In his only novel, Seventy-Two Virgins, published in 2004, Boris Johnson uses a strange word. The hero, like Johnson himself at the time, is a backbench Conservative member of the House of Commons. Roger Barlow is, indeed, a somewhat unflattering self-portrait—he bicycles to Westminster, he is unfaithful to his wife, he is flippantly racist and politically opportunistic, and he is famously disheveled:
In the fond imagination of one Commons secretary who crossed his path he had the air of a man who had just burst through a hedge after running through a garden having climbed down a drainpipe on being surprised in the wrong marital bed.1
Barlow, throughout the novel, is in constant fear that his political career is about to be ended by a tabloid scandal. In a moment of introspection, he reflects on this anxiety:
There was something prurient about the way he wanted to read about his own destruction, just as there was something weird about the way he had been impelled down the course he had followed. Maybe he wasn’t a genuine akratic. Maybe it would be more accurate to say he had a thanatos urge. [Emphases added]
The novel is a mass-market comic thriller about a terrorist plot to capture the US president while he is addressing Parliament in London. The Greek terms stand out. In part, they function as signifiers of social class within a long-established code of linguistic manners: a sprinkling of classical phrases marks one out as a product of an elite private school (in Johnson’s case, Eton) and therefore a proper toff. (Asked in June during the contest to replace Theresa May as Tory leader to name his political hero, Johnson chose Pericles of Athens.) The choice of thanatos is interesting, and the thought that he might have a death wish will ring bells for those who have followed the breathtaking recklessness of Johnson’s career. But it is akratic that intrigues.
The Leave campaign that Johnson led to a stunning victory in the Brexit referendum of June 2016 owed much of its success to its carefully calibrated slogan “Take Back Control.” Akrasia, which is discussed in depth by Socrates, Plato, and especially Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, is the contrary of control. It means literally “not being in command of oneself” and is translated variously as “weakness of will,” “incontinence,” and “loss of self-control.” To Aristotle, an akratic is a person who knows the right thing to do but can’t help doing the opposite. This is not just, as he himself seems to have intuited, Boris Johnson to a tee. It is also the reason why he embodies more than anyone else a Brexit project in which the very people who promised to take back control are utterly incapable of exercising it, even over themselves. “Oh God,…
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