Boris Johnson the admirer of ancient Greece

by Richard Seaford

 

 

Boris Johnson's well-known admiration for the ancient Greeks may give the impression that they would have been avid supporters of Brexit and of the Conservative party. Is this an example of the well-known practice of distorting the prestigious past in order to legitimate a particular political outlook in the present? Let us see how Johnson fares against what the ancient Greeks actually said.

Athenian democracy revered as its founder the lawgiver Solon. Attributed to him were a number of poems which survive, and which embody the spirit of a city-state (polis) that is governed by its citizens according to an agreed constitution.

In one of them he says that 'the townsmen themselves, persuaded by wealth, want to destroy by their foolishness the great polis'. The problem, he says, is that 'those of us who have most wealth are eager to double it'. Hardly an endorsement of the hedge fund managers who fund Brexit and the Conservative party.

Let us turn to the wisdom of Aristotle. In his Politics he notes that activity whose purpose is merely to accumulate money is unlimited and 'unnatural'. There are people who 'turn all qualities into money-making qualities, as though that were the aim and everything had to serve that aim'. Aristotle would be shocked by the fact that now such unnatural unlimitedness has increased itself still further by buying political power.

On his Downing St. desk Johnson is said to have a bust of his hero, the democratic Athenian statesman Pericles. According to Plutarch, Pericles had 'a dignity of spirit and a nobility of utterance which was entirely free from the unscrupulous buffoonery of mob-oratory'. However, 'he took up the cause of the many and the poor instead of that of the rich and the few'. Alas, Johnson may in these and other respects perhaps be falling a little short of his professed model.

The ancient Greeks had nothing remotely like the European Union, and so we cannot speculate on Pericles' view of Brexit. However, in the most famous expression of the ideals of democratic Athens, the funeral speech for the war dead attributed by Thucydides to Pericles, we read that 'we make our polis open to all, and never by deportations exclude foreigners from learning or observing ...' Most relevant to our current constitutional crisis is Pericles' claim that he and his fellow Athenians respect the laws, including those which 'even if unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace'.

The words of another Greek democrat, one Athenagoras of Syracuse, are reported by Thucydides: 'An oligarchy gives to the many their share of the dangers, and not only desires more than its share of the benefits but even goes so far as to appropriate them all; this is what the powerful and young among you are eager for, but in a great polis cannot possibly obtain.' Hopeful words. The usual condemnation of the unlimitedness of individual wealth-accumulation combines here with the dangers that it imposes on 'the many'. Athenagoras would have understood Brexit better than we do.

But the most important lesson that Johnson might learn from the democracy that he professes to admire is revealed in Thucydides' narrative of how the Athenian people, after voting for ferocious action against another city (Mytilene), a day later re-debated the issue and voted to reverse their decision. They would be puzzled to hear of a democracy that was not allowed to change its mind even after three years.

Richard Seaford

Emeritus Professor of Ancient Greek, University of Exeter

Ex-President, the Classical Association

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