The mystery of Alexander

Dawn, The Review, July 13-19, 2000

Alexander the Great can be singled out as a figure in human history who has inspired every generation in almost all regions of the world for twenty-three centuries without being founder of any religion. It can be said that each age has re-evaluated the meaning of Alexander’s life in order to enrich the meaning of its own existence.

It may seem that he didn’t leave us a legacy. He didn’t found any new religion, and the one he followed himself was dead within five hundred years after him. He didn’t evolve any philosophy – strange, in view of the fact that he was a pupil of Aristotle. And he doesn’t appeal to anyone’s national pride anymore – today, many Greeks aren’t sure whether Alexander was truly a Greek hero or a Turk! But a man without legacy cannot enjoy the unique honor that he alone has held in history: every country that he visited claimed him later as a son of its own soil through folklore. And even today his is probably the only name that is so common across diverse religions and nationalities.

Indeed, there is a living legacy of Alexander. It has passed on from one generation to the next, mostly without being rationalized. He symbolizes, to every soul who is exposed to him, the reckless ability of the human spirit to accept a superhuman challenge and then carry it through. He could have been a poet, a priest, or a lover instead of a conqueror, and the message would still have been the same: ideals are not to be measured by the circumstances available to achieve them but only by the courage of the souls who adore them.

It shouldn’t surprise us at all that most historians have failed to explain the mystery of Alexander. The key to this mystery doesn’t lie in the strategies of his famous battles, or the controversies over their exact locations. The key to the mystery of Alexander lies in those several anecdotes from his life, “the Alexander stories,” which have inspired the young and old of each generation, and kept alive a kind of Alexandrian cult.

One of the earliest stories is a one-liner. As a young boy, whenever he would hear that his father had conquered another city, Alexander remarked, “Alas! Another city less for me to conquer.” What saved him from being a psychopath, and brings him out as a hero, is the fact that through his conquests he wasn’t seeking a proof of his own existence. He was what he was, whether he conquered cities or not.

This is manifested in his famous meeting with the cynic Diogenes, who was known for his refusal of worldly possessions. It is said that Diogenes would carry a wooden enclosure on his back, and lay it down as a symbolic home wherever he chose to make a brief stay in his endless wanderings. Few other incidents in history could be as “dramatic,” as this meeting between the man who said he would have nothing of the world and the man who claimed that he would own all of it. “Is there anything I may do for you?” The young conqueror asked. “Indeed,” replied the cynic. “Stand aside, and don’t stop the sunlight from reaching me.” The enthusiastic followers of Diogenes, understandably “cynical” of Alexander’s ambitions, stop at this point when telling the story. But Alexander’s historians go further to record the young conqueror’s remark, which is more baffling than the philosopher’s cynicism. “If I weren’t Alexander,” he said to his companions. “I would have been Diogenes.” This, then, was the spirit of Alexander. He would either take the entire world or none of it. He was what he was, whether he did anything or nothing. Alexander’s exploits just “showed” to the world what he really was. They weren’t a means for him to become what he was.

And this brings us to the final question: why did he need to show at all? The answer doesn’t lie in the political conditions of the world in the fourth century B.C., though the historians of our own times would wish it to be. Nor does it lie in the economic conditions of the Hellenistic age, no matter how much the Marxist analyst may like to prove. The answer lay in the ideals of Greek art and the Greek view of life.

Plutarch, the old grandpa of all biographers, remarked in his collection of lives that he chose to write about men of action rather than artists, philosophers and scholars, simply because the life of action is the only course befitting the children of the nobility. Hence, in the mindset of the ancient Greece the job of the dramatist, poet, sculptor and philosopher was to elaborate the ideals according to which a man of action should best live his life. The man of action was supposed to act out those ideals in the real world, just as the slaves acted them on the stage.

It is not surprising that Alexander was so melodramatic in the most decisive moments of his life, and his most spectacular gestures often stand on the thin borderline between splendor and pantomime. As he was about to leave his home at Macedonia, he distributed all his private lands among his friends, and when they asked him what had he kept for himself, his brief answer was, “Hope!” Not surprisingly, most of his friends passed on their own possessions to others and told Alexander, “We would rather have a share in your part!” This was the first of several incidents in Alexander’s brief life where sense of drama in real life moved his spectators like no dramatist could move his audience. Surely, Greek melodrama was not to be one of the things his soldiers would miss about home on their ten year long expedition across the world. Their master was always full of it.

Throughout his campaign, Alexander acted as if the world was his stage and he was being watched. In his most catastrophic moments he wouldn’t stoop to anything that didn’t suit his ideals, even where it could save his own life and the lives of his soldiers. One such occasion was his final battle with Darius III where he was outnumbered several times by the war chariots of the greatest emperor of the world. When advised by someone to launch a surprise attack in the night, he refused with the sweeping remark, “I won’t steal my victory like a thief”. And they knew that he wouldn’t. Earlier, when Darius had offered them to take half of his great empire and return home, Alexander’s senior most strategist Parmenio had tried to persuade the young conqueror by saying, “I would have accepted this if I were Alexander.” And that could only elicit a quick repartee from the conqueror, “so would I if I were Parmenio. But since I am Alexander, my reply would be different”.

Alexander’s peak moments in life were not his greatest victories but those rare moments when he found an opportunity to satisfy his sense of drama in life. Like a true artist, he seldom failed to recognize good raw material when he came across it, such as his famous meeting with Porus after the latter had been defeated in the battle. “How would you like to be treated?” Alexander asked his defeated enemy. “Like a king ought,” Porus replied. Alexander was moved but went on to say, “that is on my part. Anything you would wish on yours?” And Porus, truly a match for his great enemy, risked his life by saying nothing further. “Everything is included in my first answer.” Alexander returned him his entire kingdom, and declared that any other cities he conquers in that region would also belong to Porus!

Some historians have been puzzled how Alexander’s soldiers accommodated these unprecedented generosities. In an age where wars were fought for the naked lust of material goods, how could Alexander decide so often to throw away the fruits of war without facing any ugly mutiny from his soldiers. The conventional answer that Alexander’s own asceticism served as a role model doesn’t seem sufficient. A more convincing answer comes, again, from Greek aesthetics. Alexander’s soldiers were moved by the same Greek spirit of symmetry and perfection that was the driving force of Alexander. Just as he found his nourishment in living out his sense of poetic justice, his soldiers and companions drew life from their participation in it. Whatever else they may be, they weren’t bad spectators.

The mystery of Alexander begins to unfold itself if we see him as an artist who chose the most difficult medium for expressing his talent: time. He was like a romantic poet writing his poem about the ideals of poetic justice and human perfection on the small piece of time granted to him, and the only tool he used to write it was his own life. Time indeed returned his honour. Time has washed away all monuments erected by him, and usurped all contemporary records. But it has left untouched the freshness of the life that he lived.

This also explains to a great extent why Alexander didn’t evoke a single piece of great art. Even the great artists who dedicated their masterpieces to him are better remembered from their other work than from their depiction of Alexander. It seems plausible that the real life of Alexander was so dramatic, and lived so much like a piece of great imagination, that it is impossible to improve upon it in the realm of art and theatre. How could you improve upon Hamlet, or Romeo And Juliet? Alexander was an artist who chose life as the medium for his art, and lived up to it. Perhaps the most befitting epitaph we can find for him is also one that comes from his mouth, “It is sweet to live with courage and die leaving an everlasting glory behind.”

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