And so the Greeks have voted that Alexander the Great is the “Greatest Greek” of all time, beating the philosophers, doctors, artists and politicians who created the unique Greek miracle which remains the world’s touchstone for achievement. The result was hardly a surprise, as Alexander was indeed Great: He reached the ends of the known world through military conquest, creating a huge empire which made a gift of the Greek tongue and culture to countless ethnic groups, which could then communicate with each other and exchange ideas, religions and products. Alexander changed the world and (this is what concerns us mainly), he made it “more Greek;” he made the past more familiar to us. For the citizens of a small country in a world of growing uncertainty, it is natural that we should seek to identify with Alexander’s triumphs, as if, in this way, we can impose ourselves on others, conquer fear, strike a blow against anyone who underestimates us, who to tries to usurp any of our achievements.
We miss Alexander, but what would we do if he suddenly appeared before us, ready to rule? We’d try to kill him, to run away, or – most likely – to strip him of the qualities that made him Great. (You see, Alexander’s great, but so is the democratic system that the other Greeks – whom he beat in the competition – bequeathed to humanity. And we would not like to lose our right to misgovern ourselves.)
Alexander – just as in his own time – would divide us between those who would like to follow him and those who insist on their state’s independence. Also, he would oblige us to be in a state of continual warfare – which might be okay if the fighting were aimed at conquering a perennial foe, but Alexander had no intention of stopping: He was forced to turn back only when his exhausted army finally rebelled on the bank of the Hyphasis River in India as they contemplated yet another meaningless battle against a superior foe.
But because Alexander was a hero of his time, when military conquest or defeat determined whether one lived or died, where a king might believe that he was the son of a god and therefore need not abide by the laws of men nor institutions, it is pointless trying to judge him by today’s criteria. That is how great leaders have always been – Alexander was just more successful than all the others, because he managed to leave a positive impression on many of the regions that he conquered, as we see from the survival of his name in many cities and narratives of distant nations.
So let’s not judge Alexander by today’s standards. Let’s compare ourselves with him instead, so that we might be judged. First of all, in Greece today, Alexander would not be so fortunate as to attain power as a headstrong 20-year-old (unless he were the son of a king, which, he was). In Greece today, mediocrity and selfishness rule – and it takes many years for a capable young person to have all good qualities knocked out of him and acquire the necessary networks among political, economic and academic interests that will allow him to climb the ladder of power. He would need to be at least 40 before he achieved this. And then he would find himself confronting the many systemic problems that we all know and which are maintained by the interests that will have supported him in his rise. As a graduate of our narrow-minded education system (because it is one thing to be tutored by Aristotle and another to study at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki), a hostage to interest groups and to the corruption that feeds off political apathy and maintains it, he would cut no Gordian knots. He’d just keep talking about “change” and “reform,” not daring to do anything that would endanger his support, as he’d play for time. He would allow the country to sink, as long as he could remain in power. (Suffering along with his soldiers when they lack food and water would be taken as a sign of dangerous, unforgivable weakness.) And if today’s Alexander were to embrace foreign nations and their customs, this too would meet with disapproval from his cohorts and a large part of his nation, which feels comfortable only when flattered by claims of its purported superiority to all things foreign. (This bigotry is far removed from the anger and dismay that Alexander’s tough Macedonian generals felt when they saw him luxuriating in Persian dress and being overwhelmed by delusions of grandeur.)
So we might miss a leader who made the Greeks known to the whole world and we might miss an age in which our nation dominated all others. But if we compare ourselves with Alexander the Great, we may justly argue that he was the greatest Greek of all time – except for our own.
Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 25 May, 2009