Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Historical Delusion

I just finished reading Norman Cantor's Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth. It's a short biography of Alexander (under 200 pages) which is hardly intended to compete with the massive volumes by Green, Fox and others written over the last sixty years. It is, however, written in the erudite yet playful and accessible style which made Cantor's textbooks on Ancient and Medieval history some of the most downright enjoyable college level textbooks I ever encountered. (His classic The Medieval World has apparently been replaced by The Civilization of the Middle Ages which I haven't read, but I remember the former fondly and would certainly give the latter a try.)

The book on Alexander was apparently the last that Cantor wrote before he died and was published posthumously. Unfortunately, it is marred by one glaring mistake in the first couple pages: it refers to the wars between the classical Greeks and the Persian Empire as the "Peloponnesian War", when the Peloponnesian war was in fact the war between the Athenians and Spartans several decades later. One could wish that his estate had treated the draft to a proofread by another academic rather than simply sending it off to be printed.

Besides this one lapse, which put me off on rather the wrong foot with the book, it's an enjoyable and accessible read. I'd certainly recommend it for an interested high school student, or any interested adult with little background and little time but wanting to get a feel for Alexander and Hellenistic civilization.

In my momentary loss of faith after reading the first few pages, however, I went and looked up the Amazon reviews of the book. These were rather mixed. Many faulted it for not being a long and scholarly biography -- which strikes me as unsurprising given the book's diminutive size. One, however, was very much a hoot. The reader loved the book, but in great part because he thought it underlined how much greater a leader Alexander the Great was than George Bush:
Alexander, like Achilles, Caesar, King Arthur, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, embodies the spirit of the times and the people of their eras. Alexander and Achilles were heroic; Caesar and Arthur were innovators; Lincoln and Churchill gave words to enhance the decency of great nations.

Lincoln, to cite an example, did not invent democracy in America. However, when he defined democracy as government "of the people, by the people, for the people", he greatly sharpened and enhanced already existing attitudes. Alexander did the same in his time; he did not invent war, but he set an ideal seldom matched and thus established the warrior ideal for much of the Mediterannean. King Arthur does the same with his round table; Churchill gives credit to the British people for stopping Hitler.

Now, consider George Bush with his Texas swagger and flight suit while strutting across the deck of an aircraft carrier to announce "Mission Accomplished" as if he were a warrior. Alexander, in contrast to the coddled and well-protected life of Bush, survived numerous serious wounds acquired while leading his troops from the front. Whether it's Bush or Clinton or Reagan, there's a vast difference between Alexander and the perspiration and spin of today's leaders. As Canton aptly shows, it's why "the Great" title is retired.

Intended or not, there are numerous subtle parallels between ancient and modern events in the Near and Middle Easts. Alexander was successful because he responded immediately and brilliantly to local events rather than try to rule from afar; instead of being an ideologue, he worshiped every God he met along the route of his conquests.

Because he was handicapped by "faulty intelligence," when he reached Afghanistan and India he realized it was time to listen to his troops, then "cut and run". Why? To quote Cantor, "One of the old soldiers, a man named Coenis . . . . gave the speech of his life, ending with these words: 'Sir, if there is one thing above all others a successful man should know, it is when to stop'. Instead of trying to stay the course, Cantor says "Alexander sulked for two days but then tried to find a way to make this defeat appear to be a victory."

Cantor offers an intriguing psychological assessment of Alexander; not only was he "the supreme exemplar of that old pagan world" but he also knew how to sulk and then accept the will of his troops. Perhaps that is why there are no modern Alexanders; today we tend to look at his heroism, courage, strength and vision but overlook his ability to sulk.

Now, past question, Alexander was a leader of far greater stature and import to the history of civilization that President Bush. Don't question that for a moment. But that hardly means one would want to live in Alexander's empire or want modern politicians to emulate him. Alexander was, as Cantor amply shows, a man of great abilities, but also a more than borderline psychopath by any modern standard. Even Napoleon, another great leader in whose historical or geographic proximity I have no desire to be, would have been a far preferable leader to actually live under than Alexander.

Indeed, one of the things that interested me very much in Cantor's final chapter was his discussion of how Alexander was a quintessentially pagan figure -- and how the myth of Alexander was modified in the medieval period in order to adapt him to Christian heroic models. Which, in turn, makes me rather curious to dig up some time Fox's Pagans and Christians, which Cantor cites with approval.


Domenico Bettinelli said...

The reviewer himself engages in a bit of mythology with his description of Bush, a popular myth perpetuated by his political enemies.

Bush did not swagger across the carrier deck and announce "Mission accomplished." He was flown out to the carrier in a four-seat jet, which required the use of a flight suit, something with which he was acquainted, having been a fighter pilot.

There was indeed a banner mounted on the carrier's island, which said "Mission Accomplished," but this was hoisted by the ship's crew itself, announcing their own specific mission to be accomplished--since they were heading for home-- not that the war in Iraq was over and done.

But that's of a piece with the mythological United States of the Bush-deranged, who imagined civil liberties to have been abridged to such a degree that black helicopters were whisking away patchouli-smoking liberals on the basis of the books they checked out of the library.

I've seen serious folks who would, straight-faced, claim that living in America under Bush was worse than living under Alexander, even as they sipped their $5 lattes and zipped off in their energy efficient Priuses.

Fred said...

I dipped into Cantor's Civilization of the Middle Ages but found it a bit light, with bizarre analogies from the modern age: I remember he compared monasteries to space ships which really doesn't comprehend the way that monasteries were right in the middle of life and work and politics. I think I read some Brian Tierney around that time and found him to be better, and more serious.

Now, my favorite college text was Baugh and Cable's The History of the English Language (I just looked it up on Amazon and the current edition is $99 - ouch!)

Zach said...


Darwin said...

I dipped into Cantor's Civilization of the Middle Ages but found it a bit light, with bizarre analogies from the modern age: I remember he compared monasteries to space ships which really doesn't comprehend the way that monasteries were right in the middle of life and work and politics. I think I read some Brian Tierney around that time and found him to be better, and more serious.

Huh. I don't recall the 70s/80s era Medieval World (which is the one my parents handed me in high school) going quite so far, though he had some pungent opinions in regards to some historical figures.

In college I used Warren Hollister's Medieval History, which coincidentally is probably also one of my favorite text books. Though as with many venerable old textbooks, the later editions have each contrived to have less personality and more PC-ness.

Donald R. McClarey said...

I vastly enjoyed Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages, a catty, though learned look, at some of the great works of history on the Middle Ages written during the last century, and acerbic sketches of the historians who wrote them.

Cantor was known in academia for carrying grudges, and he repaid some old scores delightfully in Inventing the Middle Ages.

Cantor's final works before his death were not his best work. He was an expert on Medieval history, but he really didn't know much about antiquity. Unlike most academic historians, Cantor always wrote with verve and hated the gibberish jargon that make so many books written by academic historians vitually unreadable.

John Farrell said...

Cantor is always worth reading. He does have blind spots (sometimes big enough to drive a Ford Explorer through); but he obviously loves the Middle Ages, and Donal is right: in spite of some of its short-comings, it's still worth re-reading.

(One of his more laughable gaffes in that book is stating that Tolkien had only 3 children, when in fact he had four. A man with his background should not have made so basic a mistake...)