The Real Greek Tragedy – The End of the Myth of the Hellenic Origins of Europe

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Are we witnessing the end of the myth of Western classicism?  By that I mean the myth that ancient Greece, with its philosophers, drama, art, culture and pretence at democracy, is the foundation of ‘Western’ – that is, European – culture.

The efforts by many of the northwestern European powers to force Greece out of the Eurozone and the European Union suggest that we may well be seeing the end of that myth.

Slightly less than two hundred years ago, ancient Greece entered forcefully into the Western European consciousness. In 1823 Greece began fighting for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Support in Western Europe was widespread and enthusiastic. By 1827, the Ottoman fleet was destroyed at Navarino. Greece became autonomous and independent, which for many Europeans was Greece’s ‘natural’ status.

In Western Europe, people of all manner of persuasions supported Greece’s inclusion in Europe: Christians, political liberals and left-wingers, conservatives and even new humanists. Greece stood at the border of civilized Europe and the barbarous Orient, so it was crucial to claim that it was part of a vibrant and advanced Europe. No longer were ancient Egypt, India and China the embodiments of power, wealth and wisdom.

The elevation of all things Greek was spectacular.  What had been a trickle became a flood. As custodians of ancient Greece, the modern Greeks embodied ‘progress’ in terms of freedom, harmony, individualism and the role of reason, and they provided the sources of philosophy, drama, the arts, politics and the ideal of the human form.

Philhellenes abounded, especially in Germany, where Greece was regarded as the true source of all that was good in the world.  Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Friedrich August Wolf may have been precursors in the later eighteenth century, but by the nineteenth century Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, the Humboldts and Hegel all proclaimed the greatness of Greece.

For Hegel, only in ancient Greece had human society begun ‘to live in its homeland’ (The Philosophy of History, 1837, p. 247). Or as Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, an early sociologist, wrote in Kulturgeschichtliche Charakterkopfe (1891) concerning his recollections of life in a German gymnasium of the time:

We regarded Greece as our second homeland; for it was the seat of all nobility of thought and feeling, the home of harmonious humanity. Yes, we even thought that ancient Greece belonged to Germany because, of all the modern peoples, the Germans had developed the deepest understanding of the Hellenic spirit, of Hellenic art, and of the harmonious Hellenic way of life.

How things have changed. A couple of centuries ago, a Western Europe conscious of its new global power needed a dynamic new model that was in some way European. The classical Greeks provided that image: youthful, energetic, progressive, even ‘democratic’ (although this took longer to emerge).

The ‘Classics’ became the core requirements for educating the ruling class, providing a cultural framework that had its own codes and signals. Plato occupied the chair in many philosophy departments, with Aristotle his understudy. Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes found similar locations in drama departments. Pericles and Athenian democracy became the darlings of political science. All of them seemed very much present, interlocutors in current debates.

Now Greece is a pariah.  For northwestern Europeans in our time, Greece is the embodiment of ‘southern laziness’. Their culture is chaotic; they cannot manage their finances; they allow all those dreadful Africans into Europe; they are too close to Turkey and the turmoil of the Middle East.

So for the last five years, Greece has been punished with ‘austerity’ measures, administered by European banks, funds and politicians. At the forefront is Germany, which has had a profound change of heart.  And when the Greeks elected a mildly left-wing government, led by Syriza, the grey bureaucrats of the European Union felt called upon to punish Greece even further.

How dare they vote against austerity measures! They will be brought to heel. So each time the government of Tsipras caves in and agrees to the latest round of measures, the EU manipulators raise the bar.

Indeed, it has become clear that a hard-core majority of European states want to push Greece out of the Eurozone, out of the European Union, and thereby out of Europe.  They keep proposing measures that Greeks can hardly accept.

The tragedy is that many Greeks have internalized the myth of the Greek origins of Europe. While they oppose the crippling austerity measures, they overwhelmingly wish to remain part of Europe. Indeed, they cannot imagine that the rest of Europe would banish them. Or rather, they respond with disbelief that north-western Europe should wish to do so. In light of this situation, it may well be that for the time being the government caves in to the latest and even harsher measures. But this will be yet another step in the process of banishing Greece.

The symbolism is powerful. The font of Western civilisation is now being stripped of that mythical honour.  It may have enjoyed this status for a couple of centuries, but it is fading fast.

But that raises a problem: who or what will become the new basis? Will it be a revamped Aryan myth? Not so long ago, this myth was expressed in terms of the Indo-European hypothesis. The problem with the hypothesis is that it included the Greeks. But another strain has always argued that human civilization began not in the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East, not even among the Mediterranean peoples, but in northern latitudes. Will that become the dominant myth of north-western Europe as it demonises anyone from southern or eastern Europe – especially Greece?

Roland Boer is Editor-At-Large for Political Theology Today.  His recent work has focused on the engagements with theology by leading critics in the Marxist tradition (The Criticism of Heaven and Earth, 5 vols, 2007-12). He is currently working on Lenin and Theology, pursuing another dimension of this tradition. In the last few years, he has focused on Eastern Europe and China, stumbling on a number of significant (and almost lost) texts relating to early engagements between Christianity and communism. He is visiting professor at the universities of Renmin (Beijing) and Fudan (Shanghai), although when at home he is a research professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

One thought on “The Real Greek Tragedy – The End of the Myth of the Hellenic Origins of Europe

  1. Of course Hegel and co were flat wrong about the supposed harmoniousness and estrangement-free nature of Greek civilisation. They were taking at face value the cultural and religious products of the Greek ruling class, and reading into a past for which they had little and skewed data exactly what they wished to see, and on the basis of that fraudulent record and their imagined golden age denigrating Christianity, and misdiagnosing the nature and origin of alienation.

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