19 February 2016
Our august prime minister, while on a visit to the planetarch, snuck in a reference to classical Greek historian Thucydides. It is not the first time our classically-minded leader has done so. A month or so before, he quoted Thucydides to the prime minster of Malaysia and the prime minister of China. As far back as 2012, in fact, our prime minister tweeted excitedly that he was about to “discuss Thucydides at the Classical Association of NSW annual dinner”.
Prime Minister Turnbull’s recourse to our classical past for inspiration has sent shivers of delight down the spines of sections of the Greek community.
According to them, these remarks are indicative of the fact that the prime minister is paying the requisite homage to the Greek people as the personification of civilisation itself. Malcolm Turnbull thus is a Philhellene and surely only good things would flow on to the Greek community as a result, in contrast with his other parliamentary colleagues, who are not sufficiently enlightened to realise that good governance depends upon a deep knowledge of and the capacity to learn from the ample examples provided by Greek history and apply them to daily challenges.
Yet as delighted as they may be at the sound of Greek names upon Anglo-Saxonic lips, those Greeks that are titilated by this form of exposure are deluding themselves. Had Malcolm Turnbull quoted revolutionary general Makrigiannis to Obama, then we would all have ample justification for amazement and delight, for he belongs to us and we, the modern Greeks can relate to him directly. Thucydides, on the other hand, no longer belongs to us in the way that Makrigiannis does. He has long been appropriated by the West and subsumed into the manner in which the West perceives its culture.
An interesting parallel to this phenomenon is the manner in which the West views the Parthenon. In 1988, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson, now mayor of London, published an interview with a senior curator at the British Museum. The curator was quoted as stating: “The Elgin Marbles are a pictorial representation of England as a free society and the liberator of other peoples …” Notably, anything to do with the building’s religious function or its builder’s ethnic origins are irrelevant for the purpose of this form of cultural appropriation.
This is evidenced by the fact that members of the West view such elements from the ancient Greek world in ways that reinforce or justify their own particular sense of themselves. Thus, Cecil Rhodes viewed the Parthenon as a manifestation not of democracy, but of empire, stating: “Through art,
Pericles taught the lazy Athenians to believe in Empire.” In 1832 French poet Alphonse de Lamartine, last of the Romatics, declared the Parthenon to be “the most perfect poem ever written in stone on the surface of the earth”, while architect Le Corbusier, he of the drab and arid edifice, upon first seeing the Parthenon proclaimed it to be the “repository of the sacred standard, the basis for all measurement in art”.
Thus the Parthenon acts, to the Western world, as a magnet and a mirror. The West sees itself in it and appropriates it for its own devices. As a result, its original meaning has been obscured. The West sees only what flatters its own self-image or explains it through the connection to the birthplace of democracy.
Attacks on the integrity of the elements that have been appropriated are thus considered to be attacks on Western civilisation itself, and possibly should not be seen as defences of Hellenism. Thus, when British naturalist, mineralogist and historian Edward Daniel Clarke gave the following eyewitness account of the lowering of a metope in 1801 – “Removed from their original setting the Parthenon marbles have lost all their excellence” – he was merely lamenting the destruction of a cultural icon, something that was even felt by the Ottomans. Clarke states that as the metope was hoisted down, the rigging dislodged an adjoining block that fell to the ground with a thunderous noise. The local Ottoman military governor could no longer restrain himself. He took his pipe out of his mouth, let a tear fall and uttered, with an emphatic tone: “Te-los.” It would be fascinating to see within which perspective this decidedly non- Western individual appreciated the destruction of this wondrous building.
Rather than identify us with our ancient forebears, Western appropriators generally seek to separate us from them, indulging in a form of orientalism, whereby, by divorcing us from those ancestors, we are included within the paradigm of a patronising Western attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies. In Edward Said’s analysis of orientalism, the West essentialises these societies as static and undeveloped. Implicit in this is the idea that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and superior. Of course, when examining Western society, Said points to the appropriation of the ancient Greek tradition by it. So complete is that appropriation that certain 19th century thinkers have even sought to deny our heritage to us, Fallmerayer and others arguing that we are too unlike our ancient ancestors (i.e. we are too Middle Eastern) to be descended from them, a process that has its origins in the political rivalry between Greek and Latin cultures during the Byzantine Empire.
The aforementioned orientalist tendencies are now well entrenched within Western societies and their attitudes towards modern Greece and are no more so evident that in the justification provided over decades by the British Museum us as to why the Parthenon Marbles should be retained in London – simply that the primitive oriental Greeks cannot look after them in the manner that their superior Western counterparts can. Thus urging his fellow peers to block any return of the marbles to Greece, Lord Wyatt of Weeford in 1997 stated in the House of Lords: “My Lords, it would be dangerous to return the marbles to Athens because they were under attack by Turkish and Greek fire in the Parthenon when they were rescued and the volatile Greeks might easily start hurling bombs again.”
As modern Greece is as Western a creation as the West’s reconstruction and interpretation of ancient Greek culture, that skewed view of our heritage has been foisted upon us, along with a misplaced sense of inadequacy and low self-esteem. It is this insecurity, that we are somehow not good enough, far fallen from the imagined glories of our ancestors, that causes us to snap to attention and bask in what we believe to be praise vicariously lavished upon us by the dominant ruling group, through our ancestors. While an increasing number of scholars are now reinterpreting ancient Greek culture and tearing down the Olympian superhuman stereotype in favour of a nuanced view that sees the ancients in all their frustrating and all too human complexity, rational and yet superstitious, moral yet capable of the worst brutality, measured and yet irrational, the old view has become so internalised that it will take a considerable amount of time before it is dissipated. In the meantime, we will continue to smile every time a politician makes a classical reference, consider them our admirers, laud ourselves about the ‘strength’ of our ‘lobby’, and become bewildered when it becomes apparent that as an ethnic community we are to enjoy no more grace or favour than anyone else.
Granted, I have no problem with our prime minister discussing ancient Greek historians with world leaders, for there is much to be learned from Thucydides and I harbour a sneaking suspicion that the majority of world leaders, in their synaxis, generally prefer to discuss the multifarious undertakings of Kim Kardashian instead. What I do have a problem with, however, is the said prime minister’s government considering penalising Greek Australian pensioners, who have endured great privations in order to make a lasting contribution to this country, for choosing to spend protracted periods of time in their homeland.
We leave you this week with the musings of Lord Byron on Lord Elgin. In the poem The Curse of Minerva he seeks to distance his country from the appropriations of Elgin thus: “England own him not: Athena no! thy plunderer was a Scot.” In Childe Harold’s Pilgimage, however, he comes clean in the second canto, which is devoted to the atrocities of the pillage that was supposedly necessary in order to make the world safe for democracy: “Dull is the eye that will not weep to see/ Thy walls defac’d, thy mouldering shrines remov’d/ By British hands.”
And we all wait desperately for the day when an Australian prime minister can suggest interpretations of world politics to his American counterpart, gleaned from the wisdom of Karagiozis.
*Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne-based solicitor and freelance journalist.