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Ancient and modern

Alexis Tsipras is just doing what an ancient Athenian would

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

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.

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