187 years ago today, in 1832, the first Kingdom of Greece was declared at the London Conference. Nearly 2000 years after the destruction of Corinth, and nearly four centuries after the fall of Constantinople to Mehmed the Conqueror, the Greek people would finally be free once again, no longer under foreign domination. Greece's history since has been anything but free of trials, but the same civilisation which produced Homer, Aristotle and Alexander stands again today. The cradle of western civilisation, the first place this side of the Cappadocian mountains where democracy, philosophy and science flourished, Greece is a place and an idea to be treasured by anyone who thinks highly of Western civilisation, and an event like the freeing of Greece ought to be remembered more widely.
We all know the tales of Ancient Greece, of philosophers and poets, of Athens and Sparta, Marathon and Thermopylae, Alexander the Great. But what of modern Greece? Who in England has heard of the siege of Missolonghi, where the Greeks held out for more than a year against fearful odds? Who knows of Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas, who tore the Swastika down from the Acropolis at risk of execution? The Greece of modern times is undoubtedly the Greece of times gone by, and the men who stole the Swastika are the same men who beat the Persians.
Greece has always been a land of ideas, and the Greeks themselves a people of them, and it is the nature of ideas, their ease of transmission, which makes Greece such an important nation. The idea of democracy which drove the Athenians down against the forces of all Asia is the idea which drove the Allies onto the beaches of Normandy; the idea of selfless sacrifice and obedience which held the Spartans fast at Thermopylae is the spirit of the Alamo or Saragahi. The Platonic ideal of beauty has not only inspired art but even defined it for millennia; Saint Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians still contains the authoritative canonical passage on love. If the Greeks haven’t defined something, it’s probably not worth defining. And bravery they define by their own action.
Socrates, at least according to Plutarch, one uttered the famous line, “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” Perhaps that was true in his day, but I would suggest that today we have something different. It is the ideas of Greece which have illuminated the world – anyone who hails from earth has, in a way, hailed from Greece. Anyone who tries to emulate the bravery of the Greeks, anyone who finds fulfilment in the writings of Plato or Saint Paul, anyone who values freedom and democracy and anyone who will defend the weak from the mighty has been touched by the meaning of Greekness. Anyone who chases lofty ideals through the vaults of their imagination or anyone who gazes up at the night sky is simply a descendant of the Greeks who came before them. Anyone who has found the length of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is the intellectual heir to Pythagoras.
Greece is in trouble now, as it has been in trouble many times before. The Second World War was followed by a brutal civil conflict, and for seven years Greece, the womb of democracy, slipped into the shadow of the generals and their dictatorship. The façade of their economy, propped up by the Euro, came crashing down, and they find themselves impoverished and unemployed. The “troika” bullies them, and their ministers give in. Yet despite all this, the spirit of the Greek people has not been cowed. They have faced the Persian empire, they have spent four centuries under Turkish rule, they have been occupied by the Nazis themselves – when a nation has been through that, how can this scare them? And Greece is still free. I am not Greek, but I can proudly say that I am a man who lives while Greece still stands.