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Greece and Europe – whose debt is the greater?

July 19, 2015


The spectacle of Greece, over the last weeks,  at the mercy of its creditors and fellow European Governments has been profoundly depressing. It has been a picture which, even for a professed Europhile as I am, does the image of Europe no favours. Whoever is to blame for this situation, and as in most human activities, blames sits in more than one place, there ought to be a better way of resolving the issue. As many other episodes in European history demonstrate, humiliation is a toxic ingredient in international affairs and humiliation has been dealt out in this situation in spades.

The events in Greece have been especially saddening for anyone, like me, who has been educated in or has any knowledge or love for the classical tradition. Through that tradition one is reminded of how completely central Greece, Greek language and Greek thought are to the history and identity of European and indeed western civilisation. Europe without Greece is inconceivable.

The story of Greece is that of the brilliant young man of history who has fallen on hard times in later life. Even when you have been immersed in it, it is totally staggering to reflect just how brilliant the golden age of Greek thought and civilisation was. In a couple of centuries in the middle of the first millennium BC the Greeks laid the foundations of western literature, drama, political thought, science and medicine. Little else of note happened until the rediscovery of Greek thought in the Renaissance rekindled western intellectual development almost 2 millennia later.

Even after the Greeks were conquered by the Romans in the second century BC they remained the intellectual powerhouse of the Roman Empire, providing the lingua franca for the Eastern half of the Empire and in the West providing many of the leading figures of intellectual and administrative life. Much Roman literature, philosophy and other intellectual products drew heavily from Greek traditions.The Romans weren’t known for inferiority complexes but they had a big one in relation to the intellectual superiority of the Greeks.

Greek thinking has reached modern times in other ways. What we know as Christianity owes a heavy debt to the Greeks. Starting with St Paul, Greeks and Greek speakers were crucial to the development of Christianity and Christian theology, incorporating into the Christian canon the traditions of Greek neo-Platonist philosophy. Islam too engaged with Greek thought as it took over the Greek speaking areas of the Roman Empire, embracing the Greek, and particularly Aristotelian traditions of thinking in science and medicine. As a result it was from Arabic sources from which many of these ideas made their gradual way back into western consciousness in the later Middle Ages.

So what was it about ancient Greece which led to this explosion of intellectual activity, the like of which is virtually unprecedented in human history? I am not sure if anybody precisely knows but a number of factors are important.

First in the period in question the Greeks were not limited solely to the country we know as modern Greece. A maritime people, often driven by the poverty of their own land, they spread themselves across the Mediterranean in search of opportunity and in many cases new ideas. Greeks were well established in the Ionian coast of modern Turkey (something which lasted until the struggles between Greece and Attaturk’s emerging modern state of Turkey in the early 1920s) and elsewhere in the Levant. In the west they colonised Sicily and Southern Italy (by the 5th century there were 500 Greek cities in this area). Marseille was a Greek foundation and there is some evidence that Greek explorers may have even reached Britain. Greek travellers and thinkers collected ideas and in particular acted as powerful bridge with intellectual developments of eastern civilisations in Syria, Anatolia and Egypt.

The second phenomenon which was special about ancient Greece was the creation and proliferation of city states. Fiercely competitive and often at war with each other, they provided a real focus for cultural and political developments. Their separate identities and rivalry fostered cultural developments and creativity allowing intellectuals such as Aristotle, Archimedes and many others to move between different centres of patronage which were, nonetheless, unified by a common lingua franca and cultural traditions.

Finally may be there was something about the Greek character, the love of argument and cleverness which for a number of centuries fuelled an intellectual revolution without precedent. The Greek intellectual revolution was not a silent one but one which was fought out through private and, often,public discourse. As the story of Socrates shows sometimes such intellectual struggles had a tragic conclusion

So what does all of this mean in 2015? A brilliant intellectual past does not mean that Greece should be, in some way, let off the consequences of the actions which have left it in its current economic plight. It should, however, make us reflect on what are the values which lie at the heart of the European project and consider whether we need a bolder and more generous spirit in how we approach the consequences of the economic difficulties which have traumatised the continent. As civilised Europeans we owe an awful lot to the legacy of the Greek intellectual revolution, perhaps even more than the Greek state owes to the European banks. Greek debts will one day be paid, we will remain, for ever, in debt to what Greece gave to western thought.


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One Comment
  1. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when the threats, that caused Syriza to make such a dramatic U-turn, were being made. The good people of Greece have been betrayed, not only by Europe, but also by their new Government who they really believed would make a stand against austerity, come what may. I wonder what those threats were? They must have been something so trouble that can make s party stab it’s people in the back. The EU will keep twisting that knife, it doesn’t give a damn about the people of Greece.

    I agree with you Paul, we owe Greece a lot for what it had given us in terms of culture and language. Greece contributed so much to the development of Europe’s intellect that it’s a real shame that Europe is intent on destroying it.

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