The Gifts of Eternal Greece

This past Monday I was asked to sign a public letter. Brief but heartfelt, it reminded the British of all that we owe the Greeks and urged that we lend them our support. It was to be published in a London paper just hours before the Greeks began to renege on what they owe us — or at least the International Monetary Fund.

The other signatories were flatteringly distinguished, the sentiment was fine, and the request came from the classicist Bettany Hughes, who is not to be refused. By Tuesday morning the letter was online. The trolls buzzed to life: ineffectual, sentimental, dons the lot of us, they said; were we going to pay off the debt? They had a point.

But — and I’ll assume my co-signatories’ feelings here — we were indifferent to the abuse. We knew our purpose. We love Greece and the Greeks; and if ever there were a time to proclaim that love, it is now.

We each have our reasons. “Greece,” someone remarked — perhaps it was Lawrence Durrell — “gives you the gift of friendship.” That is at the head of my list. I am never happier than in the midst of one of those freewheeling agglomerations of Greeks that form autonomously in kafenia like a flock of starlings over a marsh. If London’s social matrix is continental in scale, then Athens is just a village. How often have I sat in Kolonaki Square, an icy frappé in hand, only to be hailed by a passerby.

And Greece gives you the gift of health. A week spent in sight of the Aegean adds a year to my life, or so I firmly believe. Beauty, too, of course: not just the Parthenon golden at sunset or an island emerging from the blue, but an Athens bookshop named for the muse of lyric poetry where poets are still to be found. The pleasure of small anarchies: Smoking is banned in Greek restaurants, but you’d never know it, Karelias being to Greeks what Smith & Wessons are to Texans, not to be plucked from their fingers by any paternalistic state. Citizens of the surveilled North regard such attitudes as mildly insane, but then we have lost our taste for liberty.

Above all there is that glorious history, and the way in which modern Greece makes it comes to life. In Palo Alto a few days ago, I bought Josiah Ober’s superb new book, “The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece.” The location was apt. He’s a Stanford historian and Silicon Valley is the Athens of our age. Mr. Ober asks: What, exactly, made ancient Greece so great? His answer — that fair rules, a competitive ecology of trading states, innovation and rational cooperation made it rich, and riches made it great — is plausible even if it reads like a World Bank report. The really interesting bit, however, comes in Appendix 2.

That is where you find a game theoretic model. The actors are three: an empire-building monarch who seeks to subjugate an independent Greek city state, that city’s democratic government and its fearful elites.

The actors are rational, self-interested and unsure what to do. Should the monarch subjugate the city at great cost or merely threaten and negotiate a rent? Should the government yell defiance and risk destruction or meekly pay up? Should the elites side with the invading monarch or with their own state? The model ostensibly describes Philip II of Macedon contemplating Athens and the Athenians contemplating him, but it could be applied to now.

Let the elites be the elites of Glyfada watching their net worths plunge; let the government rest on the support of Kipseli’s impoverished pensioners and her unemployed young; let the monarch be Angela Merkel who stands to lose some 60 billion euros of unsecured loans. In Mr. Ober’s game the Nash equilibrium is a negotiated rent. That is indeed what Philip sought and got and what Chancellor Merkel seeks, too.

Perhaps this is also Yanis Varoufakis’s game: He’s the expert after all. If so, it’s gone awry. Game theory assumes that all actors act rationally, but rationality simply can’t be assumed for the Greeks.

It was always thus. For all its virtues, for all that we owe it, ancient Greek democracy is not ours. For one, it was direct: Every day was referendum day, and every referendum was a contest among demagogues for the citizens’ minds and votes.

The greatest of them was Demosthenes, who made a career out of warning the Athenians of imperial Macedon’s threat. He was right to do so, but also a little mad. Having won a temporary success, he said: “Even had we known that we would fail, Athens should still have taken the same path if she cared for her glory or her past or for the ages to come.” No policy is wrong so long as it confirms Athens’s self-esteem. But he very nearly led his city to its doom.

Referendums focus and amplify passions. That’s why demagogues favor them so. Every Greek who votes this Sunday will have good reasons to vote as she or he does. But many of those who vote oxi — no — will also do so because of injury to their pride. “No more. We have been humiliated enough.” You can hear it in the streets of Athens; the sentiment falls from every Syriza politician’s lips. Even those who are certain that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will make a funeral pyre of the country concede that he has fought nobly for the dignity of Greece.

It’s all rather unfathomable to the cold-blooded, calculating North. But, as I said, it was always thus. Thucydides put it well: The Athenians “were born into the world to take no rest themselves and give none to others.” That will chime in the corridors of Berlaymont in Brussels, where Eurocrats weep from negotiator fatigue. I share their exasperation, but urge them to bear up, for this much I know. They, the Greeks, are our brothers and our sisters, and we must cherish them as such. We shall miss them terribly if they go.

Armand Marie Leroi is a professor of evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College, London, and the author, most recently, of The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science.

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