Letter from Thessaloniki

After this column’s standing ovation last Monday for Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos’s fruitful trip to Istanbul, I had hoped to remain silent for a while about all sainted Greek politicians and search for a lighter topic more suitable for this damp heat wave. But a weekend’s peek at the coverage of the prime ministerial visit to China, as well as the Simitis’s eventful departure on Saturday to their retreat in Aghioi Apostoloi after the residence of the embodiment of the Greek administration at Anagnostopoulou Street had been shot at, was too juicy to pass up. Also, it was yesterday’s Kathimerini headline «A universe without politicians,» deploring supremely opportunistic politicians who would do anything to get elected, and who do not run just for office but for some magnate’s best friend as well, which made me think. How would Plato – or sage Confucius – have responded to such despair? What did politically disillusioned Plato really mean when he said that «Democracy passes into despotism» (The Republic, Book VIII)? Flashback: How time flies! It was already 16 years since I covered the late prime minister Andreas Papandreou’s state visit to Beijing. Meanwhile substantial changes have occurred: Chinese ethical teacher Confucius (551-479 BC) who urged a system of morality and statecraft to bring about peace, justice and universal order, is not banned anymore as threatening the social stability of this vast country. Furthermore, while in China, a foreign statesman of the stature of Mr Simitis could this time venture to laud their illustrious forefather while visiting Beijing University. That was good for business. He even grabbed the occasion to compare – erroneously – Confucianism «with the teaching of Socrates.» In all probability our prime minister meant Plato (427-347 BC) since it was this philosopher who – as with his Chinese colleague – is known to have been greatly interested in state affairs. As a matter of well-known historical fact, Socrates wrote absolutely nothing at all. He is known to us only through Plato’s Dialogues, where Socrates stars as the protagonist, and he was known to his amused contemporaries as the victim of his bad-tempered wife, Xanthippe. Now back to today’s leaders («Leaders without memory, societies without future» read one of Kathimerini’s subtitles yesterday) and to Confucius, for whom harmony within the State is everything. When Confucius was asked what would be the first thing he would do if he were to lead the State – his never-to-be-fulfilled dream – he answered: Rectify the language. Hardly an eloquent orator. Simitis would have loved this one. Also included among his quotes is: «When a country is ill-governed, riches and honor are things to be ashamed of.» This is hardly the case for the Greek PM, who though well-wired when abroad, cannot possibly be in harmony with his entourage when on this very day he is obliged – any moment now – to sack (or not) Health Minister Alekos Papadopoulos, who had the nerve to declare in an interview with Kathimerini nine days ago that he would not seek re-election, angering Mr Simitis mightily. Consequently, mischief is once again afoot. At a press interview just before leaving Shanghai, Mr Simitis refrained from expressing obvious wishful thinking: Soon we’ll get into China! Big market! Instead he pointed out, tactfully and methodically, that Greece’s history and culture give us comparative advantages against other countries – even the more powerful ones – that seek the chance to do business in China. Now, China and Greece seem ready to go into business with each other and that is what really matters to the income-challenged modern Greek. For «China is not just a developing economy with which we must have good economic relations and pursue a market enlargement. It is, firstly, a great power of growing importance in the world, to world relations,» as Mr Simitis emphasized several times while in the Middle Kingdom, as ancient Greeks called this far-away country. It is a well-known fact that during his later years questions were constantly put to Confucius about politics, good and evil, life and death. We do not know whether our PM – the very honored guest of the Chinese – has been stunned during this trip by any shattering words of Chinese wisdom. Therefore one can only wonder how Confucius would have reacted should Mr Simitis ever had the opportunity to consult him on the Alekos Papadopoulos affair. Keeping in mind that the minister of health has declared that he would like to get «away from it all,» out of political life, into the things he had missed so much for 10 years, the Master’s disciple could have answered thus: «No! Confucius, often accused of overemphasizing social roles at the expense of individuality, would have certainly been against Papadopoulos’s philosophy. The Master saw man as a social being whose nature is partly constituted by his roles.» In an age of confusion – our age – the Confucian method of basing political life on everyday morality has the advantage of offering some guidance without dogma. But, on the other hand, so does Plato, who after all was the first – well, the second really – who envisaged a community ruled by philosophers. As a good chief enforcer for the national financial interests – he was accompanied by some hopeful businessmen, but the real Greek moguls stayed home – Mr Simitis also stressed the necessity of developing our knowledge of Asia and of creating a Chinese studies center and a student exchange program. Others, non-Greeks, seem to be practicing this already. Surfing the Web the other night, I came across a most interesting, 11-page research paper that compares and contrasts the views of «Confucius and Plato: Their Ideas On Society & State.» This was an excellent chance to be illuminated on some interesting issues such as whether or not morality can be learned, on the purpose of the state and qualities of its leaders. Here are some prospective responses to Sunday’s Kathimerini’s query: «Do we have the leaders we deserve?» In times like the present, when politics completely lack magic, when the most we can do in our political efforts is to meditate and hope for the best, someone – anyone – who shows us how to proceed with a minimum of arbitrary assumptions can assist us greatly. Enough with all this gray flannel! Eccentric thinkers and imaginative philosophers who can draw as much out of daily life as Confucius or Plato did, whose ideas can readily be understood and who have profoundly influenced the ancient but very practical-minded people of two great civilizations, is definitely worthy of our immediate attention.

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