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Politics

Ambassador Dimitrios Tsikouris: Greece or Hellas?

Ambassador Dimitrios Tsikouris (JD, MA) has a 36-year-long career in the Greek Diplomatic Service with assignments in Germany, the United Nations, New Orleans, Washington, DC, NATO Defense College in Rome, Italy, Iran, Belgium, Indonesia, Malaysia, and ASEAN.

He became a U.S. resident in 2010 and subsequently joined a U.S. law firm as Foreign Affairs Advisor. Fluent in five languages, he has served since 2019 on the Leadership Council of the Sustained Dialogue Institute (based in Washington, DC). He is also a Board member of the Eurasia Center (based in Washington. DC), serving as Director/US-European Program.

The National Herald: What does it mean to you to be Greek?

Ambassador Dimitrios Tsikouris: I look at it as a gift that obliges me to try to live up to it and, in a sense, to pay it back in any small way I can. I say this not for any nationalistic purpose but as a world citizen.

I could have been born into any other nationality, but, by chance, I was born, and I belong to that race that Friedrich Nietzsche, in his work The Birth of Tragedy, calls “of all the human races the most perfect, the most beautiful, the most justifiably enviable.”

I had done nothing to merit this. How could I live up to it?

My only weapon was study, education, and through it to attain the professional target I had set for myself at an early stage of my life.

Herodotus, the father of history, writes (book VIII, 144, 2) that the Greeks have the same blood, same language, and the same religion (ομαιμον, ομόγλωσσον, ομοθρησκον).

The οrator Isocrates, in his Panegyrikos (50) defines as Greeks those who partake of the Greek education (της ημέτερας παιδείας μετέχοντας), thus not following biological criteria. In this sense, we can all be called Greeks, as Western Civilization has its roots in Ancient Greek thought and letters, with Homer’s Iliad being the very first text of Western literature and Ancient Greek mythology being the mother of philosophy.

To be Greek also means to speak the Greek language, a language spoken uninterruptedly for more than three thousand years and which Sophocles calls “the beautiful sound” (φιλτατον φώνημα) in his work Philoctetes (verse 234).

In modern times, for Nobel laureate Elytis, the Greek language is his “only concern on the shores of Homer” (μόνη μου έγνοια η γλώσσα μου στις όχθες του Ομήρου).

Alexander the Great takes the Greek language to the limits of the then known world, and, as a result, three centuries later, Greek has become the ‘lingua franca’ also spoken by non-Greeks, as English is today! This is the reason why Greek became the language of Christianity and in which also the Gospels were written.

It is so fascinating to be able to converse with Homer and later Ancient Greek writers, as the natural changes that time has brought to the Greek language are far less in comparison with other languages. In English, for example, just a few centuries ago, Shakespeare would say ‘nay’ and ‘though hast’ for ‘no and ‘you have.’ The same is valid for the French language (the works of Montesquieu De L’esprit des Lois and Lettres Persanes are good examples) or Italian (with Dante Alighieri and his Canti) or German (with the poetry of Hölderlin or Goethe).

Good knowledge of the Greek language and its etymology is also a tool of diplomacy. This was the central idea of a lecture I gave at the University of Florida a few years ago titled What Diplomacy owes to Greek Classical Studies. To clarify what I mean, I bring the example of the word ‘Macedon’. Herodotus presents a series of reasons why the ancient Macedonians belonged to the Greek race (books V, 20, and 22). An added argument comes from the etymology of the word ‘Macedon’, which in pure Greek means ‘tall’ (deriving from the Dorian word ‘μακος’, which is ‘μήκος’ in Ionian Greek, a word we still use today in modern Greek.

With wife Alexandra when serving as Ambassador of Greece to Indonesia in 2010.

TNH: In this context, what could you tell us about the names ‘Hellas’ and ‘Hellenes’, ’Greece’ and ‘Greeks’?

DT: The name ‘Hellas’ appears only once in the Iliad (B,683), and it refers to a region in Thessalia which is part of the kingdom of Pileas, father of Achilles, next to Fthia.

This is confirmed by Thucydides, who writes: “Indeed, it seems to me that as a whole it did not yet have this name, either, but that before the time of Hellen, son of Deucalion, this title did not even exist … Homer … nowhere uses this name of all, or indeed of any of them except the followers of Achilles of Phthiotis, who were, in fact, the first Hellenes, but designates them in his poems as Danaans and Argives and Achaeans.“ (Thucydides, book A, III).

Hellen (Eλληνας), therefore, the son of Deucalion, is the founding father of the Hellenes.

His sister is Pandora, who with Zeus brings to the world Graikos (Γραικός), as Hesiod tells us. According to the same author, from another sister of Hellen, Macedon is born.

Aristotle gives another explanation for the name Graikos. According to him, that was the name given to the priests of the oracle of Dodoni (Aristotle, Meteorologica, 338, a).

A third explanation regarding the name Graikos is the following: Many cities were named after the origin of the inhabitants. So is it the case, for instance, with the city of Tanagra and the nearby city of Graia (in the area of Oropos today). The inhabitants of Graia colonized Italy in the 8th century BC, and the Latins called them Graii/Graeci, and therefore the name Greeks and Greece prevailed.

It is clear from the above that both names, Hellenic and Greek, have equally ancient roots and are equally valid.

With wife Alexandra and son Harry in festive mood at their residence in Voula in 2021.

TNH: Greek human nature. What is the single worst thing in it?

DT: Lack of unity and cooperation! Everybody wants to be head of whatever enterprise it is. Greece is the country where if you shout in a crowd, “Mr. President,” you will be surprised to see the majority of the people responding to the call!

During the Greek War for Independence from the Ottoman rule, there were two civil wars, from late 1823 to early 1825: The Greeks knew Ibrahim was coming from Egypt, but they did nothing to stop his landing in Peloponissos as they were busy with their civil war, having two separate governments! – Capodistrias arrived in Greece as Governor in January 1828, and disobedience led to his assassination in September 1831.

From Homer’s Iliad to today, we see the same pattern again and again. Indicatively I note:

– “We cannot all Achaeans be kings; one should be the chief!” (“…εις κειρανος έστω!”) shouts Odysseus (Ulysses) in the Iliad (B,203-204)

– “The Greeks never have unity; never do the accept one  chief” (Ποτέ Ομόνοια οι Ρωμιοί, ποτέ μονοαφεντια), Byzantine poem, 12th century AD

– “You brought us disunity and discord” (Μας γυμνάσατε την διχόνοια), General Makryiannis addressing Greek politicians (Beginning of the epilogue of General Makryiannis ‘Memoirs’).

We need to become enemies of our passions and of the tendency to put ourselves first. This is valid in all aspects of our life, either personal or public, and in politics. Our history has repeatedly seen examples of decisions based on private and non-national interests.

With Secretary-General of A.S.E.A.N. presenting credentials as Representative of Greece in 2009.

TNH: The road of Greece on the world map? Are you optimistic concerning Greece’s future?

DT: Yes, I am very optimistic and confident, provided we can kill the beast we all have within, in various degrees, regarding the need for unity and cooperation I referred to earlier.

Greece has achieved a lot in the 200 hundred years we have celebrated this year. Having just celebrated 40 years as a European Union member, she successfully overcame the recent economic crises. She has acquired an enviable and respected place in the international scene. As Greece looks with confidence to the future, she is also proud of those of Greek origin who, while living abroad, are honoring their Greek heritage by being successful in their endeavors.

 

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