Things have, predictably enough, gone quiet on the Greek economic crisis front; the drama of negotiations and ultimata has passed, and the ongoing questions of whether the agreed reforms can be implemented and whether the promised negotiations over debt relief will get anywhere are, so far as the anglophone media are concerned, of interest only to a few obsessive economic commentators. Mention of Thucydides has therefore largely switched to the latest version of the ‘Thucydides Trap’ meme, plus the intriguing suggestion that he records the invention of baked cheesecake.
Classicists may therefore be mourning the passing of their brief moment in the sun as sought-after commentators and experts on the inexhaustible importance of classical metaphors for the crisis. They should rather be breathing a sigh of relief that they’re no longer faced with the temptation of embarrassing themselves, as an excellent piece by Johanna Hanink suggests (thanks to Stephen Clark for the link). It’s absurd, she argues, to imagine that classicists would have any special insight into modern Greek economics simply because they know about Solon’s debt relief or the Melian Dialogue – except (as I’ve suggested on here as well) because of the underlying assumption of direct continuity between classical and modern Greeks, or more often the sense that the modern variety are a disappointment compared with their wonderful predecessors, an impression that classics as a discipline has contributed so much to over the last couple of centuries.
We need, Hanink remarks, to consider the professional stake which we have in the Greek crisis; which I think means not only what positive contribution we might actually be able to make to improving understanding, but also how far we actually benefit from the crisis, through the widespread belief that we have something relevant to contribute. Greece has been ceaselessly (mis)interpreted through classical motifs and references; there’s an obvious opportunity here for those who work on different aspects of classical reception, but not only the media’s recourse to classicists as authoritative interpreters but also the spontaneous contributions of classicists themselves have largely added to this flood of classicising imagery, rather than taking a step back to offer a critique. Yes, it requires an effort of the will for classicists, as members of a marginalised discipline that’s seen better days, to declare loudly that classical Greece may not actually be very useful or relevant in present circumstances – but failing to do so has left us complicit with the mixture of genuine confusion and wilful obfuscation that has helped leave Greece and its people in at least as bad a situation as before.