Ancient and modern

Alexis Tsipras is just doing what an ancient Athenian would

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

The EU finds it difficult to understand what drives the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Quite simply, he is a fifth-century bc Athenian democrat living in a 21st-century oligarchic world.

Ancient Greeks feared two conditions above all that would mark them out as losers and bring undying shame: humiliation (hubris is the key word) and dependency.


Hubris in ancient Greek meant ‘physical assault’, which broadened into behaviour calculated to degrade and humiliate others, all the worse if it were done (as Aristotle says) for the sheer pleasure of showing your superiority. A court case illustrates the point. One Ariston had been badly beaten up by thugs he had had trouble with before; and then their leader Conon ‘began crowing over me like a fighting cock, while his friends urged him to flap his elbows against his sides like wings’. That was hubris, far more serious than mere assault.

Second, since Greek males were expected to stand on their own two feet, a poor man in particular was the very antithesis of the self-sufficient, self-reliant male. He was, by definition, dependent on others — and that condition laid him open to the shameful charge of being about as useful as a slave or a woman. In his Funeral Speech, Pericles said it was one of the distinctive things about Athenians that they did not blame people for being poor, but only for not doing anything about it. Clearly most Greeks did not share that view.

On both counts, Tsipras is acting as any ancient Greek would. He refuses both to be humiliated by an EU that takes it for granted that their interests are superior to those of Greece; and to be reduced by the EU to an even more abject state of debt-laden poverty that will enslave them for years.

Given the EU’s contempt for democracy, the Greek ‘no’ vote has no significance. But whether Grexit follows or not, Tsipras’s heroic refusal to be cowed by the European master-state has set an example of which any Greek should be proud and all Europe grateful.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • Andrew Gebhardt

    Heroic refusal…I wonder how my bank would react if I used that line when I fail to pay my mortgage

    • Standish79

      They might seek to have you ostracised, at least from obtaining any future loans. Another great Athenian tradition!

      • Andrew Gebhardt

        But that is so unfair, how dare the bank treat me so badly. This is predatory lending and all you want is my house…granted I have enough family silver to pay the debt but ignore that.

    • alfredo

      It’s usually people who don’t know much about the actual situation under discussion who have to work by analogy.

    • In the banking world there are regulations to stop banks lending to people who cannot possibly repay those loans – remember the sub-prime crisis?

      Your analogy doesn’t work at all

  • The_greyhound

    And Tsipras has left Greece buggered, another practice with a long Hellenic cultural pedigree.

    • alfredo

      That was a process that took place over the last five years, not the last five months. Double entry by local oligarchs and foreign banks.

      • WTF

        Some people have very short memories of those banking pimps !

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Greeks are by and large duplicitous liars.

      • The_Missing_Think

        So are Jews.

      • WTF

        There speaks the voice/s of fascism !

      • David Booth.

        No they are not. They are just trying to make the best of an intolerable situation. Now you two away to polish up your dance routine

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          They have no intention of repaying any debt. They have no ability to repay any debt, they just want to hit the pinata again and see what falls out.

          • Οραμα

            Why do u hate us so much?

      • Οραμα

        Apparently u dont know any greeks

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          At last count only 8. But they all confirmed what I say.

          • Οραμα

            I somehow doubt that

  • hodgingthemarkets

    Hukiliation and dependency must be avoided at all cost. Sugarcoat it, then deliver the medicine.

  • Fraser Bailey

    No, he’s just another socialist chancer who wants to live off other people’s money, as they all do. Surely this is obvious to everyone – and I’m no fan of Brussels and the EU.

  • Mary Ann

    A hero, by creating a referendum question that would have been gobbly-gook to most of the people voting.

    • PeteTongue

      There is no point in projecting your own level of intelligence on others.

      • Mary Ann

        It would be sensible to read the question before commenting.

    • WTF

      Clearly you lack the ability to understand it !

  • patriciajshepard
  • Augustus

    “His heroic refusal to be cowed by the EU should be an example to us all”

    Oh dear! I almost had to shed a little tear of happiness for this brave hero. Go Greece! Take back you country! Delenda est Europa! The problem is that a week after their OXI the whole costly referendum device can be thrown into the trash can. Whoever thinks Tsipras will really succeed in carrying out his new package of reforms is naïve.

    • WTF

      Tsipras may not succeed but the EU will surely fall just as Rome did !

  • sfin

    Yes, but he’s just proposed measures that the Greek people have just said a resounding “No!” to.

    Tsipras may be a rebel – but it is more in line with the ‘left wing firebrand’ variety than the noble Athenian democratic variety.

    He’s still desperate to remain in the club and capitulate to his masters’ (well, Germany actually) bidding.

    This debacle has shown, all too clearly that the EU exists for the benefit of the EU and the citizens of individual member states have no voice in national policy.

    If you want to be ruled by an incompetent technocracy – fill your boots. Otherwise, come the referendum, vote to leave this evil.

    • Οραμα

      True words

  • jim

    It’s more like this:Greece is a failed Balkan state and Tsipras is the embodyment of his countries stubborn prideful refusal to face facts.There is nothing heroic in his stance.The Greeks appear wretched .As do the Irish but at least the Irish seem to be practical (sometimes). Hard to respect Ireland’s conduct but they are survivors.The Greeks look like people who don’t deserve to make it. The place is too rotten.When you can bribe tax officials not to collect then you are dealing with a failed state.It might be the work of two generations to save it and this is as much a question of national character as anything else. Let ’em go. Write off the debt if you must but better for everyone (them too) if they were cut loose.They are made for lazing in the sun and fleecing tourists. Doesn’t sound so bad to me.Who knows? In the long run they might wind up happier than the rest of us.

    • Οραμα

      I am sorry you ppl feel this way about us. I wish your countries and your citizens will never have to endure this humiliation or hatred.

      • jim

        Alright.My post was insensitive.Reading it back I think I could have expressed that opinion a little more diplomatically. That said, a blind man can see Greece has serious issues of probity which have not been faced up to. What’s so special about the euro anyway? I happen to believe that we should all revert to our national currencies. Without the euro,the EU might have a chance.. This currency has the capacity to break up the EU. Greece is just the first country to realise the possibility that they might be better off with their own currency.

        • Οραμα

          I tottaly agree with you. And imo we shouldt had entered in the 1rst place.

      • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

        Wind the clock back twenty years , start trusting each other and start being honest. But don’t play the unexpected crisis/ humiliation card. Greeks have humiliated themselves by failing to live up to the European ideal.

        • Οραμα

          I dont want to be part of europe. Just like u dont want me part of it. I do want to pay my debts and go on with my life.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Their ridiculous sense of self worth and false dignity. Greece is the laughing stock of Europe.

      • Οραμα

        May i ask which country are you from?

  • Richard Schickendantz

    europe will always endavour to keep its members in the club, but here lies also the lesson for greece, every club has rules and obligations as well as benefits. These are however never to the detriment of the majority of members. membership can be surrendered or revoked. lets see what happens on sunday in the EURO club!

  • pathsofglory

    Hey, Peter, I’m a bit short this month. Could you lend me, say, $10,000? And when I stiff you, I’ll have not only your $10,000 but presumably your admiration.

  • Bonkim

    Absolutely – an example of how to mastermind a gigantic fraud without hurting.

  • a slave or a woman.
    Ah, a woman. Of no use. Of no strength. Of no wisdom. Of no humanity.
    The shame of men through the ages is their disrespect of the very half that gave them life and on whom they relied. It is a great stain, and nothing can erase it but the end of everything.

  • Augustus

    And his hubristic pride will certainly be tested when he will have to rely entirely on the moderates in opposition parties, who were in power until he was elected, in order for the Greek parliament to pass a series of laws by Wednesday night imposing an array of more onerous measures on Greece than the ones the whole country had already rejected. Speaking of humiliation and loss of pride, you couldn’t make this one up!

Close