The current economic crisis of Greece and its consequent political isolation in the European Union evoke many reflections. Now, I intend to dwell briefly on one aspect — the place of Greece in the history of Europe, nay, in the history of the West. Ancient Greek civilisation is much younger than that of ancient India, ancient China, ancient Egypt or other places in the East. But the claim of ancient Greece for its pre-eminent position is universally acknowledged in the Western tradition.
Without Greece, Europe would have been culturally impoverished. To recollect a little, Homer gave the West their monumental epics such as the Iliad and Odyssey, which are their parallels of our Mahabharata and Ramayana. Pericles, who was the greatest democratic leader of the ancient world, laid the foundations of modern democracies. We generally start with Socrates whenever we think of political thought. Pericles, who was the senior contemporary of Socrates, needs to be read more widely and understood more deeply than has been the case, both in regard to political theory and practice. Socrates, on account of his dedicated life, is a captivating personality and his dialectical methodology has come to be rightly regarded as the founder of philosophy in the West. Plato, an inspired disciple of Socrates, took philosophy and political thought to such dizzy heights that have not been reached so far. Aristotle, who was a disciple of Plato, established an inseparable link between philosophy and science, and organised knowledge of all fields as a one-man army. Nobody has since covered such a wide gamut of intellectual issues.
I should not, in the meanwhile, ignore the epic contribution of such pioneering historians as Herodotus and Thucydides, who were contemporaries of Pericles. Apart from the epics authored by Homer himself, there were amazing literary contributions including those of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, whose tragedies have not been equalled by anything since with the exception of those of Shakespeare. Even in mathematics and the sciences, Pythagoras and Archimedes are noted for their pace-setting discoveries. All this culminated in the emergence of Alexander the Great, a pupil of Aristotle, albeit from Macedonia, historically regarded as part of Greece.
The incalculable impact of Greek heritage was first felt in the Roman republican empire and then in the Western Christendom. I would like to conclude this rapid conspectus of the Greek legacy by referring to its contribution to the philosophy, mathematics and sciences of medieval Islam and to the foundations of the modern age through the Renaissance to the French Enlightenment.
All the members of the European Union are grateful to Greece for their ancient glory. But this sense of indebtedness does not inspire them to assist Greece in its present predicament.
Some of us in India are so excited about our past that we would like to make it our future. But nothing of this sparkle detracts from our depressing backwardness of the day. China, whose past is comparable to ours, is regarded today for its current economic and military might. It is the present that matters. The grandeur of the present is best achieved not through the romantic revival or repetition of the past but through spectacular improvement on our past.
We, in India, can learn an invaluable political lesson from the ongoing trial of Greece. There are many other lessons, including the economic one, that need to be learnt from the multi-dimensional Greece crisis.
Jaipal Reddy is a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal.