Ancient and modern

What Boris and Pericles have in common

The power of optimism

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

What is Boris’s great secret? Does it lie in the bust of the Athenian statesman Pericles (c. 495–429 bc) that he keeps in the Mayor’s office in London?

The key can be found, perhaps, in Pericles’ passionate commitment to the idea of Athens as a ‘living lesson for Greece’. This was the central message of his famous Funeral Speech (430 bc) — not so much the heroism of the dead as the uniqueness of the city for which they had died and the contrast with its bitter rival, the conservative, inward-looking, military-obsessed Sparta.

Athens was a model to others, Pericles affirmed, a democracy governed in the interests of the many, not the few. Advancement in public life depended on merit; poverty did not stand in a man’s way. Tolerance in private dealings did not result in lawlessness. Further, Athens was an open city, attracting to it the produce of the world, with a relaxed life style that did not compromise resolve in battle. ‘We cultivate refinement without extravagance, and love of the intellect without going soft’. Wealth was a gateway for action, not merely for show. Far from being a stumbling-block to action, discussion and thought were indispensable preliminaries to it.

‘I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend on, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian … So when you come to understand Athens’ greatness, reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty and a keen feeling for honour in action that men were enabled to win all this.’ And so on.

Most politicians regard us the people as liabilities. Pericles regarded them as Athens’ greatest asset, and played them like a violin, even when they turned against him. So with Boris. The more he says he believes in us, the more we are prepared to believe in him. That unquenchable Periclean optimism is the key.

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