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What We Owe Greece: A German Takes Stock Of Mediterranean Values

Essay: The West traces its origins to Greece and its Mediterranean neighbors. The region’s history and traditions continue to inspire, even as developments there warn us against taking capitalism and its social benefits too far.

The Parthenon in Athens (Kevin Poh)
The Parthenon in Athens (Kevin Poh)
Berthold Seewald

BERLIN - My family and I visited Greece during this autumn's German school holidays, just a few days before the former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou stepped down. There were regular demonstrations in front of the federal parliament building in Athens – every day, a different sector was on strike – and melancholy was the order of the day in the bars off the beaten tourist track.

We'd planned this trip for a long time: showing our 10-year-old daughter the Mediterranean. And while her parents were trying hard not to show their disquiet at the rapidly escalating situation, our daughter informed us she wanted to live in Greece. Why? Because it was warm, exhilarating, clear, and life was so much less busy and planned-out than it was up north.

Do we still need the Mediterranean? This is a question being asked in countless editorials these days, and it's one that Max Weber, that great analyst of capitalism, would have answered with a resounding "Yes!" Right now we're living in what he described as the "iron cage" of modern capitalism, the flip side of the golden era of Mediterranean antiquity. The great sociologist wasn't projecting some sort of dream world back over time. On the contrary. He recognized a profound Hellenistic pessimism – an atmosphere wherein human existence is perceived as under constant threat -- that he believed characterized all of classical antiquity.

A cradle of world religions and exquisite cuisine

The "Mediterranean" is by no means just Greece. But Greece can stand for the 20-odd other countries bordering the sea. All of those countries have the same shining golden light, and follow many similar ancient traditions. They share a diet of oil, leguminous plants, the meat of smaller herd animals and wine. The also saw the rise of three, related, major world religions. When UNESCO decided in 2010 to place Italian cuisine on its world heritage list, a whole tradition that has linked people from Barcelona to Alexandria for thousands of years was honored with it.

Today, however, this ecumenical cultural entity has come to stand for mismanagement, incompetence and corruption. Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and perhaps soon France as well are being held responsible for betraying the values of Europe in particular, and the West as a whole.

Because they wanted to share in the wealth of the capitalist world without the requisite attention to austerity, cold logic, or disciplined bureaucracy, all of the Mediterranean states – but mainly Greece, which apparently only gained access to Europe by fudging the numbers – should go back where they came from. Or so this reasoning holds.

It may just come to that. The figures are certainly depressing. They are constraining, and who knows better about constraint than we, the trustees of the capitalist spirit. But there's something more important than that: not forgetting what we would lose if the north were to drift away from the south.

It didn't take our 10-year-old daughter more than a few days in Greece to recognize the quality that has fascinated generations of travelers. Add to that the sheer beauty of the landscape and a history so rich it gives you goose bumps. Anyone who has ever stood among the ruins of the temple of the oracle of Delphi and looked at the olive groves on the flanks of Parnassus must, unless they are unfeeling, be overcome with emotion. But it's not just the country that marks Mediterranean civilization: it's also the people.

And they can't – they won't – be reduced to mere guardians of ancient ruins. Neither the English aristocrats making their Grand Tours in the 19th century, nor the Philhellenes who rushed to help the Greeks when they revolted against the Turks, were spared that disillusionment.

They were seeking the land of Schiller or Byron with their souls, and found real, live Levantines instead. "The Greek are a wonderful people; the lower classes possess great character. The top classes, however, are inferior," one Philhellene wrote, nicely summing up our own contemporary take, which is often mixed with anger.

How, we ask, could the elite of Greece, Italy, Spain (or Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria) ruin their people and their countries? Why are Greek billionaires buying up whole residential areas of London while a government employee in Athens can't imagine how he or she is going to support their family?

Bitter poverty without any future perspectives

Close examination of the Mediterranean and its traditions tells us a lot about our own history -- because these golden shores gave us not only democracy, Roman law, and the Sermon on the Mount, but also genocide and whole states seen as clan preserves. Social commitment was (and remains) as foreign to eastern churches as social engagement does to the governments.

Fernand Braudel, the great French historian of the region, castigated the "sharp teeth" of "northern, Atlantic, international capitalism." Yet what he overlooked is that capitalism gave its workers functioning health care and old-age benefit systems, while the bucolic fascination we find in Balkan shepherds stands for nothing less than bitter poverty with no prospects for the future.

The ruin of the Mediterranean should remind us that capitalism isn't the worst means to support human striving for happiness. On the other hand, the Arab Spring also shows that money isn't everything and poverty is no excuse to abandon pride.

Europe is unthinkable without the heritage of Greece, Rome and Israel. Without the Renaissance, this small continent could not have traveled down its special path that led it to world hegemony -- but also ghastly catastrophes. Developments in Greece, Spain and Italy should serve as a warning not to take capitalism and its social benefits too far. Debts are debts and progress is no eternal, all-encompassing remedy for them.

For more than 4,000 years, the Mediterranean and its civilization have lived through countless crises – and overcome them. And the Atlantic world owes a lot to that. So the Mediterranean should have far more value to us than to serve merely as an antithesis.

Max Weber thought that those who would populate the age of the "iron cage" would be technocrats without spirit, pleasure-seekers without heart. The Mediterranean might just spare us that fate.

Read the original story in German

Photo - Kevin Poh

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