Penultimate / How the Mighty Have Fallen

All the riches Greece bestowed upon Western civilization are apparently not worth a dime these days

While reading the dire economic reports from Greece in the past few days, I was inspired to take out a copy of John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," one of the best-known poems ever written in English. The meaning and veracity of its two closing lines - "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know'" - have been the subject of endless debate almost from the time the poem was published in 1819.

The controversy can be resolved if one understands that these words are actually being uttered by the urn itself. Naturally, urns do not usually speak, but in any event I believe it is unwise, and usually futile, to argue with empty vessels.

Keats' poem is of course a paean to Greek civilization, which is embodied in the urn, with its perfect shape and the scenes depicted on it: of the eternally fair youth yearning to kiss the maiden, who apparently tries to elude his attempt. As the poet writes: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; / Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared, / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone."

This is an appropriate time to remember that many good and even great things that shape our lives - for example, certain lofty ideals that have relevance to our contemporary world - are of Greek origin. For instance, Greece, or Athens in particular, is the cradle of democracy, which Winston Churchill once described as "the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

The authority of the prostates (or "leader," in ancient Greek ), mentioned here last week, was accepted by Athenians because he was elected by the demos (the people ) in what constituted the original form of demokratia: demos + kratos, which means "strength" or "power."

In ancient Athens, the composition of the so-called government of the people was determined by the direct vote of its citizens, whether by a show of hands or by casting votes (white stones for and black stones against, sometimes with the voter's name being inscribed on the stone ) into a clay box. The box itself was called in ancient Greek kalpis - hence the Hebrew word kalpi, for "ballot box."

In that same vein, the word "urn" in English, which, according to Merriam-Webster, is "typically an ornamental vase on a pedestal, used for various purposes (as preserving the ashes of the dead after cremation )," derives from the Latin urna. In various European languages, that word (also urna in Polish, and urne in French ) is still used today to mean ballot box.

But democracy is only one gift that Greek civilization in general, and ancient Athens specifically, has bequeathed to us. Sparta, for example, left us a legacy of military prowess and constant vigilance, and the principle (right or wrong ) of a warrior's willingness to fight for a cause deemed worthy by his leaders without hesitation - even, or especially, when the effort is doomed (as in, for example, the very popular movie "300," about the battle of Thermopylae ).

And what about the sciences and the arts? Pythagoras and his hypotenuse; Archimedes and his tradition of dashing naked through the streets when excited about a scientific breakthrough (I tried that once after I finished writing a column, but somehow it did not work as well ); Demosthenes, munching pebbles and conversing with the waves; or Diogenes, who lived in a barrel and wandered around with a torch in his hand, looking for an honest man (imagine him trying that in Israel today ).

There was also Sisyphus schlepping his stone uphill only to see it tumble down, and Damocles with the sword hanging by a thread over his head and Oedipus, who bestowed his complex upon us. And what about those gods who behaved like humans and very often assumed a human form, and complicated the lives of flesh-and-blood men and women ad nauseam, who took the place of a single, inscrutable deity whose everlasting wisdom we are supposed to accept even if his actions defy understanding?

Let's not forget Aristotle, who said some things about art that no one has improved on since. Or Plato and all those renowned dramatists (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides ) who laid the foundations of theater as we know it until this very day. Or the idea of the Olympic Games, in which men and women are urged to be "faster, higher, stronger" than anyone else.

You will say that all this is old news, that one cannot forever rest on ancient laurels. That may be true. But there are also the 20th-century wonders of Greece - for example, the easy, laid-back lifestyle of the islands, which are the backdrop for the musical "Mamma Mia" and the film "Shirley Valentine." And the great contemporary Greeks, like Melina Mercouri and the character of Zorba the Greek, created by Nikos Kazantzakis and immortalized on the silver screen by Anthony Quinn. And singers like George Dalaras or Glykeria, who have helped us Israelis feel we are truly a part of Mediterranean culture. And who can ignore the time-honored Greek tradition, when life gets tough, of getting up and dancing, and smashing a plate or two while you're at it?

Truth may be beauty or vice versa, but it all boils down to the fact that today's economic situation can be compared to dining in a favorite Greek taverna: The waiter comes over and presents the bill to you and your friends, who may still be oozing ouzo but have to pay up. And demands also that you pay now for all the past meals you put on the tab, all the while promising that you would soon settle the bill. The proprietor demands euros, not drachmas, and claims he has financed your lifestyle and habit of living beyond your means for years, and threatens that if you - or somebody else, maybe the European Union or the International Monetary Fund - won't pay, he'll go broke, as he himself owes a lot of money to some foreign banks. While everyone knows that one should be wary of Greeks bearing gifts, there evidently was no prohibition on lending them money.

Suddenly you discover that all the riches the Greeks bestowed upon Western civilization are not worth a dime anymore. There used to be a notice on the walls in bars in the Wild West: "In God we trust, all others pay cash." As the modern Mount Olympus seems to be occupied by a God named Mammon (non-Greek, clearly ), there are no free lunches anymore. So, who will foot this bill? It's Greek to me.