On The Classical Debt

Like 98% of the Classicists (or at least Hellenists) in the world right now, I’ve just finished reading Johana Hanink’s The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Age of Austerity (2017). It’s a remarkable book that traces the history of the concept of “Greek debt” from conversations about the West’s historical debt to Greek democracy, philosophy, and science to the recent economic crisis in Greece largely triggered by Greece’s economic debt to various Western European institutions. Hanink shows how these two concepts of debt are deeply entangled with the former working as an Enlightenment fueled spark that ignited Greek nationalism in the 17th and 19th centuries and the latter shackling the resulting Greek nation to the political and economic interests of Western European powers.

(Read my friend Dimitri Nakassis’s post on the book here.)

Hanink’s account begins in Classical antiquity where she argued that Athenian propaganda provided a foundation for later accounts of the “Greek miracle” which produced the flourishing art, architecture, philosophical life, and, of course, democracy. She located this propaganda within a critical context of the Classical period demonstrating that even in the 5th- and 4th-century Athens, dissenting views existed. In the end, the more heroic and triumphant narrative of Athenian and ultimately Greek exceptionalism came to dominate the canonical view of the Classical age owing in no small part to the Roman, Byzantine, and even Arab, Ottoman, and Medieval interlocutors who celebrated the monuments and literature of Pericles’ city.

Hanink largely overlooks the gap between the ancient and modern world and relegates a millennium of engagement with the Classical past to the status of passive “filters” that distilled the narrative of Athenian and Greek exceptionalism down to an almost irrefutable essence. This leap makes sense for the larger goals of her work which really begins with the potent re-imaginings of the European and Greek Philhellenes whose late 18th and 19th century work formed the basis for locating the Classical spirit in the landscapes, monuments, and people at the periphery of the shaky Ottoman Empire (with a brief, but significant passage through Evliya Celebi’s accounts of late-17th-century Ottoman Athens). In many ways, the paradoxes of this initial engagement of Europeans with the town of Athens culminated in Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles and their bumpy journey back the England and into the British Museum (if not in the wayward Venetian shell that began the task of purging the Acropolis of later accretions). The desire to transform the physical place of modern Greece into a European home for democracy, philosophy, art, and literature came in the aftermath of the Battle Navarino in 1827, when the opportunity to construct a modern nation-state on the physical territory of the Classical past became clear. With inspiration from Byron and Koraïs, the European debt to Greek antiquity became politically manifest in the new Greek state and its reconstructed capital crowned by the Acropolis and the ageless Parthenon.

Hanink’s description of the modern debt crisis in Greece is among the best that I’ve read in that it both maintains the utter incomprehensibility of contemporary global finance while also driving home causes and consequences ranging from the 2004 Athens Olympics to the collapse of the Greek public sector and social safety net. (On a personal note, the trajectory of the Greek economic miracle of the late-1990s and early 2000s parallels my own discovery of Greece and two lengthy stints in Athens. Hanink doesn’t quite capture the pride that Athens felt being welcomed into the club of Europe (despite being part of the EU (and its predecessor the EEC since 1981) by adopting the Euro and ultimately hosting the Olympics.) The scorn that Greece attracted with the collapse of the Greek economy and the painful and humiliating bailout conditions appeared in the jeering cartoons published in multiple media outlets that framed the Greeks as unworthy heirs of their Classical legacy. Whatever debt Europe owned to Ancient Greece became a burden borne by the nation as it alternately reminded Europe of its intellectual and political history and endured the economic consequences of its modern legacy.

The book concludes with an epilogue the offers a way to engage with the narrative of Western Civilization that recognizes both ancient Athenian discourse and its influence on the modern construction of our own views of antiquity. At the same time, she urges teachers to consider alternate narratives that offer the potential to free ourselves from our debt to the ancient world (and Greece, in particular) enabling us, like modern Greece, to find a new way forward and to image new, less encumbered, futures.

This is a very good book. My only real critique of Haninck is that her work contributes relatively little upon which to form an alternative narrative of Greek debt. In fact, the book’s binocular vision of Classical antiquity and the modern world reduces the crucial two millennium between the peak of Pericles’ Athens and Renaissance to the passive status of filter. By doing this, she largely overlooks the contribution of the Roman second sophistic, the complicating burden of Christianity, the trauma of the Crusades, the Frankokratia, and Ottoman conquests, as well as the complicated and sometimes contradictory narrative present in contemporary Greek nationalism. Her reasons for overlooking these centuries are, of course, understandable considering the book’s accessible approach and, more importantly, her focus on a particularly influential strand in the current political discourse. At the same time, I suspect that understanding and even rehabilitating the filtering history of these two millennia offer the best hope of creating a new foundation for our own Western identity and freeing Greece from the pressures that Hanink rightly views as overwhelming and overwriting any autonomous and potentially liberating counter-narrative.

My point isn’t to undermine or question the motives of Hanink’s work, but to push it just a bit by suggesting that her own work does little to complicate the 18th and early-19th prefiguration of a “Greek” nationalism that emerged from the Classical discourse. For example, Evliya Celebi’s description of the light-filled mosque of the Parthenon is almost certainly an echo of the Byzantine tradition which celebrated the miraculous the light associated with the Parthenon as the cathedral of Athens. Anthony Kaldellis has argued that this  Medieval “filter” magnified this building’s renown during the Frankish period and ensured that the Parthenon would hold pride of place among Classical monuments in Greece. Elsewhere, she slips and says that the Greeks were never really colonized, but, of course, that overlooks the history of the Ionian Islands and the Dodecanese, whose identities and connection with Western Europe emerged in a kind of colonial continuity that extended from the Fourth Crusade to French Revolution (and beyond), as well as the unique political history of Crete. These places with their colonial histories provided modern Greece with many of its influential political leaders from Capodistrias to Venezelos. Finally, the Megali Idea, that fueled so much Greek nationalism of the first half of the 20th century, owed as much to ideas cultivated in a kind of post-Byzantine millenarianism that regularly witnessed a hope for liberation in religious images of the empty imperial throne in Constantinople.

The point of this isn’t to find a niggling examples with which to undermine her argument, but perhaps complicate it in a productive way. Her binocular attention to Classical antiquity and the modern world set in a kind of relief the two-millennium-long filtering process between various groups who made often-rival claims to the Classical past, inhabited its ruins, and negotiated a dense web of economic, religious, and intellectual debts. I suspect that these tangled, dynamic, and obscure millennia offer a key to a productive reconsideration of Greek debt, both in terms of our persistent interest in a shared (but diverse) narrative of Western culture and in the real consequences of the growing economic inequality between creditor and debtor nations that preserve the historical legacy of the  “Classical” Mediterranean.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s