The story of Sisyphus compares quite well with the experience of zero-hours contracts

By Harry Eyres, Financial Times

The coverage of events in Greece has repeatedly reminded us that the Greeks (albeit of an earlier vintage) gave us the words politics, democracy, drama, comedy and tragedy. I have heard less talk of hubris (the overweening pride of those who devised a single currency encompassing the rather different economic modes and attitudes of Schleswig-Holstein, Sicily and the southern Peloponnese) and nemesis.

By focusing on the relatively respectable side of the Greek legacy, I wonder whether those commentators are missing the point. Might the best guide to what is happening now not be the bright Apollonian tradition of Greek rationality, the belief in logos and logic, but the dark Dionysiac side — the heaving underbelly of Greek myth, that repository of the unimaginably cruel, disgraceful and disastrous aspects of human character and destiny?

To me at least, the lowdown world of Greek myth offers more illumination at this juncture than the much-touted examples of higher Greek thought, culture and civics. Coming first to mind are the myths of the Greek underworld, especially the grisly punishments meted out to those who dared to disobey the laws of almighty Zeus (aka the European Central Bank).

Take the 50 daughters of Danaus, ordered by their father to stab their husbands to death during their wedding night. All obeyed but one — the heroic Hypermnestra. Their punishment was an endless frustration: doomed for all eternity to attempt the hopeless task of filling a water vessel full of holes. Not only frustrating but startlingly similar to the current Greek experience of attempting to repay an unrepayable debt.

One could also mention Tantalus, who was punished for offering his son cooked in a stew to the gods for dinner by being made to stand in a pool of water that constantly drained away, and thus suffer a perpetual agony of thirst. In 2013 Unicef estimated that 600,000 children in Greece were living below the poverty line, with more than half lacking basic nutritional needs.

Then there is Sisyphus, a cunning character who attempted to trick death by asking his wife to leave his body unburied, and was punished, somewhat unfairly you might think, by being made to roll a boulder uphill only to see it invariably roll back down. (Some might think that compared quite well with the experience of zero-hours contracts).

Actually, a more illuminating Greek myth for these times seems to be the story of Procrustes, the celebrated and remarkably tidy-minded robber of Attica. Procrustes’ method of tying the travellers he abducted to a bed and then either cutting them down to size if they were too tall, or stretching them if they were too short, seems a piercingly clear metaphor of the shortcomings of one-size-fits-all regulations and especially the single currency. But perhaps the most apt and terrible of all is the story of the Titan Kronos (whom the Romans named Saturn), devouring all his children as soon as they were born, in fear that one would supplant him. No surprise that it was a Spaniard, Goya, from the land that repeatedly sacrifices its children, where (as in Greece) youth unemployment stands at more than 50 per cent, who painted the most terrifying version of this myth.

Even if Greek myths don’t offer any solutions, they remind us — or so Freud thought — that the rational minds on which we pride ourselves are a thin, even if essential, veneer over primitive passions. But the answer is not to expel unruly passion from the deliberations of reason. If you do that, as Freud suggested, passion will “cause further trouble . . . shouting and banging on the door with his fists”, making it impossible to hear what is being said in the chamber of reason. The best course is to usher those angry and aggrieved feelings back into the room, in a spirit of kindness and conciliation.

Isn’t that the lesson of the greatest Greek tragedy of them all, Aeschylus’s Oresteia? In the final play of the trilogy, the implacable Furies, which have hounded Orestes, crying vengeance for the murder of his mother Clytemnestra, are not banished but have their case heard in open and fair court; when the vote ends in a tie, and Orestes is acquitted, they are given an honoured shrine in the city.