“In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word “Androgynous” is only preserved as a term of reproach.” ( Aristophanes )
Even now, after two milleniums, the bustling, cosmopolitan civilization that was Alexander’s most durable legacy still nourishes our minds; and sends back eerie echoes of our own….
Cosmopolitan. the word suggests a life free of small-minded jealousies and concerns, a life of sophistication, culture, elegance. Compounded of two Greek words, kosmos and polis, “world” and “city” it came into use in the fourth century B.C. , at the beginning of the Hellenistic age, when the brotherhood of man seemed within grasp, and when statues no longer portrayed gods or heroes, but people. The face we see when we look back into that time is our own.
…And what of our own time? Will Greece default? The sovereign debt crisis and rioting in the street. Beware of Greek gods bearing bonds. These gods as a metaphor for money and banking that touch the profound nature of the Greek spirit and its desire to be unbound from the phony bonds of Prometheus. Money should be treated as an ancient pagan festival of Dionysus that never stops.Let the gods pay for it. And who is he mysterious Vatopaidi monastery, which brought down the last government, laying bare the country’s economic insanity. But beyond a $1.2 trillion debt, roughly a quarter-million dollars for each working adult, there is a more frightening deficit. After systematically looting their own treasury, in a breathtaking binge of tax evasion, bribery, and fraudulent accounting spurred on by Goldman Sachs, Greeks are sure of one thing: they can’t trust their fellow Greeks….
Classical Greece, the Greece of Pericles, the tragic dramatists, and fiercely independent city states, slid into petty fueding and political subservience in the course of the fourth century. Now it was the turn of Macedon, a rugged warrior state to the northeast. As Greeks, the Macedonians despised barbaric Orientals with their “slave mentality” . But when Alexander invaded the East and embarked on the series of brilliant campaigns that were to take him to the frontiers of India, he made his Macedonian soldiers wear Persian dress and dressed his Persians as Macedonians; he encouraged intermarriage, showing the way himself by taking Roxane, a Persian princess, as his wife; and at Opis, on the banks of the Euphrates, he held a ceremony in honor of “homonia”,or concord, between the Greeks and the newly conquered peoples.
“Now the sexes were three, and such as I have described them; because the sun, moon, and earth are three;-and the man was originally the child of the sun, the woman of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth, and they were all round and moved round and round: like their parents.” ( Aristophanes )
These may have been only gestures, incidental to main business of winning and holding power; we shall never know. Alexander died, a young man of thirty-two in 323 B.C. , and his dazzling career became a legend. What remained was the life breath of Greece itself, energizing the known world from Libya to the Hindu Kush. it is the life breath that we call Hellenism; it is as hard to mee as the smile on a statue, but in the end it was Alexander’s most durable legacy.
… “I’d arrived in Athens just a few days earlier, exactly one week before the next planned riot, and a few days after German politicians suggested that the Greek government, to pay off its debts, should sell its islands and perhaps throw some ancient ruins into the bargain. Greece’s new socialist prime minister, George Papandreou, had felt compelled to deny that he was actually thinking of selling any islands. Moody’s, the ratings agency, had just lowered Greece’s credit rating to the level that turned all Greek government bonds into junk—and so no longer eligible to be owned by many of the investors who currently owned them.”…
The Greek disregard, ambivalence and even hostility to the northern European conception of restraint and thrift; a financial house in order is anatagonistic to the Greek conception of human relationship to pleasure and the means to pursue it.Epicurus, like Zeno, advised calm, detachment, absence of emotional turmoil. If there are gods, he said, they are indifferent to human affairs; they do not reward or punish. Therefore, one should aim at as pleasant a life as possible. This does not man license or self-indulgence, which lead to pain, but a controlled equilibrium. Seneca, the Roman Stoic, quoted one of Epicurus’s sayings with approval: ” If you want to make someone rich, don’t add to his money, subtract from his desires. ” But where the Stoics preached determinism, the Epicurians left room for free will, which entered into their theory as a random “swerve” of the atomic particles they believed were the building blocks of the universe.
“As it turned out, what the Greeks wanted to do, once the lights went out and they were alone in the dark with a pile of borrowed money, was turn their government into a piñata stuffed with fantastic sums and give as many citizens as possible a whack at it….The retirement age for Greek jobs classified as “arduous” is as early as 55 for men and 50 for women. As this is also the moment when the state begins to shovel out generous pensions, more than 600 Greek professions somehow managed to get themselves classified as arduous: hairdressers, radio announcers, waiters, musicians, and on and on and on. The Greek public health-care system spends far more on supplies than the European average—and it is not uncommon, several Greeks tell me, to see nurses and doctors leaving the job with their arms filled with paper towels and diapers and whatever else they can plunder from the supply closets.”…
Why were Stoicism and Epicureanism so suited to the Hellenistic age? These philosophies told the bewildered individual that his smallness was nothing to grieve over and that he should refuse to be concerned about the ups and downs of fortune. The world was beyond his control, and the best course was to make a private peace with it. God was indifferent or everywhere. In either case, man had no accounts to settle with a divine afterlife. Stoicism and Epicureanism were both effective responses to the stress of life in a world grown too large for comprehension.
“Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods; of them is told the tale of Otys and Ephialtes who, as Homer says, dared to scale heaven, and would have laid hands upon the gods. Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts, as they had done the giants, then there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which men offered to them; but, on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained.” ( Aristophanes )
These philosophical systems dramatize one of the most dispiriting problems that afflicted the Hellenistic age: size. Events dwarfed the individual. It was an impersonal new world, a huge empire and its accompanying psychological strain from war and piracy wrecked the American Dream version of two chariots in every garage. Squeezed between the exactions of the Hellenistic kings and the rising cost of living, constantly fearful of social revolution and financial crisis, harassed by pirates and slave revolts, the bourgeoisie that had grown up in the late fourth century gradually lost heart.
The middle-class wanted the same thing they have wanted in every age: good schools, urban renewal, health services, respectable roads and decent culture. They tried to buy these things as best they could, but history was against them. The literature of the age reflects their tastes and insecurities: popular drama is full of stories of families that have been separated by shipwreck and piracy, of slaves that have turned out to be freeborn, of abrupt reversals of fortune- yet all the stories have a happy ending. It is the drama of wish fulfillment meeting the needs of an audience that wants reassurance.
“At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: “Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.” ( Aristophanes )
…”Athens somehow manages to be bright white and grubby at the same time. The most beautiful freshly painted neoclassical homes are defaced with new graffiti. Ancient ruins are everywhere, of course, but seem to have little to do with anything else. It’s Los Angeles with a past.
At the dark and narrow entrance to the Ministry of Finance a small crowd of security guards screen you as you enter—then don’t bother to check and see why you set off the metal detector. In the minister’s antechamber six ladies, all on their feet, arrange his schedule. They seem frantic and harried and overworked … and yet he still runs late. The place generally seems as if even its better days weren’t so great. The furniture is worn, the floor linoleum. The most striking thing about it is how many people it employs….( to be continued )