Boris Johnson and the Classics | Daily News


Boris Johnson and the Classics

It’s odd to witness a little Twitter storm, such as erupted on Christmas Eve, on the subject of Boris Johnson reciting from memory some lines of the Iliad. I spotted a tweet, which – accompanying a clip of his performance a few years ago in Australia – said “your move Labour”. I replied to point out that if you know Greek (as Johnson certainly does) learning Homer is not a particularly difficult thing to do. After all the poem’s orality makes spouting it quite easy; that is the point.

At this point the usual binaries of Twitter emerged. There were plenty saying that I was full of “sour grapes”, that I was petty or jealous because I couldn’t do it, and that, as my main interest was ancient Rome, I didn’t know more than “basic” ancient Greek. This was, in short, a display of the erudition and flair of the Tory leader that no one in the Labour party, especially Jeremy Corbyn, could hope to match. On the other side, there were plenty who had a good go at Johnson’s performance, along the lines of ‘‘this is exactly the kind of pointless exercise drummed into the heads of fetid toffs who have gone to Eton”. (I couldn’t resist thinking, but wisely didn’t say, that this was an absurd parody of a Twitter storm: hundreds of people, whom I strongly suspect knew little or no ancient Greek, were passing judgement on the Prime Minister’s competence in Greek, in the face of a few of who did know the damn language. There, I’ve said it.)

Extraordinary difficulty

My point was rather different from either extreme. I am quite keen on people learning poetry by rote (and was pleased to have been made/bribed to do so at school, and by my mother … and am grateful for what I still carry round in my head). And if you can recite poetry with verve and get people interested in it so much the better. My objections here were (1) that people were asserting, on the basis of not much, that this was a task of extraordinary difficulty (in truth, it is no more difficult to learn Homer than W. H. Auden, Arthur Rimbaud or Beatles lyrics); (2) that it was done in a bid to impress, as a wow-moment party trick; (3) and that, even before you get to Tory party education policies, many of the people applauding Johnson’s skills were those who (again I strongly suspect) would have strongly objected to the idea that a “useless” subject like ancient Greek should be taught and funded in mainstream schools.

Underneath this I was arguing that, if we are going to applaud the Prime Minister for this performance, we should be devoting some resources to making the study of ancient Greek and Latin more widely available; and that we should be very clear that there was a much bigger purpose to Classics (in terms of cultural understanding and intellectual challenge) than being able to declaim the Iliad.

That of course brings us to the wider question of Boris Johnson and the Classics. On this, there is the predictable division between, on the one hand, those who swell with pride at the idea of a “classicist Prime Minister”, sprinkling his speeches with satisfying, semi-arcane reference to Pericles et al; and on the other, those who think that the last thing the country needs as a leader is a toff dropping classical tags – or those classicists themselves who think that all Johnson does is tar the subject with his own unwelcome brush, and anyway that he is only using it (and, by extension, us) for show.

Views and approaches

Of course, it isn’t so simple. From what I have observed, Johnson’s enthusiasm for the subject is sincere, and the idea that Classics should be the sole preserve of the liberal left is a pretty dire one. It’s not against the law to be a Tory, and any subject is likely to benefit from differences of views and approaches within it. To be fair to Johnson, too, he did direct resources to teaching Classics when he was Mayor of London.

Yet there are problems, especially for professional classicists, here.

First, when you are trying to persuade people that Classics isn’t just a rich man’s subject and that is worth studying, you are not helped when it seems (in a large part of the public sphere) to be the monopoly of those with posh accents on the Tory front bench. You need an awful lot of Natalie Haynes to be an antidote to that.

The second problem is quite what level of classical learning Johnson displays. As I said, I have no doubt that BJ is sincerely keen on classics, and that he knows a hell of a lot more about the ancient world than most people do. But I hope you will understand, without thinking me curmudgeonly, that it is very, very irritating to those of us who teach the subject every day to find someone getting publicly lauded for making errors that we would draw a big red line under in our own students’ work.

Let me just give you a few examples. A few years ago, as many blog readers will know, I went head to head with Boris Johnson in an Intelligence Squared debate, pitching Greece (him) versus Rome (me) – and, let me say, all credit to him for taking on what was partly a charity gig in aid of Classics teaching. The problem with his presentation was that, while being rhetorically clever, it was – to put it politely – just a little bit inaccurate. I write from memory but where my red pencil came out was, for example:

BJ took “ancient Greece” to mean “classical Athens in the fifth century BC”. Now that itself wasn’t quite the paradise that it is sometimes painted. But there was hardly any mention of the other 99 per cent of the Greek world which was very different. Although it is commonly done, you can’t argue about “Greece” just using one city. What about Sparta, for heavens’ sake? (It would be like drawing conclusions about the UK from eighteenth-century Edinburgh.)

Even with reference to Athens, one of BJ’s themes was the humanity of Greek culture, and he raised Protagoras, who was supposed to have claimed “man [ie the human being] is the measure of all things”. What he didn’t mention was that Protagoras was supposed to have been put on trial by the Athenians for impiety!

Nineteenth-century British history

To make the same point, he also claimed that gods and men are shown at the same size on the frieze of the fifth-century BCE Parthenon; no distinctions there. Indeed, they do all fit into the same frame, but the gods are SITTING DOWN … ie they are much bigger (even leaving aside the 11-metre statue of the goddess Athena inside)! A small point, but it underpins his view of the Athenian fifth-century culture; he was wrong and it matters.

And this goes all through what BJ say about antiquity. We should be careful about knocking it too roundly (I am not sure how my keenly remembered patches of nineteenth-century British history stand up). But when he says, no doubt going back to teaching a few decades ago, that slaves were big early converts to Christianity (a claim that has been roundly and correctly challenged), it isn’t unreasonable for those of us who teach this subject to wince.

To be honest, there are more important things to hold against Johnson than his use of the Classics. And there is still a chance that that use can be turned more powerfully to the good of the subject. But, please, don’t accuse those of us who occasionally object to his pronouncements of being killjoys, sour grape-ists, curmudgeons, petty or jealous.

Studying the ancient world means more, is more difficult and might be more uncomfortably challenging than learning up, or remembering, lines of the Iliad – however much fun that can be, if you get the chance.

- Times Literary Supplement


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