Bottoms Up

Lessons for Greece in a Bottle of Beer

The intellectual legacy of ancient Greece deserves to influence more than the names of streets and the slogans of politicians intent on comparing Germans to cavemen.

Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuter

ATHENS — The name of one of Greece’s most popular beers, “Fix Hellas,” has gained a certain morbid irony in recent weeks. Hellas is the archaic name for Greece, while “fix” is a transliteration of the name of a 19th-century Bavarian family, the Fuchs, who migrated to Athens and began brewing beer.

Since proposing ways to fix Hellas has become something of an international pastime in the last month, the beer’s name has begun to sound like both an injunction and a plea. “Fix your dysfunctional country if you want to stay in the Eurozone,” political leaders across Europe have told their Mediterranean neighbors. Within Greece, meanwhile, fixing the country is a constant theme of political discourse, something every politician promises to do, though few people agree on what exactly this would mean.

That Greeks rant against German imperialism while sipping beer named for a family of Bavarian brewers is amusing, but the irony deepens if you appreciate the circumstances of the Fuchs’ immigration.

Greece defeated the Ottoman Empire and gained its independence in 1829; two years earlier the country had elected its first leader, John Kapodistrias. After his assassination in 1831, various European powers convened at the Conference of London, where a British foreign secretary basically decided that it would be nice if Greece, like England, became a monarchy. So Prince Otto of Bavaria was installed as the first King of Greece, and some Bavarians, like the Fuchs family, settled in the country and started businesses.

What is now marketed as the quintessentially Greek beer exists because of capricious imperial meddling by stronger European countries. If you support Greece remaining in the EU, this story is a good metaphor for cultural fusion across the continent; a German brand that became so thoroughly Hellenized its origins were forgotten! If you see the German-imposed austerity measures as unduly harsh, the story confirms a Teutonic tendency to intervene in and profit from the domestic turmoil of poorer countries.

Of all the places to seek answers to the question of how to fix Hellas, perhaps the most promising is ancient Greece itself. It’s quite literally impossible to discuss the economic crisis in Europe without paying unwitting tribute to the cultural influence of ancient Greece. The word “Europe” is itself a legacy of Greek antiquity; recall from Greek mythology the story in which Zeus, disguised as a bull, abducts the Phoenician princess Europa beside the banks of a river. And “economics,” from the Greek roots meaning “household” and “law,” traces its origins to a dialogue by the classical author Xenophon, a historian and soldier who was also a friend of Socrates.

This dialogue, the “oeconomicus,” is only a distant relative of modern economics; passages offering advice on how to manage your farm animals, slaves, and wife, for instance, have not aged well. But other sections are dazzlingly relevant to the current crisis. Here’s Socrates arguing that wealth cannot be defined simply by quantities of material goods and sums of money:

“What of people who have got the knowledge and the capital required to enhance their fortunes, if only they will put their shoulders to the wheel; and yet, if we are to believe our senses, that is just the one thing they will not do… Surely in their case also there is but one conclusion to be drawn, which is, that neither their knowledge nor their possessions are wealth.”

This lays the foundation for a typically Socratic insight: true wealth is impossible without good ethics. Those who appear wealthy and free, in fact, are often impoverished and imprisoned by bad habits. They are slaves “to luxury and lechery, intemperance and the wine-cup along with many a fond and ruinous ambition.”

The most meaningful measurement of wealth is thus the ratio of wealth to appetites, understood broadly as any of the desires that fuel spending. However impressive the numerator of this ratio, the most astronomical sums can easily be squandered by division among an infinity of cravings. This might seem obvious, but it leads to a surprising conclusion: if the basic goal of economic activity is the accumulation of wealth, then ethics is necessarily a part of economics.

The dialogue then offers the pleasure of watching Socrates, a relatively poor man by conventional standards, convince his rich friend Critobulus that in reality their positions are precisely reversed: Socrates, with his temperate appetites and modest needs, is in fact the wealthier man.

It’s tempting to imagine the negotiations between Greece and Germany as an echo of this ancient dialogue, with Greece as Socrates, the materially poorer but dialectically nimbler interlocutor, and Germany as the stolid aristocratic Critobulus. In fact, both countries, like most of the world, have embraced a conventional view of wealth that does not consider the number and voracity of appetites a given quantity of money must satisfy.

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In downtown Athens, within a few kilometers of the Acropolis, there are streets named for a catalog of the illustrious Greek dead: Sophocles, Euripides, Menander, Pericles, Theseus, Socrates. Contemporary Greek politicians love to invoke the glories of antiquity with the sorts of grandiose truisms that might decorate the brochures for an American classics department (a few are still left): The ancient Greeks gave civilization to the world! Democracy, mathematics, medicine, tragedy—everything important began in ancient Greece!

Lately, these claims of cultural greatness have acquired a sharp edge of implication that is sometimes made explicit: You Germans were basically tribal barbarians while our ancestors were building the Acropolis.

But the intellectual legacy of ancient Greece deserves to influence more than the names of streets and the slogans of politicians intent on comparing Germans to cavemen. Many analyses of the current economic crisis are moralistic, but few critiques address ethics in the original sense of the word’s Greek root: character and custom.

A bit of advice that would be wildly unpopular but also deeply Socratic might simply be this: provided you have enough wealth to meet essential needs, the most lasting route to greater riches is to grow accustomed to wanting fewer things. This ancient insight might be a small but crucial step to fixing Hellas and the rest of us.