Why the Greeks Matter

by Christopher Xenopoulos Janus

Thousands of books and articles have been written during the past 20 centuries on why the Greeks matter. Yet it is still of value to our society and for me a great pleasure to discuss the subject.

Recently Thomas Cahill and Robert Garland have published excellent books on the subject and in what follows I am reflecting their views on why the Greeks matter and why some of the ancient values of the Greeks are with us daily influencing our lives.

It is virtually impossible to shake off the influence of our classical past. It is evident in our way of thinking, in our concept of government and political theory, in the art, in our architecture, and in our poetry. In some branches of learning its influence remains paramount. In philosophy its legacy is over whelming.

Over the course of the past two hundred years, Greek words have been imported into the English language in vast quantities to describe new fields of inquiry and new scientific accomplishments. Modernity and the modern experience have been described and defined very largely by words of Greek origin. Examples include psychiatry, paranoia, schizophrenia, ophthalmology, euthanasia, pornography, cybernetics, cryogenics, eugenics, prosthetics, chemotherapy, orthodontics, pediatrics, pedagogy, and technology.

The middle of the eighteenth century also saw the birth of the great public museums, destined to become storehouses of the most prestigious works of art from Greco-Roman antiquity. They continue to serve as a palpable reminder to the public of the achievements of the classical world. A particularly controversial episode in the scramble to secure such treasure was the removal of the Parthenon's sculptures by Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to Turkey, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. His cache included twelve statues belonging to the pediments, fifty-six slabs belonging to the frieze, and fifteen metopes. After being initially rejected by the British Museum, they were eventually purchased and put on display in 1817. The legality of Lord Elgin's action, which was conducted with the consent of the Ottoman rulers of Greece, continues to be a matter of dispute between the British,and Greek governments.

The influence of Greece did not go only in one direction. When the Greeks rebelled against the Ottoman Turks in 1821, enthusiastic Britons like Lord Byron, who called themselves Philhellenes and who cherished their classical roots, saw the struggle as a reenactment of the Persian wars:

The mountains look on Marathon

And Marathon looks on the sea;

And musing here an hour alone,

I dreamt that Greece might still be free.

It is hardly any exaggeration to claim that the modem Greek nation state owed much to the Victorian image of classical Greece.

Some historians go farther than this. The Greek was credited with creating Western militarism, shaping Christianity and giving us the intellectual foundation on which we based everything from dictionaries to filing systems.

I have always been much interested in the personal virtues and character the ancient Greeks recommended as befitting good man. The Greeks, themselves, as they confess, were hardly perfect in these virtues but that did not prevent them what writing what these virtues were and that they should be pursued. Else, what are ideals for!

Foremost among these virtues befitting a good man was loyalty: loyal to your family your country and yourself. A person who lacked loyalty was not fit to be a Greek citizen.

When Greeks occupied Sicily the question of loyalty took on an awesome quality. The Greek Sicily had to be unconditionally loyal to the military. Historians have written that is where the Mafia adopted this awesome code for its members.

To be hospitable to friends and strangers was very important to being a good Greek. This meant being generous and friendly especially to tourists. To be otherwise meant you were a barbarian!

Especially important with ancient Greeks and the modem one was to have enthusiasm. The word translated means to be one with the God within you. To be enthusiastic also meant you had a great self esteem.

You were always in control of yourself and you inspired confidence in others.

Kindness, especially random acts of kindness, was essential to the good Greek. Kindness meant giving of yourself to others and asking nothing in return. Kindness was also the mark of a true gentleman.

Plato writes at great length of the importance of having a fine mind in a good body. This meant being very conscious of taking care of your body and how you looked. With this philosophy it is natural that the Greeks invented the Olympics!

These are virtues that the Greeks recommended to be a good Greek and if they lived up to them, it is easy to see why the Greeks matter!

About the Author

Educated at Harvard and Oxford, Christopher Xenopoulos Janus started his writing career as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. Later he became a special writer for The New York Times Sunday News Magazine section where the late Lester Markel was his editor. During World War II, Janus joined the Department of State serving in Washington, Cairo and Athens on Greek War Relief and Rehabilitation programs. This experience had a great influence on his writing.

After World War II, the author was involved in various entrepreneurial experiences. At one time he owned Adolph Hitler's Mercedes Benz and toured it through the United States. He was an Investment Banker, but always took the time to be involved in the world around him.

Since his retirement from business, the author has devoted his time to writing, publishing and traveling. He founded and published the widely acclaimed Greek Heritage, The American Quarterly of Greek Culture, and with William Brashler wrote Search for Peking Man (Macmillan 1975). Janus' novel Miss Fourth of July, Goodbye has been filmed by Disney Productions. Around the World in 90 Years reflects much of the author's own warm and caring philosophy of life embodying unconditional loyalties and boundless enthusiasm. They feature a strong sense of self-reliance and the courage and wisdom to be interested in everything. Yet, as his mentor, George Santayana once cautioned the author: "Don't be awed by anything."

Most recently, the prestigious American Hellenic Institute Foundation of Washington, D.C. awarded its Hellenic Heritage Lifetime Achievement Award to Christopher Xenopoulos Janus.

Mr. Janus is the author of numerous articles appearing on HCS. Readers are invited to view: "The Girl With Melancholy Eyes," "Our First and Only Christmas in Sistersville" and other fine articles included in the HCS archives under the section bearing his name: Janus Articles and Publications.

2000 © Hellenic Communication Service, L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.