Few people — least of all the Greeks — are unaware of the economic and political crisis gripping that nation. With unemployment at record levels and chaos periodically clogging their streets, it would be difficult to overlook the fact that something is wrong.
Nonetheless, from a tourist’s point of view, much remains business as usual. The Parthenon still stands there in all of its tumbledown glory, while the merchants in the Plaka continue to be as aggressive in marketing their baubles.
Yet for those who look, there is ample evidence of why Greece is no longer the cutting-edge force it was. This came to my attention during a long conversation with owner of a jewelry store chain. Upon learning that I was an American college professor, he was eager put his country’s plight in perspective.
Soon our tête-à-tête ranged candidly across the historical and the contemporary landscape. Thus, we agreed that the ancient Athenians had laid the foundation for modern Western civilization, whereas today’s Greeks have accomplished little of which to boast.
The question was why? The Greeks are surely as intelligent and vibrant as ever. They are also as desirous of success. The problem is that many are not as entrepreneurial as their forebears. Oh yes, the shopkeepers in the market remain assertive, but where (save for a few shipping magnates) are the large-scale operators? They are largely absent.
Where then are today’s Greek men (and some women) to be found? By late morning it is plain that they are sipping coffee at street side cafes and arguing about everything — especially politics. Their ancestors, to be sure, were likewise a talkative bunch — think of Socrates or Plato — but they were also out scouring the Mediterranean seeking their main chance.
Nowadays many Greeks must leave home to improve their lot. Vassili Economopoulos, a buddy of mine at Kennesaw State University (sadly no longer with us) epitomized this dilemma. He migrated to the United States to obtain his Ph.D., then stayed because this is where the opportunities were. As Vassili explained, Greece is a poor country, more mountain and rock than arable land. With a topography good for growing olive trees, grape vines and little else, its people long ago learned to convert these into oil and wine. Next they went into the business of selling these to all and sundry.
The difference between then and now is that the ancients thought big and exploited trade however they could. Indeed, it was their commercial dynamism that produced the glories of the Hellenic city states. Their fleets of hard-hitting merchants financed the arts and architecture we still admire; their agoras teaming with innovative artisans created the democratic politics we continue to venerate.
The direction of causality has not changed. Free and dynamic citizens individually in pursuit of economic success are the ones who generate governments “of, by and for the people.” It is not governments that create their wealth, sophistication or freedom, but the other way around.
The Greek merchant with whom I discussed these matters understood this. As a result, he and I were distressed that many of his countrymen do not. We also agreed that many Americans are oblivious of this nexus. They too appear to be looking to politicians, not businesspersons, for salvation.
Lest we forget: Greece fell when its people could not unite to defend their institutions. Its glory did not last forever. Yet neither may the eminence of United States if its people cannot coalesce to defend the free marketplace and decentralized politics that made it great.
Glory and freedom go only to those who possess the confidence to protect their traditions. So we must ask: Do we have this spirit? Do we have what the Greeks lacked? Time will tell.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University.