Andrew B. Wilson

First appeared in American Spectator:

Greece ill-temperedly rattles a tin cup—desperate for another handout from the European Union but feeling far more anger than gratitude toward its would-be benefactors.

Italy shares Greece’s pain—and its deeply ingrained sense of resentment and entitlement. Italy may follow Greece in bellying up to the EU’s bailout line.

Whatever happened to “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome”?

In his famous funeral oration, delivered in 431 BC, the Greek leader Pericles sought to capture what it was that characterized Athens at the peak of its glory. In his words, the Athens of that time did not need a Homer to sing its praises, or even imperishable monuments, such as the Parthenon, completed only a few years earlier: “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others to be eternally remembered.”

So how did the Greeks of this golden age manage to make such great and enduring contributions to Western civilization? Believe it or not (and progressives will find this especially hard to fathom), it was individual freedom, self-reliance, and an absence of class envy—combined with a powerful sense of Greek (and especially Athenian) exceptionalism.

Pericles began his speech with several observations about the nature of democracy in the city-state of Athens. As recounted by his contemporary, the historian Thucydides, Pericles said:

We are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not the few. Our laws afford equal justice to all in their private differences.

The freedom that we enjoy in government extends to ordinary life. Far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes.

We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it, but the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.

The great statesman, general, and patron of the arts went on to say how the freedom and openness of their city did not weaken but served only to redouble the valor, resourcefulness, and generosity of the citizenry:

Trusting in the native spirit of our citizens, we throw open our city to the world, and never exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning and observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit from our liberality.

To sum up, I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace.

As Lincoln was to do over two millennia later in the Gettysburg Address, Pericles used a eulogy for the war dead to extol the cause for which the living continued to fight.

It would be nice to think that present-day Greeks would make a real effort to liberate themselves from decades of economic mismanagement and lopsided growth in the public sector at the expense of the private sector.

But that is not going to happen. After supposedly endorsing the latest deal from the EU, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is publicly thumbing his nose at the key spending-cut and tax-increase provision—saying, “I don’t believe the measures will benefit the economy.”

It would take a Margaret Thatcher if not a Pericles to make a case for real reform—and there is no such champion of individual freedom and self-reliance anywhere to be seen.

About the Author

Andrew Wilson
Fellow and Senior Writer

A former foreign correspondent who spent four years in the Middle East and served as Business Week’s London bureau chief during Margaret Thatcher’s first two terms as Britain’s prime minister, Andrew is a regular contributor to leading national publications, including the American Spectator, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal.