Advancing a Free Society

Beware of Greeks Bearing Debt

Friday, December 2, 2011

“We are on a difficult course, on a new Odyssey for Greece,” former Prime Minister George Papandreou once observed of his country’s economic malady. “But we know the road to Ithaca and we have charted the waters.” The man could be forgiven for falling back on the iconic Odysseus—Greece has always looked on the Classical Age as a usable past.

But the metaphor of the Odyssey offers no guidance for Greece’s economic travails. For the Odyssey is about adventure and revenge and the yearning for home; profit rarely figures in the journey. And when it does, on one occasion in Phaeacia, it is used to taunt Odysseus to demonstrate his skill at feats of physical prowess. “Oh I knew it!” said a local mocking the traveler. “I never took you for someone skilled in games, not a chance. You are some skipper of profiteers roving the high seas in his scudding craft, reckoning up his freight with a keen eye out for home cargo, grabbing the gold he can!” Odysseus takes the bait—after all, honor and glory matter. He gives the games of Phaeacia a whirl.

The ancient Greeks did not have much praise for commerce. Plato denigrated it in the Republic, as did Aristotle. Commerce was not fit for men of the polis, and was best left, it was thought, for metics, resident foreigners. No solace could be found in that classical tradition Greece passionately claims as its own. The German bankers should not rest easy if Greeks come forth bearing the inspiration of the epics and heroes of ancient Greece.

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