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Ancient and modern

Demosthenes’ lessons in ambition for Boris Johnson

Oh, and Alex Salmond, too

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

The ancient Greek word for ‘ambition’ was philotimia: ‘love of high esteem in others’ eyes’. Both Boris and Alex Salmond are consumed by this desire for what Greeks saw as a virtue.

The 4th-century bc statesman Demosthenes instructed a young man as follows: ‘Consider that your aim in life should be to become foremost of all, and that it is more to your advantage to be seen to aim at that eminence than to appear outstanding in ordinary company.’ The required reputation, however, did not derive from working for self-advantage but from willingness to sacrifice time, profit, health and life in the community’s interests. This, apparently, is Boris’s problem. He would do well to follow anonymous ancient advice: ‘Manage your affairs so that you are in a position of power, then lay off when you have a fair share, so that you may be seen to work for justice, not out of weakness, but from a sense of what is right.’


As for Salmond, since Greeks tended to judge people by their ability to compete successfully, philotimia regularly shaded into philonikia, ‘love of winning’. But this was a two-edged sword: the honourable desire to win could easily become arrogance, aggression or plain recklessness. This is Salmond’s problem. The clearer it becomes that he is going to lose, the more stridently irrational he becomes. Only a ‘Sod off Scotland’ letter signed by English celebs can now persuade Scottish waverers to vote ‘Yes’.

But Greeks also saw two big, external stumbling-blocks to ambition, both equally unpredictable. One was Fortune (Greek tukhê); the other was kairos, or making your move at the right time. It was this that tripped up Salmond. It could trip up Boris too, who (it seems) would admire the ancient school riddle ‘What makes good out of evil? Boldness. Force.’

Boris’s hero Pericles got it right, we are told, because he ‘knew what needed to be done’. Salmond clearly did not. Beyond sweeping all before him, does Boris?


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