A New Beginning and the Wisdom of the Past: Why the Greek Classics are Still Relevant

by Alexandros P. Mallias

The Huffington Post

Along with millions of people around the world, I, too, watched as President-elect Barack Obama graciously thanked the American people for voting him into the highest office in the land. His was an inspiring message of change and hope; in a sweeping estimation of the work ahead, Barack Obama’s words resounded and reached us as distinct individuals, we singled out those words more relevant to each one of us.

As Greece’s Ambassador to the United States, representing the world’s first democracy in the world’s current most powerful democracy, some of his words spoke particularly to me, when he said that America’s “true strength… comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals”.

Considering the man, I was not surprised to hear him speak these words, reminiscent of the writings of one ancient Greek in particular, Isocrates, one of Greece’s greatest orators. In his oration “On Peace”, Isocrates proposes to the Athenian assembly policies for lasting peace with their neighbors. Along with suggestions, it is also recorded in the most relevant and timeless handbook, Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian Wars,” written some 2,500 years ago. From this timeless text, one can draw lessons on how to treat allies, how to prepare for war, on the value of good advisors, warnings as to the arrogance, as well as the limits of power.

One of the most important lessons in this oration is that justice and interest, two seemingly irreconcilable concepts, are not mutually exclusive. Isocrates argues that justice, while making us better individuals, better nations, is at the same time a means of protecting one’s self interest; power without justice leads to ill repute; power without justice will not win allies. He asserts that maintenance of power presupposes the existence of justice.

Thus, he tells the Athenians “We must be willing to treat our allies as we would our friends… and not exercise our leadership as masters but as helpers.” “So we shall not lack allies… and shall find many ready and willing to join their forces with our own. For what city or what men will not be eager to share our friendship and our alliance when they see that we are at once the most just and the most powerful of peoples?”

I am not, nor do I pretend to be a classicist, and I confess that my first exposure to the classics wasn’t even voluntary; I am Greek, after all, and studying the ancient Greeks was part and parcel of my basic education, from which I have drawn inspiration and counsel; valid and valuable today. Yet, it wasn’t until my adult life that I recognized the value of this gift.

The Greeks were the first to explore most of the questions that continue to concern thinkers to this day, as they strive to understand, in logical, rational terms, both the universe and the position of men and women in it. Their speculating on society and the human beings gave birth to philosophy and science, eventually introducing the very concept of politics, and ultimately democracy.

The Founding Fathers of the United States, avid readers of Plato, Aristotle, and Greek history as recorded by Thucydides, Plutarch and Xenophon, looked to history for lessons for the future. From the classics, they drew inspiration, but also sought the key to protecting America against the pitfalls that weakened Greek city-states and rendered them vulnerable. The Federalist Papers themselves are testament to the lessons the Founding Fathers drew from the ancient Greeks. In these Papers, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton warned against tyrants who undid the liberties of republics, and sought ways to inoculate the United States from conspiracies, giving rise to the checks and balances of government. Legend has it that Thomas Jefferson carried his Greek grammar book with him wherever he went.

The very concept of public service, so highly regarded in the United States, whether in politics or as community volunteer, has its beginnings in ancient Athens. In his famous Funeral Oration, Pericles expounds on opportunity and prestige of serving your country, your society, presenting it as reward rather than an obligation:

…when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life…

The value of the Greek classics was not lost on another great man, Martin Luther King Jr. As a young man, with my own country under the heavy hand of a dictatorship, the news of Martin Luther King’s death reached me across the Atlantic and his words sounded more relevant.

Dr. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” of April 16, 1963, expounding upon his own theory of civil disobedience to his fellow clergymen, his words “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment… is in reality expressing the highest respect for law” brought to mind Antigone, a reluctant but inevitably brave heroine, in Sophocles’ namesake play, who said: “I will not obey an unjust law, and if something happens because of it — so be it.” Classics Professor Lewis Sussman from the University of Florida has written extensively on this connection.

Proof of the inspiration that Dr. King imparted from the classics is ample in the last speech of his life, which resounded around the world only the day before his assassination in Memphis on April 3, 1968, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”:

I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there. I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.

In my capacity as ambassador, as involved negotiator in issues of concern to my country, particularly today with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts in many other regions, with challenges of climate change, terrorism, an economic crisis, I recognize the value of the Greek classics, of Thucydides, of Isocrates, of Xenophon.

On preparing for war, Isocrates counsels:

base our preparations against an enemy on the assumption that his plans are sound; indeed, it is right to rest our hopes not on a belief in his blunders, but on the soundness of our provisions… We must not rest our hopes of safety upon the blunders of our enemies but upon our own management of affairs and upon our own judgment.

And in the ancient plays of “Trojan Women”, “The Persians” and “Lysistrata,” the victors, not the defeated, talk of the evils of war, on the inhumane prize on individuals, in an effort to reign in the arrogance of power, as they recognize the down-side of their own policies and actions.

On the value of good advisors, Isocrates counsels again “The first way improve the condition of our state is to select as our advisers on affairs of state the kind of men whose advice we should desire on our private affairs”.

Restoring the Politics of Measure (Metron) Ancient Greeks recognized that man is but a small part of a greater whole, of an interrelated system of checks and balances, which they knew they must tread with moderation, paying the price when they didn’t. It is no coincidence that the protagonist, the hero, in all ancient Greek plays, paid a dear price for hubris, for arrogance, for aiming to reach beyond the limits of humanity. Today, we must remind ourselves that the safety of the world rests upon the realization that our fates are intertwined in a relation that requires balance and equilibrium, a blend of harmony, based on the essence of measure, of metron. Many of the global challenges we face today, whether it is climate change and global warming, or the gap between the haves and the have nots, or the appalling lack of human rights in many regions, even human trafficking, are due to the absence of these qualities

But with few exceptions, thinkers and leaders have always considered the classics a basic tool of analysis, of understanding the sound criteria for decision-making in politics, diplomacy and geostrategy.

I am given hope by the fact that the significance of these great texts has permeated many levels and aspects of our global society today; the great number of non-academic books continuously being published are evidence to me that the classics are no longer simply food for ivory tower intellectuals, but that they are entering the mainstream of society and politics, as food for thought, as the tools for living “an examined life”.