‘Of Greece and Ireland – an ancient and enduring relationship full of new possibilities’ Lecture by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland
University of Athens, 23 February 2018
We find ourselves at a threshold. Public language is losing its power to reflect private experience and the capacity to harness this towards a wider good. Contemporary rhetoric is too often seen as stale and evasive. Such neglect as we make hands the initiative to Demagogues who speak with a superficial directness and appear to promise honesty.
Your Excellency the President of the Hellenic Republic, Vice-Rector, Ministers, Ambassadors and Friends,
I would like to express my profound thanks to you, Rector, to the Chair of the Faculty of English Language and Literature, to all in the School of Philosophy and indeed to this fine academic community, for the honour which you have bestowed on me.
I am grateful also for your generous citation and for the warm welcome which you have extended to Sabina and myself, to Minister Doherty who accompanies me as representative of the Irish Government, and to the Delegation that has accompanied us from Ireland.
The School of Philosophy, I understand, is one of the four original Schools created at the time of the University’s foundation, being the first of the modern Greek State.
I am aware also of your many distinguished graduates, which, of course, includes President Pavlopoulos.
I am very grateful to the President for the honours and the hospitality which he extended to us yesterday, and which made for us a most memorable day here in Athens.
As the President and I stood together during our National Anthems yesterday, I felt deeply moved as I reflected on the rich history which we share.
Our two nations stand at opposite corners of this continent, yet it is easily recognised what connections we have had from earliest and, even more important, what we might share in common in the future.
As we participate in the making of a Union of European publics that can acknowledge, respect and celebrate diversity – what we both bring is a valuable experience. It includes the production and preservation of intellectual work, an interrogation of how life is to be lived, an historical struggle for independence a national family that includes a large and valuable migratory component. We are not either of us backward countries, incapable of giving a moral, inclusive dimension to life or the ‘eikonomia’ on which it might be based.
First, as to ancient times – ever since the Greek explorer, Pythias of Massalia recorded the first encounter between the Hellenic and Irish worlds, our connections have grown in scale and complexity. It is an encounter which has continuously enriched the Irish mind and expanded our experience.
My native landscape – bounded by Galway Bay to the north and the River Shannon to the south – was first described and mapped by a Greek geographer, Claudius Ptolemy, writing in Alexandria in the second century AD.
Among the first and perhaps among the greatest of Irish navigators, Saint Brendan most likely used Ptolemy’s maps and navigational aids some 400 years later when he became the first European to reach the North American continent.
Both of our peoples have been travellers. For the journeys we have attempted we have constructed myths of Gods made human in their weakness, and told stories of humans who, in their aspirations to be Godlike, have fallen into being merely heroic. We share the sea, the importance of the interpretation and symbolism of a journey, migration, island life, land, possession and dispossession.
Navigation and exploration has been at the centre of our experience as migratory peoples. It has defined our intellectual development too - the journeys undertaken, and not just over water to new places but within, a soul journey that tests and extends the frontiers of human understanding.
The Irish poet Paula Meehan captures this sense of journeying and the daring that so often characterises it:
“I’ve always loved thresholds
the stepping over
the shape changing that can happen
when you jump off the edge into pure breath
and then the passage between the inner and outer.
Paula Meehan’s lines are a distant echo of words spoken by Socrates to Meno just a short distance from where we are today:
“That we shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to enquire….that is a theme upon which I am ready to fight, in word and deed, to the utmost of my power.”
When the learning of classical Greece was receding from memory in Western Europe an enquiring Irishman, schooled in Greek, John Scotus Eriugena, who had translated the work of Dionysius the Areopagite, patron saint of Athens. Eriugena championed the primacy of reason and upheld the Greek tradition of bold philosophical speculation in the 9th Century Carolingian Court.
May I suggest, however, that perhaps a hubris came with such a privileging of the rational above all possible sources of truth, wisdom, knowledge or insight.
Returning to the influence of Greek learning, on the more educated and fortunate in Ireland – it was profound. For example, around five thousand editions of Greek and Latin authors appeared in Dublin between 1700 and 1791. Indeed it was an Irish scholar, Robert Wood, who first proposed that Homer’s was an oral rather than a literary voice.
It was another Irishman, James Joyce, who gave Homer’s voice a 20th century inflection. It is rightly said that the Joyce we know could never have existed without Homer and Aristotle. Professor Fran O’Rourke has said:- “It is arguable that Aristotle – next to Homer was Joyce’s greatest master”; but Joyce was also influenced by his encounter with contemporary Greece. He arranged for the cover of Ulysses to be printed in the colours of the Greek flag – white letters on a blue field; the wall of his apartment in Paris was decorated with a Greek flag obtained while in Trieste; he sought out and enjoyed the company of Greek expatriats in wartime Zurich; he learned a repertoire of Greek songs from his friend Paul Ruggiero; and when he died in 1941 a Greek lexicon was found on his desk. There is significance, too, in the fact while not competent in speaking the ancient language he spoke the contemporary vernacular Greek of his time.
The first holder of the Chair of Ancient History at Trinity College, JP Mahaffy, epitomised this engagement with the contemporary Greece of his times. Mahaffy approached his subject through its people and communicated this love of travel, discovery and collection to, among others, his celebrated pupil Oscar Wilde, whom he sought to save from what he saw as ‘increasing Popish influences’.
Over 140 years after it was written, his love for Greece and its people is palpable in his “Rambles and Studies in Greece”. Recently re-issued, with a fine commentary from my former colleague Professor Brian Arkins. Mahaffy is, however, also guilty on occasion, of that imperialist mind that was, and still can be, dismissive of cultures other than its own, an example might be his remarks on the futility of achieving the standards of the British Constitution by peoples such as the Greek people at the time of his travels.
What is closest to my own memory, as a child is an oft recalled feature of Irish rural life as to the place of Greek. I am referring to the place which the classical tradition long held on the popular mind through the teaching in informal, rural “hedge schools”, of Greek and Latin, and the foundation myths of both. I believe this was unparalleled elsewhere in Europe. In my own county of Clare, there were 275 such hedge schools in 1824.
Their literary expression is found, for example, in the character of the rural hedge schoolmaster Hugh Mór O’Donnell in Brian Friel’s play Translations, set in 1834. Though O’Donnell is forced to concede that while English may be the language of the future, he must persist in teaching Greek and Latin to his pupils. “We feel closer to the warm Mediterranean” he tells the English officer whose job it is to give an English form to Irish place names.
I am conscious that for many engaging with the Greek people, the Greek world of lived experience, the contemporary lived space of urban and rural Greece with all its contemporary challenges sometimes gets neglected, and I so hope that my visit is interpreted as a wish to engage with the present and future of the Greek people as well as it being an obvious acknowledgement of the source of those foundational concepts of politics, discourse and democracy which have been gifted to humanity.
In making and deepening connections between Irish and Greek peoples it is important, however, to remember that Greece is not simply a philosophical archive rich in reward for the ransacking. It is a people, a land of olives, of ships, of migrants, of villages, of science, technology, a people with a reconstructed language and a music that represents a fusion between tradition, the body and modernity. This is something we should be able to understand from within our own experience.
While the cultural affinity between Ireland and Greece is beyond doubt it is rooted not only in our culture but also in our mutual historical experience. Within that is a mutual experience of migration. While this is of course a common historical and sociological experience across Europe, it is proportionately of larger scale, and given more importance in our experiences.
Though rarely voluntary in the past, the impact of migration can be for the person immensely enriching, conferring a capacity, in the words of Seamus Heaney:-
“to live in two places at the one time and in two times at the one place, a capacity to acknowledge the claims of contradictory truths without having to choose between them."
This is an insight of course given more centrality in literature than in politics. There is no better example of this capacity, in any literature, than Constantine Cavafy, whose work was wholly unconstrained by time or space. A man who on his short walk to his desk at the Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria could traverse two thousand years of history, passing the site of a Byzantine church, of Hadrian’s Egyptian palace and of the spot where Alexander the Great’s body was once displayed, encased in a gold sarcophagus – landmarks of three great eras in the experience of the Greek diaspora. EM Forster’s description of the poet “standing…at a slight angle to the universe” could aptly be applied to any migrant in our history or refugee on our shores.
In Ireland as in Greece, the scale of our dispersal, over time and space, has been exceptional – to the point where for each of us, our sense of self must draw on the experience of our diaspora. This is reflected in our citizenship laws in both of our countries which afford citizenship rights to the grandchildren of those born in Ireland or Greece.
Migration in our current period has been described as morally, politically, and economically the defining issue of the 21st century. As the Irishman who headed the Global Forum on Migration and Development put it in a number of passionate statements on migration and the defence of the most vulnerable reminded us, that the way we respond to the challenge “reveals a great deal about the state of our society, the integrity of our communities, and the prospects for our collective future.” He was referring to the global response, but he might equally have been referring to the response of individual states.
In this regard the word empathy (en-pathos) is Greek in origin but was reclaimed and given affirmation by Greece in the eyes of the world through the reception shown to those fleeing from crisis on Europe’s borders. Viewed this way, the hospitality shown by Greece to today’s victims of war, expulsion, dispossession and nationalism is by any measure extraordinary.
Ireland’s response to the migration crisis has involved sustained participation in rescue operations in the Mediterranean and leadership at UN level where we helped secure agreement on the 2017 New York declaration, described by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as a “political commitment of unprecedented force and resonance” filling “what has been a perennial gap in the international protection system – that of truly sharing responsibility for refugees”.
I believe that our response – in Greece as in Ireland – is, and will be, best informed when it draws on our respective historical experiences. This university was founded just years before a devastating famine killed upwards of a million Irish and forced another million to flee their homes for safer shores. In the same period, Greece has suffered multiple upheavals and refugee flows including the devastation of the Greek community in Asia Minor in the 1920’s.
The challenge of displacement and responding to refugee flows is one of several challenges now confronting our global community - challenges that require an agreed global response.
While globalisation of our recent decades, built on free trade, can be claimed to have benefitted countless millions, lifting many from poverty, it has also given rise to unprecedented levels of inequality. The headline figures for our world are shaming. Ahead of this year’s annual summit in Davos, it was calculated that nine billionaires – all men – control the same wealth as the poorest half of humanity – 3.6 billion people, many of the poorest being women. This is not only an accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few but also it is a statement as to the location, of the power to determine outcomes.
Is it not a challenge to democracy, one might ask, that powerful, speculative forces within an international banking system, whose power has the capacity to dislodge governments and their policies can be unaccountable in pursuit of an insatiable search for profit for their investors?
This deepening inequality accompanied by the reduction in the role of the State, the privileging of private consumption over public good is fracturing societies and polarising the discourse in many democracies and weakening cohesion between old and young, rural and urban, North and South.
It is undeniable that the gains of global macro-economic policy are being privatised, while the losses in social as well as in environmental terms, are being socialised in the experience of so many in reduced provision for a shared public world.
Yet it is not only the extension of the realm of what is unaccountable, that threatens us, as for example, in the ravages of unaccountable multi-national practice in relation to the environment, by corporations. Then too, there is the ingress on the lives of so many in the failure of creditors to take responsibility for the social consequences for the demands of debt management, demands such as cannot be met, by citizens who are simply seeking the sufficiencies of life. It is not unreasonable to ask that macro-economic policies and practices, be tested for their social impact.
As to science and technology, there are obvious benefits that can flow, but the advance of technology has its dark side too – creating anxiety in our own societies, not merely over the future of work, but in its opening of new means to manipulate attitudes and tamper with the functioning of democracies, and of course, at the most general level assisting the proliferation of nuclear technology and the development of new forms of weapons.
None of this deflection of human and natural resources is inevitable. It is open to us to bring with new ideas, new versions of connection between politics, peoples, ecology, ethics and a peopled economics into being.
We live, after all, in a world of shared vulnerabilities. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, Giorgos Seferis reminded us “In our gradually shrinking world, everyone is in need of all the others. We must look for man wherever we can find him”.
Conscious that I speak in a university I repeat a question I have asked at the Sorbonne, at the London School of Economics and elsewhere, that what then, given all of our challenges, is to be the response of public intellectuals? Are we doomed, as Martin Heidegger pathetically said he was forced to accept, “to get in step.” Surely not. The European Street requires not only our answer but our solidarity in turning ethical ideas into experiences for our people. We need a different gait for our times and our Union.
In terms of multilateral involvement, Ireland and Greece have been partners in peacekeeping, have worked together on the UN Human Rights Council and each has served with distinction on the UN Security Council. Indeed, we each have ambitions to serve again in the coming years.
Ireland and Greece, because of such multilateral commitments are so well equipped to play a disproportionate role – this time in Europe, but also well-equipped because of so many other factors.
One is our journey to independence, each conscious of a distinct cultural identity and a cultural influence disproportionate to our size, yet each dominated into the near historical period by a major power.
In short, we each know something of the process involved in achieving sovereignty and attempting to use it in a new way. We have not always been successful, and when it comes to equality in terms of life chance, we both can recognise what a weak flame within nationalism equality of economic life or gender can become. Our attempts, in both cases however, had to be made on the foundations left as the detritus of empires.
In the past I have written of ‘clientelism’, in the Irish case, as Nikos Mouzelis among others has written in the case of Greece, but I believe it is important to place such a usage in context. After all the abuse of the privileges of power from abroad, or through the agency of native elites, preceded any native inclination to search for either patrons or brokers. It cannot be explained simply as an indigenous feature of political culture.
If the field beneath the goose has been taken, it is for survival the mass of the people must scratch. That is why corruption at the top and clientelism near the bottom, or at the local, are of the same coinage.
As to the struggle for independence - the Greek independence movement exerted an emotional pull on many Irish; Irish writers of the 19th Century, Thomas Moore and Lady Morgan among them, wrote – with empathy – of the oppression of the Greek people under Turkish rule.
Nineteenth century Irish awareness explains the involvement of Irishmen in the Greek independence movement. One of the most notable of these is buried close to here and depicted in the beautiful stained-glass windows of St. Paul’s Anglican Church. Richard Church, born into a Quaker family in Cork, who became commander of the Greek land forces in 1827, assisted the coup in 1843 which secured a form of constitutional government, argued at the Congress of Vienna for an independent sovereign Greek state and became a Greek citizen and lived out his later years in Athens.
In both of our cases the long fingers of dying empire were stretched and can be discerned in the origins of both of our Civil Wars. The struggles of the twentieth century, including the Greek lives lost in the struggle against fascism are there as part of the history of a century that claimed so many young lives in war.
For each of our peoples, our experience is a rich one, that contains moments of emancipation as well as grief, experiences that equip us well for the challenge of envisioning and constructing a European Union of humanity shaped to meet the needs of our citizens. We must become close again in our discourse sharing, on a people to people basis, our hopes, our challenges and our indomitable courage to be different, to endure.
Paul Valéry wrote in 1919 of how, after the needless catastrophe that was the collision of empires, “an extraordinary shudder ran through the marrow of Europe”. We too in our times have felt a shudder. Nowhere more so than during the recent financial crisis, and when that financial crisis became a sovereign debt crisis, I am aware of the high price that was paid here. Though its impacts may have been felt most acutely here, this was never, as President Macron acknowledged in his recent speech here in Athens, a Greek crisis – it was a European crisis, and a collective failure.
Today we find ourselves confronted by the challenge of a keen awareness that in some important respects we have failed to live up to the needs and expectations of citizens of the European Union. Social cohesion has been weakened and this is evident in the rise of euro-skepticism, exclusionary forms of nationalism and populism, reactions that are built on negative invocations of fear, including fear of the stranger. But these are not the root causes of the discontent of the European Street. They are symptoms only. To come to grips with their source we need to go deeper, to do ‘mind-work’.
It is only when we take the necessary steps to address the underlying sources of anxiety - including social insecurity, the future of work, the yawning equality gap – that can we recapture the cohesion originally envisaged by our founders. We are, after all, not inventing the concept of ‘the social’ when we speak of ‘social Europe’. Was it not as a principle in all of the better language of the founders of the European Union such as Altiero Spinelli?
The future of the European Union must be discussed I suggest above all from below, crafted from connections to the European Street. This requires a process that is open, honest and genuinely inclusive; that does not shy away from asking the most difficult, most challenging questions. It requires an honest critique, one that constitutes an attempt to re-imagine and rebuild.
We have been in thin times in terms of political economy. The recent references to a new interest in ‘behavioural economics’, in work from the World Bank, is simply insufficient. It simply masks the manner in which context was abandoned in the hegemonic policies of recent decades and, in doing that, disciplines such as sociology, political science were eschewed in a narrow practice that had no tolerance for discussion as to the adequacy of theoretical insight, methodological rigour, or empirically validated instrumental usage.
We have had a poor, a lesser, economics that at best is descriptive of a set of measures that sought to satisfy an ideological position rather than assist in creating policy options that could be social in their reach.
Why we might ask has the work of philosophers been the most neglected source of insight on the recent institutional history of the European Union? In its modern origins economics was so much more closely informed by philosophy and ethics. It had a formidable breadth.
Adam Smith’s work on “The Wealth of Nations” was built on the strong foundations of his “Theory of Moral Sentiments”. Smith is irrevocably associated, in the popular understanding, with the notion that the pursuit of self-interest serves the common good. Hence the often quoted, but misused, line from “The Wealth of Nations”: It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”). In his earlier work however, he had underlined that “How selfish man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” The later Smith is remembered, if frequently misquoted, but the other, earlier, and foundational Smith, rooted in our long traditions of humanism, ethics and philosophy, is forgotten or neglected.
We need to make a new moment for political economy. We need to unmask the ideologically-driven suggestion that there are no alternatives to the present model of economic thought and its assumptions that markets, not the State, should define citizen’s welfare, security or life chances.
In this regard, among others, the sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas has drawn a distinction between the world of the family, civil society and the public sphere what he calls “lifeworld” and the world of state and the instrumental logic of the modern economy, which he terms “the system”.
His concept of the ‘lifeworld’ recalls in its origin, the Greek concept of economy, or oikonomia, a concept rooted in the most fundamental unit of society, the household. This is such a different definition to economics as any agreement by the members of a cabal that pools competencies for the purpose of achieving an enhanced accumulation.
An economic model that is based on a misreading of the later Adam Smith, on the primacy of the economic system over the welfare of the individual and the community, is surely a deep source of our present crisis of lost cohesion. To quote Habermas again, it leads to a situation where “the mass of those who are not among the winners of globalisation” and “will now have to pick up the tab for the impacts on the real economy of a predictable dysfunction of the financial system. Unlike the shareholders, they will not pay in money values but in the hard currency of their daily existence.”
You know the truth of this – for when the financial crisis became a sovereign debt crisis, Greek people paid, and continue to pay, a high price. It was not an accident. Many bad decisions were made, in many places, and at many levels, but the most dangerous residue that remains is the temptation to sleep-walk through a crisis of unaccountability that is global.
Accompanying this economic challenge of a change of theory and the policy it produces, is a political challenge – the need to consider the political underpinning of Europe. The future of Europe cannot be a limited conversation between the strongest. If that were to be the totality of our new conversation it would be more than insufficient, it would be exclusionary, it would be merely a pact, not the stuff of a Union seeking to go forward, achieve cohesion.
The debate on the future of the European Union is a process that must begin with the right questions. How do we envisage that Europe of all the peoples? What should be its form? Is it to be merely, a Europe whose differences are to be defined by geography - North versus South, East versus West; or a Europe defined by differences in income – rich versus poor or, even worse, creditor versus debtor; or one divided by size, whether large, medium or small?
Our most hopeful future I believe must begin with the citizen and with a fresh consideration of what constitutes citizenship of the European Union – one that goes beyond the formalities of citizenship. Hannah Arendt reminds us that mature, meaningful citizenship demands participation across all institutions and requires that the potential for change through accountability is always within reach.
Last month I had the opportunity to participate in a dialogue in Dublin at Dublin City University – the first of a number of planned consultations across Ireland on the future of the EU. Across Europe, communities need to be enabled to contribute, and in doing so draw on their diverse and rich experience, their needs in a society of sufficiency.
Is it not better that we ensure that our institutions are empowered and responsive to those needs? A robustly democratic European order requires a strengthening of the role of both the European Parliament and national parliaments, and deeper integration based on an acknowledged diversity between their respective deliberations.
There must be an acknowledgement of the aspiration for a levelling up, the achieving of inclusion, of meeting sufficiency in the basics of citizenship, nutrition, shelter, education, health, and welfare. For this too we need a new literacy that can carry engagement with economic, social and cultural rights.
It is only by doing so that we can prepare ourselves and our EU to face the great challenges of our age: the requirement for just and sustainable development; the need to address the causes and consequences of climate change; the need to address the root cause of war, hunger and exclusion.
Allow me finally to suggest two areas where I think progress can quickly be made with significant and immediate benefits to what Habermas would term the “lifeworld” of our Union.
The first is the role that culture can and should play in both shaping and securing the Europe of the future. I have noted the emphasis that President Macron placed on this aspect in his recent speech in Athens. I welcome his emphasis on a Europe of Heritage and on the need for the greater circulation of academic and artistic work around Europe. This builds on the pioneering work of Melina Mercouri, a true visionary and advocate for the concept of a cultural Europe, one who took the first steps to address the deficit that arose through the omission of reference to culture in the Treaty of Rome and who was the first to bring cultural ministers together in formal session.
Melina Mercouri, however, we should not forget, located culture also, and importantly, in the contemporary, and in the prospects offered by the future as well as in the important heritage of the past. When we both served on the Council of Ministers we often agreed that culture was a process of engagement with the possibilities drawn from our diverse sources, but also what could be imagined, what was achieving excellence and inclusion in the present.
This is a far cry from adjusting the life choices of publics, particularly vulnerable members, to policies tested by the indicators of an untested model, as to outcomes. Measuring citizen welfare involves much more than estimating consumer spend. It includes taking account of the adequacy of the means to participate.
Our work could also usefully build on the important critical work of my friend, the late Hatto Fischer, who pointed out that the stereotypical images of Greeks which emerged in the European media during the financial crisis and which points to a serious cultural failure of European understanding. “If Europe is to be connected through culture” he said “people have to find a way to meet and not bypass each other”. I add my voice to that of my late friend Hatto’s plea as to the need for respect, compassion, and solidarity in the name of humanity.
Such a vision of Europe underlines the important ways in which our societies should support closer connections and deeper understanding – in sports grounds, bars and cafés, in valuing leisure, in placing a social value on time spent enjoying the company of the other.
The second issue is the role of young people in assuring Europe’s future. It would be hard to overstate the importance of programmes such as the Erasmus programme in building a common European civic identity. I so agree with those who say it should be developed and expanded. This is only one aspect of the exchange between our institutes of learning that must be further developed.
We must also look again at the way languages are taught and valued. How positive it would be if every European citizen left school with at least one second language at a high degree of proficiency. Surely this is an empowering key to a Union of empathy, where citizens genuinely understand each other, appreciate what we have in common, open themselves to enrichment, and have the ability as well as the will, to sustain a conversation about our future?
There is a third language, too, which is already being gravely neglected. I speak of the frameworks through which we perceive the world around us. It should be a source of deep concern that knowledge of the humanities, so long the bedrock of our education system is now so neglected in the name of creating space for other disciplines. Such a neo-utilitarianism is capable of dislodging universities from their primary role.
The teaching of philosophy and the classics, after all, provides us with a code and a key to understanding. Philosophy provides a grounding in how to think – a fundamental requirement of active and constructively engaged citizenship.
Michael Longley has described the classics as “a crucial part of the map by which we know ourselves and find the way”.
In Samuel Beckett’s play “Happy Days”, the character of Winnie immersed in the rubbish that contemporary life accumulates around her, finds some comfort in the fact that maybe all is not lost “A part remains, of one’s classics….to help one through the day”.
A part is not enough. Any consideration of Europe’s future must surely therefore include a consideration of our curriculum and the supports for both student and academic exchanges.
Jacques Delors - also a recipient of the high honour I have received today - picked up this theme when he spoke of the need to “Rekindle the ideal, breathe life and soul into it, that is the essential imperative if we intend to give shape to the Europe that we so dearly wish for”. That, in its essence, is the challenge we face today.
We find ourselves at a threshold. Public language is losing its power to reflect private experience and the capacity to harness this towards a wider good. Contemporary rhetoric is too often seen as stale and evasive. Such neglect as we make hands the initiative to Demagogues who speak with a superficial directness and appear to promise honesty.
I am wary of using the term populism – it is a word often misused and misunderstood. There are, after all, positive as well as negative uses of popular language. But unless we find a way of filling this gap, we risk the further spread of an ever-more angry rhetoric, born of alienation and a sense of exclusion dominating in the European Street.
None of this is unrelated to the weakening of the State’s responsibility for the public welfare in the last four decades as extreme, unaccountable market theory informed policies that eschewed any ethical transparency, or social impact test.
It is not the case that the Greek people or the Irish people, or any other people on the varying landscape that is called Europe are incapable of inclusive democratic institutions. It is the form of the State, and the role allowed to it, that matters. I believe that its form as a possible emancipatory, egalitarian, institutional, and entrepreneurial presence, and as a space of public shared welfare, has so often been prevented, by a nationalism that is not inclusive, that lacks a strong egalitarian core. The State is of course, undermined by forms of authoritarianism that will not yield power, by disabling localisms, amoral familisms. That history, however, should urge, not deter, either of our peoples, or any of the peoples of Europe, from the necessary reform or institutional innovation that is necessary or helpful.
This is a real and urgent issue for all European Union citizens. It is the finding of an appropriate shared language, of ideals and practice. We are at a critical moment, such as one already foreseen almost forty years ago some time ago when Odysseus Elytis addressed the Nobel awards ceremony and warned that:
“We are suffering from the absence of a common language. And the consequences of this absence can be seen - I do not believe I am exaggerating - even in the political and social reality of our common homeland, Europe.”
Eighty years ago, the classicist and poet Louis MacNeice foresaw how the language of politics –even our classical heritage - could become devalued, trimmed to suit a political requirement but stripped of authenticity in the process.
“The Glory that was Greece; put it in a syllabus, grade it
Page by page
To train the mind or even to point a moral
For the present age:”
How then, do we find appropriate language, equal to the challenge of our day?
Over three decades ago, at the height of the conflict in Northern Ireland, Seamus Heaney, searching for a way to address the conflict and finding himself at “the intersection of public duty and private calling”, looked here to Greece for inspiration, to Giorgos Seferis, who recalled that poetry
“recognises no small nor large parts of the world; its place is in the hearts of men the world over.”
Such poetic voices suggest to us that we can develop, even out of the most difficult circumstances, an appropriate language to address the major challenge of our time and our societies, a language that is authentic, responsive, ethical and responsible. We must take the risks that are necessary in our public roles.
Your Excellency the President of the Hellenic Republic,
Thank you again for the honour you have conferred upon me today. I appreciated greatly our opportunity for meeting, sharing, as we should, I believe, a common perspective about the future of Europe and the challenges that lie ahead. It has been timely, maybe overdue. I spoke earlier of thresholds. We stand at a threshold. As we look across and forward, conscious too of what went before, I feel confident in the power and potential of our partnership.
It is my particular hope that this visit will deepen our joint endeavour and, that we can with confidence hand custody of this vital European partnership to the new leaders, emerging from this fine university, who will speak truth, not only to power, but with love and care, to the European Street and all its broken spirits.