Like heroes of unwritten epics

Like heroes of unwritten epics

In my youth, when I first read the words of the old Egyptian priest to the Athenian sage Solon – that the “the Greeks are always children” – I was thrilled. This declaration, which Plato wrote in “Timaeus,” seemed so true and so beautiful, explaining much that was inexplicable in Greeks’ behavior, but also carrying something of Bob Dylan’s wish, “May you stay forever young,” which was in fashion at the time. Through the years, through my life and the lives of others, observing the adventure of the Greeks as a whole, I repeatedly saw this observation confirmed and I nodded my head, borrowing from the wisdom of the ancients. Now, in middle age, with fewer years before me than behind, I am furious and impatient. Like a young man, I don’t want explanations but rather solutions to the problems that plague us; as an older man, I am in a hurry because time is running out. In middle age I am in a position to see that mistakes keep being repeated and we cannot escape this trap. The young can’t see this, while the old have witnessed it so often that it no longer excites them.

In middle age, I have acquired my own patterns of wisdom. Part of this is the desire to go back to the source of things that impressed me, to texts that I thought I knew. And “Timaeus” did not disappoint me, providing details that I had forgotten. The Greeks, the old Egyptian tells Solon, are forever children because they have not written down on temple walls and in books the collective wisdom of the past and their history, so as to always have access to what their ancestors knew and did. They are, the priest argued, descendants of survivors of catastrophes. As he explained, when rivers swell and flood and carry away the people of the plains and the cities, only the illiterate herdsmen who lived in the mountains escape. And so their descendants live their lives unaware of their past. Here I would add: Each lives his great adventure as if he were Odysseus, as if his life were the most important one of all and everyone else is a supporting player. It is no coincidence that in any reasonably large group of Greeks we will find characters who could play the part of Homer’s ambitious Achilles, of Hector, doomed by duty, of wily Odysseus, greedy Agamemnon, insolent Thersites, tender Andromache, and so on. The ancient myths, too, are a gallery of people we know, from Sisyphus with his futile efforts to Narcissus and his fatal attraction to himself. And then we have Cronus, the father of the gods, who eats his children – just as Kratos, our state, devours every one of us.

We live like heroes of unwritten epics, each on a unique journey that will not find its Homer to shape it for future generations. Beyond the joy and unique value of our adventure, and despite the wealth of books from our past, we behave in a way that condemns us to repeat mistakes, to learn nothing of the knowledge of those who came before us. We cannot build on the wisdom of our ancestors but live among the ruins, laying our hasty foundations wherever we can. Within us dart memories of beauty, of tragedy, of what is truly significant – and each, on his own, with only the clues left by his family as a guide, knows that he is looking for something but is not sure exactly what. And so we may overlook the important, trivialize the great, lose what is precious, complain about everything without understanding what we have and what we may still achieve. Whatever we have, we seek more. Like Alexander, who conquered the world but could not conquer the need to go further.

These days, as we commemorate Greece’s entry into World War II on October 28, 1940, we remember our grandparents’ sacrifices in the war, the resistance and the civil war that followed. These take us back to previous wars, such as the War of Independence in 1821 and so many others before and since. Battles won, battles lost. Altogether – victories and defeats – they brought our country to where it is today. We remember and honor our past but we do not learn from it. Truly like children we believe that our lives are unique and important and we use the past only to fit it into what we already believe. We forget the simple but critical lesson that victory is born of unity and cooperation with powerful allies, and defeat is the child of division and delusions of how special we are. Alliances, unity and long-term strategies, however, demand memory, knowledge, humility and hard work. Inspiration and passion, however great, are not enough; we need to submit to something larger than us in order to achieve something greater than each can manage on his own.

Looking at our current government, we see that like all previous ones it is ruled by ignorance and arrogance – improvising furiously to survive the day. Always unprepared for what they must deal with, those who rule are like the rest of us: They experience everything as if for the first time. And by the time they learn what needs to be done, it is time for them to leave.

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