Greece’s history holds its hope for the future

PEOPLE say that Greece used to be great. That’s not quite right of course. They mean Athens. Ancient Greece was a jumble of city-states, some even worse than the political and economic disaster of Greece today. Sparta was a totalitarian state, a role model for the Nazis.

Ancient Athens, however, has a strong claim to be the birthplace of Western civilisation. A tiny population in the tens of thousands produced more geniuses in its brief golden age than larger nations have managed in many centuries. We are the lucky inheritors of their creative legacy: ideas as diverse as democracy, formal logic, historical narrative, tragic drama and lyric poetry.

As bailout follows bailout, as Greece wonders what hit it and looks for a way forward, it’s worth getting this history right. After all, fifth-century Athens was not populated by supermen. It simply, like other cities since, provided the conditions for its citizens to flourish. It could be done again.

What are the conditions? First of all, trade. The Athenian statesman Pericles said of Athens “the fruits of the whole earth flow in upon us; so that we enjoy the goods of other countries as freely as our own.” Like Renaissance Venice or early modern Holland, its openness to trade gave Athens not just wealth but access to a whole universe of ideas. The popular mind may think of beards dressed in bedsheets, but professor Richard Nisbett, in his book The Geography of Thought, suggests that ancient Athens “would have been rather like the bar in Star Wars”.

This section of City A.M., The Forum, takes its name from the Roman squares that were centres of debate as well as commercial centres, but their forerunner was the agora of Athens, where Socrates forced men of consequence to defend the logic of their views in public and one of the world’s earliest book markets flourished.

Still, free exchange of goods and ideas was not enough. Nisbett also points to the Athenian sense of the individual. Athenian democracy broke with traditional tribal bonds of loyalty to kin or clan, allowing every citizen the right to his own opinion, if he could uphold it. Pericles said “although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it. We do not look upon discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of political action, but as an indispensable preliminary to acting wisely.” The philosopher Karl Popper saw this as the pivot point of all human history, the moment when we decisively turned from the closed world of tradition to the creative possibilities of the open society, where every citizen is recognised as capable of original thought.

Greece seems a long way from Athens today, as Eurocrats limit its democracy and its public spaces are full of violent protests, not peaceful commerce. But the Athenian transformation began quite suddenly. Around 600BC, the poet and statesman Solon confronted a failed state, riddled with debt and riven by factional rivalry. Athens seemed doomed. Solon responded by cancelling debts, instituting a new legal code and encouraging foreign trade. Athens had begun its journey to greatness. That’s not to say a default is the solution now. History rhymes rather than repeats. But finding a way to release the creative power of individual citizens in a free marketplace will always be the civilised solution.

First published: City A.M., 24/2/12

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