Thursday, January 27, 2011

What Box?

One way to get out of the box is to leave the box; that's what Diogenes did. The other way is to destroy the box; that's what Alexander the Great tried to do.

While Alexander's father, Philip II of Macedon, was building the Macedonian army into the greatest in the world and then using it with diplomacy to conquer Greece, Aristotle was tutoring Alexander to build him up into a wonder of the world, perhaps the greatest ruler Europe had ever seen - Plato's dream of a philosopher king.

Alexander's conquests are much discussed, but they were only part of what he put in motion. He accelerated the melting-pot syndrome in ancient Greece by throwing together Greeks from different tribes, migrations, religions, and dialects. In his armies, the dialects merged into a common Greek called Koine Greek. The different strands of Greek religion likewise melded together into a complex, eclectic blend that added new strands from every culture they conquered together. So too was the learning of the different Greek peoples blended.

Under Alexander, the melded Greek peoples began to think of themselves as one people in a way they never had before, since they were now thrown together in battle against common enemies wherever Alexander led them. The incredible series of victories over even mighty empires had them triumphing together, celebrating together, becoming one people.

Alexander even set in motion the cult of youth we associate with Hollywood and glamour magazines. Until then, men wore full beards to prove they were not children, to prove they were worthy to command respect, but young, beardless Alexander swept them and their pretensions away. After Alexander, it became far more fashionable for grown men to shave to emulate Alexander's youth and vitality.

In so many ways, Alexander redefined the world to the Greeks but in this way above all others - after the experiences Alexander forced upon them, it simply was not possible for the Greeks to ever go back into their parochial polis-centric boxes again. The Library of Alexandria is an excellent metaphor for the Hellenistic culture overall that Alexander and his armies forged - the attempt to gather together the best and the brightest ideas and people from all over the world to create a continually improving culture that becomes better tomorrow than it is today. This idea of progress still haunts us today, of course, thousands of years later.

Phillip of Macedonia may have conquered the Greeks diplomatically and militarily, but it was Alexander who conquered them culturally and philosophically by exposing them to the much larger world they could not only participate in but also help create. He drowned the old Hellenic culture, for better and for worse, under the tidal wave of the Hellenistic culture, proved the superior power of a more world-encompassing culture over any one parochial worldview, however refined or worthy it might be.

Alexander set out to spread a cosmopolitan culture around the world, and though he failed in his goals what he did achieve was so unprecedented that it changed the world.

Between them, he and Diogenes proved there is more than one way out of the box.

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