Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson had been blessed by the gods with every attribute: breeding, brilliance, ambition (to be “world king”) and, in his youth, a stripling Apollonian beauty. And then he squandered them. For Mr Johnson had not merely one flaw, but many. Dishonesty, arrogance, sexual incontinence, incompetence, an infantile irresponsibility. The deities bless you. Then they ruin you—for added fun, by your own hand.
Source: The Economist
Jul 7th 2022
Aeschylus could hardly have written it better. As few will know better than the Latin-quoting, classics-loving Boris Johnson himself, his path through life—which began as a knockabout phallic comedy, then gleamed with moments of heroic epic during the pandemic—has this week conformed beautifully to the conventions of Greek tragedy.
The scene had long been set for the hero’s downfall. The audience were primed. A tragic chorus was ululating on Twitter. The messenger speeches, which always appear just before the climax of a Greek tragedy, to warn the hero that his end is upon him, had (all 50 or so of them) been read.
Granted, neither Rishi Sunak’s prose (“We both want a low-tax, high-growth economy”) nor Sajid Javid’s (“I have been working hard on wider modernisation of the nhs”) could be easily confused with that of Sophocles. But then few modern statesmen would dare to say, as Sophocles did: “There are many terrible things, but there is nothing more terrible than man.”
Few, but not no one. Because Mr Johnson quoted that line himself, in a speech to the un in 2021. Or to be more precise, he said it in the original Greek, to an audience who were charmed by it. People often adored Mr Johnson when he spoke. Pericles’s “Funeral Oration” could hardly have been received with more adoration than Mr Johnson’s speech to the Ukrainian parliament that ended in a standing ovation.
And that was the tragedy of the man. The tragic hero is not, according to Aristotle, wholly terrible—for where would be the fun in that? A really good show (and both tragedy and Mr Johnson’s premiership were lurid forms of entertainment) demands something more complex. It demands that a character must be eminent but there must also be “hamartia”, a tragic flaw that brings them “from happiness to misery”. The flaw can be profound—or surprisingly trivial. The Greek hero Agamemnon was undone by soft furnishings chosen by his wife—not too-fancy Lulu Lytle wallpaper but a too-fancy carpet. Doubtless Mr Johnson would sympathise.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson had been blessed by the gods with every attribute: breeding, brilliance, ambition (to be “world king”) and, in his youth, a stripling Apollonian beauty. And then he squandered them. For Mr Johnson had not merely one flaw, but many. Dishonesty, arrogance, sexual incontinence, incompetence, an infantile irresponsibility. The deities bless you. Then they ruin you—for added fun, by your own hand. Tiresias, a Greek prophet, didn’t need to see into the future to foresee the fall of one of tragic hero: “I am judging from his own senseless actions.”
In tragedy, they ruin you in a way that is fun to watch. For Aristotle’s final rule for tragedy was that it should end in “catharsis”—that satisfying moment when the bloodied hero is washed offstage and everyone can go back to life as it was. And here, again, Mr Johnson has (for once) been following the rules. For there is a moment at the climax of every Greek tragedy when it has long been painfully clear to all—to the other characters on stage, to the grumbling chorus and certainly to the audience, who will by this point be feeling restive—that the hero is done for, that the play is over, that it is time to go home.
And yet the flawed, deluded hero somehow does not. When the gods wish to destroy you, as Sophocles had it, they first meddle with your mind. Or, in the case of Mr Johnson, they make you wait until half past midday on July 7th, to appear on the threshold of 10 Downing Street, and resign.