Last updated: March 9, 2012 11:02 pm

Our debt to Greek culture

All the talk is of Greece’s unrepayable financial obligations, but we should also consider the gifts the country has given us

A conversation over lunch with the violinist Leonidas Kavakos – maybe Greece’s most gifted classical performer since Maria Callas – made me reflect more generally on the relationship between Greece and gifts. The most famous saying about Greeks and gifts is of course the line from Virgil’s Aeneid, “I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts” (timeo Danaos et dona ferentes), but nowadays this might be reversed. The Greeks have good reason to fear the gifts in the form of bail-outs – designed to bail out creditors, not Greek citizens – that have reduced the country to a province in the European empire controlled, at least as to its purse strings, by Germany.

But Kavakos is not disposed to self-pity à la Grecque. He seems a rather tough-minded character who believes Greeks deserve much of the punishment they are getting. What he finds most unforgivable is the way Greece, or its political class, has betrayed its incomparable legacy of culture, philosophy and art. He reserved especial scorn for a certain Greek politician who decreed that the Greek language should be reduced from 6m words to 600,000. That was an entirely avoidable form of self-impoverishment.

The bitterest denunciations of ruling classes always come from natives: look at Diderot on pre-revolutionary France, Swift on the bellicoseness and cruelty of the British, Blake on the abuses of child labour. An outsider is permitted to be more generous.

All the talk is of Greece’s unrepayable debt; but maybe we should also consider the unrepayable debt that we, that is all of us in the west, and beyond that all people influenced by the philosophical, scientific, artistic ideas developed during the most astonishing period of human creativity on record, owe to Greece.

The pacific Roman emperor Hadrian was in no doubt about the debt he owed to Greece. As a boy he was so enamoured of Greek poetry and philosophy that he acquired the nickname Graeculus, the little Greek.

By the time of his reign, in the early part of the second century AD, Greece had long been reduced, politically and economically, to the status of a provincial backwater. But Hadrian still regarded it, and especially Athens, as the centre of the civilised world. He planned to make the city great again, to bring back a new age as brilliant as that of Pericles; he rebuilt or completed many temples, including the immense temple of Olympian Zeus, a Roman, Corinthian answer to the Doric perfection of the Parthenon. One of his greatest gifts to the people of Athens was the splendid Library – more than a collection of books, a public square, garden and cultural centre.

Beyond that, in an act of great political imagination, in AD126 he tried to establish an assembly, the Panhellenion, to unite all the squabbling semi-autonomous city-states of Greece and Ionia. Of all the honorific titles bestowed on him, the ones he cherished most, and considered the hardest to merit, according to Marguerite Yourcenar’s brilliantly imagined and meticulously researched homage Memoirs of Hadrian, were Ionian and Friend of Greece.

As far as Hadrian was concerned, Greece’s greatest gifts were artistic, philosophical and spiritual. Much of his life’s work was devoted to passing on those gifts, by endowing his empire with the incomparable beauty of Greek art and architecture. The most personal manifestation of all this was the immense villa he built outside Tivoli (Roman Tibur), whose remains, despite the depredation of centuries, and particularly of Cardinal d’Este who filched much of the marble to build the Villa d’Este, are still awe-inspiring. And Hadrian was so enamoured of Greece and its gifts that it was perhaps inevitable that he should fall passionately in love with a Bithynian Greek youth, Antinous, who drowned at 20 and in whose memory Hadrian created the city of Antinoopolis and a religious cult.

Such gifts, as Lewis Hyde argues in his quirky masterpiece The Gift, are beyond price. He links anthropological findings about gift exchange, as seen in such customs as the Native American potlatch and the Papuan gifting of pigs, with the essence of the work of art as gift, not commodity. Hyde of course acknowledges that paintings and other artworks exist in a market economy, and have exchange value. But he insists, contrary to modern orthodoxy, that this is secondary to and parasitical on the artwork’s essence as gift: what it has to offer humanity, over generations, freely given.

In pushing through punitive “reparations”, the EU is putting at risk the whole fabric of Greek society, including the physical remains of its once great culture. We saw a sad example of this – maybe a harbinger of worse to come – in the theft of more than 70 ancient artefacts from the museum at Olympia, site of the original Olympic games.

Yes, the Greeks have sinned (and must get used to paying taxes). But couldn’t the EU – led by Germany – rediscover some of its lost purpose by an act of generosity comparable to Hadrian’s, easing the harsh conditions of the bail-outs that appear to make Greek recovery an ever-receding prospect?

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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