive EU model - etcetera, etcetera.
A brilliant piece indeed!
“Why don’t you write something like this?” my friend prefixed the mailed link.
Well, why not? A question for a question - Greek style - flowing on from what I was mailed:
So why is it that the Greeks from ancient times to the modern day consistently remain a European evolutionary galvanising point?
Ancient Greece was literally at the centre of the Afro-Eurasiatic world, and the confluence of everything travelling North ↔South and East↔West. Here, like pollen falling off buzzing insects’ legs, knowledge, insights and beliefs - from Western Druidic, to Nubian, Egyptian, Phoenician and Eastern Mesopotamian - was deposited right on the doorstep of those who became the ancient Greeks - seafarers, traders, thinkers, explorers, encountering the entire known world both in its own backyard and in theirs.
In fact, so vast was the amount of pollen deposited by this endless to and fro, that it led to an epic flowering of Greek thought, which was then exported in perfectly arranged philosophical bunches, and whose greatest gift was the birth of reason.
Unfortunately, reason is often confused with an entirely different concept, logic. Logic is a merely mental deconstruction of reason’s merely mental elements. And merely mental, as the Greeks will tell you, never really works. Ancient Greece was birthplace of reason! Do not confuse our philosophers with purely rational beings. It was their hearts that fuelled the furnace of their minds in a phenomenon known as ‘psysiognosia’ - a clear sense of knowing something through the body and then into the mind. That’s why Socrates was willing to die for believing in one all-encompassing god. Or why Plato spoke of the tragedy of thinking your shadow on the cave wall is life, while the majesty of creation happens just outside the cave behind you. Or why of all the philosophers in history, Aristotle embodies a clear sense of simply knowing.
Indeed, the depth, breadth, scope and diversity of knowledge deposited and blossoming in Greece, more than the wisdom and know-how it contained, by the ease of its exchange also gave the Greeks a clear understanding of the notion of knowing just because you do. After all, we were the heart of it all - with our minds filling from the thinkwells of the globe - from which the quest for freedom was the only possible outcome!
“Heroes fight like Greeks”, said Winston Churchill about our WWII performance.
Of course we fought! Reason, by its very physiognostic nature, focuses on freedom. You can’t know the power of your own heart and mind and still be willing to be subjugated. And once you recognise that, you’ll do anything to defend it - bravely and cleverly! The fact that the Spartan 300 and a thousand others stood down an army of hundreds of thousands was more than just courage. They forced the Persians to come at them through a very narrow pass, which essentially neutralised their vast numerical superiority. And it worked. And to this day, the phrase “Molon Lave” uttered by Leonidas to the Persian emissary seeking his surrender, which loosely translated means “you want it, come get it”, remains a national calling cry of defiance! - A taunt of the free, mindfully resisting those wishing to subjugate them!
Greeks remember. And memory means ongoing longevity, because it places even seemingly insurmountable odds into a historical context of having successfully overcome much more, before. “We did it then, we’ll do it again” in Greece has become an ingrained, almost genetic, construct. Our national memory is so clear, that the name Ephialtes, the man who betrayed the Spartan 300, is the Modern Greek word for ‘nightmare’.
We never forget. And it’s that same spirit of remembrance and reason’s love of freedom that a) drove the Greeks to go to war with the invading Italians in 1940, b) discounted the Italian numerical superiority through the whole Greek army fighting a very clever guerrilla war and c) inspired the same army to with captured Italian arms fight the invading Germans that came to save Mussolini’s face, virtually to the last man and last bullet. It’s also this combination of heart and mind that allowed Greeks to transform the Eastern Roman empire into the Greek controlled Byzantine Empire - from within - outliving its Western counterpart by a thousand years. And why our people under Ottoman control for four centuries after Byzantium fell, still retained their language and religion, even when they were banned, and rose up in open insurrection to an established empire on a continent of established empires - inspiring much of Europe to back them!
I often remind English friends that just like their nation, through Alexander the Great we also once built a vast empire that stretched from Western Europe to India - bravely fighting against spears and swords - except that we only had spears and swords ourselves. And we weren’t misguided missionaries with a messianic complex either - never discounting others’ culture as primitive, and always seeking to seamlessly assimilate the best of what we offered with the finest of what we found. Cleopatra, the legendary Egyptian queen, was Greek of the Ptolemaic bloodline, Alexander’s general whose progeny ruled Egypt for hundreds of year very much as Egyptians. Alexander himself, after conquering Persia, when in the empire’s royal court behaved as Persian Emperor - retaining the personnel, wearing the garb, abiding by the protocols and even marrying a suitable princess - while simultaneously infusing the Greek ethos and thought into the empire’s discourse. Not surprisingly, in far-flung villages of Central Asia, ancient Greek-based dialects are still spoken.
And why Alexander the Great’s assimilationist ideal? Because the Greece he represented was itself an assimilation of essentially autonomous free Greek states under his control. “With all the Greeks except the Spartans” one of Alexander’s conquest plaques reads. The Spartans chose not to join him. Free!
The point is that Greece’s intellectual and spiritual fertility, first propagated by the global contacts its geography facilitated and then cemented by its sea trade and free-state expansionism, also firmly embedded the notion of assimilation and common ground into our national psyche. And it’s this, which when combined with our history and our inherently physiognostic makeup, allows Greeks to both retain their national identity and still have a strong sense of being members of a bigger world - as a people. Today, in relative terms, ours is the greatest diaspora on Earth - with half of all Greeks on the planet living outside of Greece.
So in the context of today’s global financial crisis, the Greeks’ 3000-year amalgam of homogenous identity, reason-driven sense of freedom and assimilation-inspired notion of global citizenship, now translates into a unique “Molon Lave” to global capital - not only from the Greeks, but on behalf of all other free people caught in its spectre. In truth, nothing that Greece is guilty of in the crisis solely rests on, or is unique to, us. Today the US government is essentially bankrupt, the UK is sitting on a 4.3 trillion pound debt bomb and China is lending other countries money they can’t possibly repay to keep buying its goods. It’s so ridiculous that it’s almost become hypothetical! A mess! - A global crisis created by an unchecked global financial system, which has orchestrated the greatest transfer of wealth in history from the hands of the many into the clutches of the very few, aggressively promotes endless debt cycles, rampant materialism, neoliberal economics and ecological degradation in the name of progress and has decimated the small nations of Europe and the globe. Unlike in Iceland however, which is global banking’s clearest theft and the 2008 financial crisis’ greatest unjust tragedy, in Greece it is our people and not our volcanoes, vehemently voicing their discontent.
And maybe - just maybe - it is up to Greece to galvanise all the likeminded countries of the world, such as Iceland, to break away and form an all-new pan-global alliance of truly free nations - free from industrialised hegemony and systematically proliferated debt.
Ultimately though, having been around as a people for three millennia, the Greeks more than anyone clearly understand that events evolve, situations shift, things change and that we all come and then go in the endless circle of Earth-life. So for me, the greatest contribution that the Greeks can make to the current evolution of the world lies in the inherent understanding that in the greater scheme of things we as individuals are not here for a long time, but a good one! That we are not slaves - not to invaders and certainly not to debt. And that we will defend our freedom because we know in our bodies the glory of what our hearts and minds contain. You want to know why Greeks break plates. Because the ecstatic energy of being free to express cannot be contained! It’s naturally flung out of our bodies to affect everything around us; and is exactly the reason why throughout history every time there’s Greek plate-breaking, all of Europe starts dancing!
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