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Ancient and modern

Why Hesiod would have gone for Grexit

Strife and competition motivate all – so go for the braver option, Mr Tsipras

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

Why do Greeks want to keep the euro, or remain in the European Union? The combative, creative, competitive, mercantile classical Greeks throve on independence.

The farmer-poet Hesiod (c. 700 BC) makes the point about competition by calling it Eris, ‘strife’, which he characterises as painful but also helpful. On the one hand, he said, it creates conflict and discord; on the other, ‘It gets the shiftless working. For when someone whose work does not come up to scratch sees someone else, a rich man, busy himself ploughing and planting and managing his household well, then there is competition between neighbours in the race to riches. This Eris is good for men: potter battles it out with potter, carpenter with carpenter, beggar with beggar and poet with poet.’


Classical Athens’ radical democracy (5th–4th century BC) offered a unique form of competition at a political level, too. In the Assembly, dominated by the poor, all Athenian males over 18 listened to the advice offered by their mainly aristocratic statesmen, such as Pericles, and then voted to accept the proposal they preferred. If statesmen wanted power, it was the people they had to satisfy in face-to-face debate, and it was to the people that they and officials were ultimately accountable.

From this literal ‘empowerment’ grew a confident people, proud of what they had achieved, ready to put their backs into their own and Athens’ best interests: for the two were, by definition, identical. This surely helps to explain the remarkable rise in living standards in Athens and other independent Greek city-states during this period, together with the brilliant flowering of Greek artistic, intellectual and literary culture. The people were the masters now, and they were going to show what they could do, individually and together. When the clunking fists of Macedon and then Rome descended, it all folded.

No Greek should fear leaving the euro, or the EU. Let Tsipras stamp himself on history, giving birth to little Grexit, a future Heracles spawning Brexit, Spexit, Frexit… the heroic liberator of all.


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