The Western World - A Greek Heritage, or where 'Conan' reigns?




"Before we commence this course, let us come to terms with the fact that we are all Greeks!" the sanguine-complexioned, middle-aged college professor of philosophy expostulated as he laid his leather briefcase on the desk. I nearly fell off my seat at the absurdity of his statement since I was the only Greek national in the midst of a motley mixture of nationalities and races in the classroom. The only thing we had in common, I felt, was that we were all attending The Introduction To Logic course in San Jose City College of California, USA. Nor was his announcement wholeheartedly accepted by most of my peers who protested - some upholding their Anglo Saxon origins and others their Afro American or Asian decent.

However, he was quick to dispel any doubts by applying the "Socratic method", or the "midwife method," as he called it. Bombarded by his torrent of questions, to whose answers everybody conceded, we all agreed that the banking system, democracy, western music, science, technology and school were integral parts of our lives. After further picking our minds as to the origins of all these institutions, we all realized that we had been outflanked. The man of letters literally beamed with the satisfaction of having revealed to this multi-ethnic congregation that what they all had in common was their ... "Greekness".

To this day, the apocalyptic words of my professor still ring in my ears, for they were truly a revelation. For both my classmates and myself everything had fallen into place. The Ionic columns of the White House, the Corinthian architecture of Wall Street, the Doric pillars of the Lincoln Memorial, the T-shirts worn by members of fraternities and sororities bearing the legend "Greek life", the not so "Latin" alphabet, even the refrain of a rock piece "The Greeks don't like no freaks," revealed everything that I had taken for granted regarding the tremendous influence of Hellenism thousands of miles from my birthplace.

That was in 1981. The years passed and world events accelerated at speeds beyond previous concepts. Meanwhile, I had plunged into a quest for my ancestral roots so that I could acquire a deeper understanding of the claim of my professor (not to mention that of many others whose courses I later attended during my studies of English Literature in San Jose, California State University).

I feel lucky to have had the privilege of equal exposure to two cultures at the tender and formative ages of childhood and my teens. It was this exposure and the chameleon-like existence within both the Greek and American social infrastructures that rendered me not only bilingual but also bi-cognizant of these worlds.

Consequently, on comparing the timeless Greek values that I had been brought up with to those that encapsulated the Western World I was living in, I began to doubt whether the West had truly adopted the rationale, the humanitarian axioms and the aesthetic values of the Greek heritage that its institutions and professors lay claim to. Not that my ancient forefathers had formed a perfect society, but the guidelines they (perhaps inadvertently) laid out for posterity aimed towards the excellence and happiness that would emerge in a world governed and dominated by humanistic philosophers.

The Western World - A Far Cry from Being Greek

Bearing all this in mind, I asked myself how a "Greek-thinking" world could produce societies dominated by populaces that are anywhere but on their way to human development in a philosophical sense.

How could "Greeks" allow themselves to seek fulfillment solely in material consumption and stimulate only the front parts of the brain? How could the beneficiaries of Hellenism replace mind-titillating symposiums and healthy eye to eye human interaction with that of the screen of the TV or the PC? Does the animated, media - bred mentality of the average Westerner in any way reflect the depth of thought and intellectual virility of the Greeks? Contemporary popular culture lacks many of the qualities that distinguished the Greek mind. In this fast-paced, sound-byte-laden, MTV world, for example, people no longer have the interest or attention span necessary for epic narratives, or thought-provoking conversations that require knowledge of context beyond the superficial.

From a social perspective, if the ancient Greeks could wander back from the Elysian fields to a present day neighbourhood of a western country, they would surely accuse the inhabitants of "idiocy". And this because only "idiots" (from the Greek 'idiotes' meaning "self-indulging" or "one who keeps to himself", therefore unsociable) would lock themselves up indoors stupefied by an image-beaming screen. I wonder how they would feel knowing that the members of a given "idiotes'" family share domestic togetherness before this same screen with hardly any words passing between them in the evenings. Shopping malls are poor substitutes for the Agora (Market Place) of Athens, for if a group got together to tackle the perplexities of the cosmos in a shopping center, they would surely be prosecuted for "loitering".

For that matter, even when people do get together in western countries, they mingle in the company of alcohol. I will never forget the keg-of-beer accompanied "Toga Parties" held by the self-proclaimed "Greeks" of American universities. A beer-drinking world in which young people drink themselves to stupor for lack of any other means by which to socialize is a far cry from the social intercourse of the Greeks who held their symposiums with a moderate amount of food, watered-down wine and thought-provoking conversation. Even today it is beyond the grasp of the Modern Greek as to why or how "these northerners" can consume so much alcohol during their holidays. In that, the West resembles the decadence of the Romans who, unlike the Greeks, never watered down their wine and glutted their food to the point of vomit.

Both ancient and modern Greeks are well known for their sense of individuality and their praise of individual freedom as opposed to that of the masses. It was a strong, individualistic sense of self that drove philosophers such as Socrates to their quest for truth, and commanders such as Alexander to their campaigns. One only needs to study modern behavioural patterns to ascertain that refined individuality is non-existent, since modes of behaviour are dictated by the stylistic trends of the same media that stupefies western "idiotai". Consequently, people respond and react quite predictably to cues without philosophically questioning their validity. The media-stricken masses have been conditioned to predictably respond to "-ism" suffixed words like "sexism", "racism", "nationalism", "chauvinism", "anti Semitism" and so on, just as heads have been conditioned to shake disapprovingly at the sight of one who smokes.

The word "terrorism" is a prime example of mass thought control among Americans. At the sheer mention of the cue "terrorism" the average American envisions swarthy-skinned, turban-clad Arabs storming into public areas and wreaking havoc in the name of Allah. In the late 90's, the Serbs were added to the list of terrorists hosted by the Hollywood-run film industry. Amazingly, young Americans who storm into schools and spread death amongst their peers are disassociated from the term "terrorist", just as is the military which bombs in the name of U.S. interests. Is it not ironic that the so excessively used suffix "-ism" is of Greek root?

Western masses are also conditioned to seek a 'homogenized' quality of life. On returning to Greece proper, I couldn't help observing, tongue-in-cheek, tourists going out of their way to post themselves in magazine-style, postcard-like, film-inspired poses for photographs in idyllic environments with glasses of wine in hand. Adherents of a harlequin romance mentality, they bake in the scorching sun only to return home boasting of a "Mediterranean suntan" as proof of their holidays. They return just as culturally empty as they arrive, hardly bothering to take in anything beyond the superficial. It is truly disheartening that this kind of mass tourism has lowered the standards of traditional food and music globally, as they are also mass-produced to accommodate the most simplistic of palates and the least selective of eardrums, respectively.

As for art, Greeks would be hard pressed to appreciate the abstract, fragmented forms depicting man in, let's say a Picaso. In this case, they would only gain appreciation once they found out how disoriented and fragmented modern man actually is himself to fully justify the kitshy existence of such ugliness. The dignity of the human form found its highest praise in the works of Praxiteles, Phedias, Myron and countless other sculptors of Classical Times. No earringed, tattooed figures of men adorned monuments, for such desecration of the human figure was frowned upon as customary to the "barbarians." The grace and purity emanated in these works can hardly compare to the kitshy prototypes in vogue today. If anything, it seems that the barbarians are to stay in the Western World.

In his "Republic" Plato wrote that the young should only be exposed to music of the heroic, inspiriting sort, for it contributes to the gentleness of soul. Voluptuous and riotous music, that lulls the listener to dreams of indolence or intoxicates him with sensual delight, is strictly forbidden. This echoes the belief of many philosophers before him, including Pythagoras. I wonder how he would react to the nightlife sounds most souls in cities today subject themselves to. Electro-metallic sounds, which muffle lyrics and short-circuit the human psyche, leave a lot to be desired by way of harmony.

He further championed the meritocratic sifting of leaders through objective criteria. Plato likened the parts of a State to those of the human body: He related the head, the chest and the abdomen to the leaders, the army and the working populace, respectively. The head and leaders must exercise wisdom and decisiveness, the chest and military: courage and discipline, while the abdomen and populace: moderation and restraint. One need hardly ask himself what Plato would have to say about the charlatan tactics that many American presidential candidates perform to establish a popular image during their election campaigns. One might say that in such cases, the stomach dictates the actions of the head. And how could a stomach (populace) with such an insatiable appetite for consumption not overpower a head? Two hundred and seventy million Americans in a world populated by over six billion annually consume over 35% of the world's natural resources! If this wouldn't shock Plato, it certainly would the cynical Diogenes who condemned unchecked materialism as the root of all misery.

Nor would these ancients be able to understand the irrational, anything-but-Greek way of modern warfare. How could "Greek-thinking" nations condone the bombing of both those targeted and the innocent from cowardly, pilot-safe distances of 30,000 feet? On comparing the heroic military confrontations of antiquity to those of the present, I have often been visited by the image of Achilles dropping his shield after having knocked down Hector's to meet him on equal terms. The contrast is irreconcilable. No less irreconcilable are the images of western generals boasting of victories hundreds of miles from the front as opposed to Alexander charging the Persians ahead of his men at Granicus and the Spartan king, Leonidas, falling in battle among his own at Thermopylae.

Sure, one can argue that not all the military confrontations of antiquity were heroic ones, but is it mere coincidence that the word "hero" is of Greek origin with no counterpart in any other language? When an ill-equipped Greek army took the offensive against Mussolini's overwhelming forces in Albania during the Second World War, one general announced to Winston Churchill: "The Greeks are fighting like heroes."

"No, the heroes fight like Greeks," he was quick to reply.

University professors and men of letters may harbour romantic notions about living and teaching in a world infused with classical Greek values and mentality, but on comparative scrutiny of cultures it becomes clear that it is a whimsical delusion. If anything, the west is a hybridized byproduct of Greco-barbaric elements.

Besides, the word "Barbarian" literally means "non - Greek", as a Greek has always been defined by the language he speaks, whilst the languages of other peoples always reached the Greek ear in the form of bar - bar, hence "barbarian".

The Athenian philosopher Antisthenes claimed that "the principles of wisdom lie in the study of Greek words." He may not have been wide off the mark, for all that went into the human experience forming the glory of Hellas is grafted into the etymology of Greek diction. It is no wonder that the phrase "The Greeks must have a word for it" still rings throughout the West when one gropes for the right word.

A large percentage of all European languages boasts Greek diction. However, without the derivatives of the living Greek tongue, this diction is quite ineffective in the mindset of most. How many know that the word "economy" stems from Oikos = ecos, meaning 'home,' and the verb "nemein," meaning 'to share out,' 'to distribute'? And how many realize that when we do not "share out" (nemein) our "home" (ecos) fairly, we invoke "Nemesis" (the Distributor goddess of punishment and justice)?

The outlook is rather grim, considering we have not been "distributing" our "Ecos" fairly under our mismanagement of resources and nations...

As we enter this new millenium, let us hope for a Renaissance of Hellenic values through erudite study of Greek, which may avert another shot at the Dark Ages, when only the likes of 'Conan the Barbarian' will dominate.

By Panagiotis Terpandros Zachariou 

-Published on the year 2000-

(In retroepect, it is really ironic that the modern Greeks seem to have forgotten the meaning of the word "economy" themselves, judging from the country's bancruptcy...