Saturday, 3 November 2012

Greece, between ultra-nationalism and radical internationalism; plus some thoughts on Isocrates, Cavafy, Alexander the Great and Odysseus



Below is a piece I’ve translated from Greek that illustrates how issues over Greek national identity and direction are becoming increasingly polarised, with the extreme left, represented by Syriza, proposing a radical revision of Greek history and identity while the far-right Golden Dawn insists on the exclusivity of Greek culture and experience.

The author, Theodoros Spanelis, who I don’t know anything about, wants a Hellenism somewhere in the middle, patriotic but ecumenical and draws on Isocrates and Alexander the Great to make his case. He argues that Isocrates defined as Greek anyone, regardless of race, who shared in Greek education and culture (paideia) and he notes that Alexander established a vast Greek empire based on racial and cultural fusion and actively encouraged his soldiers to take Persian brides as part of this supranational vision.

Regarding Isocrates, I’ve written before that it is a complete misinterpretation to propose Isocrates as a precursor to the modern virtues of racial tolerance and integration based on shared values. Nothing could be further from the truth. Isocrates was making the case for pan-Hellenism, arguing that Greeks – and only Greeks – were united by a shared culture and that for the greater good of the Greek race they should put aside regional, tribal and political differences.

As for Alexander, his ‘fusion’ of cultures was politically motivated, designed to facilitate the better operation of his new empire (in which, in any case, Hellenism would dominate) and, indeed, this met with a good deal of hostility and resentment among Greeks, unwilling to accept barbarian culture on equal terms. Mixed-raced marriages were, again, mainly motivated by the politics of managing the spear-won territories – the offspring of such marriages were intended to create a Greek-oriented cultural and military elite – and, in fact, we know those Macedonians encouraged to wed their Persian concubines divorced them after Alexander’s death.

Also, it’s best not to take too seriously Mr Spanelis’ last paragraph, where he gets caught up in a rhetorical flourish about Hellenism without borders and distinctions and suggests a patriotism based on Cavafy’s Ithaka – in which Odysseus is a Bronze Age Marco Polo and the poet seems to suggest that engaging with alien cultures broadens the human experience.

Cavafy famously travelled very little, rarely leaving Alexandria, so we invest his poem (which should also be compared with The City) with the irony it deserves; while it’s difficult to regard Odysseus, back in Ithaca, after all he’s been through, as an enlightened cosmopolitan. Rather, as he sets about clearing the suitors from his palace, he is the same cunning brute and ruthless king he was the day he left his homeland.

Thus, Odysseus is many things, but not a paradigm for Hellenic patriotism. Actually, thinking about it, off the top of my head, none of the Greeks in Homer display patriotic virtues. Maybe the Trojans, but not the Greeks. However, this is another story.


The tailors of nationalism and internationalism
Since, at this time in Greece, Golden Dawn is the party of extreme nationalism and Syriza the party that expresses the spirit of internationalism, one has to ask, as a citizen who doesn’t identify with either side, is there another path one can take?

Thus, I was genuinely shocked by Golden Dawn MP Ilias Panagiotaros when he said that he does not consider Greece’s international basketball star Sophocles Schortsanitis [whose mother is Cameroonian] to be a Greek, as if Sophocles is a common name in Africa; and by the article in Avgi newspaper by Nassos Theodoridis, a member of Syriza and the Anti-nationalist Movement, who suggested that Greece should have allowed the Italians to occupy the country in 1940 and because of our ‘stubbornness we became mixed up in an imperialist war’?

In the case of Golden Dawn disputing Schortsanitis’ Greekness, it ignores Isocrates’ famous phrase that a Greek is whoever shares in Greek education and culture (paideia), a view that enabled Hellenism to establish a global empire, transcending borders, peoples and transient kingdoms. It further ignores Alexander the Great’s promotion of mixed marriages, encouraging his soldiers to take Eastern brides and, indeed, he himself married Roxanne, who today would be regarded as an Afghan!

As for the Syriza’s internationalism, it forgets that in 1940, despite the fact that Greece’s prime minister was a dictator (an enlightened one, as it transpired) sympathetic to Germany, he chose to lead a heroic anit-fascist struggle in the name of freedom. For Syriza, no doubt, even Leonidas at Thermopylae was a nationalist and a futile one at that, since he should have, presumably, let the Persians pass and prevented the massacre of the 300 Spartans.

Golden Dawn-type nationalism wants to make us a ‘suit’, which has, historically, for those who possess Greek education and culture, been too tight, taking an outward-looking Hellenism and transforming it into a miserable, poor and subordinated nation-state.

Alternatively, Syriza’s ‘suit’ is too loose and would reduce Hellenism to an odourless, tasteless mush, which, ironically, would coincide with the aspirations of Greece’s political elite – in favour of a Greece internationalised and globalised, without identity and form.

But for those of us who are sensitive to and immersed in Greek letters, we still proudly declare ourselves Greek and raise high the flag of Ecumenical Hellenism, which retains a distinctive identity, has no borders and makes no distinctions on the basis of colour or gender, paralleling Odysseus, who went everywhere and returned in rags to his homeland, but wealthier for all he saw and experienced. To put it more simply, we are patriots.

*See original piece here.

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