Of course there’s a fine line between observing possible resemblances between classical antiquity and the modern world, and deploying arguable readings of classical antiquity in support of a specifically modern political agenda; on reflection, it is perhaps remarkable that Peter Jones’ Ancient and Modern column in the Spectator does the former so much more often than the latter. Today, however, is not one of those days. “Why do Greeks want to keep the euro, or remain in the European Union?” he asks rhetorically at the beginning. “The combative, creative, competitive, mercantile classical Greeks throve on independence.” The evidence for this is Hesiod’s Works and Days, and its praise of the good form of Eris, strife, which drives men to compete with one another in the race for riches. This then slides more or less imperceptibly into the depiction of democratic Athens as likewise ruled by competition, this time between politicians for the favour of the people, which is seen as the root of their confidence and of the Glory that Was Greece, until that was demolished by the arrival of Macedon and Rome. “No Greek should fear leaving the euro, or the EU.”
Okaaay. We can certainly concede that, in this passage at least, Hesiod does indeed look like the poster-boy for neoliberalist values (and indeed for radical austerity, given his obsession with the avoidance of debt) – though this does tend to down-play his equally extreme anti-market, pro-autarky rhetoric, which doesn’t sit quite so well with modern capitalist values. But look at the subtle way in which ‘competition’ gets redefined and relocated, so that the Athenian democracy can be painted in similar terms, completely obscuring the ideas of social solidarity – and radical equality and redistribution – that equally underpinned it.
There is certainly a case to be made at present for recalling the power of the people to determine its own destiny rather than having to submit to the demands of external forces – compare Alexis Tsipras’ call for a referendum so that the Greek people can decide on the Troika’s proposals. But Syriza’s approach is driven by a belief in solidarity, aiming to protect the poorest and weakest in society, not by a wish to be free from all external constraints so that Strife can rule uncontrolled. It’s clear from his closing line that Jones has absolutely no interest in such things, or in that aspect of ancient Athenian society, but is simply egging on the Greeks to undermine the entire European project: “Let Tsipras stamp himself on history, giving birth to little Grexit, a future Heracles spawning Brexit, Spexit, Frexit… the heroic liberator of all.” The fact that a majority of Greeks want to remain in the Euro, let alone in Europe, if at all possible, is presumably then to be taken as a sign that Hesiod wouldn’t have recognised them as proper Greeks…
One might equally well claim that the Greeks invented the idea of Europe, and, in the form of Panhellenism, the idea that there might be bonds that transcend narrow political units, not to mention the importance of civic exchange and discourse in the agora – something else that Hesiod prefers to shun in favour of individual profit-making. It’s not that Jones’ reading of Hesiod is completely wrong, but rather that he attempts to reduce all Greek culture to a single element, merely to underpin his own Europhobic tendencies.