The Greeks had a word for it: hubris, meaning excessive pride or self-confidence. In ancient Greece, it also meant defiance of the gods, leading on to ruin.
There is so much that is Greek about the tenor of our times. Had the Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson ever read Homer (alongside his volumes of the Table Talk of Enoch Powell), he would have learned that the siren calls of Brexit offering him his heart's desire were really just a lure to lead him and his reactionary party onto the rocks.
I feel surprise almost to the point of concern over Donaldson's inability to resist the siren call of untrustworthy men like prime minister Boris Johnston, or the siren call of Brexit, or most of all the siren call of the far distant past, in which Britain is still a powerful Empire, Ireland is still economically partitioned, and his reactionary party do not give a flying fig for the opinions of the little people who don't kick with the right foot or vote for him.
Perhaps a better-stocked library would have helped Donaldson see the many hidden dangers his poor beguiled heart was piloting him toward, but like all the previous leaders of his party, he clearly doesn't read the history his ancestors were once busy roughly writing.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, who did read the classics at Oxford, must now be bitterly reflecting on his own little Icarian fall. Until this week, it was possible to think that this shambolic English prime minister would stumble through the so-called Party Gate affair in the way same he has through every political setback of his avalanche of a premiership, with all the grace of an orangutan performing an arabesque.
Bumptious Boris long ago cynically crafted a chaotic public persona that anticipates all your criticisms and renders them inert. You can't laugh at the fool who laughs at himself you see, it's dispiriting to even try.
For our sins, we are cursed to live in a golden age of shambolic, shameless men like Johnson and his chaotic American counterpart Donald Trump. Unfortunately, these men were born into considerable riches, which means the chaotic and cruel path they have cut through life has rarely met with any resistance.
They have managed to stick around this long because their wealth and position have protected them from consequences. But also because, as the pandemic has reminded us, the public will strongly support what they most want to hear.
That's why Trump's presidency was an endless red-state political rally. Trump cannily identified all of the people his supporters loathed and he promised to cauterize them. Every time he made this dark promise, his supporters applauded.
They never got tired of hearing their enemies insulted and brought low and Trump never tired of insulting them. But it was the law of the schoolyard. Trump's supporters were brought together not by the shared bonds of love, but by their mutual contempt. Plainly they knew that Trump was a dangerous bully, but he was their dangerous bully, they reasoned. Like Vice President Mike Pence, they didn't like to think about what happened if you crossed him yourself – and they still don't.
Since the time of the Greeks, it has been intriguing to watch what happens when the heart completely overrules the head. It is also, the Greeks remind us, frequently devastating.
When Jeffrey and his short-sighted party pursued Brexit, they publicly scoffed at the majority of their own constituents who took a different view. Blinded by their own deepest desire, Donaldson and his party paid no attention to the Greek chorus warning them of the dangers of the path ahead.
No, instead they were beguiled by a shining vision of a narrow, exclusionary future where the borders were hard and their enemies were silenced and so they sailed on, straight into the rocks.
That's why it's so interesting that this week, at roughly the same time, Boris and Donald and Jeffrey have all just heard from the mystical fates. The news isn't good. Here come the consequences of your own poor actions, the fates have decreed.
A.E. Housman was the greatest classical scholar of his age and an accomplished poet. Trump and Donaldson haven't read him, but Johnson has. I wonder if he thought of these lines from Housman's most famous poem?
“Into my heart an air that kills, from yon far country blows: what are those blue remembered hills, what spires, what farms are those? That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain, the happy highways where I went, and cannot come again.”
So Johnson with Brexit, Donaldson with the North, and Trump with the January 6 Insurrection have all led their blind followers to a preview of ruin - and as the Greeks would have said, I told you so.