A couple of weeks ago it was reported in the Greek press that a very old olive tree, reputed to have survived since the times of Plato some 2400 years ago, had been cut for firewood by a desperate Athenian who could not afford the high heating oil price. It was a very sad piece of news, at first reading at least. It showed how low Greece and its citizens had fallen, at mere survival mode, sacrificing a living monument for the sole purpose of temporarily satisfying a mundane need. It felt like the end of Greek civilization, or rather of any connection that modern Greeks had with the glorified Greeks of ancient times. And was a sign of the decline, shortsightedness and destructive self-indulgence of modern Greeks.
At second reading, though, this may not have been as tragic an incident, after all. No, in no way am I suggesting that the cultural treasures of Hellenic civilization be sacrificed to temporarily relieve the many problems experienced by modern Greeks. That would be utterly detrimental to a very important part of humanity’s heritage and would do no justice to Greeks and non-Greeks alike. Moreover, it would not be sustainable over the medium- and long-run, living off what is left of ancient glories that is. What is not so bad, though, is the symbolism that this act conveys.
The cutting of the umbilical cord to the glorious antiquity may not be such a bad thing after all. It is this connection and its incessant reminder in schools and the society at large that has been a major spoiling factor for today’s Greeks. It is as if you had a billionaire for a father, or a genius, or both. Why should you work, why should you plan and why should you worry? Moreover, no matter what you did, you would not manage to measure up to those bigger-than-life ancestors, so why even try? No, you could live off the inheritance, the value of which everybody recognized, so they better pay for it, and pay you, the legitimate heir and DNA carrier.
But now that the connection is symbolically gone, literally cut up into small pieces that can fit into a stove or a fireplace, today’s Greek may realize that he or she is now responsible for his own acts and future, for better or worse. Once the warmth of the burning wood is gone, today’s Greek may realize that s/he is left out in the cold and has to fend for him/herself. And scary as this may at first be, it can have an awakening effect and be empowering at the same time. It may wake up the creativity and responsibility, which are somewhere in there, sleeping the sleep of the pampered heir, but occasionally still showing themselves in individual acts of greatness, often by Greeks who have left the homeland and have taken their destiny in their hands. Because Greeks can operate well in an environment that has rules and demands from them, as well as rewards. But they dose off and short-circuit themselves and each other when they are under the influence of glories past.
So, may you go to a better place and rejoin Plato, ancient olive tree. Thank you for ushering Greece with your symbolic sacrifice to its post-Platonic era, and may this be another glorious time of creativity and humanism indeed.
On the road, 4 February 2013