Writing in the New Statesman about how useless and selfish Boris Johnson has been as Foreign Secretary, John Elledge says this:
There’s no evidence he cares about the public good, nor matters of policy, nor even ideology: he treats politics as a game, and his goal has only ever been to reach the next square on the board. This was how politics worked in the latter part of the Roman Republic, where the entire point was to complete the cursus honorum quicker than your peers
Not a classicist myself, I needed Wikipedia to tell me that cursus honorum is a set of public offices that aspiring politicians sought to hold. Ostensibly as a means of securing well rounded training in matters civic and military, but (by the end) a means of self-aggrandisement.
This reminds me of a column by the comedian David Mitchell from a few years back, and a particular phrase about David Cameron which, for some reason, I found particularly memorable:
— robertsharp59 (@robertsharp59) July 11, 2016
And he’s never seemed particularly keen to change things, either for better or worse. He just wants to make his way to a fireside in a cosy House of Lords bar, the words “prime minister” indisputably inked on to his CV, with the least possible fuss. He makes Macmillan look like Thatcher.
That’s two ways of describing the same tendency for self advancement with no discernible mission beyond that. Elledge wonders aloud if the Oxford classics department is to blame. But perhaps the culprit is Eton?
What’s interests me about this unedifying character trait is how those who possess it seem to be ignorant of how history tends to judge leaders. It is not enough to simply acquire power: one must also be consequential. One must have a mission, a vision, an agenda. Those who rise to power without such teleological purpose are judged poorly, or (worse for the egoist) simply overlooked.
Perhaps arrogant people just discount the risk that historians and the popular imagination will treat them harshly. But I still think it’s odd that classicists appear not to care about this. I would have thought that they would be precisely the sort of people who would behave in a way that secured not only short term, temporary political power, but a favourable long-term legacy…