The Hellenic Heritage in America: Survival or Mission?

by John P. Anton*

Keynote address, presented at the AFGLC Conference. Tampa, FL **


It is only fair to recognize the role of the Orthodox Church in the United States as well as that of the various Greek Organizations, professional societies and academic institutions that promote studies in Classical literature, Philosophy, Art and History. Special praise must go to the American Foundation for Greek Language and Culture for endowing professorships in the area of Greek Studies at USF. To these I must add the recent progress in comparable developments. I am referring to the creation of endowed professorships at a number of universities, aside from the Seferis Chair at Harvard, such as the Cavafy Chair at the University of Michigan, and others at Columbia, Chicago, Tufts, also at the University of Kansas St. Louis, Stanford, Georgetown, and Stockton State College, aside from the Kazantzakis chair at San Francisco State. It looks like we are witnessing a moment of great promise at the level of higher education. This is no doubt a historical development that will decide the continuous presence of Hellenism in our country. But, like all human endeavors, the element of risk remains. This is one of the issues I wish to discuss not as a prophet but as a student of human affairs.

Many questions remain unanswered and more will be coming. Securing the survival and maintaining the presence of any heritage in a powerful and established environment such as that of the United States, is not an easy thing. The fact is that America has already formed its character and consolidated its institutions. Add to that the formidable assimilative power of the American way and you see what one is up against. The American way is generously hospitable but also tenacious in absorbing what reaches its shores. It is attractive and seductive as much as it is a catalytic power. This is the environment in which the present generation of Greek-Americans as an ethnic group seems determined to secure its Hellenic Heritage. What do they mean and how do they propose to do it? What purpose will it serve? These and other questions are now being explored by those who are determined to exercise leadership.

Personally, I am convinced that something important is happening. I am also optimistic about what the future will bring. But we cannot ignore the demand for planning wisely and taking methodical steps to make clear the goals and the means by which to achieve them. That is why I want to draw attention to the questions I have just raised. We simply cannot afford to indulge in wishful thinking with so serious an undertaking, nor can we leave the issue of strategy to the inspirations of self-appointed spokesmen for the Hellenic heritage. To put it more directly, the reason we cannot afford such a naïve approach is the global significance and historical mission this Heritage continues to have. This is not a theme for idle talk in panegyric speeches. The Hellenic Heritage is one of the most valuable, most creative, most humane, and most enlightened achievements of the human mind in the entire history of the species. Let us remind ourselves of the impact this heritage had on the influential movement of the Renaissance which helped bring Europe out of the middle ages and define the direction the European culture was to follow. That includes the direction which culture and politics were to take in the colonies that were destined to become the United States of America.

If I mention the historical significance of the Hellenic Heritage, it is mainly to remind ourselves that certain major ideas, values, and principles are already in place as part of the United States, the country in which we live, raise our families, and where we are now thinking about securing the survival of our heritage. What is it then that we really want? Is it something called ethnic survival? Is it religious survival? Or, is it the survival of local customs, memories, and precious experiences of the fatherland which the waves of Greek immigrants brought with them to this country? Or is it the speaking of the Modern Greek language, with sprinklings of literature and bits of Modern Greek history that we seek to preserve? It is not easy to bring all these strands together in one package and try to turn it into a university program any more than it has been easy for the parochial programs of the churches to come up with a complete menu that could satisfy everyone’s expectations. This is an area where community efforts have not been very successful as a plan for survival. If it stays at that level it would not prevent the rapid rate of assimilation. There have been too many self-appointed judges and not enough preparation and good will to understand the complex issues. For decades considerable funds and labor were spent with hardly any solid results. No organization can claim to have met the challenge of the survival. But if survival is not the vital issue, let us then consider the other alternative: mission.

We must change our slogans. The future demands that we move beyond the imagery of survival. Survival is re-active, and at best defensive. The whole problem has now entered a new phase and is taking a new turn. Let us then move directly to the present situation.

The message of the challenge, as I see it, is quite urgent. The Greek-Americans, as communities and as individuals are obviously now at the crossroads. I am prepared to say that the main objective goes far beyond any interpretation of what survival means. The real challenge, therefore, is not that of survival but one of mission, one of ap?st???: how to underscore and enrich the elements of the Hellenic Heritage already present in the American way of life, first by understanding what they are and why they are still cherished as an essential part of our culture. Beyond that, we must see why they are needed at this critical moment of this country’s political existence, and why a more dynamic effort must be made to complete the presence of the Hellenic Heritage in our lives as Americans. The Greek-Americans must assume this apostolic responsibility, especially since they claim to be the cultural heirs and historical agents whose political duty continues to be that of keeping alive the ideas of freedom and justice, as their ancestors stated them and practiced them.

As Greek-Americans, to do justice to the Greek or rather the Hellenic, part of this expression, we must render our Heritage even more available and more workable in today’s social realities. The other interest, survival, by taking second place, should at least include the preservation of the language. I don’t have to sing the praises of the beauty and value of the Greek language, ancient and modern. That is not what is in question. The equally pressing problem is how to make the language available at the proper level of learning, mainly at our colleges and universities to help understand and share the heritage. This is what should have been a real priority decades ago. True, we didn’t know how enough of how to do it, and unfortunately nor did the church. Having an elementary Greek college course is hardly the answer. Nor is a brief survey of Greek poetry enough, especially in the absence of adequate texts and qualified teachers. The same goes for all the areas of our Hellenic culture.

To do an adequate job at the university level of education generous endowments are needed and more qualified teachers: didaskaloi. There has been and still is a dour need for inspired and well-trained educators. Until recently, there was no interest on the part of our academic institutions to train the future teachers of the Hellenic heritage, nor was there much interest on the part of young people to choose the teaching of Greek as a career. Most of our talented young people continue to prefer careers in business, law, government, medicine and the sciences. The choices are fair and practical. But where are the historians and our literary critics, where are the humanities teachers and our philosophers? Their scarcity is understandable. As we all know, the first waves of immigrants faced other urgent problems: elementary survival. As for the cultural survival, it remained a private family matter or a local community affair at best. Our fathers and grandfathers had other urgencies to face and other matters to attend: food on the table, better living quarters, bringing up their families, fighting discrimination, while supporting the relatives in the old country. All that is now water under the bridge.

The initial phase of physical survival was over some time ago. Gradually the issues of cultural survival finally emerged. And that is what we are discussing today. And much to our surprise, even cultural survival is not enough. Life demands that we move beyond it. Indeed a most complex problem is now before us. Why not let it go and forget it about it once and for all? Why can’t we just be ordinary Americans? We are blessed; some will say we are cursed with a heritage that continues to haunt us. It is a heritage that is no longer just ours. By now parts of it have spread allover the globe. They are, in this sense, a common heritage of universal, timeless and irreplaceable values. That is why we cannot ignore Hellenism. It has already defined many of the fundamental ideas and values of America ever since the days of the Revolution. If the Greek-Americans cannot, or do not know how to ensure the continuity of this heritage in this country for the benefit of all, then they have no real ground on which to stand for a claim to a special mission. They should be blamed for having abandoned their distinct cultural identity. The issue then comes to this: what is left for us to contribute to the future of this country and through it to the rest of the world, not just as citizens but as heirs of a great tradition? The answer is our Hellenic Heritage.

Now let us come to the substance of the question: What is this heritage, and do we really know it? Many and various ethnic groups in this country, each with its own tradition, I hope, will try to keep intact the treasures of their identity in the days ahead. Witness what the Polish and the Irish, the Italians and the Jews, the Armenians and the Spanish are trying to do. Witness what the immigrants from the Far and Near East are determined to do. And they should. But each and one of them has an attendant responsibility, namely to demonstrate the positive and creative elements in their tradition that deserve a special place in civilized life. And so it is with the Greek-Americans.

We therefore need to understand and be clear about the heritage we claim as ours, not just the parochial elements, no matter how charming and appealing they are, be they Epirote, Macedonian, Cretan, Thessalian, Arcadian, Messenian, Aegean or Heptanessian. The scope of the heritage must project itself as the Hellas of all ages and all seasons. Failing to do this runs the risk of becoming parochial, of missing the real meaning of the tradition we want to preserve and share. The crucial issue is not what we will save, but how the heritage will save us, and by so doing contribute to the good of all. If there is no such good in it, there is no reason why it should occupy a place on the band of civilizations. That is why we must be certain about the relevance of our heritage to the future of the American way of life, not merely as an ethnic ego trip but as a contribution, in return for all the blessings we have received.

I am confident that if we approach the problem in this manner, the emerging fourth generation of Greek-Americans will not vanish while the expanding culture of technocracy and consumerism gallops in great strides. Transmitting the Hellenic Heritage is so enormous an undertaking that it will defeat the timid but only inspire the brave as they try to secure the prominence it deserves. Add to that the concerns of the Orthodox Church and its centuries old ties to Hellenism and we get a far more complex problem when we try to reach a unified picture of the heritage.

Perhaps there is no privileged group when it comes to deciding what the meaning of the Hellenic Heritage is. But one thing is certain: America needs this Heritage as it tries to steady her course on the road it must follow while consolidating its position in the battle of civilizations. If we fail to help in the search for that meaning, so will America. We should then be held responsible for having deprived our country of the riches our Heritage stands for since the days of Homer. For this and other reasons, related mainly to educational programs, the creation of professorships is now becoming a major concern. It involves the preparation of future teachers and researchers, the scholars of tomorrow, who will focus on the historical record of four generations and those to come, while breathing new life into the Classical studies.

Let me now return to the main theme of my address before I conclude. It seems that the time is ripe for us to repay what the American way of life made possible for us, and return it in kindness, not in kind. America gave us the opportunity to engage in work, education, enterprise, wealth and leisure. If so, we can only give that which is really ours and which America needs at this critical moment of its history: the Hellenic Heritage of respect for human intelligence at its best, along with its ideal of political sanity. America, as it strives to maintain its place in international leadership, needs to do so in the name of peace and justice for all. This country will be judged not by what it brings home but what it gives to the peoples it touches and affects. But in order for the Greek-Americans to meet their share of cultural and political responsibility, they themselves need to learn and understand what they have inherited from their ancestors: their cultural identity, what it is, and how it came about. They need once again to remember how this identity survived under the most adverse conditions, under the Romans and the Crusaders, under the Franks and the Venetians, under all sorts of invaders, especially the Ottomans, and under the pressure of all sorts of ideological and fanatical creeds. They need to see what cultural wealth their identity contains. But this learning can only be done in places where documents, archives, historical records, and treasures of all sorts, from the arts to personal histories, can be preserved, namely our libraries. And this is what gives added significance to the programs of Greek Studies and the endowed professorships. Next to the family, the church and the social associations, the universities are the final treasure-houses of learning.

Greek tragedy taught us how to face the threatening power of the passions when they get out of hand; Greek philosophy brought the rational understanding of our existence to its completion and showed how political thought and action blossoms with the pursuit of the just politeia in social cooperation and equity, isonomia, what we now call democracy. If we really think that these cultural values are no longer needed, then we have nothing of importance to offer and no special reason to demand of ourselves to play a leading part in the tough business of cultural politics. We can then all move to a festive hall and dance to the beat of a well tuned klarino and kick our heels to the lively tune of a roumeliotiko tsamiko. But then, the tsamiko, becomes sheer entertainment without the levendia it once had for the freedom-fighters, the kleftes, who danced preparing for battle, ready to meet the Charos, like the Spartans who danced their pyrrhichios before the battle of Thermopylae. And so is the dance of life. The tsamiko, I may add, like all other dances and folk arts are more than occasions for glenti. They are all part of the same heritage that elevated the human being from survival to the heights of a full civilized life. That was how dance made its way in the choral songs in Greek tragedy and how tragedy carried the lessons of hubris to perfection.

All this puts before us the issue I stated in the opening of my address in new light: not the survival of the Hellenic Heritage in America but the vision it grants, the enriched preservation of our self-respect, our civil liberties, our democratic principles, our right to life and the pursuit of happiness. As Aristotle stated 2400 years ago, “human beings do not form societies just to survive, but to pursue the good life, the life of reason.” Such is the foundation on which the Hellenic Heritage as paideia is founded.

I have come to believe that the role of paideia as the political and cultural heartbeat of this heritage is not an exclusively Greek affair. It concerns all humankind. In the time that is left for my keynote address I will try to explain what I mean. As so many thinkers, poets and historians have pointed out, this heritage is essential to the survival of our civilization. It is one of the safeguards that protect us from falling into a state of barbarism or even worse, to an unsuspected hubris.

The recent surge of fear due to terrifying and destructive acts has by now become a threat to our psychological sanity and our political stability. What can we do to stop it or at least prevent it from controlling our lives and muddling our decisions for the future? The sings are already posted that we are at a turning point in the history of Western civilization, where technocracy and the passion for power are at the helm of the movement called globalization. This is precisely the reason why we must continue the search for universal values.

When the ancient Greek philosophers and poets spoke of arete, they were careful to tie its meaning to the natural endowment of all human beings. Aristotle called it e?te???e?a, the basis for all human development. Next comes the power of pa?de?a, education, to help the future citizens grow by embracing what is best in the arts, the sciences and all the ?esµ??, the institutions, especially of the political life, justice: d??a??s???. Arete as excellence is what secures the harmonia of our personality in thought and in action, ???s?? ?a? p?????. The philosophers of Greece were right to show the difference between goods that are only means and values that are the final ends of human life. The latter are the only values that are at once universal and supreme. Ignoring this principle leads people to moral failure, political crisis and injustice.

Industry, business and technology have become the dominant features in our lives today. Power and success have taken the place that a?et? and e?da?µ???a once had. Even religious piety and respect for the sacred aspects of life have become tools in the pursuit of power. Where, then, can we turn to find universal values when culture surrenders its vision to the forces of technology? An alternative would be to turn to the sciences, but even here the grounds are shaky despite their use of the ways of reason. Their purpose is not to establish universal values anymore than it is to control the human passions. The sciences continue to do their best to understand all natural facts, not to dictate systems of controlling them. Even the medical sciences, where therapy is central, remain aloof when it comes to coping with the forces of political action.

In the meantime global politics have taken the wrong turn. After two world wars and the demise of the soviet system in the past century, we are facing a new polarization of powers. Established religions world-wide have entered a new era of world clashes and disputes. As the despair for universal values deepens, we begin to suspect the possibility of the end of Western civilization and the emergence of a peculiar development called globalization through technocratic processes. Should any of these prospects come to pass will the future generations be subjected to a global paideia, and if so, with what sort of universal values? Will they lead to the cooperation of nations and cultures rather than nuclear wars? There is one major drawback to the plan for a global paideia: its reliance on new forms of legislating to regulate utility. The consuming of products may continue to make the goods of leisure more and more available to vast numbers of human beings but it will not answer the question of ultimate and universal values.

Here is why the preserving of Hellenism deserves our constant attention: it can at least teach us what we need to be alerted to when humanity is at the crossroads of history. I don’t think we can bring back this marvel of the classical mind and succeed where the Italian Renaissance did not, but we can use it to reunite the ethical values and the purpose of political existence. A new century along with a new millennium started not as a bright and promising period of history. Rather, it came with events that threaten us with more crime, more fear and uncertainty about the future. But sensible people do not resign in despair. They use their intelligence, their gentleness and the best of their traditions to meet the challenge of the times. I prefer to end on a note of confidence in the nobility of the human mind. In the quest for sanity and progress, the role of the American Foundation for Greek Language and Culture deserves all the support we can offer to help it meet its destiny. One can ask no more. Thanks you for your kindness and your patience.

March 5, 2008. Written in Tampa, Florida ————————————-

* Distinguished Professor of Greek Philosophy and Culture at the University of South Florida, Tampa, FL

** 13th Annual Educational Forum/Conference of AFGLC (American Foundation for Greek Language and Culture

March 7, 2008