Thursday, September 15, 2011

As Greeks howl for other people’s money and the EU coughs up, both should reflect on Aristophanes’ comedy Wealth (Ploutos), which pinpointed the mind-sets 2,400 years ago.

Chremylus, a poor man, brings home a blind man, who turns out to be the god Wealth. Blinded by Zeus so that he cannot distinguish the good man from the bad, he bestows riches on the bad alone (a typical Greek take on life). Chremylus restores his sight at the shrine of Asclepius and returns home to find his cistern full of olive oil and his crockery turned to gold and silver. The rest of the play is taken up with the amusing consequences, e.g. a starving Hermes complains everyone is so rich they no longer offer the gods sacrifices, and is found a job in the kitchen. It culminates in the decision to instal Wealth in the state treasury on the Acropolis: every modern Greek’s fantasy.

Aristophanes, however, is not that simple-minded. In the course of the play, Poverty, a hideous old woman, makes an entrance. Mocked and reviled, she argues that poverty turns men into lean, implacable fighters, not fat, gouty ones like the rich; bestows wisdom, not a lust for power; and nurtures justice, not anti-democratic criminality. Many a poor Greek, eyeing hybristic Athenian toffs, would have agreed. Further, if everyone has millions, who will do the work to produce the goods that the wealthy require, let alone luxuries like ‘pillows, carpets and perfume’? Chremylus responds with a tirade about the miseries of poverty, but Poverty accuses him of describing beggary, a very different thing.

What Poverty is describing is the state of simple, honest self-sufficiency, the lot to which most ancient Greeks felt they could aspire. Chremylus agrees there is some truth in this but ends defiantly ‘You won’t persuade me, even if you persuade me’, and Poverty is driven out.

If Greeks could now aspire to such self-sufficiency, that would help. As it is, they scream for cash, and the fat, gouty, power-mad, anti-democratic EU supinely shells it out. Much more of this and it will not be long before they are both reduced to beggary – with millions of others.

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