Monday 17 March 2008

adrenaline on the cornflakes

Some recent posts on this blog (here and here) have touched on what ancient Greek drama and the idea of hubris 1 might have to say about the Iraq war or Tony Blair or climate change. In yesterday's Sunday Times, Lord Owen, former neurologist at St Thomas's and former Foreign Secretary, hoovers up the first four of these subjects:

'In ancient Greek drama, a hubristic career proceeds something like this: the hero wins glory and acclamation by achieving unwonted success against the odds. The experience then goes to his head: he begins to think himself capable of anything. This leads him into misinterpreting the reality around him and into making mistakes. Eventually he gets his comeuppance and meets his nemesis, which destroys him.'

Lord Owen sees clear signs that Tony Blair had, in the words of one of Clinton's aides, 'sprinkled adrenaline on his cornflakes'. It started with the crisis in Kosovo, and went further in Sierra Leone. It culminated in Iraq. His hubris, says Lord Owen, had three characteristic signs: 'excessive self-confidence, restlessness and inattention to detail.'2

Blair also liked to put himself 'visibly' at the centre of events:

'his early passion was not politics but performing. Actor-politicians tend to be especially narcissistic – which makes the hero role almost irresistible.'

This is one reason why climate-change campaigners may not be overjoyed at the trumpeted arrival of Blair on the scene.

1 In 2005, hubris was voted 'word of the year' by SFGate readers, beating 'levee', 'mash-up', 'disaster' and 'jump the couch'.

2Lord Owen's article doesn't mention any specific plays, but here are two well-known examples of hubris - one about the folly of waging war, the other about not listening to advice:

- in the earliest surviving Greek tragedy, Aeschylus's The Persians, the ghost of Darius attacks his son Xerxes for his hubris in waging war against the Greeks. Or, as the New York Times puts it, 'The ruler of a rich and powerful empire leads his countrymen into a disastrous war on foreign soil ... It seems the guy was acting on advice from bad counselors. And trying to finish some business started by papa, who ruled before him. Ring any bells?'

- in Sophocles' Antigone, the king, Creon, refuses to allow Antigone to bury the body of her brother Polyneices because he was a traitor. Antigone tells Creon that this would be going against the will of the gods. Creon refuses to listen. Creon's son, Haemon, who is engaged to Antigone, tells his father that the whole city believes Antigone is right, but still, Antigone is banished to a cave. Then the blind prophet Tiresias tells Creon that his actions will cause miasma (pollution) and more deaths. Eventually Creon sees the truth, but it's too late. Antigone has killed herself, Haemon discovers her body and kills himself, and Haemon's mother (Creon's wife) kills herself.

pic: Tony Blair with halo

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