Day 6

How Greek mythology can help explain the economic crisis

Greece's financial crisis has been compared by many to Greek dramas and tragedies. Classics professor and theatre producer Peter Meineck explains how these stories can help make sense of the situation.
Supporters of the No vote wave Greek flags after the referendum's exit polls at Syntagma square in Athens. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti) (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

Eurozone leaders may be giving Greece one last chance to avoid what could be catastrophic economic collapse. It's just the latest turn of events in the ongoing economic saga, one that's been full of drama and rhetoric, not unlike the classical myths and dramas of ancient Greece.

So how can classical Greek mythology and drama help make sense of this epic mess? New York University classics professor and theatre producer Peter Meineck (who just happens to be in Greece right now) explains.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

We are hearing Greek tragedy and Greek drama used in the headlines. But from a classics perspective, is this the right way to describe what's happening in Greece right now?

In many ways, it is. There are the real events that are actually happening to the modern country of Greece, but there's also the Greece in the imagination of the Western world and I think right now the two things are being conflated. Greece is on the front pages of the world's newspapers not only because this is important for Europe, but because it remains a very important place in the West's mythic imagination.

Greece has come under so much criticism for not managing its finances properly, for seemingly living beyond its means. Let's call on your background in classics. Does that idea come up in classical Greek mythology?

Yes, all the time. In Greek tragedy, particularly the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles we hear about being measured, and treading the middle way, and not being too poor or not being too wealthy. Economics comes from the Greek word 'oikos' meaning household or the management of the household and I think that's really interesting because to a certain extent Greece is still of the mentality of the household. And we might criticize this idea of patronage, and hiring your cousin and doing everything on a personal basis, but that's a big part of the culture of Greece and that certainly goes all the way back to antiquity.

Let's look at this whole idea of Greeks living beyond their means because I think of Icarus and Daedalus and the idea of flying too close to the sun.

Yeah, certainly we can find this idea of things being out of measure and that's definitely a Greek idea. The question is: why are we fascinated with Greece?

So what is it about Greece?

I think that all of us in the West have an idea of Hellenism, Greek antiquity and our connections to what we think the past is. I mean 'Europe' is a Greek word. And Europa was a Greek mythological character, let's not forget that. I think to a certain extent the idea of Europe can only really exist with Greece. Europeans, Canadians, Americans - they all still have this very powerful association between their own cultures and Greece. So when you hear Hillary Clinton talking about "it's a Greek tragedy" I think all those ideas are made manifest in those statements.

Part of that is we have a bit of a misunderstanding of Greece when we talk about Greece living beyond their means. I know Greeks to be some of the hardest working, most thrifty, intelligent people in the world. So the idea that they've been having a huge party for the last 15 years and suddenly the balloon has burst, I just don't think that's true.

The now former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis made a dramatic exit this past week. He responded to reporters trying to ask questions about his resignation by saying, "I will not give a press conference while I am trying to escape". How does Yanis Varoufakis measure up as a classical Greek hero?

He's on his motorbike with his wife or girlfriend on the back, I mean it was a very kind of masculine image of this man going off into the sunset. It was very heroic in a way. And it does remind me of Oedipus in the way that Oedipus goes to his death. He disappears in Athens in a place called Colonus in great mystery and nobody knows what happens to him and he's very silent on it all and only one person knows where he's buried.

With the concept of a hero, we tend to think of heroes as a firefighter or a war hero, or somebody that saves a life as a positive measure. But a hero in ancient Greece is anybody who is godlike. So again Oedipus, who's in many ways a negative figure, is regarded as a hero because he's done things that normal mortals would not do.

I don't want to push the idea of a monoculture, I think Greeks are as diverse in personalities as anybody else, but there's definitely something about saying no, about oxi, about standing up against absolutely insurmountable odds. And you can track that through their resistance to the Ottomans, their resistance to the Nazis, their resistance to the Romans, the resistance of course of the 300 Spartans defending the hot gates at Thermopylae against the great Persian force. I think there's a pride and a dignity in resistance, that's something we're seeing actually right now in Greece.

One thing that looks from the outside almost insurmountable is the sheer volume of this debt. I mean it's an enormous amount of money. You talk about Greeks overcoming obstacles against these odds and that must weigh very heavily, to have this image of Sisyphus pushing that rock and no matter how much he pushes it's still going to roll back down. . .

Greek mythology is full of these characters who are trapped in this sort of terrible never ending fate to a certain extent, but I also think Greek mythology does provide some answers. I was thinking about the character Odysseus in the Odyssey. He goes through a number of transformations in terms of his identity, his leadership, how he responds to the feminine in his culture, trusting other people. So, I actually do think that ancient mythology provides some ideas for how you can get out of these seemingly insurmountable problems.

The debt is crushing, but it's also an abstract to a certain extent. It's very hard to quantify this massive amount of debt when you're going to your A.T.M. and you can only take out 50 to 60 euros a day. The debt itself is a sort of mythological force right now in Greek culture.

We've been discussing all of this in the context of ancient culture and the idea of tragedy. But do you think ordinary Greek people see this crisis -- their experience of living it -- in the same way?

To a certain extent, yes. And I think that what happened last week, which shocked most of us, was that Greek leadership decided to walk away from negotiations and organize a referendum and here we have 61 percent voting no.

I think that culture of resistance is seen as quite heroic. Yes there's a sense of heroic failure, but I think there's something also quite wonderful about resistance. I'm thinking about a Sophoclean character called Philoctetes who is wounded on the way to Troy. His wound is so terrible it goes putrid, it stinks. So the Greeks abandon him on a desert island. Ten years later, they get a prophecy that they can only take Troy with the help of Philoctetes. So they have to go back and persuade this bitter man to come and join them. But he refuses to rejoin the army. And this man has nothing, all he has is the power of resistance, the power to say no.

The power to say no and the power to resist is, I think, something that's deeply ingrained in the Greek national identity. How that plays out this week will be very interesting. They know things have to change and maybe this event will help bring about that change. Greece can be a very frustrating place sometimes, but at the same time I think it is an incredible jewel. And Europe will be a much poorer place without it.