We all know when the right words are found. They fit. They need no addition, no adornment, they just say it all.
Two years ago, a 16-year old, Alexandros Giroropoulos, was shot by the Athens police. The exact circumstances are the subject of a case that continues, but this was the spark that ignited a powder keg filled with resentment at crippling economic conditions, financial scandals, unpopular pension and education reforms, and a general strike. The Greeks took to the streets and battles raged in cities up and down the land.
A peculiarity of Greek law meant that the police are not allowed onto university campuses, so, under assault, the rioters in Athens had let it be known that they would regroup on the University library, a solid building. Professors and librarians, who had got wind of this at the last moment, and fearing the loss of incalculable treasures, locked the doors and barricaded the building, breaking up the furniture to do so, and grabbing lamps and chair legs to repel boarders. Thwarted, the rioters threw Molotov cocktails in at the windows and tried to break in. Some forced their way into the entrance hall, and a pitched battle began with white-haired, overweight bespectacled professors struggling in hand-to-hand combat with angry rioters. But suddenly, like a will o’ the wisp, the rioters retreated and moved off, leaving a lot of charred doors, smoke, smashed windows and broken white heads behind them. Luckily, with the collection being on the upper floors, none of the treasures were damaged. But it had been a close run thing.
One professsor, smeared with ash and distraught at the near disaster, was filmed by a TV crew with a pail of water still in his hand, trying to catch his breath. He was asked a question. He looked into the distance and shook his head, trying to control his anger and was at first unable to speak. Then, reaching into his memory, he found something.
“Two thousand years ago, we had a philosopher called Isocrates,” he said “who warned us of this moment.”
He turned to face the film camera and wagged his finger at it, and that night the citizens of Athens saw him on television framed by fire and smoke.
“ ‘Our democracy is destroying itself, because it abused the right to freedom and equality, because it taught people to consider impudence as a right, illegality as freedom, rudeness as equality and anarchy as happiness.’ ”
He left it at that, and went back to his work putting out smouldering fires.
It was quoted around the world, and one Greek daily newspaper cleared the front page and used the quote in isolation.
They may have been two thousand years old, but they were the right words.