The Glory that was Greece

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The Greeks may currently owe us a lot; but our debt to the Greeks is immeasurable.

Small comfort to a country for which – according to Jeff Randall in a recent article in The Daily Telegraph – ‘there is no deus ex machina. The tragic dénouement will involve its default or withdrawal from the single currency, perhaps both.’

The deus ex machina, in classical drama, was the god who descended from the stage machinery, in order to intervene in human affairs and the phrase is generally used to mean a positive intervention, or rescue of the hero.

Randall’s whole article casts what is happening in Greece as a tragedy – which, of course, they invented, along with the foundations for Western philosophy, literature, mathematics, science, art, architecture etc. Greek intellectual achievements have been unparalleled in the history of the Western world, and they know it.

They also feel that we often fail to respect the source of our heritage enough. So the present humiliation must be all the more bitter for a justifiably proud people.

Starting with Minoan Crete, where there was evidence of settlement in 128,000 BC, real signs of civilization from 5,000 BC, and reaching a pinnacle with the city states of Sparta and Athens – which established the basis for Western civilization and liberal democracies – Greece really was the cradle of Europe.

No wonder that the Greek ideal inspired the Romantics – so much so that Lord Byron, the British poet, died (admittedly of a fever) fighting for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, into which it had been absorbed for hundreds of years. Independence was finally achieved in 1832 with the Treaty of Constantinople.

Some of the most famous lines written about Greece are in fact Byron’s:

‘The mountains look on Marathon/And Marathon looks on the sea/And musing there an hour alone/I dream’d that Greece might yet be free.’

Modern Greeks tend to see themselves as culturally-aware, eloquent, sophisticated Europeans, experienced in social and commercial matters, with strong intellectual powers, intuition and a sense of artistry.

Key values are reason, freedom, thrift (paradoxically in the current circumstances!), a love of the sea, theatre, rationalism, debate, close family ties, a talent for business (especially small entrepreneurism), democracy, and architecture.

They are a multi-active, dialogue-oriented culture, very tactile, putting lively human interaction above clock-time, and having been scientifically proven to have the strongest eye contact in Europe. Their style of communication tends to be verbose, theatrical and intense.

Yet their intellectual heritage has given them a strong rationalism to counter the emotion, rather like the French.

To deal with them effectively in business, you should really read up something on their illustrious history as the longer-term historical perspective is important for them and a source of great pride.

Other advice:

  • Avoid discussion of Greece’s decline, historical and current
  • Don’t mention the problems with Cyprus
  • Avoid the topics of Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia
  • Don’t praise the Turks too much
  • Use some Greek
  • Be prepared for long, roundabout discussion
  • Let them get their emotions off their chest – they can use emotion as a weapon, so remain calm yet show compassion
  • Be aware of differences in body language – a backward nod of the head means ‘no’. A tilt of the head to either side means ‘yes’
  • Keep strong eye contact
  • Identify the boss and address him or her directly. The boss can be extremely tough, in a paternalistic way, especially in more traditional businesses like shipping. Even nowadays, he may motivate his senior team by lining them up and slapping their faces to show them who is boss!
  • Be flexible – they may well be flexible on agreements, so be prepared for them to propose modifications
  • Be generous and friendly, but remain tough enough
  • Even if they are in a weak position, preserve their dignity at all times
  • Socialise (even till the late hours) and invest time in relationships
  • Be aware they may try to charm you, so try to use your own charisma too
  • Bow to their experience
  • Understand that, in the end, they are pragmatic
  • Above all, be aware of their shrewdness. It is probably their key defining characteristic. It is no coincidence that Odysseus, the best-known hero in Greek literature was primarily characterised for his cunning. It was he, after all, who came up with the idea of the Trojan Horse.

We began by referring to the current Greek tragedy, but does the word describe the current situation in the truest sense of the word? For instance, however sad it is, an accident is not a tragedy. A tragedy is a fall, usually ending in death, brought about by a fatal flaw in character of an otherwise great hero.

There is no doubt that Greece is a heroic nation, based on its intellectual achievements, but do those achievements contain a fatal flaw?

Probably the greatest philosophical contribution the Greeks made to the world was the idea that it is rational to strive for an ideal – whether that is at a personal or political level. The question then arises, as to what that ideal should be. At a political level, Plato’s Republic tries to build a picture of the ideal state, governed not as a democracy – maybe surprisingly – but by the ‘guardians’, who, to simplify it grossly, ‘know best.’

This idea of a Utopia has probably been the root cause of all the various ‘-isms’ that have eventually had to give way to more pragmatic forms of government.

Could it be that the European Union, with its bold single currency experiment, has pushed the ideal of an economically united Europe too far too soon?

If so, how ironic and how truly tragic, that Greece – the source of the idealism that made Europe great, and the concept of the EU possible – should be the first EU member state to bear the brunt of the harsh realities of real politik. The gods above Olympus must be shaking their heads at human hubris, or maybe giving a backward nod or two.

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