Boris is also fond of quoting The Iliad, the epic in which Achilles’s notorious heel is perhaps a metaphor for his unwillingness to acknowledge weaknesses: vainglorious contempt for prudence, touchy insistence on his own supposed rights, egotism stronger than patriotism or loyalty, and passions too explosive for rational strategy to contain.
Achilles’s fall follows that of his great adversary, the Trojan prince Hector, whose problem is one all too common in modern politics: Hector runs off with Helen, another man’s wife. The lessons are obvious: passions are potentially fatal for statesmen, unless rationally managed.
The lessons to be learned
One of the most horrific tragedies in the ancient Greek canon befalls the family of Helen´s husband, King Agamemnon. “The dice fall fair for him.” The Trojan war brings him sweet vengeance and sweeter victory. The gods, however, demand a terrible price. The king has to sacrifice his daughter. At first, he makes a humble show of penitence for her death, but soon succumbs to rampant ambition: he treads a symbolic “red carpet” to death at the hands of his wife and her lover.
Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, absent at the crucial time, feels driven, by the indefeasible power of the cosmos, to return and kill his mother in revenge for his father´s murder. He realises – too late – that he could have broken fate’s grip by making an independent choice. So there are patterns for politicians here, too: to avoid downfall, temper ambition with mercy; don´t blame uncontrollable forces for your mistakes.
No Greek tragedy excels the most famous of them: that of Oedipus, whose cleverness and courage elevated him to the throne of his homeland. But he lacked a vital piece of self-knowledge: the identities of his father and mother. By killing the former and marrying the latter, he broke the laws of nature and brought disaster on his kingdom. His crime was unwitting, but not blameless: success had intoxicated him, making him unwary of the need to restrain his desires. His punishments were dethronement and self-blinding – a fit match for his moral myopia. All too often, it’s when politicians feel themselves invulnerable that they overplay their hands.
Could Boris Johnson replace Oedipus as the ideal tragic hero? If you want to know what’s happening offstage in an ancient Greek play, listen to the chorus. The modern real-life equivalents are the press, the public, and the back-benchers. To listen to them now, you might feel the last act of Boris’s drama was at hand. Fate is at work in the form of the omicron menace. The spiral of viruses and variants seems inescapable, inflation intractable, normality irrecoverable. Knives are out behind the leader´s back. The demos is in revolt – at least temporarily in North Shropshire. Rumours of Covid-busting parties in Downing Street look like hubris on somebody´s part.
Boris, I fancy, might prefer a tragic hero’s end to a routine politician’s demise. But he’s a character in a real history, not an epic or a play by one of his favourite authors. And he has the advantages real leaders command in modern democracies: agenda-setting ability; the inertia that favours incumbents over untried alternatives; the long-term irrelevance of by-election defeats; and the media´s short attention-span, which enables political prestidigitators to distract the audience.
He can draw, moreover, on the precious treasury of a literature he knows well, where antidotes to tragedy are available: display humility, contemplate prospective outcomes, acknowledge vulnerability, face the consequences of errors, embrace blame, revise mistakes, control passions, cultivate self-knowledge.
So far, Boris has resembled ancient tragic heroes less than real-life predecessors, such as Bill Clinton or Tony Blair, whose electorates seemed infinitely pardoning of far worse flaws than he possesses. But Boris will not find the comparison flattering. That, perhaps, is his real tragedy.