Let’s be honest—Greeks love the good life—partying, scrumptious dinners, vacations and journeys to the Greek islands back and forth. Greek women put a lot of effort into their physical appearance—all that bling-bling with the diamond rings, fancy hairdos, designer handbags, manicured nails, well-coiffed and stylish. Same for the men. Greek boys go around careening in Benzes and Bentleys. Hey, what’s so bad about that? Outward displays of wealth go hand in hand in flaunting status. It’s like telling the world, “Hey, I achieved the American Dream. I grabbed it from the axidia.” Who doesn’t want to live the good life?
Conspicuously displaying success in the form of brands and luxury lifestyles is fine, except when the drive to get rich overshadows the deep-seated values of our culture—those that emphasized arête, philotimo, honor. If the pursuit of financial gain eclipses those values, then you have started on the slippery slope to a peripetia, your downfall.
Case in point, Dean Skelios and his son Adam. The former Majority Leader of the New York State Senate, Skelos brokered his power to have rich corporate sponsors line his pockets and the bottom-line of his son’s environmental company. Skelos turned a deaf ear to environmentalist and community groups who tried to get meetings with him about the dangers of fracking. He was too busy to see them because he had already made up his mind to align himself with lucrative energy giants that gave him kickbacks. His excuse? His son needed the money. Adam was having problems getting approved for a mortgage for a $1 million home with a pool. Among his many misdeeds, Daddy Skelos used his connections to get his daughter-in-law and wife of son Adam into a zoning board position. Why? To advance “his ability to corruptly obtain zoning decisions favorable to real estate deals he brokered given his wife’s appointment,” (nydailynews)
Adam Skelos had asked for his salary to jump from $4000 to $10000 per month as a do-nothing consultant for an Arizona-based environmental firm so that he could use the power and clout of his father to secure it contracts under Sandy funding. Adam even wanted Daddy to run against Governor Cuomo, calling him a “pussy,” because Cuomo had prohibited fracking in the state. Sounds like a spoiled brat if I have ever heard one.
Before his downfall, the Greek community embraced Skelos as their native son; he was also an anarchon of a Greek church on Long Island.
For as many wonderful heroes and role models we have in Greek culture, we have just as many scoundrels (Spyro Agnew, the Baldies, notorious cocaine-smugglers on the East Coast, the Greek gangsters in Vancouver.) Everybody wants to claim a Hellene native son or daughter when they have done something right, but when they get caught, well then, they don’t really represent us, do they?
The need to achieve brings many moral dangers. One is how easy it is to lose track of what is right and “dikeo” when you become fixated on grabbing the golden ring. You can also disregard people who on the surface might not glitter and therefore assume they are inferior. You inflate your ego with other power-hungry gold-diggers and then you forget where you came from and what makes life really meaningful. It’s not hard to become a snob if you are Greek.
I think now, more than ever, when our ethnic group has made certain very hard-won financial and political achievements, that it is crucial to remember the values of our ancestors. To stay true to those ideals that pivoted our ethnos to its position of excellence in ancient times.
As a brief wake up call, I would like to bring up the story of Crates of Thebes and his wife Hipparchia of Maroneia. As the story goes, Crates came from a wealthy family from Thebes. He was a golden son who was supposed to inherit the company. However, a visit to Athens and a chance experience of a play changed the course of his life. No one is sure what exactly Crates perceived in the play of the Tragedy of Telephus, which relates the story of how King Telephus, the son of Heracles, was wounded by Achilles. The wound would not heal and, when Telephus consulted the oracle, he was told it could only be healed by the one who inflicted it. Telephus disguised himself as a beggar and went to Achilles’ camp, where he managed to convince Achilles to heal him with the same spear that wounded him. perhaps it was that not even a king, and son of the demi-god Heracles, was immune to pain and loss. Perhaps it was because Telephus assumed the disguise of the beggar that he was more effective in achieving his goal of being healed than when he was a king .
But whatever the case, he gave up all his riches to the poor, and traveled to Athens to become a bum. Except in ancient Greece he wouldn’t be called a homeless bum, but a follower of the Cynic philosopher Diogenes. He chose to live a simple life unencumbered by the trappings of social convention. He came to the conclusion that material possessions were empty and get in the way of living an authentic life.
There was no need for personal possessions according to the Cynic view, because one was only going to lose them and, more importantly, they distracted one from the act of living one’s life. This same could be said of social status or education (in the formal understanding of the word) or social etiquette; all of these concepts were unnatural and devised by human beings to help them give shape and order to the world but, really, they were artificial concepts that separated people from the possibility of living honest lives.
Crates developed the nickname “the door opener.” Basically, he would open your door and walk into your home unexpectedly and deliver words of wisdom or even help you with a crisis. Because he was a jovial, unthreatening sort of guy, people actually welcomed him in instead of calling the police.
A famous anecdote has Crates opening the door to Metrocles’s house, one of the wealthiest in Athens. Metrocles, a student of Theophrastus at Aristotle’s Lyceum, was delivering a presentation when the unthinkable happened: he farted. He farted so loudly that it caused a ruckus. He retreated into his room, a self-conscious adolescent and resolved never to show his face in public again. He was even thinking about starving to death. So, in walks Crates and reasons with him: farting is a natural body function; it should not bring shame. Instead it’s the other trappings of society, etiquette, education, social status, wealth that we should avoid. To punctuate his claim, Crates farted too. From that time forth, Metrocles found a different teacher and guru.
Not only did Crates sway Metrocles, but when Metrocles introduced him to his younger sister, she too fell under his spell. Even though Crates by all accounts was ugly and unattractive, Hipparchia decided she would marry Crates or else kill herself to the mortification of her parents who wanted to give her to a wealthy suitor as she was a good catch for her time.
According to Ancient.eu, “Her parents asked Crates if he would come reason with her and talk her out of this decision. He arrived at the house, disrobed and, standing naked in front of her, said, “Here is the bridegroom and these are his possessions – choose accordingly.” Instead of dissuading Hipparchia, this only made her love him more and she left her family and wealth to marry him and live with him in poverty on the streets. They consummated their marriage on the porch of a public building in downtown Athens reasoning, as they did in all things, that if there was nothing unnatural about sex in private, there was nothing wrong with it in public. Hipparchia would bear Crates two children, a son and daughter, and lived with him for the rest of his life.”
Which goes to show looks are not as important as personality for women.
Hipparchia traveled and taught daily with Crates, wearing men’s clothing and conversing with males as an equal. It is thought she took over teaching his students after his death. She also wrote extensive philosophical treatises.
So, what is the moral of the story from the annals of ancient Greek Cynics like Crates of Thebes and Hipparchia of Maroneia? That materialism cannot compare to greatness of spirit. That power and glory without virtue and honor become the breeding grounds for corruption, arrogance, and a tainted legacy that will follow you down through history. Materialism can only be measured by a lasting good reputation and service. Hono
r is worth its weight in gold. Don’t forget the wisdom of your roots as you climb the golden ladder of accomplishment. Crates, Hipparchia, come back and open our doors!