Industry September 2015

The Greek problem

Recently I’ve been struggling with the Greek problem. Not the question of whether or not they should keep the euro, but that of the Stoics and the Epicureans. If one reads between the lines of much of the criticism levelled against the Greek people and their parlous economy, what it largely comes down to is an implicit disdain, on the part of the larger European states, for the apparent Epicureanism of the Greeks. What interests me is the question of whether or not this is accurate or fair.

The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote more than 300 books, yet none exist today. Similarly, Zeno of Citium—father of the Stoic school of philosophy—was a prodigious writer, yet none of his original writings have survived. Much of the anecdotal information about their lives and several of their letters come to us courtesy of Diogenes Laërtius, in his 3rd century work, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.

Aside from Diogenes’ narrative accounts, we are indebted for much of what we know of Stoic and Epicurean philosophy to Seneca, Roman philosopher and tutor to Emperor Nero. In his work, Moral letters to Lucilius, Seneca ends most of his 124 letters espousing Stoic virtues with a quote from Epicurus. Perhaps the Stoics and the Epicureans aren’t so different after all.

In the modern vernacular, stoicism has become a byword for self-denial, rejection of desire and moral fortitude, whereas Epicureanism has become synonymous with self-gratification, sensuousness and wanton indulgence in luxury. I find this mildly irritating, to the same extent that I am irritated by people who misquote Italian historian and philosopher Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli without ever having read his work.

Epicurus was devoted to the pursuit of happiness through simplicity, not excess. His lifestyle was anything but one of excess and gluttony; his philosophy was the pursuit of happiness and to have a life well lived. “If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires”, he said. Meanwhile, on the subject of fulfilment he said: “Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance”. These are hardly the sentiments of a priapic sensualist.

This brings me to my point. The Greek crisis of today seems to me to be a struggle not of fiscal policy but of philosophy: Stoicism versus hedonistic Greek Epicureanism. The Northern European stoics assume that the Greeks are engaging in the “orgies and gluttony” of Epicureanism, hence the relentless calls for austerity, but perhaps the Greeks are trying to live their lives according to the original Epicurean model: the pursuit of happiness through placing higher value on the pleasures of family, friendship and time to enjoy them. This means chiros—qualitative time—rather than chronos—quantitative time.

In joining the euro it could just be that Greece shoehorned itself into a set of strictures that are totally at odds with Greek people’s deeper instincts, needs and culture of living well and simply: Epicureanism in the true sense. In accepting Greece’s use of the euro, it seems that member states are guilty of placing expectations, informed by their stoic values rather than by proper financial due diligence, on the future performance of the Greek economy.

In fact, in order to achieve the freedom from European fiscal control that the Greek people profess to desire, they need to become more Epicurean, not less. A return to the drachma may be a return to the days before austerity and self-imposed slavery to their European creditors. Naturally, this would also entail relinquishing some of the creature comforts that using the euro confers, but would that be any worse than the current situation?

As may be evident, I know very little about Greece and less about economics, but as a husband, father, entrepreneur and would-be flâneur, I know a lot about balancing the pursuit of wealth with the pursuit of happiness, and of a life well lived. Unless we are remarkably lucky, sometimes we simply have to make tough choices.

As Epicurus said, “A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs”.