Why modern Greece should shake off Socrates and Plato
Why did Greece erupt in dreadful riots last week?
It can’t have been entirely the tragic shooting of the unfortunate teenager. Though exactly which of the factors that might have been behind it were really the most important is still anyone’s guess.
There’s the recession, unemployment, government corruption, poverty, anarchist provocation, police violence, the tensions of immigration . . .and so on. Certainly there’s been a massive transition in the cultural make-up of Greece. No one who has been there in the last few years could fail to have spotted how “the Albanians” have been blamed for everything from local robberies to shoddy plumbing.
But it is hard also not to spot how most Greek (and some other) commentators repeatedly reach for classical antecedents, not always accurately, from Plato and Socrates . . . and others.
Now, I’m usually all in favour of reflecting on classical precedents for most things in modern life. But in this case, it seems to me that my beloved classical precedents might be more of the problem than the solution.
For start an awful lot of misattribution of “Greek thinking” has been going on. The one time chair of the Greek Olympic Committee, Stratis Stratigis, was quoted as writing (about democracy) ““It taught the citizens to regard disrespect as a right, lawlessness as liberty, impertinence as equality and anarchy as enjoyment”.
Most UK newspapers said that these were the words of Socrates. They presumably hadn’t heard of the fourth-century rhetorician Isocrates, who was in fact the author of this particular homily. It’s actually from his essay the Areopagiticus -- a classic conservative model for how Athens should run itself. Nothing to do with the subversive and radical Socrates and Plato.
And all the more appropriately in a way. Because that conservative, classicisizing, slightly self-satisfied, mono-cultural image that Greece has of itself must compound, if not cause, its present travails.
Lets be clear about this. No European nation has got its multi-cultural or immigration policy entirely straight. So I’m certainly not saying that the UK has it right. Far from it. But Greece has problems all of its own.
The country is now part of a mobile, fluid, diverse European community. But it continues to propagate a myth of itself as none other than direct descendants of the Greece of Pericles – as “Greek” and nothing else. You can see this easily as a tourist. Greece displays to its visitors nothing that is not bona fide Greek, from archaic sculpture through medieval icons to modern embroidery.
But there are more insidious aspects too, I cannot have been the only university teacher in Britain who has been told by a Greek student that I cannot possible understand ancient Greek religion as well as they can – as I am not Greek.
There is of course almost no direct line of descent between the population of ancient and modern Greece. Even if there were, ancient Greece (or Athens, at least -- about which we know the most) was an aggressively mono-cultural, even xenophobic place, hardly a model for modern Europe/
To convince a population (as the Greek educational system is hugely successful at doing) that they are the ethnic descendants of the inventors of democracy, almost a race apart, can only lead to disappointment in the new and infinitely more complicated world order.
And this must be part if the problem.