05/09/2012 02:36 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2012

Greece in Agony

For 2500 years a mysterious word, philótimo, has carried the essence of the Greek psyche. It has no exact equivalent in English. It is the highest of virtues, the aspiration of every Greek -- honor, generosity, courage, and pride -- a fierce pride, often to the point of disdain. It is a complex quality that has sustained Greeks throughout their centuries of subjugation to foreign authority. It must serve now to liberate them from the agony imposed by the euro.

Greece, from the glory of its Golden Age and its defeat of the Persian empire, first fell under the sway of the Macedonians who spread Greek culture through an extraordinary empire, yet extinguished the independence of the city-states. That empire soon fragmented. Greece fell to never-ending centuries of subjugation by Romans, Venetians, Franks, Byzantines, Turks. (A quite common family name in Greece is Anagnostopoulos -- the reader, the only person in each village allowed to be literate during the four hundred years of Turkish rule.) Then came the British, the Italians, Germans, Americans, and now the Euro-Banks. Philótimo could be seen as the single essential virtue to hold off humiliation and despair.

For 2000 years Greece has lived with a foreign knife in its back. The bankers of Western Europe now have their hands on that knife. Self-interest, greed, power, and the accompanying corruption certainly motivate Greeks as well as Euro-Bankers, but I have known the power of philótimo over many years. It will prevail.

It is by no means an entirely saintly trait. There is a devious, Byzantine quality to the Greek psyche which may also be essential for survival. The romantic notion of Greece as a cradle of civilization, a tourist's dream, a pastoral scene of colorful peasants, beautiful landscapes, coral beaches, remote islands, goats and ruins, the smashing of crockery to wild bouzouki dancing -- it is far from reality. There is a surplus of the ugly in Greece -- of avarice, of hideous modernity, corruption, exploitation. But though it is largely hidden, there is something about the tough, durable fiber, the pride of generosity, the fierce instinct for independence which is at the core of the Greek soul.

The agony of Greece today no doubt reflects the corruption and mismanagement of the body politic, but succumbing to the lure of Europe and the euro was its downfall. Greeks would often speak of Europe as some rather glamorous "other place" off to the west, a place to which they did not belong. And looking to the east, they did not belong there either, though there were once Greek city-states on the western coasts of Anatolia.

Much of the Italian peninsula and Sicily, their nearest neighbor to the west, was once an integral part of their empire. Greek place names and archaeological sites are common there. "Griko" is still spoken in isolated pockets of Puglia. Yet today, the contrasts of the two cultures are great. The Italian psyche, as I have experienced it over many years, is gentle, deeply familial, gracious, though politically detached and cynical. The Italian does not seem threatened by or unduly attracted to the outside world, ready to observe it quizzically, yes, but without fully trusting it or expending much energy in envying it. Hard-working, creative, fun loving, they are the sanest people I have known and lived with.

But that can never describe the Greeks. Let go of Europe's euro, my friends, your inbred philótimo will show you how and can lead you to your own sanity.