Saturday 27 September 2008

Οι αρχαίοι ακόμη δουλέυουν για μας

I usually fly to work, and as a result spend a lot of time listening to taxi drivers, coming or going to an airport: Athens, Larnaka, Kiev, Donetsk, Moscow, Paris … This isn’t something I’m particularly proud of, but it does make for some interesting commentary. Last night, returning from Athens International Airport after midnight and a really tough trip, the driver said something that stuck in my mind.

We were talking about what had changed in the week since I left Athens, and this of course branched into a philosophical discussion of Greece, its politicians and its problems. He said something which I can’t forget:

Οι αρχαίοι ακόμη δουλέυουν για μας. “The ancients are still working for us.”

He meant all those great figures that made Greece: Themistocles, Pericles, Leonidas, Phidias, Callikrates, Herodotus, Homer. Why else does the story of Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae still resonate today? Why do millions visit the Parthenon and Delphi every year? Why do doctors take the Hippocratic Oath? Why do we still read Socrates or run the marathon race?

Unfortunately, much of what we have created since then pales in significance, meaning and endurance. I very much doubt that any modern TV series or political speech will last as long as the words of Demosthenes, Sophocles or Pericles. Our natural landscape is desolated by fire and drought when it is not blighted by garbage and ill-planned urbanisation. Our politicians are figures of inspiration only for those craven few who seek public sector employment or government contracts, and neither their fame nor their utility last.

My own philosophy is that we should do as much as we can to leave this place a better one than we found it. We all have personal responsibility for how we live: how we dispose of our garbage, how we drive, how we communicate, what we consume, and how we educate our children.

I also believe that as inheritors of this civilisation, we should be working twice as hard, even more, to honour all those who have gotten us to this point. For me this is above all a profoundly personal commitment. It’s why I choose to live and work here, though all my work is based outside Greece, and could easily be run from an offshore location at much lower cost. It’s also why I try to live my life in line with a few invariable principles of honesty, objectivity, self-reflection and consideration for others.

To sit and wait in the hope that this crumbling edifice of the public sector will actually do anything is futile. Our institutions, political customs, and laws are anachronistic, and do more to ruin public life than help it to flourish. If we want to change anything, we need to start with how we live our own lives, and find those few areas where collective action by well-informed citizens and friends of Greece can lead to a real change.

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