Towards the end of his life, the great scholar of what is referred to as the Greek Enlightenment, Adamantios Korais, wrote: “The increase and spread of education in the French nation gave birth to the love of liberty.” In his mind, in order for the physical Greek Revolution to transpire, another, more spiritual one would have to precede it.
To this effect, Korais maintained that the entire nation would have to be educated, as a condition precedent to any such a revolution taking place. Greek education would have to be aligned with that of enlightened Europe for a newly emerged Greece to take its proper place among modern nations, via a process which he called metakenosis, or the outpouring of one into the other.
Such a process required, in Korais’ view, a return to fundamentals, that is, the writings of the ancient Greeks and it was for this reason that he produced edited editions of ancient writings he considered suitable for study.
Such a revolution would not only grant the renascent Greeks access to the wisdom of their forefathers, but also allow them to regain their virtues as well. Having immersed themselves in the lore of their illustrious ancestors, Korais was confident that they would then, by means of immersion, acquire their military skills as well, or at least such martial valour as was necessary to defeat the Persians in the 5th century and which would accordingly suffice to defeat the Ottomans.
According to Korais, these martial virtues were lost when the Romans conquered Greece, though mysteriously, he was unable to advance a theory as to how study of the ancient texts could guard against others overcoming the military valour of the Greeks gleaned from such hallowed texts, which probably explains why the German Occupation took place.
Considering the parlous state of Greek education in the period immediately prior to the Greek Revolution of 1821, it would come as no surprise to learn that Korais always felt that the Greek people were not ready for revolution. In 1807 he argued: “Our people need at least fifty years of education.” In 1821, some months after the Greek revolution had been proclaimed, he mused: “the event has come too soon for our interest. If it had come 20 years later . . .”
Assessing from his home in Paris how the product of the Revolution, the Modern Greek state had developed, Korais lamented in 1831: “the Greek rising was fully justified, but inopportune; the right time would have been 1850.”
The lack of the civilising effects of education upon the Greeks blighted and ultimately damned the Greek Revolution and the state it brought about, in Korais’ eyes. It is easy to understand why. Instead of the enlightened, modern, progressive nation that formed the subject of Korais’ aspirations, the Greek state was fragmented, convulsed by internecine strife that saw some of the greatest proponents of its independence imprisoned or murdered and completely dysfunctional.
It was corrupted at its core by self-interested power brokers who did not shy away from provoking a civil war in order to further their grip on power, causing much suffering to an already war-shattered populace and was also manipulated by imperialist powers, to the extent where it was questionable as to whether Greece was truly either “free” or “independent,” as its rulers maintained.
As Korais wrote: “That the revolution occurred before time was proved by the recklessness of the leaders of the revolution and by the continuing very foolish conduct of many politicians within Greece, conduct that caused the flowing of a great deal of innocent blood.”
Had the Greeks been cautious, had they been patient instead of impulsive and intemperate, had they undergone the requisite amount of spiritual preparation with dedication and a sense of purpose, then they would have been truly free, and not the colonial plaything of a quadrumvirate of word powers: “If the race had rulers adorned with education, as it certainly would have had if the revolution had occurred thirty years later, then foreigners would have been inspired with such respect that the wrongs suffered from the anti-Christian Holy Alliance (i.e. the European powers) would have been avoided.”
Almost two hundred years after the Great Revolution of 1821, with the image of the heavily moustachioed, amply foustanella’d klepht-wielding a ponderous sword emblazoned deeply upon our consciousness as the ultimate harbinger of freedom, it is difficult to conceive of Korais’ preferred alternative revolutionary: a cravat-wearing, quill-brandishing intellectual, mincing down the mountainside in his spectacles, there to engage the enemy in endless philosophical disputation and textual criticism, until they are finally worn out and depart the land they have appropriated, in frustration.
Viewed from this perspective, Korais’ vision is, though grand, ultimately, a utopian one.
Nonetheless, it is a utopia that has inextricably found its way within the narrative of the Greek Revolution, even as power brokers masquerading as freedom-fighters became self-interested politicians, even as those politicians set about running the state that was created in the aftermath of so much spilled blood, for their own benefit and that of their imperial overlords and continue to do so today.
Though we extoll and exalt our freedom-fighting captains, though we liken them to the classical warriors that sent the Persians packing, somewhere in the back of our minds, Korais’ exhortation, to educate ourselves, cultivate ourselves and ultimately uplift ourselves, plays on our sub-conscious.
Korais’ call for enlightenment is deeply entrenched within us. It is the continuation of Saint Kosmas the Aetolian’s injunction that it is better to build schools than churches, and accords with visionary Rigas Pheraios’ celebration of reason. It is in fact, the culmination of the entire thrust of the Greek enlightenment, a johnny-cum-lately intellectual movement that was a complete derivative of the west, interpreting the corpus of our ancient legacy through alien, western eyes, but regardless, convinced that the complete espousal of European civilisation was the only pathway by which Greece could extricate itself, mentally, and then physically, from the morass in which it found itself.
We have never been able to live up to Korais’ lofty ideals. Surely, our diasporan community has internalised them, for he too was one of us, a Greek living outside Greece, who never saw his homeland again. The first generation of Greek migrant’s irrepressible imperative to educate their children, their drive to build schools and other cultural institutions, even their need to express themselves through poetry and literature and their equation of education with freedom, all comes directly from Korais.
Though the revolution has been gone, there is unfinished business to attend to for we have not yet attained the goals which Korais has set out for us and which we have espoused. There is an unarticulated sense that as a people, we are not where we want, or set out to be.
The revolution, as the cause of a deeply seated feeling of inadequacy harboured by many, if not most Greeks, is a concept, despite the rhetoric, the speeches, the marches and the flag waving we all rejoice in, tacitly accepted, but rarely spoken of.
Yet when Greeks both within and without the state that it engendered, view it, blundering periodically from morass to morass, regardless of their level of pecuniary interest or venality within its paradigm, Korais begins to whisper in their ear: “We can do better.”
We owe it to our ancestors to create the structures that will allow the Greek people to realise their full potential.
We owe it to each other to bring out the best in one another and we do this not through the ossification of culture and tradition, the purveying of prejudice, or the stifling of human endeavour, but rather, through celebrating knowledge, championing innovation and actively engaging with the broader global community.
“The education of a nation is the safest indication of its regeneration and of its political freedom,” wrote Korais. Articulating a particularly Greek approach to our past and to the corpus of global culture as means for the evolution of modern Greece into a truly independent, self-sufficient state, able to make unique contributions to the world is an objective that lingers still and which has not yet been fulfilled.
In many ways, the revolution for us has, somehow, become unhinged, or more likely, has not yet even begun.