Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Modern Greek Enlightenment: Planting the Seed of Independence 

An hour's time of living free
is better than forty years of prison and slavery.
Rigas Velestinlis

Waging a War of Independence is not entirely a matter of hard power. The peoples living under foreign yoke – and that included populations across the Balkans- had to be submitted to an intellectual awakening and renewal, in order to seek for themselves the ideals of unity and liberty, not to mention the need to form a national identity of their own.

The Modern Greek Enlightenment boasts two towering figures with influence transcending land borders and ethnic divisions.

In this context, starting from the 18th century, educated and influential members of the large Greek diaspora - who had already come in touch with the revolution called European Enlightenment - strove to pass the torch of these ideas to the occupied Greeks, fully conscious of their mission to raise their educational level and at the same time mold, foster and further cultivate what would be the modern national identity.

The historic figure who laid the foundations of this campaign is undoubtedly Rigas Velestinlis (1757- 1798). During his brief life in the 18th century, Rigas became an ardent advocate of the idea of freedom based on education, equality before the law, justice and peace, friendship and cooperation between countries of the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Historical research has even declared him a forerunner of the idea of European unification.

Another cornerstone in the history of Modern Greek Enlightenment is Adamantios Korais (1748- 1833). A French-educated physician and expatriate in Paris, Korais was a humanist scholar credited with shaping Modern Greek literature. Emulating the French ideals, Korais suggested new paths in Modern Greek political philosophy but it was the issue of language which determined his contribution. Becoming a staunch supporter of a purified form of the Greek language -which defined Modern Greek- Korais can be compared to the revolutionary influence of Dante on Italian and Martin Luther on German.

  • Inspired by the Struggle
When the Greeks decided to overthrow the yoke, and the struggle began, sympathy from around the world began to pour in for their suffering. Philhellenism peaked, and poets and painters like Byron, Shelley and Delacroix took to their pens and brushes, expressing their support for Greek independence.

The current exhibition Philhellenism in Art: Paintings and objects d'art at the B. & M. Theocharakis Foundation explores this theme as expressed in European fine and decorative arts of the 19th century.

  • Solomos: Poetry to the Cause
Born in Zante in 1798, with eclectic affinities with European Romantics and Philhellenes, Dionysios Solomos is considered the national poet of Greece, not only for his celebrated Hymn to Liberty but also for his major contribution to the preservation of the earlier Greek poetic tradition.

His most famous works inspired by the War of Independence include Hymn to Liberty - which is the national anthem of Greece - and the unfinished epic poem the Free Besieged. Inspired by the third siege of Missolonghi, Free Besieged is his unfinished masterpiece.

                                        The Hellenic National Anthem

A translation in English by Rudyard Kipling in 1918

We knew thee of old,
Oh, divinely restored,
By the lights of thine eyes
And the light of thy Sword

From the graves of our slain
Shall thy valour prevail
As we greet thee again-
Hail, Liberty! Hail!

  • Celebrations around the World
The Greek Diaspora every year celebrates the struggle for Greek Independence with several events in cities around the US, Canada, Australia, Germany and elsewhere. In the USA, Greek parades take place in several cities like New York on Fifth Avenue, in Detroit, Boston and Philadelphia, and others.

The White House also honours the occasion of Greek Independence by hosting annually a special ceremony dedicated to the event, in the presence of members of the Greek community. 

It is worth noting that the USA was the second country, after Haiti, to recognise the independent Greek state in 1825, while the town of Greece in NY State, established in 1822, was named in honour of the contemporary struggle of the Greek people for independence.

Greek Independence Day is also celebrated in Australia by its large Greek with multiple events and parades in Melbourne, Sydney, and other cities.