Greece ill-temperedly rattles a tin cup, desperate for another handout from the European Union but feeling far more anger than gratitude toward its would-be benefactors.

Italy shares Greece’s pain – and its deeply ingrained sense of resentment and entitlement. It too blames the rest of the world for high unemployment, falling living standards, and the inability of its government to pay its bills or to keep from falling deeper and deeper into debt. It will be no surprise if Italy follows Greece in bellying up to the EU’s bailout line.

Whatever happened (to quote two of the most famous lines from Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry) to “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome?”

In his famous funeral oration, delivered in 431 BC, the Greek leader Pericles sought to capture – and indeed to immortalize – what it was that characterized Athens at the peak of its glory. In his words, the Athens of that time did not need a Homer to sing its praises, or even imperishable monuments, such as the Parthenon, completed only a few years earlier: “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others to be eternally remembered.”

So how did the Greeks of this golden age manage to make such great and enduring contributions to Western civilization?  Believe it or not (and progressives will find this especially hard to fathom), it was individual freedom, self-reliance, and an absence of class envy – combined with a powerful sense of Greek (and especially Athenian) exceptionalism.

Pericles began his speech with several observations about the nature of democracy in the city-state of Athens. As recounted by his contemporary, the historian Thucydides, Pericles said:

We are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not the few. Our laws afford equal justice to all in their private differences. The freedom that we enjoy in government extends to ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes. Our love of what is beautiful does not lead us to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it, but the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.

The great statesman, general, and patron of the arts went on to say how the freedom and openness of their city did not weaken but served only to redouble the valor, resourcefulness, and generosity of the citizenry:

Trusting in the native spirit of our citizens, we throw open our city to the world, and never exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning and observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit from our liberality. To sum up, I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace.

Pericles delivered his speech at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (lasting from 431 to 404 BC). As Lincoln was to do more than two millennia later in the Gettysburg Address, he used the occasion of a eulogy for the war dead to enunciate the reasons and extol the cause for which the living continued to fight.

It would be nice to think that present-day Greeks might take some of Pericles’ words to heart in striving not just to live another day through increased borrowing or forgiveness of past debts, but to make a real effort to liberate themselves from decades of economic mismanagement and lopsided growth in the public sector at the expense of the private sector.

But that is not going to happen. Greece’s Parliament may approve the deal announced Monday, which requires Athens to agree to public-spending cuts that are deeper than the measures rejected by Greek voters in the July 5 referendum. But in doing an about-face in supporting the deal, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is publicly holding his nose – urging Greeks to rally around him and the agreement to “spite the country’s creditors.”  How could that be? He suggests that harsh bailout terms are really a device to make his government fail.

Surely, it is delusional to think that the EU and the IMF can impose “reform” on a government and people who scorn the hand that feeds them. It would take a Margaret Thatcher if not a Pericles to make a case for real reform – and there is no such champion of individual freedom and self-reliance anywhere to be seen.ake 

Andrew B. Wilson is a resident fellow and senior writer at the Show-Me Institute, a free-market think tank based in St. Louis, MO.