Does Western Civilization Owe a "Classical Debt" to Greece?

by Brett Miller

12 July 2017

Hanink takes us on an exploration of ancient and modern Greece, showing how our ideas of classical antiquity can have powerful implications for how we think about the present.
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The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity

Johanna Hanink

(Harvard University Press)
US: May 2017

So much time has passed since Socrates roamed his beloved city and inquired of his fellow citizens the nature of concepts like justice, piety, beauty, and courage. Same for performances of the great tragedians, like Euripides, where the audience would behold the excruciating agony of a character torn between competing actions in a situation fraught with moral complexities. Yet the presence of the ancient Greeks—specifically the Athenians—looms large even today, some 2,500 years later. Their cultural and intellectual innovations—among them democracy, philosophy, and literature—can be felt in nearly every domain of life and inquiry.

And so, the reasoning goes, Western civilization owes a “classical debt” to Greece. This is a common and long-standing notion, but it is not invariably old, and neither has it had a stagnant and inconsequential life. 

In The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity, classics professor Johanna Hanink examines the origins and evolution of this idea while contrasting it with—and its manifestation in—discussions of a very different kind of debt: that of Greece’s to its international creditors.

Since the eruption of the debt crisis, around 2009, there has been a profusion of headlines and jokes directed at the people of Greece. A common line of attack pokes fun at modern Greeks by portraying them as a pathetic comparison to their glorious, ancient ancestors. As biting as these attacks have been, they are just some of the indicators that along with the idea of a “classical debt” have come a host of “conceal[ed] anxieties, conflicts, and questions about the modern world.”

In order to understand these tensions, and to explore the multi-directional, multi-layered history between the West, the East, and Greece, Hanink guides us through some of the latter’s pivotal moments and periods. A vivid picture emerges of a country and people that have had an eager European hand in its affairs for centuries: sometimes guiding it with support, but more often imposing on it a strict idealization of how it should be.

It was with the ancient Greeks themselves, however, that the pervasive view of Greeks falling short of their ancestors first began. In a fascinating chapter called “How Athens Built Its Brand”, Hanink shows how the Athenians were masters at marketing themselves as the most prodigious and praiseworthy people in the Greek world (which was made up of hundreds of city-states). The Athenians crafted this image through a variety of means, including festivals, funeral orations, architecture, and plays. Never was an opportunity missed to remind their Greek neighbors that it was they who had performed the invaluable service off defeating the barbarians (i.e., Persians), and it was from them that the loftiest and most supreme art was produced.

The Athenians achieved this brand image with remarkable success. But this “ancient propaganda” came at a paradoxical cost and one that would leave an indelible mark. Expectations were set so high that only one or two generations after the Persian defeat (near the beginning of the 5th century BCE), a weighty nostalgia was felt by the Athenians themselves that Athens had already seen its greatest days. It was a feeling that would never go away.

European travelers to Greece in the 17th century, for example, would evince this nostalgia in countless ways, paving the way for what was essentially “Europe’s metaphorical colonization of classical antiquity.” These travelers—many of them “classically trained European gentlemen”—deemed contemporary Greeks as a thoroughly disappointing, even debauched, in comparison to their ancestors. Accompanying this patronizing attitude was a zealous belief that they (i.e., Europeans) should be the protectors of the ancient past. This feeling of superiority manifested itself not least in the idea that artifacts should be taken out of Greece and kept somewhere safer—like Britain. 

Sentiments towards the people of Greece shifted towards a more positive evaluation in the 18th and 19th centuries (in part due to the influx of revolutions). But the desire to view Greece in light of its ancient (idealized) past would show itself stronger than ever.

In a chapter called “From State of Mind to Nation-State”, Hanink shows the complexities of this as she pursues one of the central contentions of the book: the notion of a Western debt to Greece. By the time the Greek War of Independence had begun in 1821, this notion was more or less solidified. The conditions that brought it about were a remarkable confluence of Enlightenment thinking, influential ideas about the nature and relevance of Greek art, and politically motivated organizations composed of ardent lovers of ancient Greece. Philhellenism, as this latter movement was called, included the likes of Romantic poets Byron and Shelley, and was pivotal in bringing international attention and support to the people of Greece. Yet the philhellenes also brought about the unfavorable relationship inherent in the Independence Loans. This was only one indication that by the end of the war “Greece was nominally free but under Europe’s control.”

In many ways it remained this way throughout the 19th century and beyond. Even Greece’s great upswing in the second half of the 20th century, for example—discussed in a chapter aptly titled “Greek Miracle 2.0”—was characterized by European influences and a continuous looking back to the past, even by the Greeks themselves. Greece, it seems, could never loosen the grip that the European West had placed on it with its pristine and heavily romanticized notion of Greek antiquity.

One upshot of this was the continued development of a thoroughly ambivalent relationship between the West and Greece—a feeling which can be seen in the West’s frustration when the country has failed to live up to its (European) expectations. Europe’s enduring disappointments with Greece – and perhaps also with itself, as Hanink perceptively points out—came to a head when the recent global financial crisis occurred and Greece found itself in the severe economic crisis in which it remains. It is in this context that Hanink considers the ways in which the symbolic debt to Greece has been transformed and a host of veiled feelings brought to the fore.

A sizeable part of the chapter in which this is discussed—“Classical Debt in Crisis”—is devoted to the media’s depiction of Greece’s financial problems. Many streams of thought from the previous chapters merge together as Hanink shows how long-standing ideas about Greece’s idealized past have explosive implications for how Greece’s current crisis is conceived. In 2010 the German magazine Focus, for example, featured an article which denounced claims of a symbolic debt to Greece for the reason that its indolent, dishonest, and culturally unproductive modern inhabitants have virtually no ties at all to the illustrious ancient Greeks. Though hardly a new line of attack, these kinds of claims are particularly brutal and damaging during a time when the people of Greece suffer under austerity measures. Likewise, such sentiments help perpetuate the notion that modern Greeks simply need to be taught a tough lesson via austerity measures and suffer the consequences of their actions. 

Hanink discusses in depth many other instances like this and generally offers insightful analyses. That said, there are times when Hanink seems willing to extrapolate too much from some of these cases and take the sentiments expressed as ones held by the public at large. At one point she suggests, for example, that “the public in countries where that claim [of a classical debt] is popular seems to revel in watching the modern country suffer under that legacy’s impossible burden.” This seems like the kind of sweeping generalization that Hanink wholeheartedly condemns when made about the people of Greece.

The above aside, Hanink provides a penetrating and valuable analysis of how our perceptions of the ancient past can become explosively mixed with politics. In Greece’s heated case of immigration, for instance, she aptly points out how some factions of the Greek far-right—in order to support a certain stance on immigrants—capitalize on the ancient Athenian narrative of fending off barbarians. This demonstrates a much more tangible link between perceptions of the ancient past and virulent political behavior that can result.         

Hanink closes the book on a forward-looking note by suggesting some pedagogical changes that might facilitate a more accurate and nuanced view of classical antiquity. Such changes are likely to be met with resistance and in any case, won’t alter views immediately. But even if Hanink’s book can’t cure Greece of its currents woes, it can (and does) offer a stimulating take on a situation that too often has been the recipient of hardened ways of thinking. May it be read vigorously and with an open mind.

The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity


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