THE FOLLOWING is extracted from my book, IN SEARCH OF OUR IDENTITY ...
We pick up the story sometime in the twelfth century BCE, with the flourishing Mycenaean culture of mainland Greece and its surrounding islands and outposts—the center of a vast trading network that extended from the Black Sea to the Nile and further afield.
The catch was that the new benefits generated by trade only accrued to a small ruling class and the elites serving them.
Then, literally overnight, civilization mysteriously collapsed, and this part of the world entered into an extended dark ages. Contemporary accounts refer to an enigmatic “Sea People” who seemed to have swooped out of nowhere, destroying everything in their path.
Hundreds of years later, civilization rebooted, but with a somewhat reshuffled social deck. A new class of producers and merchants and artisans asserted themselves. This opened the way for a novel breed of deep-thinkers who would change everything.
Classical Greece’s time in the sun was short, but over the next two and a half millennia, its achievements inspired every leap forward in what we would later call western civilization. Even today, these ancient Greeks turn up everywhere in our school curricula.
So far, so good. But our Golden Age is no sooner up and running than an assembly of righteous Athenians puts Socrates on a hemlock diet. This leads his student, Plato, to deeply distrust the dictates of the mob, who are too ignorant to think and decide in anyone’s best interests, much less their own. Plato, instead, placed his stock in the idea of an enlightened philosopher-king. His own student, Aristotle, actually set about educating one.
Enter Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s most famous student—opportunist, narcissist, sociopath, all around general asshole.
Let’s begin with Mr Great’s family background. His mother was the fiery and cunning Olympias of Epirus, his father Zeus, king of the gods. The matter of paternity, incidentally, came straight from the mouth of the great one, himself, and was attested to by none other than his mother, who was presumably there at the time in question.
There is no disputing Alexander’s vision, intellect, military genius, charisma, physical courage, and leadership skills. Men willingly followed him into battle over the course of ten years, enduring every imaginable privation along the way. It is 324 BCE. Following an exhausting Indian campaign and a death march through a baking desert, he and the remnants of his army are back inside Persia, nowhere near close to returning to Greece or nearby Macedonia.
Alexander has trained his sights on Arabia. The Macedonian contingent of his army is having second thoughts. They are ready to mutiny, as they had two years before in India. It’s time for our fearless leader to give the standard Shakespearean “Band of Brothers” speech. And he sort of does this by reminding them how his other father of convenience—Philip of Macedonia, not Zeus—turned them from hide-clad vagabond shepherds into proud men and rulers.
A note about this other father of his. Philip once tried to kill him in a drunken brawl. Fortunately, Olympias, in a display of maternal concern, conveniently paid her retainers to have her human husband whacked. Alexander may have had two putative fathers, but we are detecting signs of an over-indulged mother’s boy.
If we’re looking for emotional attachments, by the way, Alexander most likely shared his deepest bond with his horse, Bucephalus. When his trusty mount died in India, our grief-stricken hero named a city after him. Too bad he lacked the same regard for his men. Back to his speech …
Instead of building on his Band of Brothers theme, our son of Zeus unaccountably makes the discourse all about himself. It was he and his cavalry, he reminds his men, who conquered Persia. No mention of his long-suffering spear-carriers. Those lucky enough to have tagged along with him, he lets them know, he granted the spoils of war and bestowed great honors. As for those who died in battle, didn’t they all receive splendid burials?
Really, I’m not making this up.
“Depart!” he commands. “Go back and report at home that your king Alexander, the conqueror of the Persians, Medes, Bactrians, and Sacians …” The list goes on and on. And on.
And it would have been a much larger list, he lets them know in mid-list, had they not lost their nerve in India and compelled him to turn back. Nevertheless, he has graciously led them back into Persia through the waterless Desert of Gedrosia, “where no one ever before marched with an army.”
SIGN UP FOR MY FREE EMAIL NEWSLETTER
About Gedrosia—present-day southern Balochistan above the Arabian Sea—where temperatures of 120 F are routine: Twelve thousand men failed to complete the 60-day journey, with no splendid funerals in consolation. In all likelihood, Gedrosia was an enraged Alexander’s way of punishing his men for not indulging him in his whim of conquering India.
Now to close the deal: “Report that when you returned to Susa you deserted him [ie Alexander] and went away, handing him over to the protection of conquered foreigners.”
A final sarcastic flourish, then, once again: “Depart!”
History records that Alexander immediately leapt down from the platform he was standing on and retired to his quarters, leaving his dumbstruck men unable to decide what to do next. Three or four days later, they could take it no more.
Approaching his tent, they threw down their weapons and prostrated themselves before him, begging forgiveness.
So why did Alexander’s men put up with all this? And how did Alexander get away with it, in the first place? In her 2007 book, Evil Genes, Barbara Oakley, citing numerous sources, refers to the Alexanders of the world as the “successfully sinister” or “high-machs” (for Machiavellian)—highly manipulative sociopaths with strong elements of borderline personality disorder and narcissism, not to mention paranoia, who specialize in leaving a long trail of broken lives in their paths.
I go into this in great detail in my article, Figuring Out Evil, where Hitler and Mao serve as our poster boys.
It’s crazy, but the status quo seems to operate on our apparent willingness to give up on the one life we have in order to please the very people who least deserve to breathe the same air we do. Whether it’s some hapless hoplite in Alexander’s army we are talking about or an unappreciated “human resource” in a corporation, we not only find ourselves powerless to put up a fight, but we seem incapable of even imagining a better life for ourselves.
Put a lab rat through the experimental hoops—hang it by the tail, force it to swim—and they will quickly reach a state of immobilization and learned helplessness. These rats, incidentally, respond well to antidepressants, perhaps better than we do. This strongly suggests that our equivalent mental states run far deeper and exact way more of a personal toll. Thanks to our perversely more advanced brains, we are capable of thinking our way into the type of life-sucking black holes that no antidepressant can penetrate.
Tragically, our adaptive response tends to favor psychically anesthetizing ourselves—becoming emotionally numb—cutting ourselves off from our thoughts and feelings, from our true sense of self. Call it depression, if you want, but it’s far more than that. In our state of extreme personal alienation—of nowhere men and women living in our nowhere land—we find it only natural to cede our own personal sovereignty to those who deserve it least.
Walk into any depression or bipolar support group and you will get a feel for the human toll. Far too many stories involve broken lives from workplace abuse. Once the inevitable trauma and depression set in, along with the learned helplessness and all the rest, return to the life one had before becomes highly problematic. Many, if not most, of these people have strong and admirable qualities. But even the strongest and most admirable have their breaking points.
If we stick to the Common Narrative, we are left with no choice but to accept the fact that we happen to be the sorry owners of broken brains. With my brain, I am not about to too vehemently dispute this. The counter-narrative, though, raises the possibility that broken as we may be, something in us remains blessedly whole.
The Common Narrative serves up a convenient story for moving history forward into a seemingly inevitable present, but it fails to take us to a place where we truly belong. Deep inside, we know something is missing. Deep inside, something doesn’t feel right. Deep inside, we know that if we accept their story as the definitive one we will never find our way home.
As for Alexander, fortunately this particular story has a happy ending. Soon after verbally abusing his men in his mockery of the standard Band of Brothers speech, our sociopath-narcissist-extraordinaire died in Babylon of mysterious causes. In all likelihood, some of his men finally got smart and poisoned his wine. At long last, they got to go home.
See also: A Study in Evil
Jan 21, 2017.
Follow me on the road. Check out my New Heart, New Start blog.