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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Closing thoughts on Plutarch's Alexander.

Plutarch imparts many virtues on Alexander. He is physically impressive, in both appearance and ability. Alexander is portrayed as noble, treating the women in the territories he conquers with respect, including the family of his arch rival Darius. Finally, Plutarch shows Alexander as intelligent and curious: a student of Aristotle and consumer of Homer's works.

He is also ambitious. When his father has success in expanding the Macedonian empire early in Alexander's life, Alexander confided in his friends that he worried that Philip "would anticipate everything, and leave him and them no opportunities of performing great and illustrious actions." Which leads to the question of whether he thought himself a god. Two exchanges with the sophist Anaxarchus illuminate the issue. First, early on,
when it thundered so much that everybody was afraid, and Anaxarchus, the sophist, asked him if he who was Jupiter's son could do anything like this, "Nay," said Alexander, laughing, "I have no desire to be formidable to my friends, as you would have me, who despised my table for being furnished with fish, and not with the heads of governors of provinces." . . . From what I have said upon this subject, it is apparent that Alexander in himself was not foolishly affected, or had the vanity to think himself really a god, but merely used his claims to divinity as a means of maintaining among other people the sense of his superiority.
Hence, Plutarch believes that at first he did not think himself a god. However, after having conquered "Asia" and prior to his invasion of India there was a turning point. Alexander killed Clitus, one of his companions in a fit of rage. Alexander could not be comforted by Callisthenes, the philosopher who studied with Aristotle. Anaxarchus employs a different technique and scolds Alexander for being troubled by Clitus's death.
"Is this the Alexander whom the whole world looks to, lying here weeping like a slave, for fear of censure and reproach of men, to whom he himself ought to be a law and measure of equity, if he would use the right his conquests have given him as supreme lord and governor of all, and not be the victim of a vain and idle opinion? Do not you know," said he, "that Jupiter is represented to have Justice and Law on each hand of him signify that all the actions of a conqueror are lawful and just?"
Forgive my detour into politics, but how much does this sound like the claims of those promoting American exceptionalism? You are above the law; you are the law! Plutarch seems to cast this as the point when Alexander's demons gain the upper hand over his virtues, noting, "With these and the like speeches, Anaxarchus indeed allayed the king's grief, but withal corrupted his character, rendering him more audacious and lawless than he had been." From here on out Callisthene becomes less and less favored by Alexander, as does Aristotle.

Toward the end of the piece, Alexander has returned to Macedonia and is considering charges made against one who he left behind to rule in his absence, Cassander. Alexander asks Cassander why someone would travel all the way to India to lie to him about Cassander's actions. "To which Cassander replied, that their coming so far from the evidence was a great proof of the falseness of their changes, Alexander smiled, and said those were some of Aristotle's sophisms, which would serve equally on both sides." The detail of Alexander smiling while at the same time disparaging his old teacher almost sends chills down my spine.

Alexander is often pointed to as an example of what can be accomplished while we are young; or more often, what we've failed to accomplish by the time we are thirty. Plutarch seems to present Alexander more as an example of the corrupting power of ego.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Alexander and 10 Questions

While in India, Alexander took ten of the Brahmins prisoner. These men had a great reputation for intelligence, so Alexander decided to give them a test. He announced that the one who gave the worst answer would be the first to die, and he made the oldest Brahmin the judge of the competition.

Which are more numerous, Alexander asked the first one, the living or the dead? "The living," said the Brahmin, "because the dead no longer count."

Which produces more creatures, the sea or the land? Alexander asked the second. "The land," was his answer, "because the sea is only a part of it."

The third was asked which animal was the smartest of all, and the Brahmin replied: "The one we have not found yet."

Alexander asked the fourth what argument he had used to stir up the Indians to fight, and he answered: "Only that one should either live nobly or die nobly."

Which is older: day or night? was Alexander's question to the fifth, and the answer he got was: "Day is older, by one day at least." When he saw that Alexander was not satisfied with this answer, the Brahmin added: "Strange questions get strange answers."

What should a man do to make himself loved? asked Alexander, and the sixth Brahmin replied: "Be powerful without being frightening."

What does a man have to do to become a god? he asked the seventh, who responded: "Do what is impossible for a man."

The question to the eighth was whether death or life was stronger, and his answer: "Life is stronger than death, because it bears so many miseries."

The ninth Brahmin was asked how long it was proper for a man to live, and he said: "Until it seems better to die."

Then Alexander turned to the judge, who decided that each one had answered worse than another. "You will die first, then, for giving such a decision," said Alexander. "Not so, mighty king," said the Brahmin, "if you want to remain a man of your word. You said that you would kill first the one who made the worst answer." Alexander gave all of the Brahmins presents and set them free, even though they had persuaded the Indians to fight him.
What are the chances that this story has anything to do with Alexander? I would bet dollars to donoughts that what we have here is a folktale, perhaps of Indian origin, that is just too precious not to tell. I suppose it is possible that a leader who saw himself as a God who hold meetings like this, but I find my first guess much more likely.

By the way this is taken from a different website called e-classics. Internet Classics does not contain the full work, even in the download text only form, which contains more of it than the html form.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Mafia Movies & Alexander

Obviously I am particularly interested in shared themes between Great Books' authors and the Bible, given my particular interest in the Bible. Of course, it is also fun to find things that sound familiar for other reasons. Having defeated Darius and conquered Persia, Alexander was giving his troops a rest for several months and was being very generous is spreading the spoils of war around. Plutarch writes:
But when he perceived his favourites grow so luxurious and extravagant in their way of living and expenses that Hagnon, the Teian, wore silver nails in his shoes, that Leonnatus employed several camels only to bring him powder out of Egypt to use when he wrestled, and that Philotas had hunting nets a hundred furlongs in length, that more used precious ointment than plain oil when they went to bathe, and that they carried about servants everywhere with them to rub them and wait upon them in their chambers, he reproved them in gentle and reasonable terms, telling them he wondered that they who had been engaged in so many single battles did not know by experience, that those who labour sleep more sweetly and soundly than those who are laboured for, and could fail to see by comparing the Persians' manner of living with their own that it was the most abject and slavish condition to be voluptuous, but the most noble and royal to undergo pain and labour.
Full selection. This reminds me of the scenes following the big heist in mafia movies in which the crew gets a little ostentatious with its spending and gives the boss angina.

Alexander is quoted as reminded his troops, "Are you still to learn that the end and perfection of our victories is to avoid the vices and infirmities of those whom we subdue?" I'd like to hear this in a speech about the Global War on Terror.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Failed Plots to Kill Hitler

Once a month at Chalice the young people watch a movie immediately after the 11:00 a.m. service. This Sunday we watched Valkyrie. As you either already know, or likely guessed from the title of the post, this is a story about a plot to kill Adolf Hilter. We see a man who loved his country enough to leave parts of his own body on the battle field, commit treason. Doing so, he knowingly endangers his wife and children.

On Saturday, my newly formed Breakfast Club had our second meeting to discuss Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was a brilliant theologian, a pacifist, and someone involved in a plot to kill Hitler. He explained, “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” Bonhoeffer, like all of the semi-fictionalized characters in Valkyrie, was executed for his role in the plot.

One function of Adolf Hitler and Nazis generally in our public discourse is to stand in for ultimate evil. Unfortunately, we often simply use this ultimate evil as something to call our political foes. Goodwin's law only partially sarcastically provides, "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."

In my discussion with the youth after Valkyrie and in reading about Bonhoeffer's choice, I find ultimate evil giving rise to a surprisingly subtle question. When is something so evil as to require an exception to your moral code? When does righteousness call you to commit treason, or to turn your back on your life long moral commitment to pacifism?