Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Google Plus Connect on Flickr

Tag: Greek

Ataraxia: The perfect word for dealing with our times

Tuesday, 7 March, 2017 0 Comments

The Greek philosophers Pyrrho and Epicurus used the word “ataraxia” (ἀταραξία) to describe a state of mind characterized by freedom from fear. Ataraxia, say the Epicurians, is the only possible state of happiness. The robust tranquility it brings empowers a person to live without worrying about the afterlife. Furthermore, it helps you to avoid politics and vexatious people; it enables you to surround yourself with affectionate friends; it opens your eyes to the fact that the things we needs to be happy are few and that pain seldom lasts long, and, most importantly, it makes you an affectionate, virtuous person. Truly, ataraxia is the word we’ve been looking for.

The cousins Nicolas and Oliver Jutzi founded vandy films in Lausanne last year. They share “the same passion for the exhilaration of large open spaces” and that’s reflected in their beautiful ATARAXIA short, which is about a runner friend who achieves an “incredible state of freedom… during long alpine outings.”


Waiting for the Barbarians in Paris, Berlin, London

Sunday, 15 November, 2015 0 Comments

«la France sera impitoyable à l’égard des barbares» said French President François Hollande in response to the Islamist terror that left 129 people dead in Paris on Friday night. Hollande’s evocation of “the barbarians” makes Waiting for the Barbarians, written by the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in 1898 and published in Egypt in 1904, seem particularly prescient today.

In a huge square in an unnamed city (Athens? Rome? Constantinople?), the emperor is preparing to present a “scroll” that is “replete with titles” to the designated barbarian leader. Not that the brutal fighter will care. He can take what he wants, anyway, and there will be no negotiations. As Cavafy notes, the barbarians are “bored by rhetoric and public speaking.” Oratory and punditry, laziness and luxury have made the empire cynical and soft and the citizens have lost interest in politics: “What laws can the senators make now? Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.”

Cavafy delays until the last two lines before tossing in the hand grenade. The crowd is, in fact, waiting eagerly for the barbarians: “They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

One can picture a decadent polis, after a lengthy culture war, longing for a radical solution to the empire’s crisis. Cavafy’s bigger point is that barbarians have been at the gates since the dawn of civilization and their presence always poses an existential test for leaders and nations. When the barbarians arrive, when concert-goers and diners are being slaughtered, action is needed. That’s why the supine appeasement Cavafy brilliantly evokes in Waiting for the Barbarians is so loathsome.

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
     The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

     Because the barbarians are coming today.
     What laws can the senators make now?
     Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
     He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
     replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
      And some who have just returned from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933). Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard


Poland vs. Greece vs. Germany vs. Spain vs. Europe

Friday, 8 June, 2012

Thank God for football. This evening in Warsaw, Euro2012 kicks off with Poland vs. Greece and we can forget about the weather and the world for a few weeks as we give ourselves over to the joys of the beautiful game. But wait, what’s this? “Spain’s Twitter Users Say ‘Stop Merkel‘”. It’s a story from […]

Continue Reading »

Psephological prediction: A gale is going to blow across the US

Wednesday, 6 June, 2012

When voting, those champions of democracy, the ancient Greeks, used pebbles as ballots. The Greek word for pebble is psephos and from it the British historian R. B. McCallum coined the term psephology to describe the scientific analysis of past elections. American students of psephology will remember that in May 1994, Ron Lewis won a […]

Continue Reading »

e-book review: The Making of the Greek Crisis by James Pettifer

Friday, 25 May, 2012

It is possible that James Pettifer was overcome by philhellene emotion when writing The Making of the Greek Crisis. Or he might have been the victim of over-hasty editing, or the short e-book format chosen by Penguin for this topic is unsuited to the complexity of the matter. In any event, the reader is often more perplexed than enlightened when swiping through the text.

Peffifier: Greek Crisis “The European Union and International Monetary Fund negotiators who sit in authority in Athens in 2012 have many antecedents,” begins Pettifer. It’s an unconvincing start as Athens in 2012, so far, has produced more chaos than authority and those responsible for this are primarily Greek politicians. Pettifer continues: “Men and women completely ignorant of the Greek language have played their parts in the making of modern Greece, with varying degrees of success.” To suggest that the EU/IMF negotiators, whatever their nationalities and native languages, do not have access to Greek-speaking support staff is incredible.

Pettifer can be sharp. He notes: “The Euro currency ‘project’ did not originate in Greece. As Victor Hugo observed in 1855, the notion of a single European currency, like all bad ideas, has been around for a very long time.” And he crafts some colourful images: “Yes this crisis did not drop from the sky as an eagle in Epirus might drop a sick lamb.” But he cancels this out with truly baffling sentences like this: “The wish to reject the American Exceptionalism of the Bush period has meant an often uncritical adherence to frequently superficially understood multilateralist ideas in international relations and abandonment of some aspects of US legitimate claims to world leadership.”

He correctly identifies the decision by Greece to host the 2004 Olympic Games as pivotal in the country’s loss of fiscal reason, but he undermines the argument with ideological point scoring such as, “…it appealed to the American corporations whose major players connected with big sport, like Nike and Coca Cola, had become sponsors and advertisers with all recent stagings of the Olympic Games. The Olympics embodied the culture of health, anti-smoking campaigning, intense and unbridled Darwinian competition and many other neo-conservative social objectives.”

While politics are personal, facts are not and more careful editing would have prevented 17 becoming 27 here: “The euro project was doomed because it was impossible to chain together twenty-seven different economies into one currency and one central financial institution without any tax revenue raising capacity.” One wonders, too, where the editor was when this drifted by:

“When I first went to little hilltop Exohorio in about 1983, very old ladies sung songs and wove on looms in their houses that had changed little since Homeric times. Now on nearby beaches you are as likely to hear the programmed chit-chat of Whitehall civil servants from London or Zehlendorf doctors from Berlin, and where the loom once stood is an ugly chrome exercise bike in a second home. Few of these north Europeans bother to learn any Greek at all, and some like the parsimonious Dutch are notorious locally for bringing their own food from the Netherlands in their neat motor caravans.”

If only the Greeks had been as parsimonious as the Dutch, James Pettifer would not be writing about the tragic crisis that has engulfed the land he so clearly loves. But Athens is not Amsterdam, and neither is it Berlin or London or Washington, as he points out repeatedly.

The Making of the Greek Crisis is short, but it would have benefitted from cutting in places. Experienced editors of e-books are scarce and the knack of fitting chapters, paragraphs and sentences to tablet and smartphone screens is being learned on the job, so James Pettifer might have profited from a kind of guidance that’s not widely available yet. Still, he has made an entertaining contribution to a debate that continues to dominate the headlines.


Shorts for summer

Wednesday, 23 May, 2012
Shorts for summer

How can publishers get the time-poor back reading again? Answer: Shorts. No, not drinks or men’s clothing. The shorts here are what Random House calls Storycuts and Pan Macmillan calls Short Reads and Penguin calls, simply, Shorts. Rainy Day has opted for a Penguin on the iPhone with “The Making of the Greek Crisis” by […]

Continue Reading »

Incredible Ireland

Monday, 19 December, 2011

Three recent headlines from the Irish Times with explanations for those not fully acquainted with the functioning of a small 21st-century kleptocracy.

1. Nama fails to stop developer being paid €5,000 a week. Nama is shorthand for Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency, which was set up in the wake to the collapse of the country’s banks as a result of excessive lending to the property sector. The story centres on property developer Ray Grehan, who is being paid €5,000 a week [emphasis added] in living expenses.This, by the way, is the same Mr Grehan who owes Nama a total of €650 million [emphasis added again].

2. “Court hears of ‘incredible’ claims from Quinn’s wife“. Background: On 20 November, the Financial Times reported that a court in Belfast had declared Irish businessman Sean Quinn bankrupt with debts of €416 million. Now, according to the Irish Times, “The wife of bankrupt Sean Quinn is making ‘incredible’ claims she does not have to repay a €3 million bank loan because she is a homemaker unduly influenced by her husband. Mrs Quinn told the Commercial Court today she regularly signed documents he put in front of her without reading them.”

3. “Two payments of €190,000 to union cannot be traced“. The article refers to SIPTU, Ireland’s largest trade union, which spends a lot of its time berating something called “the private sector” for its greed, corruption and general evil nature.
Language note: The word “kleptocracy” comes from the Greek klepto-, from kleptes (thief) + –cracy (rule).