Text Messages | Boris Johnson is no Socrates

Ethics and virtue, which Socrates made his life work, are seemingly lacking in Britain’s new prime minister. But having studied Classics, he is not ignorant per se and theoretically capable of virtuous behaviour.

In past centuries, the scholars who most appreciated the literature of Greek and Roman civilisation were also those who lamented that Classics left many of their male readers with a taste for war and violence. A curriculum that leaned heavily on Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid and Julius Caesar’s soldierly, unadorned prose accounts of his campaigns in the Gallic Wars cannot but have turned young male heads and hearts towards martial doings.

In The Iliad, a very long retelling of a very brief period in the 10-year siege of Troy, youngsters struggling with the Ancient Greek language would be rewarded with detailed accounts of brutal hand-to-hand combat and by the thrilling arc of the story, the course of the rage, or anger, of Achilles. The opening line of The Iliad states its subject: “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation…” is how Richmond Lattimore’s translation renders it.

Greek set aside for Latin, pupils would wrestle with Virgil and his epic poem about how Aeneas, fleeing the defeat and sacking of his home city Troy, fetched up on the coast of what is now Italy and founded a new nation. Struggle, tragedy, triumph.

It is little surprise then that two of the most destructive phenomena in the history of British politics should have been no mean classicists at school and university. One, the notorious Enoch Powell, wrote a much-admired book about Thucydides, the great Athenian historian whose account of the Peloponnesian War is the second great history in Western literature, after Herodotus’ work on the conflict between Hellas (Greece) and Persia.

Two self-serving creatures

Powell it was who borrowed two elements of Roman oratory to deliver his infamous and incendiary “rivers of blood” speech, a tirade against immigration into Britain. One was the image of the river Thames flowing red with blood, lifted from a more famous and equally emotive Roman reference to the river Tiber flowing with blood. The second was the Roman expert orator’s habit of deliberately suppressing urination before important speeches in the belief that the physiological urgency and growing discomfort of that state would impart an impassioned appeal to the speaker’s delivery. 

The other havoc maker, Boris Johnson, has attained the office of prime minister, to which Powell also aspired but thankfully did not achieve. When not indulging in boorish upper-class excess at Oxford, Johnson studied Classics: not the best endorsement or advertisement for a discipline and calling that at its best is noble.

In these two self-serving creatures is writ large the paradox of Classics, that although it has much to teach, it seems unable to refine those with coarse souls. Fine minds are one thing but the soul, as Plato pointed out long ago, is an altogether more delicate and superior thing.

Yet it is tempting to speculate whether Plato’s teacher, Socrates, might have been able to help even such an unprincipled egomaniacal narcissist as Johnson. Ethics and the virtues were Socrates’ life work. It is from him that stems the foundational notion that an unexamined life is not worth living.

Socrates maintained that if one knew the good, virtuous action, one would have no choice but to take it. In contrast, if one did not know the correct course to take, one would not be acting badly, only ignorantly. Johnson does not behave in the way that Socrates would expect because while he knows the ethically correct actions, he fails to undertake them. He acts badly, not ignorantly. But there is at least a sliver of hope in his case because he is not ignorant per se and so theoretically is capable of acting properly. 

Fake news

Granted, this is the slimmest of hopes. In his pre-political life as a journalist, Johnson was widely regarded as dissembling and fabricating. For him, not even Matthew Arnold’s supremely kind view of journalism as “literature in a hurry”. Instead, Johnson pioneered fake news long before the term was coined and, in the words of the damning old adage about hacks, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Still, one recalls for how long Socrates tried to keep on the side of good one of his most brilliant pupils, Alcibiades. A supreme politician, sublime orator, daring general and matchless manipulator, Alcibiades was the classic case of the protégé turned bad, the hope not only of Socrates but of all Athens betrayed. 

No one would suggest that Johnson is any of the above other than a ruthless operator. However, returning to The Iliad, even a character as egotistical and immature as Achilles has a moment of humanising redemption. Achilles has killed the Trojan prince and war leader Hector and treated his body dishonourably by hitching it to his chariot and dragging it around the walls of Troy. Hector’s father, King Priam of Troy, slips through the enemy lines to beg Achilles for the body of his son.

Achilles acknowledges Priam’s pain and knowing the good, virtuous action, he takes it, returning Hector’s body. Sometimes the Socratean impulse to virtue wins out. Let us hope for more of it, and especially from unlikely actors such as the many reactionary men in power all over the world.

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