European Ideas and their Greek legacy

Plenary session 1 moderated by Minister Pär Stenbäck, Chairman of the ECP Senate.

Introduction by Evangelos Chrysos (Athens), professor emeritus, University of Athens.

Panel discussion followed by general debate:

- Krystof Czyzewski, Sejny
- Claire Fox, London
- Amparo Serrano de Haro, Madrid
- Stelios Virvidakis, Athens
- Mats Rosengren, Gothenburg

The opening speech presented by Pär Stenbäck set the tone of the plenary session. Mr Stenbäck spoke of how Greece’s legacy can be seen as a complex duality, both at once being appealing to the world and yet such a history can be a great burden for a country to bear. The great myth of Athens as the vision of democracy was assessed with the knowledge of its short-lived reality, only lasting a few generations. Victorious democracy, therefore, Stenbäck summarized, is not always so evident as we like to believe.

Five days previous to this year’s ECP gathering in Athens the city had celebrated its 2500 year anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, known today as the attraction of the marathon run. Evangelos Chrysos, Athens, Emeritus Professor, University of Athens, posited that we should use this event from 490BC, as an appeal to European citizens to discuss democracy.


Mats Rosengren, on terms and concepts that carry legacy. As the Greek French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis repeatedly stressed – we humans are autonomous – that is we are in a strong sense creating the laws in and for our world – but we are not always aware of this; or even we do not want to be aware of this. To be autonomous in the strongest sense means to be aware of and engage in the political task of creating an autonomous society. We are, as Castoriadis would have it, always already downstream in the river of history, but we have – if we realize and practice our autonomy – every possibility; yes even the responsibility, of directing its stream in a sustainable way. We humans have to a large part constructed the world and the conditions we live in – so it is up to us to fix what has gone wrong.

Stelios Virvidakis, Athens, began by discussing the formation, the development and the awareness of Greek cultural identity since Ancient times.  Contemporary Greek intellectuals often feel that they are confronted by the puzzle of a complex  identity emerging out of  a long  history, which involves Classical Greece, the Christian Byzantine era and the modern period, as it is perceived and interpreted by themselves and by  foreigners. They have to carry the burden of a glorious past and don’t seem to be able to meet the high expectations of their classical heritage. Moreover, they must try to achieve a harmonious synthesis of heterogeneous elements.  The sense of a continuous identity may be illusory, and becomes an ideological issue.  In any case, we should avoid the hypostatization and idealization of ‘Greekness’.

Claire Fox from the Institute of Ideas, London asked for a return to Greek democracy. It was Claire Fox’s argument that the ideas of Ancient Greece were worth defending. It was proposed that the ‘few’ have hollowed out the idea of democracy. It should be the case that the ‘masses’ participate more. However, in today’s reality democracy can be seen as purely a box ticking experience, an act which often is only appreciated when the masses agree to pre-ordained decisions made by the few.


Krzystof Czyzewski, Sejny, brought the relevance of tradition and ideas from the Greek civilization into question, suggesting it is time to rethink Greek legacy’s role in today’s Europe and asked what questions from ancient times are relevant today. The Argonauts expedition was thus put forward for the tale’s reference to crossing borders and experiencing other cultures. Since September 11th the relevance of this particular myth was said to have become more significant; a myth with messages which concern us all. Increasingly we live in a world familiar with fear and culture clashes, which can seem unsystematic, wild and impossible to corrupt by our systems. Therefore, it is essential that we find common ground to live together and bridge cultures. There would be no European identity without the otherness as part of our world. New limits must be designed. This is the challenge and situation of today.

We dream of Classicism when we think of Greek art. Amparo Serrano de Haro, Madrid, suggested the high status which we place upon ancient Greece is a burden and that we should not use so many extreme dichotomies, referring to classicism as the light which we compare with darkness, or nightmare of Modernism. By continuously placing it so highly it is likely for modern Greece to buckle under the pressure of its heritage. However, if we view these now broken statues as new works, from the fragmentation a different work emerges, perfect because of that fragmentation, fragmentation becomes key to understanding modernism. Modernism is thus presented as a kind of classism, not an opposing element. Modernism is a metaphor for classicism.
Views expressed in the general debate:

“The speakers are too polite to their hosts. Do not forget the Romans. The Greeks were careless with their legacy. Plato even burnt it. Would it, therefore, help to recognize our Greek legacy if we look to Rome?
Audience comment: We are the result of different and various legacies, eg. the Persians and Venetians  who brought their alphabet to the Greek language.”

“The weight of the statues is a weight on us all, the whole of Europe, because the Greek legacy is a European construction. Greek identity and Greek legacy are two different things.”

“Pull the notion of Greek democracy from its pedestal, the legacy of Greek democracy has been looked at to inspire great progression, a source of great inspiration to forward thinkers. The notion that the weight of the statue is too much is due to our own dissolution of democracy. We are the guiders of the few, not the other way round.
With social unrest now in Greece, instead of just praising the achievements of the past lets convert it to be useful for the future. Now more than ever modern Greece, as well as Europe as a whole, needs a positive future outlook.”

“We need to look at the outside perception of Europe, to look out through an African mask to see the world differently.”

“What would the Greek legacy look like if seen through an African mask? Western is the most advanced that civilization has come up with, African thinkers look to the West. The best schools of philosophy are in the West and inspire those elsewhere. It is not us versus them but a matter of us being able to influence in a positive way. It is a matter of self-loathing that is the problem here.

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