Cyprus Mail

The price of ignoring Diogenes

By Sarah and Gerhard Pross

 “There is nothing as good as a long lazy summer in Cyprus.” Twenty years ago I heard that sentence for the first time and I agreed wholeheartedly. That is why I live here. The Italians call it il dolce far niente – the delicious idleness. To be idle and happy is a Mediterranean art which creates a lot of jealousy in Northern Europe.

Most of my German former classmates could stop working, but they are afraid to do so. It is not the money. Together with their wives, who also worked their whole lives, they will get pensions of at least 3,000 euros per month. No, their angst is a life without work. What to do all day long? Getting up late, sitting in a coffee shop until lunchtime, taking a nap after a lavish meal, and then chatting with the neighbours until it is time for the big evening meal from eight to eleven. There is no work, no productivity. Such a life is a threat to northern people simply because they never learned the art of idleness.

Northern people cannot live without work; they have to be busy, productive and sportive. They need a speedy car to get, after a long day of hard work, as quickly as possible to their gym, where they can run like hamsters in their cages. Their brains request a constant kick and therefore they are addicted to action and stress.

Like a tsunami, this disease swept into Cyprus. We all know the successful businessman sitting at Starbucks constantly bellowing dynamic orders into his mobile phone. Long before the present crisis, Cypriots were the most stressed people in Europe.

The Italian Carlo Levi wrote a book Christo si è fermato a Eboli. Eboli is a little town in southern Italy and according to the people living there, Jesus Christ stopped at Eboli. He never marched further north, he never arrived in the city of the Pope, and he never made it to Northern Europe.

Let’s think about it. Was Jesus a hard working man suffering from stress? Did he get up early in the morning and ponder: “Christ, how to make a profit today?” Did he not spend most of his time talking to his neighbours? And what did he say about rich people? It should be clear to all of us: sitting in a Mercedes, we will not fit through the eye of a needle.

The Bible gives many other instructive examples. Think about his first two disciples, Saint Peter and his brother Andrew. Jesus had an enlightening chat with them “and they straightaway left their nets and followed him” (Mathew 4, 20). Translated into modern terms, we could say that two related business partners running a profitable SME just threw the keys of their company into the post box and became dropouts. No profit, no money, but they achieved heaven – no futile stress anymore.

Their idle but rewarding lifestyle was nothing new. Already three hundred years earlier lived a Greek forerunner, the famous Diogenes. Alexander the Great visited the sage of Sinope and in front of his entourage, the powerful youngster asked Diogenes: “What can I do for you?”

“Stand out of my sunlight” is the well known answer. Priceless Greek wisdom!

At least it was.

For a modern Cypriot there is nothing as important as his Germanic tank of a car. To drive around in a Mercedes, BMW or Audi is essential for his mental wellness. We have an economic crisis and there are two striking visual results: empty shops and spotlessly clean German cars.

It is the funny side of the crisis. The Germans produce a secret service report about money laundering in Cyprus and based on this never published paper these admittedly clever people use us as a guinea pig for their new bail-in policy.

And what is our reaction? We spend our last ten euros to give the rolling symbols of German superiority a shiny new outfit. Sorry to say, but it must be said: the Germans are victorious. We have not only imported their glittering cars, we also adopted the related philosophy of protestant Calvinism. For a proper Calvinist everything has to be in good order and above all: clean!

Generalisations are always wrong, but let us try to get it right. Diogenes and the most important Cypriot, Zenon of Kition, were the founding fathers of Stoicism with its basic demand to live a simple life. But this timeless ethics remained a philosophy restricted to the Greek and later Roman upper class.

It became a mass movement when it turned into a religion based on the teaching of Jesus and his followers. Early Christianity was a philosophy of the poor for the poor. “And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God,” and “But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation” (Luke 6, 20 and 24).

The emphasis of modesty changed when Christianity developed into an official state religion and its clerics became part of the ruling class. But there was no way round the basic message given by Jesus. Even as mighty institutions, the churches, drew their social legitimacy from their care for the poor and the needy. And throughout the centuries there has been an ongoing struggle to bring the hierarchy back to its humble roots.

On an individual level, the Christian ideal was the proper balance between a ‘vita contemplativa’ and a ‘vita activa’ expressed in the fundamental rule of the Benedictine monks: “ora et labora – pray and work”.  For centuries this order was the base of European work ethic; the contemplative part, the ‘ora’, the ‘sit and think,’ never lost its first place.

The balance changed fundamentally with the reformation in Northern Europe. The most radical version of Protestantism was developed by John Calvin. According to his approach heaven is ruled by an angry God and humans are evil. Only hard work can keep us away from the temptations which the devil, the most cunning of all trappers, has spread out. The church hierarchy was replaced by the community of the faithful and everybody had to demonstrate to fellow believers his hard work and his resistance to any kind of temptations, above all those of the flesh.

The inevitable result of constant hard work and a ‘clean’ life is the accumulation of capital. Therefore wealth became the proof of a godly life. After the last judgement, those with the higher piles of money would sit closer to God because they had been ‘cleaner’. No laziness, no wine, no dancing, no women, no smoking, no speeding, no gluttony at Easter, and no gambling during the Christmas break. For such an impressive life of resistance, the clean ones would be rewarded in heaven by the platonic love of bodiless angels.

Suddenly poverty was a crime. Poverty was the evidence for a lack of hard work and the revelation of poor resistance. Therefore the ‘vita contemplativa’ of somebody like Diogenes, who lived on purpose a poor life and just wanted to have his sunshine, became a criminal act. In fact his behaviour was the worst crime because it showed that a lazy life was not only possible but even quite comfortable.

Calvinism is the philosophy of the people who produce the Mercedes cars. For them people who happily sit in the sun are destined for any kind of misdeed. As soon as the word ‘money laundering’ had been whispered through the corridors of German parliament, it was immediately clear that this would be the truth. It had to be the truth.

Let’s be honest. We tried to light the candle on both sides. For a better understanding we start with linguistic hair splitting. In ancient Greek, the word for work is ‘ascholia.’ And what does the prefix ‘a’ show to an educated Greek? It indicates the lack of something. Could it be that ‘ascholia’ is the contrary of ‘schole’ which means idleness? Might it be that we define work negatively as the lack of the superior part of life: il dolce far niente?

If so, we are happy people. If so, Diogenes is not only in our language, he is also in our tradition, maybe even in our genes. We just were stupid enough to jump on the train of northern ethics. In a fit of lunacy, we tried to convince our neighbours that we stopped sleeping in the afternoon and thus could afford a German tank car. It was a lie from the very beginning because we bought the shinny status symbol on credit. By doing so we put our head into the noose and sooner or later the northern masters of purity would not resist the temptation to kick the bucket under our feet.

Good Calvinists have to fight all evils all over the world. It is their godly duty. Therefore we have to forgive them. They are the real victims. They are the victims of a philosophy which has forgotten Diogenes and the simple life of Jesus. “Christo si è fermato a Eboli.”


Dr Gerhard Pross is an economist based in Cyprus. Sarah is his daughter

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