Monday, June 21, 2010


«Τι τα θέλεις τα λεφτά,
Nα τα κάψεις, τι τα θες,
Χέρια αλλάζουν τακτικά ,
Mήπως τα ΄χες κι από χτες,
Γλέντα τη ζωή,
Όλοι δυο μέτρα παίρνουν γη,
Τα λεφτά είναι δανεικά,
Xέρια αλλάζουν τακτικά.»

Greeks have an ambivalent attitude to money. Greek mythology is replete with cautionary tales about the ignominious end of the rich. King Midas, the original possessor of the Midas touch, found to his detriment, the consequences of oversupply of gold, upon his involuntarily turning everything, even his daughter, into the said precious substance. Croesus, the Bill Gates of ancient Greece, is said to have had an interview with Solon of Athens, in which Croesus maintains that his enormous wealth makes him the happiest man in the world. He is disappointed by Solon's response: that three have been happier than Croesus, Tellos who died fighting for his country, and Kleobis and Biton, brothers who died peacefully in their sleep when their mother prayed for their perfect happiness, after they had demonstrated filial piety, by drawing her to a festival in an oxcart themselves. Croesus' hubristic happiness was reversed by the tragic deaths of his accidentally-murdered son, his wife's suicide at the fall of Sardis and his capture by Cyrus, who tried to burn him alive. Thus the "happiness" of Croesus is presented as a moralistic exemplum of the fickleness of Tyche.
Consequently, Greeks generally saw the rich as potentially hubristic, extravagant, profiteering and soft - probably dishonest if nouveaux riche and lucky rather than worthy if of longer standing - but this notwithstanding, also as prudent, potentially generous and magnanimous benefactors. This attitude has survived among our people to the present day. In the context of the organised community in Australia, the amount of times our own Croesoi have been defamed, while at the same time, supplicated by their own defamers for donations and sponsorship, is remarkable.
The inconsistency in our attitude towards wealth seems to derive from two opposing philosophical viewpoints of venerable provenance. The Cynics prized poverty and refused possessions, just like the early Christians, while some exponents of the Stoics associated joy with the use of wealth. Mainstream Stoicism counted wealth among the 'useful indifferents' and Aristotelian tradition saw at least a comfortable independence as essential to the virtuous life. The Ancient Greeks knew that wealth could arouse the green eyed monster in people. It is for this reason that sumptuary laws were enacted in the ancient poleis. Officials such as the gynaikonomoi attempted to restrict extravagant display, especially at funerals of festivals. After all, extravagant display of wealth would cause one to arouse the prevalent expectation that the wealthy would at least use some of their wealth for the public benefit. In Athens, through the institution of the trierarchy, this almost became an enforceable obligation, though in other cities, the 'voluntariness' and 'goodwill' of such benefactions - through contributions to corn-buying, or building funds, educational or religious foundations, the freeing of slaves or ransoming of captives, was emphasized. In short: For you to have money and I not to have any, you must have done something shifty, for you are no better than me in intelligence or worth. Given that it is obvious that you have obtained your wealth through nefarious means, you must give me some, or burn it.
Greece in Melbourne as a colony, in keeping with many of the ancient Greek colonies, has the pursuit of wealth as one of its foundation myths. Post-war Greece was a ravaged and desolate place, bereft of opportunity. For this reason, intrepid settlers abandoned its shores in search of new Canaan, where the rivers flow with milk and honey and fortunes can be made. They worked hard, sacrificing their leisure time and enjoyment of life to the pursuit of the double shift. Acquiring an average of 2.3 houses, they are assertive and proud of the fact that this wealth was acquired "for the sake of the children." In an interesting twist on the old attitude, they are still mindful of the old attitude to wealth. A successful pensioner, having cleverly transferred his property before the application of five-year Centerlink threshold, will state: "I am just a pensioner. My son, however, is really successful and rich."
Those who do not subscribe to the founding value of our colony, either through incapacity or choice, are considered an aberration that has no place in our society. Local artists and intellectuals are nice people, but also «χαραμοψώμηδες,» unless it is revealed that they have been secretly amassing property - upon which revelation it is surmised that they must have married into that money, an act that inspires admiration as well as deprecation. Conversely, it does not pay to subscribe to the founding value to openly, for our Cynicism must be seen to mask our Stoicism. At a meeting of a community organization some years ago, where second-generation volunteers were sought to revitalize the group, a young attendee asked: "Who is going to pay me for my time?" to the horror of the first-generation attendees. As was explained to me, the horror lay not in the question itself, for why would one forego a financial reward, but rather, the blatant display of desire, uncamouflaged by the subtlety of the elders.
Our compatriots in Greece are generally caught in a similar conflict. On the one hand, songs like the one below, indicate that for Greeks money is nothing. After all, do they not us money-hungry expatriates that we are too greedy, whereas they live for the moment?
«Θα τα κάψω/ τα ρημάδια τα λεφτά μου/ για να δω αν την καρδιά μου/ ή το χρήμα αγαπάς.»
Funnily enough, instances where Helladic Greeks go ahead with their threat are inordinately rare. And at any rate, could not the hapless girl put to this degrading test argue that she lifted the fire extinguisher from the wall to extinguish the conflagration NOT in order to save the money but rather to stop the fire from spreading and endangering her beloved sugar-daddy's health? It is in order to inhibit the prevalence of such risky undertakings that the Australian mint has replaced paper notes with polymer counterparts.
Despite their currency-burning propensities, in the same breath that Helladic Greeks wax lyrical about enjoying life and devoting themselves to the γλέντι, they also lament the rising cost of living, coupled with their falling wage, inability to find work and general hard times. This apparent inconsistency can be explained as follows: Greeks generally would not care a fig about money and burn it all at the bouzoukia, if they actually had decent jobs that paid them money. After all, how can you burn your money unless you have it in the first place? Perhaps they could all be reassured by George Papandreou's electoral campaign assertion that: «Λεφτά υπάρχουν.» This would explain why, despite the fact that Helladic Greeks are Cynics who live for the moment and care not a jot about money, their conversations tend to centre around three things of late: Who has money, how they acquired it and how they can use this information to get some of their own.
Akis Tzohatzopoulos, former PASOK stalwart and long time government minister may have the answers. He has most recently been expelled from the party he has served so long, while the public prosecutor investigates allegations that he transferred property into his wife's name in order to circumvent tax and parliamentary disclosure of property legislation. Former transport minister Tasos Mantelis will, according to a recent court ruling, face bribery charges over allegations that he accepted 100,000 euro from Siemens as a bribe, an amount which he insists was an election donation.
The persecution of these august individuals by the State should raise our ire. Instead of blatantly flaunting their unhellenic desire to acquire wealth by exploiting opportunities arising out of their position at the helm of the country, (and after all, it is not a coincidence that the word κομπίνα is actually a loan-word, no Greek word apparently existing to best express this concept), at least these gentlemen have had the sensitivity to attempt to elaborately coat their Stoicism, in a sugar pill of Cynicism, so that it does not show. It is for this reason that the lyrics of Georgia Dimou's song «Δεν πα να 'χεις λεφτά,» are so offensive: «Μπορεί να έχεις κόκα, μπορεί να έχεις λεφτά... δεν έχεις καρδιά, δεν έχεις ψυχή, άρα δεν ένιωσες ποτέ, τη γαμ...μένη τη ζώη.»
How hideous these sentiments are. For it is due to the hoarding of such individuals and the stripping of their secret caches during times of crisis that Greece will be saved from its imminent penury - proof of the prescience of George Papandreou, in knowing where the money was, months in advance.
Ultimately, coinage is a Lydian invention and though the Lydians assimilated within the Greek world, their brainchild has never sat easy with us, rendering us unable to know, when to retain or whether to part with this. To this, most complex of dilemmas, we would posit that only the great goddess Anna Vissi herself, offers any plausible solution:
«Όλα τα λεφτά, μωρό μου, όλα τα λεφτά, για τα δυο σου μάτια, που μου πήραν τα μυαλά.»
Δώστα όλα μεγάλε!!!


First published in NKEE on Monday 21 June 2010