Boris Johnson: a classical commentary

I never really saw the point of Brexit, hard as I tried. Our position in Europe was, for me, a classic case of having one’s cake and eating it. Despite the greatly exaggerated bureaucratic and legislative tyrannies of Brussels, we always maintained a more than sufficient measure of national identity. We have the Queen, the Changing of the Guard, Lord Lieutenants in every county, our own coinage, cheddar cheese, vindaloo curry, Simon Cowell, Banksy, the Kennel Club, the Church of England and William Shakespeare. And if these blessings ever seemed insufficient, we had an exotic continental mistress in the person of Europe, always there with a ready embrace – and a comparatively low-maintenance one at that, if we consider the benefits and uplift she conferred. Whether you were a holidaying ruffian, hell-bent on beer-fueled pillage on the Costa Blanca, or a limp-wristed Hampstead liberal, randy for the rococo delights of Vierzehnheiligen, ‘Welcome!’ was always writ large on the doormat of Europe. However, 17.4 million Britons – a formidable think-tank of foreign affairs specialists, historians and economists – voted us out of the EU. The people were of one mind (if that). So here we are, with Boris at the helm – and here he is (a few years ago now) delivering a bravura recitation, in the original Greek, of the opening passage of The Iliad:

It was an excellent dramatic performance as well as being an impressive feat of memory, though Johnson had forgotten line 8, Τίς τ’ ἄρ σφωε θεῶν ἔριδι ξυνέηκε μάχεσθαι – who of the gods brought these two together to fight? It is a line he may well have momentarily recalled during his contest with Jeremy Corbyn, thanking the gods for having sent him such a pushover of an opponent. It is easy to see how Johnson won the hearts and minds of the people. The unimpeachable Corbyn, despite his many virtues, came across as the kind of dusty, vaguely Marxist lecturer one might expect to find on one of Britain’s more lacklustre campuses. Johnson, the affable and polished Old Etonian, appeared in triumphant contrast. His to-hell-with-it patrician persona was as appealing to the masses as it was to the gaggle of upstarts and wannabes who populate the Conservative Party. Charm and humour – his strongest suits and Corbyn’s weakest – go a long way in Britain. And now, Brexit done and dusted, he has to deal with Covid-19. I should think that when he was ill with the virus, he might well have called to mind a few of the lines he recited on ABC that happy day in 2013. This is Alexander Pope’s translation:

Declare, O Muse! in what ill-fated hour
Sprung the fierce strife, from what offended power
Latona’s son a dire contagion spread,
And heap’d the camp with mountains of the dead.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. Given Johnson’s classical background, his enemies might be tempted to consider hubris as the possible cause of his eventual downfall, if or when it happens – the overweaning pride and ambition that leads to the hero’s destruction in Greek tragedy. On balance, looking at Covid-19, I think his inbuilt banana skin will prove not to be hubris, but more likely akidía (general carelessness) or aphulaxia (carelessness in the sense of failure to be on guard or watchful, a concept that crops up in Xenophon and other earnest authorities, when they address matters of governance and responsibility). Johnson is not a character out of Greek tragedy. If anything, one could more readily imagine him in an Aristophanic comic setting. For me, his genial public appearances always call to mind the late and tipsy arrival of Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium, livening up what had become a rather over-intense intellectual dinner party. And the Prime Minister will certainly recall the fate of Alcibiades, whose carelessness at the battle of Notium cost him his career.

It is a good thing Johnson recovered from Covid-19 – not just for him and his family (which goes without saying) but for the nation at large. One dreads to imagine what unlovely cabal would be running the country now if he hadn’t.

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