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Greece’s ancient mythology says we are all responsible for the fate of modern Europe

The Parthenon
Paul Smalera
“These things never were, but always are.” –Sallustius
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Ἀναρχίας δὲ μεῖζον οὐκ ἔστιν κακόν,“ ”there is nothing worse than disobedience to authority,” says Creon, King of Thebes, when faced with Antigone’s refusal to accept a decree he has imposed. Creon believes it: The rules are rules, and respecting them guarantees a people’s happiness. Creon believes in order, in the wisdom of ages, in the status quo. Antigone represents all that he rejects: A young, fiercely independent woman—a 441 BCE feminist, if you will—she fights the hardness of rules that don’t keep into account what is right. Creon can’t so much as stand the thought of a woman imposing her will—”no woman shall be the master while I live,” he professes—but Antigone does anyway. Tragedy (sure to happen when Sophocles sings the score) ensues, and of the worst kind.

Creon is wrong, but he realizes it too late. Antigone kills herself, and so does Creon’s son, Antigone’s fiancé, who loves her. The other son takes his own life, after trying to kill him. Everyone is doomed, everything is lost. “Whatever my hands have touched has come to nothing. Fate has brought all my pride to a thought of dust,” are Creon’s last words.

In these days, as we watch Greek struggle and the references to Greek tragedies flow free, the story of Antigone serves as a perfect metaphor for the struggles of Athens and of Europe. The reason the story fits is perhaps the most amazing quality of Greek mythology, perfectly defined in the words of Sallustius: “These things never were, but always are.”

There is no story, no human emotion or struggle or predicament that cannot be read along the lines of an ancient Greek tragedy, and ancient Greek literature at large. There is no western art, concept or ideal, that doesn’t have its roots in the astonishing civilization of ancient Greece, starting almost 3,000 years ago. We owe our words to the Greek. We owe them the very way we think: The rationality that demands we see things to know them true comes straight from the Greeks, who said οἶδα, “I have seen,” to mean “I know.”

How much is this worth? Everything we are. And yet, the Eurocrats appear to believe, not enough.

Details vary but the essence is the same: Much like with Antigone and Creon, it is two visions of Thebes—I mean, Europe—that are at stake. If Greece is forced to leave the euro zone—after trying very hard to stay, and comply with unreasonable and pointless requests—the moral is clear: This union cares for nothing but money, and the sole value it recognizes is economic.

This is a market, not a community.

It’s the same Europe that is showing no mercy in the face of the migrants seeking refuge, that’s closing the borders—closing the borders, as if Schengen never happened—in the face of the few thousands of desperate souls they are, people who risked everything, including their lives, to escape their misery and are rejected, in a disgusting display of inhumane, blind privilege.

It’s not Europe’s economy that’s in deep trouble. It’s Europe’s very culture.

It is not Greece that’s failing, in front of our eyes, with the humiliating images of people in line in front of ATMs emptied of cash.

It is Europe we’re letting sink.

And it’s going to. Because, first Greece, so who’s next? Can we do without Portugal, Spain, Italy? Do we need Ireland? And the Eastern European countries? The circle will get tighter and tighter. What precedent are we setting, when we decide what Greece has to offer is not enough? That history, and beauty, and wisdom aren’t worth saving and carry with us—just banks, always banks, and only banks, are?

It’ll be, again, each to their own after we were so close to making this ambitious experiment work: A peaceful union created not through a war, but because war was over and we wanted it to stay so; a forward-looking project with its roots solidly planted in the ancient past; “the common home of all its people,” as Greek prime minister Alexis Tspiras pointed out.

This is not Germany versus Greece—though this is a particularly heartbreaking opposition, because no one, not even the Greeks, love Greek culture as much as the Germans do—nor is it the Troika versus Tsipras or whoever else. This is all of us. It’s Creon against Antigone, stiff rules against reason, principle against culture.

“There is no happiness where there is no wisdom,” warns the chorus at the end of the tragedy. Will there be joy in wealth all all costs?

Each European citizen has a stake in the Greek referendum, and each of us who loves the ideals that created Europe has a duty to try and save it—beginning with showing solidarity with Greece. We need to deliver the message loud and clear if we want Europe to see the bright future it can get to: Greece is Europe, and so we all are Greece, too.

We all share part of the responsibility: For not protesting earlier, for not caring enough, for not demanding a more solid political unity, with enough muscle to manage the economic crisis.

It’s time we speak up: The system that’s brought Greece to its knees is not going to benefit the rest of Europe, and it has to change.

Whatever it takes. For real, this time.

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