The Greatness of the Greeks
The greatness or any nation lies in its people, not in its possessions. Greece is a poor country but the Greeks are a valuable people. The wealth of Greece lies in their courage, their energy, their lively minds, and their physical virility. The amazing progress that has been made in six years toward absorbing a 25 per cent increase in population speaks volumes for the character of the absorbers and the absorbed. I think it worth while, therefore, to devote a chapter to a study of the Greeks themselves. It may help the Western world to understand and better appreciate these worthy descendants of a glorious race. When the Greeks are mentioned in Europe and America it is too much the habit to dismiss them mentally as only to another of "those hopeless Balkan peoples." The Greeks are, however, very different from the other peoples of the Balkans, and it is a grievous injustice to misunderstand these differences.
First of all, the Greek has a passion for excellence and progress unique in that part of the world. Whenever he is poor or ignorant or backward he is so against his will. Education is a passion universal among the Greeks, and parents there, as in America, will make every sacrifice to provide schooling for their children. I recently saw a most touching illustration of this fact. Making a rapid tour of Macedonia, I arrived at Edessa, the ancient capital, late in the evening and spent the night and following morning there. Even before my early breakfast I was informed that a delegation from a distant village was on hand awaiting my convenience to pay their respects and offer a petition. When I saw the delegation I found the local priest, the schoolmaster, and three head men leading it. They had come to see me because they thought that I had the ear of the central government and could get what they wanted from headquarters in Athens. Of course, I could not do this; but the point of the story is their errand. They explained that they represented a group of refugees from the Black Sea region of Asia Minor, who had finally been got together again after their dispersion, and were now settled in the mountains of western Macedonia. They had an exceedingly hard time getting started in their new surroundings, and at times their sufferings had been severe. They were so poor that they had not been able to build even a church, but for five years had been holding their church services in a barn. The priest himself then explained what they wanted. It was not relief from taxes, nor an extension of time on their land payments, nor any of the selfish advantages one might have expected; it was not even a church they wanted. Said the priest: "We are willing to go on worshiping in a stable until better times come, but we implore you to help us build a school, so that our children shall not grow up in ignorance."
Democracy is ingrained in the Greek, From the most ancient historic times, ever since the decline of the tiny monarchies of the heroic age described by Homer, the Greek has resented, and has refused to accept whenever possible, any political system in which he did not share on an equality with every other Greek. So far did he carry this individualistic democracy "in ancient historic times that even his military organizations were built on this principle. Some historian has pointed out that the immortal Ten Thousand, whose successful retreat from the Indus River to the shores of the Black Sea is described by Xenophon in the Anabasis, was more like a debating society than an army. Surrounded as it was by enemies, harried by day and by night, in a strange and difficult country, it continued in its darkest hours the practice of taking common counsel, deciding its strategy and changing its commanders by popular vote. Nevertheless it won its way back to Greece.
Exactly this quality and very largely these methods characterized the refugee mass when it arrived in Greece in 1922—seven years ago. The refugees welcomed the organized help of the Greek Government and of the international Refugee Settlement Commission, but they did not wait for these outside agencies to help them. Every Greek instantly set about helping himself. Instinctively he sought his old acquaintances and tried to reorganize his old social groups. Once gathered together again, these groups at once set up their familiar processes of local self-government.
Like the American, nearly every Greek is intensely ambitious to succeed in business. When he succeeds he gains honor (again as in America) by the lavishness of his gifts of money to the public welfare. From immemorial times preeminence in Greek communities has been given chiefly to the poet, the artist, the teacher, and the public benefactor. This is as true to-day in Greece as it was in the days of Sappho. The arts have declined in modern Greece (probably due to the centuries of foreign oppression), but the instinct for learning and for commerce is as strong as ever. In both fields the Modern Greek excels.
The disruption of normal political life among the Greeks during the many centuries of foreign rule was followed by the century (just past) of self-government in Greece proper; but self-government based upon a fallacious theory. The monarchical form of government, imposed a century ago upon the Greeks by the European powers after they achieved their independence, was not adapted to their political genius. The Greek instinct is for local self-government. The monarchical idea implies the centralization of government. Under the monarchy an inevitable bureaucracy grew up at Athens, undertaking to direct from the capital the local developments of education, agriculture, and even local political and judicial administration. This system has worked after a fashion, because it had to work. But it runs counter to the nature of the Greeks, and has never been better than a poor makeshift.
For example: In most Greek cities there is an intense and healthy rivalry among the best citizens to secure the honor of election to office. So greatly is the honor prized, of being preferred above one's fellows for public office, that the ablest citizens have used every effort to secure election. The man chosen has been driven, by the same aspiration for honor, to try to excel his predecessor's record. Not only could he do this by a wiser administration, but also by a more lavish giving of his personal means. Thus it has been by no means uncommon for a man of wealth to give practically his whole fortune for the erection of a new school building. Similarly, the holders of other local offices have been known to bankrupt themselves to build a new water system for their town, or to create some other tangible and enduring evidence of their local patriotism.
The centralization of government at Athens obviously dampens or destroys this generous competition. Thus when a new school is needed, the village, however re-mote, must now look to Athens for a subsidy, instead of to the munificence of its own citizens. Log-rolling at the distant capital is more effective than appeals to local pride. This situation is not merely demoralizing. More serious than that, it dries up the very fountainhead of the Greek political nature. Greece will not demonstrate its full capacity for self-government until its constitutional system is rearranged to recognize and capitalize the distinctive political qualities of the people.
Such reorganization has hitherto been impossible At the instance of the European powers, a foreign dynasty has sat on the Greek throne. The Greek parliamentary system has been an imitation of the French parliamentary system, which itself in turn is a none too successful imitative adaptation of the British Parliament. Ill adapted as it is to Greek conditions, the Greeks have had to put up with it because they have been under the tutelage of France and Great Britain. Now, however, since they have expelled the dynasty and have become a republic, it may well be that a natural evolution will bring about a political organization more securely based on the Greek character.
The Greek has suffered in Western eyes also by his enforced association with inferior peoples. His destiny has been warped up for centuries, against his will, with those of the backward Turks, and with the relatively backward Serbs and Bulgarians. To a marvelous degree the sturdy Greek has resisted the superstitions and vices of the Orientals and barbarians about him. With anything like a fair chance in the world, he will again demonstrate the possibilities of his virtues.
Endless stories could be told of the courage of the Greeks, as illustrated in the lives of the refugees. One of the pleasantest comes from a little fishing village, built by the Refugee Settlement Commission near Volo, at the foot of Mount Pelion. The inhabitants of Epivato are like all the other refugees, in that they arrived in Greece destitute and suffering the loss of most of the breadwinners. In many of their little homes beside the water only a mother and her three or four young children form the whole family. They live in two rooms and eke out a bare living by endless industry and vigilant thrift. Poor as the village is, however, it supports the best educated woman in the settlement as a teacher. Freed from other gainful labors, she gives her time to educating the children—of course, she still has her domestic duties and the care of her own children to manage. She is a widow, and life is hard; nevertheless, in her characteristically neat living room there hangs on the wall an embroidered motto which, translated into English, reads:
Wherever there is Faith there is Love,
Wherever there is Love there is Peace,
Wherever there is Peace there is Benediction,
Wherever there is Benediction there is God,
Where God is there is no want.
A faith equally genuine and sublime has been characteristic of tens of thousands of the refugees. I have visited hundreds of them in their little homes, and never has courage been found lacking in the inmates. One family in the Kaisariana Settlement just outside of Athens comprises an aged widow mother, a son incapacitated by tuberculosis, and a widowed daughter with three small children, besides an unmarried daughter. The younger women manage to find a certain amount casual employment but no steady work. The average total income of the family is barely enough to provide food so meager that one wonders how they can survive. Tragic memories of the violent death of husbands and sons are still fresh. These bring their moments of passioned sorrow. But these people do not yield to des-pair or lassitude. They face life with resolution and with many a touch of grim humor. Questioned as to how they could possibly carry on in the face of their difficulties, the young widow flashed back a brilliant smile shrugged her shoulders, in the characteristic Greek fashion: "God gives us strength to go about'' was her laconic reply. No oriental fatalism here!
Moodiness and melancholy, as well as despair, are alien to the Greek temperament. The air is too clear, the sunlight too intense, the colors of the landscape too vivid to breed that grayness of the mind which broods in duller climates. Everything in his natural surroundings tends to stimulate the Greek rather than depress him. Only two things run counter to this general statement. In summer the dry intensity of scorching sunlight, by its over stimulation, finally tends to depress the heart action, and makes one feel dispirited. The brilliancy of the scene, however, largely counteracts this emotional effect, and constant resort to small doses of coffee helps further.
Such a climate, in another setting, would tend strongly to produce a frivolous people. The Greek is saved from this result by the effect of the scenery in which he lives and which powerfully affects his psychology. A famous historian has said that when he was writing about Greece his readers must assume that any place he mentioned was mountainous unless a plain were specifically expressed. Mountains surround the Greek on every hand. They are bold and massive, impressing the beholder with a sense of the majesty and power of nature. A highly intelligent Greek has recently said: "The Greek is not morbid, but neither is he gay or light-hearted. He loves life but reflects emotionally the climate and the scenery. The latter is rugged, difficult, and unsmiling, its every harsh outline made clear and naked by the pitiless sunlight. It is not a joyous scene nor a joyous people. We accept life as it comes, and relieve its grimness with merrymaking."
The simplicity of Greek life impresses every stranger, and deceives many. It is not the simplicity of shiftlessness, but the simplicity of an inevitable poverty. The humble homes characteristic of the country are never the less clean and neat and orderly within. Industrious as he is, the Greek values some things above the material returns of industry. Above all else he is a social being, and he will pay almost any necessary price to gain the few hours in the evening when he foregathers with his fellows for social purposes and the exercise of his mental powers by matching them against those of his neighbors. Politics is the favorite theme of conversation, and there is in Greece no day laborer too humble to be well in-formed upon the facts of the current "situation," and to have his own independent opinion upon it. The democracy of the Greeks, to which I have constantly alluded, is no mere phrase that is bandied about to conceal something quite different. If the word "democracy'' did not exist in Greece it would have to be coined express the universal fact.
Out of this political equality and this perfect freedom, of expression comes afresh every day a consensus of opinion probably more complete than is arrived at in any other country in the world. It explains, too, the sudden and violent fluctuations in government that so perplex and irritate many foreign observers. As the Greek is an individualist, and as almost every individual Greek is a person of thought and ideas, the political results are bound to be very different from those arrived at in America. For example: in America, team-play is as instinctive as breathing, and politics occupies a very small part of anybody's time or thought. The American gives his loyalty to organizations and institutions. He tends strongly to think of himself as a member of a party, and to follow his party right or wrong. The Greek's loyalty, on the other hand, is to his ideas. He follows the leader who, at the moment, most nearly embodies those ideas. The moment the Greek's idea changes, he shifts to another leader. The practical result is an endless variety of leaders, factions, and coalitions. The political line-up shifts from day to day, almost from hour to hour. The American views with impatience what seems to him the resultant chaos. Nevertheless, it is not chaos. Kaleidoscopic as are the changes in the political instruments of government, the eventual aims of Greek policy are as clearly defined and as steadfastly pursued as are, for example, our Monroe Doctrine and our protective tariff. It is idle to criticize their system simply because it is different. Also it is a mistake to confuse the frequent "revolutions" in Greece with the frequent revolutions in Central America. In the first place, practically all Greek revolutions are bloodless. In the second, they are usually simply short cuts to constitutional changes in a nation highly intelligent and exceedingly conscious of what it is about, politically. It may be granted that some of these revolutions are comic affairs, but even these are harmless and transi
The position of woman among the Greeks is in striking contrast with that of most of their neighbors. Except among the remote mountain peasantry of Epirus, woman occupies a very high position. She has a full share in life, and by no means infrequently dominates the family, her husband included, by force of superior intelligence and character. It is very common in Greece for a widow to inherit the entire estate of her husband and to manage it with conspicuous success. In most parts of Greece women live in that kind of modest retirement which we in America would call old-fashioned.
But there, as formerly here, no one is deceived by the outward conventions. Inside her home the Greek woman shares equally in the family councils. Her position is one of dignity and respect. In Athens she is as fully emancipated as she is in New York or Paris. I know, for example, one highly educated Greek lady, who keeps up to date in the current literature of four languages, who after the World War, undertook to restore the family estate, which is situated near the Bulgarian boundary and consequently had been devastated by border raids. She went alone to the remote ranch home, traveling by horseback and taking a plentiful supply of arms and ammunition along with the food and blankets. She lived alone on the ranch for many months, bought the lumber to reconstruct the buildings, hired the mechanics and directed their labors, and supervised the restoration of the soil to cultivation. Neither the loneliness of the place nor the frequent proximity of brigands daunted her in the least, nor was her independence regarded as an unwarranted unconventionality.
Marriages are "arranged" in Greece, after the French system, by the parents of the contracting parties. Romance plays little or no part in them; nevertheless, conjugal affection is the rule rather than the exception, and family ties are perhaps the strongest single influence in the life of a Greek. Moral standards are exceedingly high and are enforced by the rigors of a peculiar code regarding the family honor. Custom provides that when a woman deviates from the path of virtue she shall be killed by a member of her family. The executioner in the case of a married woman is not her husband, but her brother. The theory is that her delinquency is a stain on the honor of the blood relatives and must be expiated with blood. The husband's attitude is merely that he was cheated in the bargain when his parents arranged the marriage contract. Not he is dishonored, but the wife's family. So rigorous is this custom, and so universally accepted, that in the rare cases where this situation arises, it usually follows that the brother that has killed the woman is tried for murder, is convicted of second-degree manslaughter, is sentenced to two years in prison, and is released after serving a few weeks of the sentence. In other words, the community conscience approves the drastic action of the family to clear its name. The result, naturally, is that the practical certainty of the family penalty operates powerfully to prevent the occasion for its use.
Hospitality is a universal virtue among the Greeks. No home is so poor but that the welcome stranger is offered, at the least, a cup of Turkish coffee and cigarettes, or the sweetmeat accompanied by a glass of water, which are the characteristic between-meals refreshment. In the isolated settlements in Epirus the stranger is a welcomed contact with the outer world, and his entertainment has been worked out by custom into an elaborate and time-consuming ritual that is sometimes embarrassing to a hurried traveler. The guest must go through with the whole program of his reception, however, or his host will be so offended that he will set the wolf like dogs upon him as he leaves.
The Greek is warlike; he has to be. He has lived for five thousand years and longer in the presence of hostile tribes. Of his nearest neighbors, the one that requires the closest watching is the Turk, while the Serbs and Bulgarians are always potential, and frequently active, enemies. If the Greek's attitude toward war is different from an American's, it is only natural. To him, war is as inevitable as sunrise, and he looks forward to the next war with perfect calmness, with neither elation over its fictitious glory nor any morbid forebodings over its inevitable tragedies. To him, war is simply anther of the facts of life.
Nothing has revealed the essential soundness of Greek character more vividly than his conduct in the last seven years, during the greatest emergency of his recent history. The tremendous migration of a million and quarter people to new surroundings under the most trying conditions has been accomplished with amazingly little disorder. The sufferings of his race have not un-nerved him. Tragedy has been another familiar fact of life down through all the ages of his history. He has always been acutely conscious of it but has never yielded to despair.
It would be hard to overstate the emotional strain upon the refugees. What the Psalmist meant when he said "I cannot sing the Lord's song in a strange land", has afflicted every one of them. This almost unbearable homesickness is revealed in many touching forms. Natives of Macedonia were astonished to see refugees, newly arrived from Pontus, wandering through the oak forests, almost distraught, wildly searching for walnuts, as they had done every year for centuries in their native land, and to see them smitten with a heartbreaking sense of loss when they discovered that walnuts do not grow in Greece. Some of the refugees from Asia Minor had lived for centuries in pleasant dry caves along the seashore. Their neighbors in Attica were dumbfounded to see them abandon the houses to which they had been assigned on their arrival in Greece, and, finding no caves available, proceed to dig them.
Such incidents reveal the strength and tenacity of these people's rootage in the old soil, and suggest the violence of the emotional break with the continuity of life involved in their dispersion. Examples could be multiplied. Imagine having to get your olive oil out of a single bottle when you had been used, all your life, to having it out of a barrel; or having to buy olives and wine at a store, when the idea had simply never occurred to you or your neighbors that these things should not come off your own lands, by your own hands, and endeared by the annual practice of an immemorial art. Even the everyday utensils were strange. The clothes were different. The local dialect was hard to understand. The church one attended was some new, raw structure, not the mellowed and hallowed little edifice, eight hundred years old, to which one and one's ancestors had beaten a timeless path.