Socrates, tragedy, and the Greek crisis

This short essay was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme this morning.

The ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights – figures like Socrates and Plato, Euripides and Sophocles – can be thought of as prophets. Like the Hebrew prophets of the Bible, they were passionate critics of what was going on in their day. So how might they comment upon the European Greek crisis today?

I think with a cry of anger, despair, and lament. Think of Euripides’ play, Trojan Women. It portrays the fate of the women of Troy after their terrible defeat in the Trojan war. Euripides has Hecuba cry: “What else but tears is now my hapless lot. What woe must I suppress? I must chant a cheerless dirge of sorrow.”

I can imagine a modern day Euripides traveling to the site of Plato’s Academy, where I was last month. It’s now a suburban park, a half hour bus ride from the main Athenian attractions of the acropolis and agora. I sought it out seeking a moment amongst the stones to connect back. I was feeling idealistic, hopeful, romantic.

I hadn’t banked on the park being a makeshift boarding house for the homeless. I found my stones amidst the acanthus plants, but alongside them were human figures curled up in stained sleeping bags. The denser patches of shrubbery had become toilets.

It seemed to me that what Euripides had written of the Trojan women could be said of these modern-day defeated women and men: What woe must they suppress? What tears do they cry? What cheerless dirge expresses their sorrow?

Alongside the ancient playwrights, the ancient philosophers strove to find words of critique and pain too. They were inspired by Socrates, the man whom the rulers of ancient Athens had executed. His questioning and example had proven too much.

Today, Socrates could repeat almost the same set of questions he asked then. What vision of the good life are you politicians really offering? Whom are you serving in your lawmaking? What kind of society are you creating for your citizens?

A key issue the philosophers highlighted was the nature of money and debt. Money is fine, they observed, when it serves people and life. But beware: it has a life of its own. They were as wary of debt as the Hebrew prophets were of usury. Money quickly turns from being a servant to a tyrant; from being of service to demanding it be served. Then, it destroys opportunities, goods, life.

What monster has been created, Socrates might ask now? You talk of justice, Aristotle might add, and fail to see that justice needs friendship to stay human. Without goodwill, it too becomes a tyrant.

The playwrights and philosophers had a tragic view of life. Plato’s shade, lurking in the park of his old Academy, would not be surprised by the homeless sleepers. But ancient tragedy also contained hope. Euripides and others wrote about the suffering of their times to remember and honour those who suffer. Their art – their prophecy – gave the suffering dignity and a voice.

Plato offered something else. He knew that whatever happens to the body, the eye of the soul can be kept open and bright. Though terrible things will happen, human beings need never lose sight of what’s good, beautiful, and true.

It’s a truth central to Christianity too. The tragic figure of the crucified Jesus, the prophet who warned money will become your god, also knew of the light that shines in the vastness of the darkness. It cannot be extinguished. The Greeks have known this truth for millennia. I hope they know it now.

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