Greece is an amazing country with history to match. The rest of the world owes Greeks big-time for their bequest of immortal literature, theatre, art, democracy, science, medicine, philosophy, travel, the alphabet. At the risk of sounding like the heroine’s father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the fact is that a great many things in our modern lives have been borrowed or adapted from the Greeks. Hellenic culture is regarded as one of the three foundation stones of Western civilisation, the trifecta being Jewish monotheism, Roman law and Greek democracy. That legacy highlights Greek culture’s contribution to the way we live, think and behave. Another gift is the lessons we ought to draw from Greece’s default on the country’s debt.
What interest has Australia in Greeks’ inability to get cash from their banks and ATMs — apart, of course, from legitimate concern for our compatriots of Greek origin, who have left behind friends and families and are understandably worried? The answer: a lot, because the Greeks have once again added another chapter to our common human history, a story as old as it is new. Let me illustrate this thought with two examples, taken from the immortal ancient Greek inheritance, which the Greeks people have bequeathed to us all.
The Ant and The Grasshopper.
One of the most significant satirical writers of the past long gone, a Greek slave called Aesopus, wrote a series of fables to illustrate moral points. Translated into all significant living languages, Aesopean language is the lingua franca of those who understand plain speech is unsuitable or dangerous and a discretion well advised. Fables and sayings by Aesopus continue to be a part of the everyday conversation — think here of “sour grapes” — as relevant today as they were then.
In one of his fables, “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, the Ant, working tirelessly during the hot summer to prepare food and a shelter for the coming winter, suggests to the frolicking Grasshopper that he does the same. Grasshopper declines, saying that he enjoys his lifestyle too much to set his pleasures aside. When winter comes, the consequences of the Grasshopper’s taste for ease and indolence catch up with him.
Nowadays, I suspect, Greeks would prefer not to be reminded of recent, Grasshopper-style indulgences. It was such fun to have a large, kind and generous government with lots of highly paid bureaucrats, subsidies for almost everything, generous pension and welfare payments, early retirement, free health care and education and low taxes, not to mention an efficient off-the-books black market in services and goods. Those recurrent budget deficits were covered by the EU, underwritten mostly by the Germans and the French, and Greece was comfortable in the supposed knowledge that no matter what, Greece would never face the day of reckoning because the rest of Europe would never abandon it? Successive governments felt themselves free to pile up benefits for their constituents, chase their votes, and pay no heed whatsoever to those pesky, ever-increasing budget deficits. Greece could do, and spend, as the fancy took it, and it thought it could count on the rest of Europe picking up the bill for its excesses in perpetuity.
Now that reality has struck the Greek mindset has become terminally bizarre. First, the bright sparks in Athens declared that this mess was all the creditors’ fault, as in ‘Why did you let us have all this money, you capitalist bloodsuckers?’ Then they turned to the Russians in a vain, stillborn bid to get yet another loan. Naturally, nothing came of it. Russians are hard-up themselves, what with with all these sanctions and falling energy prices, so the response was a curt nyet.
Then the economic geniuses of the ruling, hard-left Syryza party tried to bully their creditors with hissy fits and TV footage of cashless pensioners sobbing in front of inert ATMs. When that did not work they declared an unconstitutional referendum, trying to avoid the consequences of their inflammatory and misleading populist rhetoric even as the country defaulted on debt repayments and the Central European Bank refused supply more money. The economy is in rapid and, some say, terminal decline, with one exception: sales of home safes is booming. Guess why. Oh, brother!
These Syryza anti-capitalists, like our homegrown lefties, are big on fine-sounding words and advocating kindness for everyone. But when it comes to paying bills they suddenly discover that money does not grow on trees. In Greece, this realisation was a shock to behold.
Now zoom to Australia, where I honestly believe we owe the Greeks a debt of awesome gratitude. While not wishing ill on anyone, we should be grateful for their unfolding and escalating calamity, which serves to illustrate several vital lessons. But before I formulate these lessons I’d like to tap another element of ancient Greeks’ legacy.
On one of his journeys, the warrior Odysseus (of the Trojan Horse fame) heard of sailors being lured to their deaths by the sweet songs of sirens. Unsuspecting sailors, thirsty for love, sick of loneliness and the privations of war, jumped into the sea and swam to their doom, he was told. Aware of the danger, but determined to experience the siren song and live to tell of it, he sealed his crew’s ears with wax and had himself lashed to the mast after issuing the strictest orders that his entreaties to be untied, no matter how frantic, be ignored. Needless to say, Odysseus had had his chance to flirt with the danger, but was saved by his crew’s obedient insistence on doing as they were originally instructed.
Apart from the delightful quality of inventiveness and the artistic dimension to both examples, there are lessons well worth absorbing.
Lesson one: Do not live beyond your means.
Lesson two: Never trust that Big Government will spend tax revenue rationally.
Lesson three: Do not be a Grasshopper. Be an Ant. Prepare yourself for the harsh winter.
Lesson four: Block your ears to the siren songs of the Left. You will perish on the hard rocks of economic reality.
Yes, indeed. Despite all the trouble they are now causing, we most certainly owe the Greeks a huge debt of gratitude.
Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978