In Which I Compare Myself to Alexander the Great

December 26, 2009 at 6:46 am | Posted in Creativity, Dealing with Depression, Philosophical Problems | Leave a comment

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

Most other great generals acknowledge that the Macedonian King Alexander the Great was the conqueror’s conqueror. Perhaps the best measure is the simple fact that his conquests covered the known world. He kicked every butt that was available to kick, from other Greeks to the Persians and back again. He died at 32, partly as a result of wounds that he received in battle, and, not surprisingly, his heirs couldn’t hold on to the immense and disparate lands that he managed to acquire.

Though he devoted his brief life to making war, Alexander was far from the stupid bully or killing machine that you might imagine. His tutor during childhood was Aristotle, and he seems to have been an apt pupil. Even today, we use the phrase (or I use the phrase) “Alexandrine solution” to refer to his stunt of slicing through the famous Gordian knot with his sword rather than bothering to untangle it.

Even so, Alexander’s skills didn’t really lie in statesmanship; he may have settled into a wise and just ruler if he had lived longer, but he devoted his short life to making war. That’s probably why Napoleon Bonaparte and Hitler admired him so. And, indeed, it makes sense to ask why we should admire him at all. Conquering the known world is a dubious enterprise at best, involving, as it does, a staggering number of deaths and casualties. He did bring Greek culture to the East, but if I were living in the East at the time I wouldn’t have felt particularly grateful for the gift.

That said, I find myself admiring Alexander much as I admire the Romans. From this distance, it’s easy to forget about his brutality, and to admire his skill, drive, and bravery. Here’s a funny thing, though: Alexander suffered from bizarre mood swings. Much of the time he labored under some pretty hefty notions of grandiosity. If he hadn’t been king and a brilliant general, his conviction that he was destined to rule the world would have been downright bizarre. As it was, he managed to get others to buy into his crazy schemes, and the result made history.

Historians also record bouts of what seems to have been severe depression. He would sulk in his tent for days on end, refusing to come out or see anyone, and probably thinking, “So I conquer the Persians? And? So?” He indulged in drinking bouts that weren’t unusual for that time and culture, but that would put contemporary frat boys to shame. Despite all that, he always did emerge, ready to fight on.

And that’s why I meditated on Alexander the Great for an hour or so yesterday. Sure, his enterprise was arbitrary and destructive, but it drove him, and it changed history, perhaps even for the better. If the Big Question is “Why bother?” Alexander’s answer did make some sense. Since I don’t have an army at my back, there’s no danger that I’ll get carried away and follow in his footsteps. I can see the point, though: you bother for two reasons. First, it beats sulking in your tent, and second, because your skill has turned into a calling, and you really can’t stop.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that writing has saved the mind of more than one scribbler. People don’t write because they figure they’re going to top Homer and Ovid (well, Shakespeare did, but again, it’s a case of grandiosity meets ability). They write, as Harlan Ellison said, because they can do no other. If I do launch a Grandiose Plan, I will be doing it partly to give myself something to write about, to gain enough stature in my own mind to justify sharing my jottings with the world.

I sat down this morning with little notion of what to say, and I haven’t really said much. But I’m chipper, and feel a sense of accomplishment nonetheless. So, yes, one of my best pieces of advice is this: Devote yourself utterly to a craft, whether it be art or war, and let it carry you through those long, bleak stretches.

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