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greeks“To say that private men have nothing to do with government is to say that private men have nothing to do with their own happiness or misery; that people ought not to concern themselves whether they be naked or clothed, fed or starved, deceived or instructed, protected or destroyed.”—Marcus Cato The Elder

“Didst thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil.” —Fyodor Dostoevsky

A particularly insightful student once queried after a class had ended: “How did Rome become Italy?”

It was an innocuous enough question, seemingly answerable by tracing the fall of the empire through time to the myriad intrigues of the Renaissance. However, what lay at the core of this student’s curiosity was the rather stark departure from the turgidity of Cato, the eloquence of Cicero, and the vision of Augustus, evidenced by the more modern Italian state known primarily for its focus on sybaritic aesthetics.

How did Rome, whose charge as Virgil would remind its citizens, was to rule over the nations with arts such as “crowning peace with law…and taming, in war the proud” replace the “ave” with the “ciao?”

A similar, though perhaps less lighthearted analogy, can be made of the current state of affairs in 21st century Greece. In keeping with the comparison, how did a small conglomeration of city-states known for warring so fiercely for their independence against foreign invasion and domination morph into a consolidated nation that now is more noteworthy for its civil strife? There has been much analysis of the economic factors leading to Greece’s current dilemma.

This piece is not an attempt to further elaborate on them, but rather to illumine the historical and philosophical relevance of such a cultural transformation as has been indicated above. However, to lend some context to this perspective, a brief recap of a few of the facts would prove useful.

Greece, after a considerable period of time promoting unrestrained spending and cheap lending practices, has found itself over $413 billion in debt, an amount that is larger than the country’s economy. As such, this debt will be 120% of its GDP in 2010 with a deficit of 12.7%. This would essentially mean the nation would have great trouble borrowing future funds and perhaps impact the larger euro currency as Greece is a member nation of the EU. In response, the Greek government has begun a series of drastic cuts to its own spending, combined with the high taxation of fuel, tobacco and alcohol.

The Greek citizenry has responded in kind. Street clashes and demonstrations between young Greeks and police have been punctuated by tear gas and wrecked storefronts, while broken off pieces of marble balustrades were implemented as projectiles. In number, somewhere up to 60,000 protesters staggered Greece’s transportation system, grounding flights and rendering public travel inert.

Making matters worse, hospital workers and broadcast journalists joined in on the walk-outs, protesting both the deep cuts in spending and elevated taxation currently put into play. The chants emanating from the din were a mix of angst both ancient and modern. Some declared “no sacrifice for plutocracy,” reviving echoes of Thucydides’ account of the stasis in Corcyra during the Peloponnesian War. Others demanded “no more sacrifices, war against war,” which would have bedeviled the forgotten, though vaunted logicians of Hellas.

Perhaps more timely were the calls for “real jobs, higher pay.” It is, of course, a unique conundrum, belligerently demanding that someone give you a well-paying job. It must be asked, who exactly is the object of such a request? Not to be outdone, a group of 200 Greek uniformed police, coast guard and fire brigade officers assembled at a location adjacent to the protests. Complaining of lowered wages, the officers related to their civilian countrymen, claiming, “we are all shouting out for our rights.”

It may be safe to assume that the aforementioned object of this collective clamor is the Greek government itself, if for nothing other than being the source of these recent cuts in pay and higher taxes. However, the latter two calls for well-paying jobs and rights speak to a vast chasm between this generation of Greeks and their illustrious forefathers. This chasm can be best understood by noting how both of these groups, separated by the ages, view the most Hellenic of all ancient ideas, that of freedom.

As understood by the ancient Greeks, freedom involved the comprehension of different, though complementary dimensions to its nature. The first, a state which can be referred to as “freedom from,” involved what most casual observers would associate with the word “freedom”. If one was not under the outward control of another human being, or of an unfriendly neighboring state seeking aggressive dominion, one could be said to be free from these potential burdens. Modern Western societies, themselves seldom feeling the great weight of past generations’ struggles for their own freedom from aggression, usually stop at this level of meaning. It is taken that these freedoms, which were in the distant past valiantly won, can now be enjoyed by subsequent generations.

The enjoyment of freedom, however, would stand as incomplete without what the Greeks would regard as the next step in the comprehension of the term.

Hypothetically, if one is free from outside control, the dilemma is no longer having too few choices, but rather having an infinite number of choices. It is here that freedom takes on its new manifestation as “freedom to.” Possessing a menu with unlimited pages is at first exhilarating, but eventually quite daunting. The Greeks were quick to realize that simply having a multiplicity of choices did not mean all choices are of equal value.

This lesson is one learned every fall in college campuses throughout this country, though not necessarily in the classroom. Young men and women discover they are free, sometimes for the very first time, from their parents and the levels of conduct expected at home. This newfound freedom leads many to partake in as much alcohol or drugs as are available in their environment. Oddly, they may find one day that this partaking becomes as regular as, or more so, than their nightly studies. Inevitably, they discover freedom unchecked leads one to freedom’s opposite, a soft form of slavery.

The Greek “freedom to” carried along with it the unlikely paradox, which held that true freedom was always limited freedom, with these crucial limits coming from within the individual. It was the truly free person who could see all options as being available, yet like Plato’s just man, choose those which are genuinely and wholly best.

As a nation heretofore providing all the subsidies and controls requisite to its chosen economic perspective, Greece has by definition limited, by design, the economic avenues available to its citizens. This was done with the gradual removal of risk from their citizens’ psychological portfolios, rendering them free from worrying about the many volatile possibilities present in a freer market system. However, when the state can no longer provide what it has to this point promised, a greater insecurity and resentment ensues. The Greek citizenry has been learning of the dilemma inherent in state-given “rights”—that which was once given by human rulers can at some point be taken away by the same.

There is in this current Greek crisis a very strange twist in the understanding of freedom. The protesters from every stripe who march against their state’s newfound and unwelcome frugality do not appear to be clamoring for their government to suddenly dismantle the economic paradigm that has led to this boiling point. On the contrary, the unrest seems to be directed at re-invigorating the old model of control and risk aversion.

In bizarre contrast to their ancestors who fought on the plain of Marathon and the pass of Thermopylae, the current-day protesting Greeks do not clash for their freedom from an outside aggressor. Rather, in uniquely Greek irony, they fight for their freedom from being in a position to exercise their freedom to choose their own distinct futures.

Sophocles in the Antigone called man the most strange and dreadful of all things. It is only man who wars both for the thrilling cry of independence and for the cold comfort of dependence.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared on Ignatius Insight (4/1/2010) and  is published here by permission of the author.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Goodness, where to start? Ideological dreamers cobbled together what they hoped was the unstoppable start of a federal Europe, to be incrementally de-democratised and run by its bureaucrat designers. With it, they built a one-size-fits-all currency that fit the needs of none. Europe’s new central bank pumped out liquidity, incurring massive debt because it pleased bureaucrats and politicians buying votes, and even the most conservative commercial banks had to lend more rashly in order to remain in business. Collectively, like Jack, they sold the cow for a fistful of magic beans.

    Ordinary Greeks, whose country was far too Third World to have been allowed into the European club, were given no reason to believe that they had to ever abandon the debt-fuelled corruption and political featherbedding and popular freebies to which they had grown accustomed over half a century. Now, as the first patients at death’s door but sharing a disease endemic in Europe, Greeks are suffering under serious cuts imposed by other more hypocritical patients and onlookers – the UK government, for example, brags about fiscal restraint yet still borrows one dollar in twelve, and its proles and media still whine while debt grows rather than shrinks even minimally. The hypocrites want to protect their own rash investors – from Greek default today and, they hope, from other similar, pending debacles tomorrow.

    Yet the Greeks saw that Iceland, recently bankrupted by its politicians, bankers and immoderate lenders/investors, declared the equivalent of Chapter 11, shrugged off its debts, and in a few short years Iceland cleaned up its act and investors returned, while Greece looks forward to literally decades of genuine hardship. So the Hellenes are out of sorts, and why not?

    More interesting to me are the hypocrites including American ones, even ignoring theirs, the world’s most indebted, government. How many American families are not over-indebted? How many are wards of the state by taking more out of Social Security or Medicare than ever they paid for? How many of them, or their children, have spurned subsidised educational loans on the[YUN1] principle of stern self-reliance for, as my father said 40 years ago, “those are meant for poor people and not us”? How many American families are not on the take, and have not been incrementally corrupted by state-socialist freebies, subsidies and hand-outs? How many differ from ordinary Greeks in any but two regards: the degree of their corrupted dependency and, more importantly, that in America it is not time to pay the piper…yet.

    When nearly half of the US population is wholly or significantly dependent on the federal trough, with how much aplomb will they suffer cutbacks leading to affordable government and real economic growth…without Greek riots, heavy-bouts of ouzo-drinking and smashing the crockery? It will be interesting to see.

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