Europe Economy

Greek philosophy: Conflict of ideas driving the crisis

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.
Fabrizio Bensch | Reuters

As European politicians ponder how to solve the current impasse over Greece's debts to international creditors, some of the key players seem to be digging out their philosophy books.

The country's erudite Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, cited German philosopher Immanuel Kant in a New York Times editorial published Tuesday – a nice reminder of Europe's shared cultural history - as he pled with those reading to help the Greek people escape the bonds of austerity.

Protesters take part in an anti-austerity pro-government demonstration in front of the parliament in Athens February 11, 2015.
Greece: The final countdown

Kant "taught us that the rational and the free escape the empire of expediency by doing what is right," he argued. Whether "doing what is right" in this case means "doing what Varoufakis wants" is, of course, open to debate.

Wolfgang Schaueble, the German finance minister, seemed to be adopting a rather dogmatic philosophy, by contrast.

When asked about the potential for changes to the existing programme by German state television channel  ZDF Tuesday night, he said: "It's not about extending a credit programme but about whether this bailout programme will be fulfilled, yes or no."

Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out that the German word for "guilt" and "debt" is one and the same: "Schuld." The German philosopher argued that those who could not pay financially paid instead through other kinds of suffering. 

Economist Stuart Holland, who co-authored "A Modest Proposal for Resolving the Eurozone Crisis" with fellow economist James K. Galbraith and Varoufakis, has previously drawn parallels between the Nietzschen perspective on debt and German leaders' current stance. 

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The Greek portrayal of the current situation suggests something of a Manichean view of the world – one with a clear struggle between good and evil.

"Some of the acrimony may result from Greece trying to cast this as a battle for right versus wrong, while the Eurogroup (of euro zone finance ministers) sees this as trying to resolve a business deal gone bad," Steven Englander, global head of G10 currency strategy at Citi, argued.

What the resolution of the crisis may come down to, of course, is the dictum of 6th century philosopher Pythagoras (he of the triangular theorem): everything can be explained by mathematics. 

- By CNBC's Catherine Boyle