April 16, 2020

I think I remember Boris Johnson as a child, maybe aged nine or ten. He and I are the same age and we went to neighbouring prep schools in Sussex. I don’t think we ever exchanged words. At most a handshake after victory or defeat on the sport’s field. But I do have this very distinct memory of a chubby blond haired boy in white shorts running like a truck after a red leather ball in the outfield. Was that him? That is my only Boris connection.

But last week, as the Prime Minister lay fighting for his life in intensive care just a mile or so down the road from my parish, the BBC called me up to see if I would act as standby to do Thought for the Day — just in case the worst were to happen in the night, as they euphemistically described it.

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I didn’t sleep much that night. I tried to scribble down some thoughts, but words were not easy to come by. How on earth could one even begin to capture the mood of a country that had just lost its Prime Minister, let alone find the right words of comfort? And this is made all the more complex by the fact that Boris remains something of a Marmite figure.

But there was an obvious place to start. In the small hours, I looked up and read again the famous funeral oration given by Pericles for his fellow Athenian soldiers who had fallen in the first year of the Peloponnesian War. Delivered in the winter of 431/430 BC, it remains one of the greatest and most influential political speeches in history.

Boris fell in love with ancient Greece a couple of years after my memory of him at prep school. Aged 13, he would take himself off to the British Museum to wonder at the Elgin Marbles. And it was with this same boys-own enthusiasm that he fell for Pericles. As Mayor of London, he had a bust of Pericles on his desk. If you want to understand what makes Boris tick politically, it’s not Churchill you need to read, it’s Pericles.

But even the famously silver-tongued Pericles begins his funeral oration with an acknowledgement of how impossible it is to get the tone right when speaking of the dead. Breaking with tradition, Pericles did not use his speech to recount the great exploits of the past, but gave instead a stirring rendition of the virtues of the city that they gave their lives for. And this is what the speech is famous for.

Perhaps that was the way I too should go, I thought. Here, for instance, is a passage of the speech as recounted by the historian Thucydides:

“Our government does not copy our neighbours’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognised; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbour if he does what he likes.”

I bet it seriously irritated Boris that it was Jeremy Corbyn who drew most memorably from Pericles. But all the values that Boris has stood for in his political career can be read in Pericles’ exhortation.

Independence of thought — we don’t “copy our neighbours”. Democracy, obviously, but democracy bleeding into democratic populism. Pericles was elected for 15 years in a row to lead Athens. And his rhetorical fluency and ebullient optimism were key elements in his popularity.

He was also meritocratic, and, in a very Boris kind of way, believed that his neighbour’s private life, his pursuit of pleasure, was his own business. “It was a world where people could enjoy themselves nearly naked at alcohol-fuelled parties in a way that is abundantly depicted on X-rated vases,” as Boris himself was later to extol in The Spectator.

As far as democracy was concerned, this was 2,500 years ago, and there were many who were excluded from the franchise. Nonetheless this was its first great experiment. And many of the tensions that exist today existed back then.

Consider, for instance, the tension between democracy and philosophy.

It is extremely interesting that the two things ancient Greece is credited for having invented were diametrically opposed to each other. Socrates famously railed against democracy, preferring instead rule by experts, the famous philosopher-kings. If you were going out on a journey by ship surely you would want the captain to be an expert in seafaring, not just someone plucked from the street. So why would you want something different in the captain of the ship of state? Some 30 years after Pericles’ funeral oration, Socrates was condemned to death — by a vote of 500 of his peers — for corrupting his students. It’s a debate we continue to have today.

There are two other features of ancient democracy which also have meaning for Boris. Particularly important — to a schoolboy sense of humour — is that it encourages piss-taking. It is no coincidence that Greek comedy, particularly Aristophanes, flowered at a time of democratic governance. For the freedom of ordinary people to take the piss out of their democratically elected leaders is a hallmark of democratic culture. Humour is a ‘pull down the mighty from their thrones’ kind of business. The plays of Aristophanes and Cratinus pilloried Pericles mercilessly.

For Pericles, as for Boris, this was a crucial part of democratic culture, and to be encouraged. But the grim-faced philosophers, with their visceral dislike of populist mockery, hated it. Regardless, populist democrats have been doing this to philosophers for millennia — think of how Boris drives A.C. Grayling nearly out of his mind. And I, for one, find it terribly funny.

I struggle more to understand the other strand of his infatuation with democracy: it is implicitly hostile to divinity. My feeling here is that Boris is instinctively the least religious Prime Minister that we have ever had. And his objection to religion is the Nietzschean one: it is implicitly anti-human. For the thing that the young Boris picked up from the British Museum was a historical narrative in which the Greek celebration of the individual came to replace fawning over divinities.

“After centuries of abject quivering before fishgods and cowgods and skygods you are seeing the arrival of the individual — centre stage at last in the story of humanity,” wrote Boris in 2014.

The Elgin Marbles were a celebration of human individuality. Pericles’s great building project, the Parthenon, may have been nominally dedicated to the goddess Athena, but its true object of worship was the human being. I wasn’t entirely sure how this feature of his intellectual landscape should be managed in the course of an explicitly religious slot like Thought for the Day.

One point about Pericles kept on returning to me, again and again. For all his achievements, his career ended in failure. The Peloponnesian war is a study in Athenian over-reach. Having banded together with other city states to see off the invading Persians, the Athenians began increasingly to dominate their neighbours through the first failed European Union, the Delian league. Pericles made it into an empire, using force to prevent states from leaving the union and imposing, for instance, a common currency across the region.

The Athenian owl stamped on this common currency was resented by city-states like Sparta, as much as the euro is in much of Greece today. And their rebellion against the dominance of the Athens of Pericles was what brought the whole democratic experiment of Athens to an end. As Athenians retreated behind their famous walls, plague gripped the city — probably typhus. Pericles and his sons were to die of it.

As I sat up into the night, the idea that Boris might himself succumb to the sort of death that finished off his great political hero seemed so absurdly unlikely and coincidental. Yet one couldn’t discount the possibility. It surely must have crossed Boris’ mind too.

But with his release from hospital, their stories diverge. And a good thing too. Not least because the story of Pericles was one of great hubris. And the funeral oration was the high point of that hubris.

I have no problem with Boris the populist democrat. Not even so much with his attempt to emulate his hero through grandiose building projects. It’s the arrogance that would have been his undoing, as it was with Pericles. And if this brush with death gives him a more modest sense of his place in the great scheme of things, he will surely be the better Prime Minister for it.

What would I have said in Thought for the Day? I still don’t know. And thank God I didn’t have to find out. But, unlike Pericles, I wouldn’t have subordinated the individual to their public role or to their political commitments. I would not have seen the individual through the lens of the city and its values. Yes, Boris having the virus was a powerful symbolism of the presence of an existential threat at the heart of our body politic. But in the end, it would have been the memory of that little chap buzzing around the cricket pitch that guided me more than anything else.

Or to put this another way: the virus may not be a “great leveller” — as Emily Maitlis forcefully argued on Newsnight last week — but death certainly is. Death doesn’t care how important we are. It cares not for reputation, oratory or applause. This idea of death being a leveller comes from James Shirley’s 17th-century poem — often used as a funeral oration — “Death the Leveller”. And it is the very opposite of what Pericles had to say:

“The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.”