Writings of Khurram Ali Shafique
The Mystery of 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
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 lied 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
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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Source: DAWN The Review,
July 13-19, 2000. Karachi, Pakistan
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