As the breeze of popular opinion — popularis aura — blows sweetly over the much-loved Corbyn-McDonnell Old Labour tribute act, the Tory party is faced with a dilemma: how to counteract it. This dilemma seems to centre on Mrs May’s leadership, and if that is the case, those ambitious to displace her need to consider what leadership entails.
The word for ambition in ancient Greek was philotimia, ‘love of high esteem in the eyes of others’. This was considered a virtue in a society in which competition was endemic and winning meant everything. The problem was the tension between the desire to win and the desire to be liked at the same time: vaulting ambition which o’erleapt itself could soon turn into naked aggression, which won no friends. And that was the point: to succeed in the political arena, one needed friends; but in making friends it was all too easy to turn others into enemies.
In his Funeral Speech, Pericles claimed that a peculiar Athenian characteristic was to ‘acquire friends not as a result of what others do for us, but of what we do for them… we alone confer benefits not after calculation of our own interests’. Whether this included enemies is a good question; but popular wisdom expounded in fables suggested it must. Man A bought an eagle and clipped its wings. Man B bought him and let his wings grow. The delighted eagle brought him a rabbit. A fox said: ‘Give that to A. You know B is a good man. You may need A in the future.’ Such friendships, however, depended ultimately on trust. A dog was chasing a hare, and alternately bit it and then patted it kindly. The hare said: ‘Are you a friend? Then why bite me? Or an enemy? Then why fawn on me?’
When the poet Horace riffed on popularis aura, it was to emphasise its fickleness: virtus always rose above it. If that is the quality of a leader in whom one can place an absolute trust, that alone will counteract the popularis aura that now plays so prettily with the tangles of Mr Corbyn’s beard.