Guest Viewpoints

Korais’ Healing Medicine for Modern Greece

Evaggelos Vallianatos/Huffington Post

During my graduate history studies at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I came across Adamantios Korais. This was a Greek doctor-classical scholar who lived in Paris from the onset of the French Revolution in 1789 until his death in 1833.

Korais became the link to my Greek ancestors. He helped me understand their achievement and that achievement’s revolutionary significance in the building of the modern world.

That made all the difference to me. Now I had a philosophy and knew who I was. I have been proud of being Greek ever since. I was also convinced that the life-saving and science-driven culture of ancient Greece had the potential to raise modern Greeks to heights of greatness.

In addition, writing my dissertation on how Korais inspired the Greeks to reestablish their freedom, taught me Greek history, as I never learned it in my graduate studies. Korais opened my eyes to see the world as it should be and as it is. He had a pervasive influence in my life.

Korais was born in Smyrna in 1748. He studied at the local Evangelical School. He also learned Latin from Bernard Keun, pastor of the Dutch consulate, who encouraged him to go to the “Enlightened Europe” for studies.

Korais did exactly that. In 1782, he enrolled at the medical school of the University of Montpellier where, in 1788, he earned his medical degree. He then settled in Paris where, in 1789, he witnessed the explosion of the French Revolution from a house overlooking Bastille.

Korais did not find all that the French Revolution did to his taste but he absorbed its anticlerical, anti-monarchical, liberal, and democratic sentiments.

He expected that Napoleon would smash the Turks but nothing like that happened. So he decided to lead the Greeks to freedom. He turned to the ancient Greek texts and converted them into schools of enlightenment and revolution.

Korais touched the Greeks as no one else ever did. Through a network of faithful and trusted followers, his books (primarily editions of the Greek classics) reached many schools, hundreds of students, and even more readers (merchants who subscribed to his works).

Korais’ singular take-home message was this: Imitate the ancient Greeks and kill the Turks in Greece. The Greeks revolted in 1821 and killed the Turks in their country. Korais wanted the Greeks to free themselves by their own means.

Of course, that was not to be. Europeans were in the Greek Revolution from the very beginning. In fact, Europeans (and Americans after 1945) made Greece that we know today: a country broken and now begging for its survival.

Greece in 2013 is in debt peonage. International banks are suffocating the country with their imposed “austerity” – a pseudonym for stealing the assets of Greece. The Troika (European Union, the European Central Bank and America’s International Monetary Fund) has forced Greece to put aside her sovereignty.

The Greeks need to fight another revolution, shredding the troika memoranda and renegotiating an honorable agreement. Such a policy ought to curb foreign influence. I don’t mean Greeks ought to rush to a xenophobic withdrawal. A reasonable abandonment of excessive consumer capitalism would be a great start in returning to essential goods made in Greece.

Start with food. Aristotle was right in emphasizing autarkeia, self-reliance, as a basic pillar of independence. Autarkeia, he said, was an end – and perfection.

The Greeks must return to autarkeia. They must grow their own food. Such a prudent step would revitalize the countryside, filling the villages with small farmers and the tasty, aromatic, round wheat bread of my youth. Korais is the perfect teacher for that life-saving decision.

Foreign-educated Greek intellectuals and Christian ecclesiastics put Korais in the archives. In fact, even Western scholars celebrating the Enlightenment forgot that Korais was one of the most creative and original philosophers of the Enlightenment.

His gospel for the rebirth of modern Greece was compelling: Read and digest the wisdom of ancient Greek thinkers. Follow the scientific method of Renaissance and Enlightened Europe in making Greek thought the primary material for building the culture of modern Greece.

In other words, use ancient Greek and European science as feedstock for the development of modern Greece into an independent and self-reliant country, a country proud of its Hellenic origins and culture.

When Korais spoke, both Greeks and foreigners listened. Even Thomas Jefferson, who had met Korais in Paris, prayed for the success of Korais. In a letter Jefferson sent to Korais in 1823, he said, “… we offer to heaven the warmest supplications for the restoration of your countrymen to the freedom and science of their ancestors… “

The gods listened to Korais and Jefferson. They made it possible for the Greeks to win their freedom. Korais had something to do with that. Whether or not the Greeks now will get back to Korais remains an open question. The “financial” crisis might spill over to violence, which could bury Korais once again.

But Greek and Western intellectuals have the responsibility to prevent the banks from overwhelming Greece. They ought to offer the thought of Korais as a healing medicine for Greece.



My older daughter is an environmentalist.

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