05/17/2012 01:42 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2012

Is a Modern Greek Tragedy Imminent?

Aristotle writes in the "Poetics" that the greatest tragedies involve people who are closely related. The Greek play which best embodies this in political form is Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes, in which a prince leads an army against his own city, ruled by his brother -- both sons of Oedipus. Half a century later, Thucydides recounts the terrors of the Peloponnesian War, a real-life civil war. For though Athens and Sparta were, in effect, different states, their citizens spoke the same language, worshiped the same gods, and had developed a strong sense of common identity as "Hellenes," consolidated when, united, they defeated the Persians.

Interestingly, the Peloponnesian War still forms, 2,500 years later, the first example we Greeks use to accompany our favorite commonplace when discussing our history: "Whenever we achieve something good, it is we, ourselves, who destroy it." The Greek expression for this self-inflicted destruction translates literally as "we pluck out our own eyes," a metaphor as Oedipal as they come. But there are also strong examples of this self-destructive tendency from modern Greek history, the most marked of which occurred in the 1940s: Barely two years after the Greeks, united, had gained the admiration of all freedom-loving people for their heroic six-month stand against the Axis' attack, they began fighting one another. This civil war lasted six years and ravaged the country, its after-effects staying at the center of Greek political life until 1974, and the collapse of a right-wing military dictatorship.

But then things began to change for the better. Though late 20th-century Greece gave the world no extraordinary reasons to admire it, it cashed in fully on its legendary reputation. So, when the idea of a united Europe came to fruition, it was obvious it had to include Greece. A common European civilization was inconceivable without its legacy: "Europe" was, after all, a Greek word. The same spirit prevailed when Greece joined the first signatories of the Maastricht Treaty. But now, after three years of a terrible economic crisis, our crucial European allegiances seem to be on the verge of collapse. Why? Doubtless, there are also supra-national reasons for this, related not just to the world -- and European economic crises, but also the more topical pathologies plaguing the Mediterranean members of the EU. But external reasons do not absolve Greeks of our own, national share of the blame.

My opinion is that this share is very large. In fact, at the heart of our present troubles is the national disease of self-destructive inner discord, mentioned above. It is not that discord created the Greek crisis, mind you -- the reasons for that are hard to reduce to simple formulae, apart from the obvious one, of an extremely low quality of political leadership. But discord is the reason we are now unable to deal with the problem, and resist the turning international tide against us. In our present fratricidal squabble, sadly, there is no intruder, like the sly Tullius Détritus in the Astérix adventure "La Zizanie." Alas, we supply our own agents provocateurs.

In last Sunday's elections, which failed to elect a government coalition, the two major parties of the center-left and center-right received a strong beating. The good news is that it the beating was well-deserved; the bad that the victors are in most ways worse. Clearly, it is essential in a free country that parties with markedly different positions exist, on which they clash with strong arguments. So, why brand what happened last Sunday an instance of "inner discord" and not, say, a legitimate sign of democratic pluralism? The reason is that the ascendant parties offer no realistic alternatives to our present predicament. They sought, and won, political profit by playing on people's grievances: resentment, fear and a chauvinistic, xenophobic nationalism -- and it is not just the extreme right that built its campaign on the latter, but also the radical left. To balance these, they gave only unrealizable utopian promises.

Outside Greece, many friends of our country are wondering whether we have decided, as a nation, to commit suicide by holding new elections. In a democracy, the reply sadly has to be: "Yes, if that is what the people want." But polls show that over 70 people of Greeks want the country a part of the EU and the Euro our currency. So, my countrymen are not suicidal, definitely not. What the recent elections showed was that the majority, and mainly the younger and less sophisticated voters, were pushed by real insecurity and real hardship to accept the lies of dangerous and opportunistic demagogues who conducted a campaign cultivating blindness, blindness to the real intentions of the parties effectively wanting to push us out of Europe, blindness to the true dangers Greece faces if it takes that risk.

Oedipus plucked out his own eyes. Ours are being torn out by populist politicians. Let's hope we are given another chance before they finish their savagery.