Inventing Greece: The Emergence of Greek National Identity

by Peter Bien

I was once privileged to sit next to the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz at lunch some years ago and to talk with him at length. He had recently returned from Poland, which was still under communist control. When we began discussing the two great economic systems then competing in the Cold War, I voiced my perplexity regarding the forces in our own system that make industrial CEO's feel that salaries of one million or even many millions of dollars are their due. I felt that communism, for all its faults, maintained a better relation between the compensation of those directing factories and those working in them. He agreed but then went on to surprise me by saying that, at the deepest level, there is no difference at all between capitalism and communism. His point was that both systems provide a way to 'cheat' death. Capitalism does this by encouraging the acquisition of sufficient individual security to overcome contingencies of all sorts in one's own life and the future life of one's family, thus guaranteeing a sort of 'immortality'; communism does the same by encouraging the acquisition of sufficient communal security to provide exactly the same benefits. In both cases, the complexity of life and its continued unpredictability encourage the acquisition of much more security than is probably needed, because one always fears the loss of what one has. Thus one million dollars need to become fifteen or twenty, and one communist state needs to be surrounded on all sides by others to lessen the possibility of invasion by the capitalist enemy.

What Milosz was doing, obviously, was interpreting both politics and economics via what I suppose we may call metaphysics. I want to do the same today with nationalism, for I believe that nationalism, too, at the deepest level, acts as a bulwark against death, fate, and contingency, providing a way to 'cheat' those ever-present forces. In short, nationalism has replaced religion. None of this, of course, is a new discovery; on the contrary, it is almost a commonplace in the discussion of nationalism. I quote, for example, from the eloquent summary by Gregory Jusdanis (1991:165):

Why is the appeal of nationalism so seemingly universal? The answer may lie ultimately in the metaphysics of nationalism, which has transformed it into the global theology of the modern age. Nationalist discourse, with its tales of progress, self-fulfillment, and manifest destiny, allows modern individuals to deny their mortality in the face of change. . . .

The best proof of the equation "nationalism equals religion" is provided, I suppose, by how people behave. The history of religion gives ample evidence of people's willingness to fight and die for their faith - in religious language, to become martyrs. What else in the modern world provides similar evidence, besides nationalism? Milosz equated economic systems with religion; yet I very much doubt that people are willing to die for 'capitalism' as an abstract concept, much less for Coca-Cola or General Motors, or even for 'communism' as distinct from the Soviet Union, say, or Vietnam, or China. But people fight and die all the time, alas, for their nation - for Bosnia or Greece or Turkey or Iraq - and seem seldom to question the appropriateness of such martyrdom, which means that the nation has usurped the role of religion in providing the ultimate justification for existence.

Clearly, the nation has taken over attributes previously assigned only to God. Stathis Gourgouris in his recent book Dream Nation reminds us that "no nation can imagine its death" (1996:15). Although nations do have a beginning, they seemingly have no end and thus are conceived as at least relatively immortal. They are also conceived as purely pure and perfectly perfect. What I am leading to, of course, is the now common perception that nationality is a fiction rather than a truth - a very selective and distorting fiction that includes certain things and excludes or forgets others, more or less the same way that theology distorts the 'nature of being'.

In a word, nationalism is invented. Benedict Anderson, perhaps the most cited author of the 1990's, defines the nation as "an imagined political community" (1991:6, emphasis added) and cites Ernest Gellner's dictum that nationalism "is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist" (1964:169, emphasis added). Gourgouris goes further, calling nationalistic discourse "signs of idolatry" (1996:31) or the "national fantasy" (1996:37), and the institution of the nation a process "akin to what Freud called dream-work" (1996:261).

The pervasiveness of this view today is evidenced in a very fine recent book entitled Inventing Ireland, whose author, Declan Kiberd, insists that the first step in the creation (or re-creation) of the Irish nation was to instill in the Irish people "a self-belief which might in time lead to social and cultural prosperity" (1995:141, emphasis added). I would like to devote a few moments to Ireland as a way of leading to the 'invention' of Greece, because Ireland and Greece are so similar in so many ways, a fact that will help to make entirely clear that what happened in Greece was not at all unique.

In what ways are Ireland and Greece similar? I'll mention the few that I always used to employ to introduce my comparative literature course in James Joyce and Nikos Kazantzakis, contemporaries who both wrote immense 'epics' based on Homer's Odyssey. In the twentieth century, Ireland and Greece, the one at the extreme western verge of Europe, the other at the extreme eastern verge, produced the most extraordinary literary renaissances in occidental culture. Both nations still had a peasant tradition at the beginning of the century. Both Ireland and Greece had (and have) a diaspora; both were occupied for centuries by a foreign power, in both cases the occupied and the occupier being geographical neighbors who shared affinities of climate, temperament, and culture; both were dominated by a single Christian church; intellectuals in both felt very much on the fringe of things and considered Paris or London the center; both needed to deal with a 'language question'; both reached back to a glorious past in order to feel distinguished yet at the same time suffered constrictions owing to ancestor-worship; both exalted the 'folk' as repositories of virtue and wisdom; both were mightily influenced by the American Revolution and by the phenomenon of a 'national bard' seen in Walt Whitman; both experienced grave internal discord that undermined the national purpose; both sometimes crucified their own best leaders (Parnell, Venizelos); both experienced civil wars "in which brother fought brother and men who had recently been comrades against a foreign enemy now killed and executed former friends" (Kiberd 1995:194).

Let's look now at some of the findings in Kiberd's book Inventing Ireland. I'll cite them without comment in the hope that you will see in some at least, if not all, the applicability to Greece as well:

[C]ultural revival preceded and in many ways enabled the political revolution that followed (4).

[T]he Irish wished to be modern and counter-modern in one and the same gesture (330).

[P]eople are lulled by their leaders to "become drunk with remembrance", to recover the past as fetish rather than to live in the flow of actual history (294).

James Connolly's sad prediction came true: the worship of the past really was a way of reconciling people to the mediocrity of the present (247).

[T]he choice was one between nationality or cosmopolitanism . . . . Were the Irish a hybrid people . . . ? Or were they pure, unitary race, dedicated to defending a romantic notion of integrity (7)?

The mistake of the [Irish] revivalists would be repeated in Africa and India in later decades: too often an 'African' or an 'Indian' culture would simply be one which could be easily translated into forms comprehensible to European imperial minds . . . . Since 'Ireland' in such a construction was largely an English invention, those who took upon themselves the burden of having an idea of Ireland were often the most Anglicized of the natives (335-337).

[A]t root the English and Irish are rather similar peoples, who have nonetheless decided to perform versions of Englishness and Irishness to one another . . . . Each group projects onto the other many attributes which it has denied in itself (54).

Preening themselves on some occasions for being "like no other people on earth," arraigning themselves on others, [the Irish] often failed to regard Irish experience as representative of human experience . . . (641).

One could, I believe, take each of the above assertions and, changing the references from Ireland to Greece, and from England to Turkey or the Ottoman Empire, apply them more or less to the Greek situation. Not that the two situations are identical; of course they are not. Nevertheless, my point is that "inventing Greece" was and is largely a phenomenon characteristic of the nationalisms of other nations. Another way of saying this, I suppose, is that Greek 'exceptionalism' is a position that really should be mistrusted.

It is often asserted, for example, that Greece differs fundamentally from the West because it never had a Renaissance or Reformation. Yet certain fundamental changes occurring for example in England as a result of the Western Renaissance and Reformation are clearly found in Greece as well. I intend to examine them, as before, using a metaphysical rather than an economic approach because I continue to believe that, at the deepest level, the phenomenon of Western nationalism develops in a void left by the breakdown of the Christian world-view. But let us use certain literary changes as an entree to this subject. What happened in England in the seventeenth century was the development of a new genre, the so-called realistic novel. But it is wrong to say that older texts were not realistic. We must instead speak of two different concepts of what is real. For older texts, the real resides in universals; for the novel, it resides in particulars. The novel is atomistic. "'Defoe and Richardson are the first great writers in [English] literature who did not take their plots from mythology, . . . legend or previous literature' since they, unlike other writers, rejected the premise . . . that, since Nature is essentialy complete and unchanging, its records . . . constitute a definite repertoire of human experience'. Plots are now 'acted out by particular people in particular circumstances, rather than . . . by general human types. Time in novels resists anachronism. . . . Place, instead of being vague or general, as in Shakespeare's plays, takes on the specificity of a guidebook" (Bien 1994:388, citing Watt 1957:14,15,22).

All this is a seachange, a fundamental alteration in metaphysical understanding manifested in English literature probably a century or more after the cultural change actually began to take place. "Of course, the older conception - the unified world view of the Middle Ages - did not capitulate entirely to the atomistic view, but continued in various forms . . . - for example, the organicist model of evolution promulgated in the eighteenth century by . . . Herder, in which the individual entities are seen 'as components of processes which aggregate into wholes greater than . . . the sum of their parts" (Bien 1994:376, citing White 1973:15, cited in Tziovas 1986:61).

What we see in Greece is that its invented nationalism is initially based upon the atomistic model described above, and could never have occurred without that prior development, but that later phases of this same nationalistic invention conform to the organicist model. Note that both phases respond, although in different ways, to the breakdown of Christian metaphysics, and also that both phases conform to what was also happening in Western Europe and thus lead us once again to mistrust any claims for Greek exceptionalism. What happened in Greece as elsewhere (Ireland, for example) was the invention of a myth of nationality that provided, at the deepest level, a metaphysical rationale for life and death: a meaning for what would otherwise be our futile, meaningless existence. No matter if the myth took various forms, for any myth is always the sum of its many variations.

With all this as prelude, let me now talk specifically and in more detail about 'inventing Greece'. Stathis Gourgouris's book Dream Nation, which examines the role of the Enlightenment in inventing Greece, warns that it is "rather misguided to perceive the Neohellenic Enlightenment merely as the vehicle for the Westernization or the modernization of Greece . . . . It hardly consists," he argues, "in a simple Western imposition of ideas." Yet he agrees with earlier scholars, in particular Dimaras, that it "does involve the transposition of the currency of [European] ideas prevalent during the late eighteenth century" (1996:75). It creates, he continues, "a new tradition, it institutes a new image of what Neohellenic culture is . . . "(1996:81). What the Enlightenment created was a new identity involving a "social homogeneity, a linguistic tradition, and a geographical continuity: in other words, a native past" (1996:73), all juxtaposed to Ottoman barbarism. The great figure, of course, was Adamantios Koraes, who amalgamated European Philhellenism's adulation of pagan Greece with enthusiasm for the French Revolution and an utter revulsion against what he considered the superstitions of the Orthodox Church. What he contributed was the atomistic world-view I spoke of earlier: a particularistic rather than universal conception of what is real, a diachronic rather than a synchronic view of history, a belief in progress rather than in a steady state. "In short," as Philip Sherrard concludes with his customary acerbity, "what Koraes envisaged was the 'emancipation' of Greece in terms of the secular liberalism and humanist enlightenment of the contemporary West" (1959:180). It is important to add that his formulation, as well as later ones, had two axes, a vertical and a horizontal. The vertical is the one I have been describing, reaching back to a past that is idealized and mythicized (after all, there is nothing about slavery in Koraes's evocation of Ancient Greece, or indeed about homosexuality, or internal discord, or the brevity of Periclean democracy), and reaching forward to a utopian future. This vertical axis was meant to convey to the barbarized Greeks of the Ottoman Empire a "sense of continuity in time and unity in space" (Tsaousis 1983:19). The horizontal axis is the one extending from contemporary Greece out to contemporary Europe. The Ancient Greece evoked by Koraes was essentially the invention of Western philhellenes. Even katharevousa, although ostensibly meant to 'refine' those who spoke and wrote it, making them more elegant, wise, freedom-loving, and virtuous (although not necessarily peaceful) by eliminating from their vocabulary the barbarity of Turkish words that kept them chained to their degeneracy - even katharevousa was produced not just for the Ottomanized Greeks, but also for Western philhellenes, as Koraes reveals when he confesses that his notes, "written in our common tongue, were ready for the printers when some friends of mine - philhellenes expert in our ancient but not our modern language - eventually persuaded me to hellenize [my notes] so that they might be understood . . . by the scholars of Europe, who are ignorant of Modern Greek" (Bien 1972:51, citing Koraes 1833:41).

Such, more or less, was the first form of invented Greek nationality -the initial vision, if you will, of the myth that, replacing (or at least displacing) the Christian world-view, provided at the deepest level a metaphysical rationale for life and death: a meaning for what would otherwise be a futile, meaningless existence. No matter that it was a double distortion: a distortion of Ancient Greek reality, and a distortion as well of Modern Greek reality. It provided (and to some degree still provides) a sense of connectedness to something apparently admirable, something that matters, and something even 'eternal', for, as I mentioned earlier, no nation can imagine its own death. As for its beginning, Ancient Greek culture lay far enough back in hazy antiquity to seem never to have not been there. In sum, Greece imagined in this way as the inheritor of ancient glory was a way to cheat contigency and fate by giving existence a kind of supernal meaning.

Regarding the distortion of Modern Greece, you may object that, no matter what happened in Western Europe regarding the gradual eclipse of religion there, Christianity continued strong in Greece. Yes, the Orthodox Church did continue strong in Greece, just as the Roman Catholic Church continued strong in Ireland. But I am not sure that Christianity did. Invented nationalism is expert not only at distorting but also at forgetting - indeed, forgetting is probably the prime mechanism for distorting. In a word, nationalism requires amnesia. And one of the major areas of amnesia in Greece concerns the role of the Orthodox Church in the period leading up to the Revolution - specifically the role of Patriarch Gregory V. Quite appropriately remembering Saint Paul's assertion in Romans 10.12, "there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord for all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him," or again in Galatians 3.28, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus," the Church opposed the radical republicanism of Rhigas Velestinlis in 1798 in its tract Paternal Instruction, "probably written by Gregory V himself, which . . . warned against the pernicious consequences of revolutionary plans for the souls of the faithful" (Kitromilides 1989:179-80). It opposed the outbreak of the Greek Revolution in 1821. The great innovation brought by Christianity was, after all, its rejection of the concept of a 'chosen people', a fact recognized by the Orthodox Church when a major synod in 1872 stated: "in the Christian Church, which is a spiritual communion, predestined by its Leader and Founder to contain all nations in one brotherhood in Christ, filetismos [which here, according to Kitromilides (1989:181), means nationalism] is alien and quite unthinkable." Ironically, the multiculturalism and multiethnicity of the Islamic Ottoman Empire was closer to Christianity's original vision at least in this aspect than was the new atomization of nationalistic self-definition preached by the Neohellenic Enlightenment - thus Gregory's opposition to the Greek nationalistic rebellion, not to mention his Encyclical issued in 1819 against precisely the sort of learning that had been stimulated in the West by the rediscovery of Ancient Greece (quoted in Henderson 1970:199 and Gourgouris 1996:79). As Paschalis Kitromilides has written (1989:159), "the Church objected precisely to the ethnic parochialism of secular nationalism, which threatened, and eventually did destroy, the ecumenicity of transcendental values which held Balkan society together within the fold of Orthodoxy during the centuries of captivity." When, by an extraordinary quirk of history, the patriarch was executed in 1821 as primarily responsible for the Greek insurrection, he became a national martyr, and anyone who visits the Patriarchate in Istanbul today is shown with reverence the gate from which he was hanged. But none of this means that Christianity (as opposed to the Church) continued strong in nationalistic Greece. Indeed, once the independent Greek state was established, the first of the "explicitly ideological initiatives whereby [it] attempted. . . to cement its national identity [was] the creation [in 1833] of an autocephalous national church" (Kitromilides 1989:165). "When the Church of Greece was declared independent from the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch . . . and was brought firmly under state control, it became all the more associated with the nation. Instead of adopting Koraes's dim view of the clergy, the state incorporated the Church and its martyrs into the pantheon of Greek heroes and made them integral parts of the national myth. Thus the Church became an accomplice of the state in its mission to spread the cohesive nationalist creed . . ." (Veremis 1989:136). What happened was a transvaluation whereby secular values came to control spiritual ones instead of the other way around. Forgive me, but I find it very difficult to accept that true Christianity, with its claims of transcendental, supreme value, can exist as a subordinate instrument of the state.

The original distortion of Koraes and the European philhellenes that invented a new Greece in the image of Periclean Athens, excluding the Church - not to mention the Byzantine heritage, folk songs, and the Tourkokratia - was so gross that it could not continue without revision. This revised attitude helped ". . . to intensify the search for proof that Greece's imaginative powers had not lain dormant. . . . As more and more evidence of poetic activity came to light, [Koraes's and the philhellenes'] view of a dark age was . . . qualified. . . . In addition, the folklorists made Greece susceptible to the romantic German adulation of the Volk" (Bien 1972:94). Folklore derives its importance "not merely from the discovery of the past as relic but from the evidence of the past as present" (Gourgouris 1996:148). This clearly begins to take us out of the diachronic, atomistic world-view characterizing the nationalistic dream's first stage, out of a particularistic conception of what is real, out of an emphasis on progress. It begins to return us to the steady state, the organic, synchronic view of history, and the universal view of what is real, all characteristic of the Christian world-view that nationalism had originally replaced or at least displaced. This, in turn, leads me to the final phase of imagined Greece that I want to discuss: the aestheticization of nationalism that took place with the modernist movements of the twentieth century.

Modernism presents one more way of looking at the real. The universals in which the real resided in the Middle Ages were considered true; so were the particulars in which the real resided in the post-Renaissance period. In Modernism, neither the particulars nor the universals are true in the same way. The particulars have value only as symbols of something else, something universal, but this something universal, instead of truly existing, is imagined. In a word, ultimate value is aestheticized. The concrete world of particulars is now valued because it provides an entree to "something coherent, continuous, and logical beneath or beyond: something subjective that is connected . . . most broadly with an entire culture. Cultural norms discerned indirectly through symbolism replace [the older world-views'] 'objective' life that supposedly exists apart from the act of perception" (Bien 1997:263-64).

The aesthetization of invented Greek nationalism is the main subject of Gregory Jusdanis's important book, Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature. He says there, for instance, that the development in question came as a "cure for failed irredentist aspirations and wrecked hopes for a modern, democratic, and liberal state. The indispensable tool in aesthetization," he continues (1991:79), ". . . was the notion of Greekness (Ellinikotita)," which is aesthetic "because its promised unification of differences occurs in imaginary space" (1991:94). As emblematic of this modernistic phase of Greek nationalism I would nominate George Seferis's poem "The King of Asine," which combines specifics of the present and the past to evoke an organic, synthetic, subjective value of infinite importance capable, once more, of 'cheating' the ever-present forces of death, fate, and contingency.

In closing this meditation on 'inventing Greece', and also the detour into Irish nationalism meant to show that what happened in Greece was hardly unique, I feel impelled to say that I think the world has now had quite enough of nationalism. In its two hundred years of existence among Greeks and other Europeans it has accomplished much, to be sure, but I fear that its creative potential is exhausted and that it has become primarily a force for stagnation and evil. We need to develop a dream/myth/fantasy/idolatry beyond americanness, irishness, greekness, germanness (to be printed in Greek in plain small characters). Nationalism is not an inevitable human phenomenon. It did not exist before the modern era, and there is no reason why it should continue to exist in the postmodern era. Indeed, given the vast worldwide changes that have occurred recently there are ever-increasing indications that we may be headed toward a post-nationalistic time in which the earth as a whole, and mankind as a whole, become primary, replacing or displacing nationalism just as nationalism replaced or displaced Christianity as our primary source of meaning. But let's not forget Christianity entirely; let's remember St. Paul's "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in . . .". . . in . . . - well, perhaps not in Jesus Christ, but in humanity.


Works Cited

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Bien, P. Kazantzakis and the Linguistic Revolution in Greek Literature. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1972.

"The Reemergence of Greek Prose Fiction in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries." In The Search for the Ancient Novel, edited by James Tatum, pp.370-390. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press,1994.

"Afterword." In Greek Modernism and Beyond, edited by Dimitris Tziovas, pp.261-66. Lanham, Maryland: Roman&Littlefield, 1997.

Gellner, E. Thought and Change. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1964.

Gourgouris, S. Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization, and the Institution of Modern Greece. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1996.

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Jusdanis, G. Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Kiberd, D. Inventing Ireland. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Kitromilides, P.M. "'Imagined Communities' and the Origins of the National Question in the Balkans." European History Quarterly 19/2 (April 1989): 149-192.

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Tziovas, D. The Nationism of the Demoticists and its Impact on Their Literary Theory (1888-1930). Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1986.

Veremis, T. "From the National State to the Stateless Nation, 1821-1910." European History Quarterly 19/2 (April 1989): 135-148.

Watt, I. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defore, Richardson, and Fielding. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957.

White, H.V. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.


* This is an abridged version of the lecture delivered on Friday, November 14, 1997, as the "Nicholas E. Christopher Memorial Lecture" and as part of the G.P.Savidis Memorial Colloquium: "Modern Greek Literature Today: Across Europe and Beyond". Peter Bien is professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College.