Bennett Group Financial

History Speaking to Us Today: Lessons from Ancient Greece, by Dawn Bennett


Washington, DC -- (ReleaseWire) -- 06/30/2015 --It was a dramatic weekend in the eurozone. Greece essentially shut down its banking system for the week and the Greek central bank has imposed controls to prevent money from racing out of the country in advance of a July 5th referendum on whether to accept the austerity measures imposed by the country's creditors in exchange for further help. Greece's next payment to the International Monetary Fund is due on Tuesday, June 30th, and the eurogroup (the finance ministers of the eurozone countries) voted not to grant the country a one month extension of its bailout. European stocks are down as a result of uncertainty over what comes next (which is looking more and more like a Greek default and possible exit from the euro).

In the midst of all of this, what might the ancient Greeks have to offer their modern counterparts? What might they have to offer us? We'll look at four lessons: from the Oracle of Delphi, Homer's hero Odysseus, and the philosophers Socrates and Heraclitus. Stick with me here, this isn't going to be dry stuff at all, promise.

First, let's talk about the Oracle of Delphi. This was a series of priestesses, all named Pythia, that supposedly spoke the words of the god Apollo to advise rulers, generals, merchants and everyday people on matters of strategy, life choices, and even finances. The thing about Pythia's divine inspiration? It seems like she was probably high from fumes coming from the hot springs or cracks in the earth below the temple. She supposedly spoke in near-gibberish which was interpreted by the priests of Apollo and passed on to the people asking questions in neat, if obscure, poetic form.

What's the lesson we're supposed to take from a priestess who might as well have been doing the ancient equivalent of sniffing glue? Carved into the walls of the temple at Delphi are many maxims, said to be Apollo's instructions on proper living for the people of the time. Two of these are "Know thyself," and "Nothing in excess."

For five years, we've been listening to obscure and ambiguous statements from economists about how the Greek debt crisis will finally resolve, whether Greece will leave the eurozone, what will happen then. We're about to find out from the real world. After the eurogroup's rejection of Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis's plea for a one-month extension to the bailout, it seems that the European Union and the European Central Bank are washing their hands of Greece. The referendum on July 5th is effectively a vote on whether Greece remains in the euro. It's too late to apply Apollo's virtues of self-knowledge and moderation to fix the problem, but in responding to the inevitable fallout, Greek voters and government officials, the ECB and we ourselves should certainly keep them in mind.

The second ancient lesson comes from the hero of Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus. After the ten-year long Trojan War, Odysseus fought through a series of obstacles and threats for another ten years before he managed to return home to his home and his wife. He faced and overcame the ancient equivalent of drug-dealers, a cyclops, cannibals, an angry god, storms, a sorceress that turned half his men into pigs, more angry gods, and a love-sick nymph. He even survived the original "rock and a hard place," Scylla and Charybdis. Then, when he finally arrived home, he found that a veritable army of suitors were plaguing his wife with requests for her to marry them, since Odysseus was believed to be dead. Of course, the suitors (108 of them) were staying in his house, carousing and eating up all his wealth. In the end, Odysseus and his son (with a little divine help from Athena) wind up battling and defeating all 108.

Rollicking story aside, what does Odysseus say to Greece today? To us? Following austerity measures introduced in 2011, and the resulting disastrous effects on the economy (which include 25% unemployment), the increasing level of hardship led to protests, riots and even a public suicide by a pensioner. Since then, the suicide rate in the country has risen by 35%. In the face of the cyclops that is Greece's financial disaster, many are simply giving up, either depending upon the increasingly less-reliable welfare state, or opting out altogether, one way or another. This is not the heritage of Homer's great hero, who never gave up. Giants, cannibals, sorceresses, even the loving attentions of a beautiful nymph on a desert island paradise, he refused to accept that anything that stood between him and his home was too hard to overcome with intelligence and properly-applied effort. This applies most poignantly to the people of Greece, and by extension to all of us.

The third strategy from ancient Greece comes from Socrates, and it really made him unpopular at the time. As it happens, the previously mentioned Pythia once prophesied that Socrates was the wisest man in all of Greece. Socrates was a teacher, but he really didn't see himself as being all that wise, so he started a practice of cross-examining those he encountered, especially the ones that thought the knew something about life or the world. Politicians, poets, artists, merchants, he asked all of them the tough questions. The thing he discovered by asking questions was that everyone else was just as ignorant as he was, but the others truly believed they did know something.

Of course, that eventually got Socrates killed, but there is something for us to learn here. The only way to get to the heart of a problem is to cross-examine everyone who claims to have unique knowledge or solutions. Even when it's uncomfortable, we can only plot a course when we understand the truth, and we can only learn the truth by constantly questioning our assumptions and those of others. This is easily applied to the situation in Greece and to all investors everywhere. Don't simply accept the statements of central banks and governments, of advisers and media pundits. Put yourself in dialog with the "accepted wisdom," ask questions, especially uncomfortable ones. Do your own research, and seek out the analysis of many voices, not just the loudest or most popular.

Finally, we'll talk about the philosopher Heraclitus. One of his most famous teachings was that the universe is in a state of constant change, often expressed by the saying, "You can't step in the same river twice." The lesson here is clear, especially in a dynamic and uncertain environment like the market will be in this week. Even if change is constant, it is important to find solid ground to stand on, something stable to hold onto. The currency markets are going to respond dramatically to a Greek default, and are already showing clear signs of reaction to the extended "bank holiday" and central-bank imposed controls. Stocks are down in Europe and throughout the global market. In the face of this, many governments are turning to gold. What is your "solid ground," the tow-line you're grabbing onto in the middle of the constantly changing river of today's market?

Moving out of philosophy and back into the specifics of what to watch this week as the situation in Greece plays out on the world stage, there are three particular things to pay attention to. The first is political reactions within the European Union. Look for statements from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, from Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, and other world leaders. The second is reaction from the European Central Bank itself. Be watchful for indications that they are considering further QE, and other institutional tell-tales. Third is public opinion polling of the citizens of Greece about the upcoming referendum. All three of these are clues as to whether Greece will leave the eurozone or even the European Union altogether.

So, the bottom line? This week we may see the first domino fall. We already know that stocks have been overvalued on the whole, propped up by the bubble of cheap money and easy liquidity provided by the central banks: the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan, even the People's Bank of China. Corporate earnings haven't been keeping pace with the Dow or the S&P 500. The currency and securities markets are certain to react to whatever happens between now and next Sunday's referendum. To protect ourselves, we can do far worse than apply the lessons of ancient Greece. Exercise moderation, persevere in overcoming difficulties, ask hard questions, find something to hold on to. Wisdom indeed.

All data sourced through Bloomberg

Securities offered through Western International Securities, Inc., Member FINRA & SIPC. Bennett Group Financial & Western International Securities, Inc. are separate and unaffiliated companies.

About Dawn Bennett
Dawn Bennett is CEO and Founder of Bennett Group Financial Services. She hosts a national radio program called Financial Myth Busting

She discusses educational topics and events in the financial news, along with her thoughts on the economy, financial markets, investments, and more with her live guests, who have included rock legend Ted Nugent, as well as Steve Forbes and Grover Norquist. Listeners can call 855-884-DAWN a as well as take podcasts on the road and forums for interaction.

She can be reached on Twitter @DawnBennettFMB or on Facebook Financial Myth Busting with Dawn Bennett or