“We can never repay Greece,” says Philhellene Stephen Fry

“It is quite fashionable these days to say the Greeks didn’t invent democracy or rhetoric or logic or mathematics,” Philhellene Stephen Fry told businessman David Hill, speaking to Greek Australians in an event organised by The Hellenic Initiative on Friday. He then went on to refer to the “unassailable” principles laid down by the Ancient Greeks in all sectors.

The comedian and actor spoke of how he fell in love with the Greek language and mythology from boyhood. Aged seven, he found that the other boys at his boarding school were good at sports, music and drawing, but “there was nothing I felt that I was good at,” he said, until he saw a spike in his popularity “after lights (went) out in the dormitory” and he would tell stories. When he discovered Greek myths, he thought they were the “best stories imaginable” and “people loved me for it”.

He excelled in language, and learnt Latin at his boarding school, before his Latin teacher asked him privately if he wanted to learn Greek at the age of nine years.

“As soon as I discovered I had another alphabet, I was like ‘oh, so I can write to people using it’, so I wrote my name as Stephanos with an ypsilon at the end and I just loved it,” he said, adding that he enjoyed back then, and still today, finding Greek in his own language, and he remembered a chapter of a book about how particular words made their journey into English.

“There was a verb thavmazei, which means ‘to marvel, to wonder at’ and it said this is easily remembered by thinking of the English word thaumaturge. Most 9-year-olds or haven’t heard of the word thaumaturge, let’s be honest, most 90-year-olds had heard of the word thaumaturge, but I’d never forgotten it for this reason. Greek to me was like a passport into a magical kingdom that I could control, because none of my friends really had it, but despite them not knowing about Greek the language or being that proficient in Greek history or mythology, without their knowing it it was deep in the DNA of the language they used unknowingly,.”

His parents didn’t go on holidays, so he was a university undergraduate when he went, “like Oscar Wilde”, another Hellenist, and Mr Fry states “it was worth waiting for”.


Stephen Fry and David Hill, a screenshot from The Hellenic Initiative’s webinar.

“This was beyond anything I could possibly have imagined,” he said, adding that Delphi is his favourite place but he has visited many antiquities around the country.

“There’s something very special about the Parthenon,” he said.

“Many people in museums and libraries are almost genetically programmed to hate the idea of deacquisition, or whatever word you want to use, and they believe that it is a slippery slope. You give away one thing to one person, and you’d have to give away you’re entire collection and it would have to be dispersed around the world. Well, a slippery slope of course, as followers of logic and Aristotle would know is a fallacy, but that is being cute about it. I think the point is, we have to recognise there is something special about the Parthenon to Athens. It’s not just a building, it is a foundational element; the very nature of what Athens is.”

As a “primary element of modern architecture to this day, it is unsurpassed in its grace and its beauty and its achievement,” he said, adding that it is technically possible to create a fantastic “Parthenon experience” in the British Museum by making an almost identical cast and send the originals back.

“You’d get everything that you get now plus you would see this magical moment in which they were restored to their rightful place and it would be such a classy act. Britain, frankly, needs it do something classy for a change after the wretched Brexit and the nonsense of much of our behaviour in the world,” he said, adding that this is “inevitable” in the future.

He speaks of the world’s debt to Greece, remembering the sovereign debt crisis. “There was a real danger in the country,” Mr Fry said, remembering the BBC’s reportage in Greece featuring a soup kitchen. “The camera went round the corner and there was a queue of Greek men lining up and as soon as they saw the camera they turned and went away because their pride was too great for them to be seen to be asking for charity food and that just tore me to pieces. It is an awful thing to see these proud independent people being reduced in this way and still retaining their dignity.”

Emotive in his defence of Greeks, Mr Fry said not to forget the offerings from antiquity all the way to modern times.

“The best way we can repay is to remember,” he said.