Alexander takes a bath

Who invented religious tolerance?

Alexander the Great?

Despite the man's genuine accomplishments, people these days are preoccupied with something other than his advocacy of religious tolerance.

Let's back up a little. Before Alexander the Great, there was another architect of religious tolerance called Cyrus the Great, author of what may be the first charter on religious freedom.

Artefact 90920 is wending its way from the British Museum to Tehran, where it has fired debate between those who see it as a national icon and others who say it represents all that is worst about Iran's pre-Islamic past.

The controversial relic is an unassuming 23-centimetre-long (9-inch) cylinder of baked clay covered in densely packed lines of Babylonian cuneiform script.

It is generally agreed to be the world's first human rights charter -- but Islamic conservatives say it is redolent of paganism and a monarchy ousted in the 1979 revolution.

Here it is:


Roughly translated, the inscription says that "each man would be free to worship his own gods, no race would oppress another and no man would be enslaved."

Can't have that, can we? Two hundred years before Alexander the Great! Cyrus was quite a guy.

Does that mean we now need to know whether he was "gay" in the Hollywood sense?

Was Cyrus as hot as this writer claims Alexander was?

Alexander was hot, his boyfriends were hotter, he threw hissy fits that would take Liza Minnelliís breath away, he had fag hags hanging off him like laundry, and he loved the arts (especially music and theater). Itís the interplay between his personal fabulousness and his public greatness that makes Alexander the Great one of the most exhilarating characters in world history.

Alexander hadnít intended to remake the world. He merely wanted to be the greatest hero of all timeógreater than Achilles or Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules). But even Alexander wasnít immune to the law of unintended consequences. As youíll read in this book, Alexander was responsible for many aspects of life we take for granted, like raves and circuit parties and that thing you never use: your gym membership.

So reads the teaser for Alexander the Fabulous (a book no doubt helping to inspire Oliver Stone's latest film).

Forgive me, but I think the issue of religious tolerance is tad more important than personal sexual habits. While I do recognize that these issues overlap, I think it places the cart before the horse to place the latter ahead of the former, because without religious tolerance, well, you can kiss sexual freedom, and RAVEs, and circuit parties goodbye. So, at the risk of boring readers, I want to shift focus slightly. . .

Opinions differ on the extent to which Alexander believed in religious tolerance, but there's little question he tried (and might have died for his efforts). Here's Orson Scott Card:

Alexander the Great tried to combine Persian and Greek public religions (and there are those who think that this might have led to his being poisoned, though most historians accept his death as being of natural causes). The Romans simply matched their own gods up with the Greek gods and declared them to be "the same," so that Greek religion could be tolerated.

Indeed, the Romans created the most religiously tolerant society up to their own time, by allowing all their provinces to continue to worship their ancient gods, as long as they added to their rituals the public worship of the emperor-as-god. That way, there would be a shared public religion throughout the empire -- one which nobody actually believed in, but which would unify the people and make it seem as though they were one nation.

This worked well enough with most conquered lands. It was only the Jews and, later, the Christians who refused to fit in. And since the rejection of the public religion was viewed as treason, not just heresy, these noncompliant, intolerant religious "fanatics" either rebelled and had to be re-conquered, or were persecuted.

And when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, that was the end of religious tolerance of any kind.

Um, not quite. Mr. Card forgets Emperor Julian (the so-called Apostate) who arguably made a last valiant attempt at religious tolerance.

Interestingly, Julian believed himself to be a sort of reincarnation of Alexander the Great:

According to Socrates Scholasticus, Julian believed himself to be Alexander the Great in another body via transmigration of souls, as taught by Plato and Pythagoras (Book III, Chapter XXI of his writings).
In any case, Alexander's form of religious tolerance (likely motivated more by his restless, conquest-based culture shuffling than by his need for "RAVE" parties) may have paved the way for Greco-Buddhism.

The latter is a fascinating essay, and reflects the vastness of this overall topic -- admittedly much too daunting for another blog post. (Indeed, books like this have been written on the struggle between Monotheism and Polytheism. More here from Michael McNeil. Perhaps it should be also be borne in mind that Alexander stands accused of destroying the Avesta -- original sacred book of Zoroastrianism.)

This all touches on a central theme of this blog -- a mission many would consider hopeless. What most people reflexively call the "Culture War" is, in my humble opinion, merely the latest (by no means last) vestige of unresolved tension between America's Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. This tension is reflected in the very founding of this country. American democracy would have been impossible but for the Classical-friendly founders drawing heavily from the Greco-Roman wellspring of Western culture. Yet at the same time, their religious and moral views were steeped in Judeo-Christianity. The fierce religious struggles of the Enlightenment being much on their minds, they revived the largely pagan idea of religious tolerance, and the world has not been the same since.

Regardless of the outcome of the "Culture War," I think it is extremely important that the "neopagans" (for lack of a better term for those on the Greco-Roman side of the American spectrum) not fall into the camp of the cultural nihilists. To do so would (as I warned in an earlier, more emotionally-charged essay), throw the Greco-Roman baby out with the Judeo-Christian bathwater.

What disturbs me is to see so many people who don't take the time to educate themselves all too willing to throw the Greek-Roman "baby" out with the fundamentalist "bathwater."

That baby was the seed of freedom, art, creativity, and free spirituality, and it proved too much for the forces of control that claim the right to tell man what to do in the name of their tyrannical deity. So, they gave the baby a vicious, gratuitous bath. A very dirty bath it was: bloody, murderous, barbaric, deliberately ignorant. Over the centuries people who yearn for freedom have tried to throw out the bathwater and we have seen periods like the Renaissance -- only to see the baby grabbed anew and then thrown once again into the dark and terrible waters of Puritanism, Calvinism, and the Inquisition. They've scalded, beaten, burned and drowned the baby, and cut off pieces of its genitalia. They have smashed, looted and burned, destroying beauty every step of the way.

Yet in spite of all this, the baby (which I call Classical Values), still lives. It would be tragic if, in a reaction against the horrible bloody bathwater, the baby is thrown out along with it. If we toss out Greco-Roman values simply because of the excesses of fundamentalist Judeo-Christianity, then I fear that a wave of malignant nihilism could eventually destroy the good aspects of our culture, much as Rome was trashed and sacked by Visigoths and Vandals in the Fifth Century (and then again by Protestant fundamentalists in 1527.)

Extremist utopian thinking (which characterizes much of the fundamentalist right as well as the Marxist left) springs in my opinion from the dark, intolerant side of Judeo-Christianity which is steeped in authoritarianism and believes in moral compulsion by force. While fundamentalists claim to be acting for God, and Marxists claim to be acting for man (or "science") the underlying motive -- perfecting man by force -- is the same. Whether sexual morality at gunpoint (fundamentalism) or economic morality at gunpoint (Marxism), the logical fallacy is similar, and, I believe, is grounded in misinterpretation of religious texts.

I for one do not believe that Judaism (a highly civilized and tolerant religion) is responsible for the tyranny that uses its name in that hyphenated word which has become code language for fundamentalism. Nor is Christianity (especially its original version) responsible per se. Nor are dead white males as a group. It is wrong to blame individuals for the acts of others merely because they are done in their name. But some individuals really are the problem. Some of them are alive.

Well, it's been more than a year since I wrote that (in retrospect some of my words appear too strong and too generalizingly judgmental, but it's a blog post and I can't change it!) and we now see early warning signs -- from the extremely tolerant Netherlands, no less -- of the unraveling of tolerance. Belmont Club's Wretchard recently reminded me of the underlying ancient tension within the West:
It would not have been the first time that public authority had forgotten its cultural roots. In medieval England the legacy of classical Greece was often regarded as a form of heathenism, even though it lay at the root of Western Civilization. Homer was regarded as the "devil's entertainment". The knowledge of classical antiquity was largely forgotten. It was not until the Renaissance that Europe rehabilitated its wellsprings, readmitting it into public life partially because of its technological utility.
Heathenism, utility, tolerance. As much a part of us as monotheism, morality, and intolerance? Wretchard also recalls Byron -- a man who "could name his saints and remember his Homer." (Well done, Wretchard.)

Wretchard is quite correct to criticize Oliver Stone's frivolously simplistic modernistic concentration on the personal sexuality of Alexander. Interestingly, Hitler is tossed into the equation:

Maybe Oliver Stone had the right idea, but the wrong historical figure. The Nazis were swingers in their own way, not at all like the stuck-up inhabitants of Jesusland. The wife of Martin Bormann, for example, thought having a menage a trois was a great idea. "A fanatical adherent to Nazi ideology, she bore her husband ten children, the first being named Adolf, after his god-father. Of her husbands mistress, Manja Behrens, she wrote "See to it that one year she has a child and next year I have a child, so that you will always have a wife who is serviceable". The Nazis were big fans of alternative families, as exemplified by the Lebensborn program.

(Via Glenn Reynolds.)

Perhaps for his next film, Stone can team up with the assorted crackpots who claim Hitler was gay!

Considering that the struggle over tolerance touches on such huge portions of Western (and even Eastern) history, and considering the stakes involved in the religious conflicts today, I think I should repeat my plea that we not throw the Greco-Roman baby out with the Judeo Christian bathwater. But my standards are admittedly lower than those of the founders, who realized that Western Civilization includes both the baby and the bathwater. How is it that they were capable of taking both into account?

Surely the founders understood that tolerance itself can be intolerable for the intolerant. But what if tolerance became equally intolerable for the tolerant?

(I hope the baby has matured, because I wouldn't want the founders to have been mistaken.)

UPDATE (a historical footnote, really): Not to focus on irrelevancies, but according to Wikipedia it appears that Cyrus the Great was not homosexual:

Dhul-Qarnayn is mentioned in the Qur'an, and often regarded as a prophet; the name means 'one possessing two horns'. His identity is controversial; many medieval Arabs and modern historians identified him with Alexander the Great, who is depicted as having horns on ancient coins. However, there are many differences between the figure described in the Qur'an and the history of Alexander the Great. The fact that the latter was described as a homosexual also leads many to believe that he is not the individual spoken of in the Qur'an. Some have speculated that Dhul-Qarnayn is actually Cyrus the Great, or even linked him with Gilgamesh.
Just wanted to get that, um, straight.

MORE: Do not miss Ghost of a flea's post on Alexander. Best picture, too! (Not the film, obviously; the picture in Nick's post!)

posted by Eric on 11.22.04 at 07:56 AM


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Tracked on November 23, 2004 4:27 AM


Yet another excellent post. Thank you.
But, I must take exception to one word in the statement you quoted:

"It is generally agreed to be the world's first human rights charter -- but Islamic conservatives say it is redolent of paganism and a monarchy ousted in the 1979 revolution."

Islamic conservatives?? If they're conservatives, then Lenin and Robespierre were conservatives! Nonsense! A conservative, by definition, is FOR monarchy and AGAINST revolution.

I agree with Alain de Benoist. We need to get back to our Greco-Roman, as well as Celtic and Nordic, roots. Along with the Judao-Christian elements, which have, over the last thousand years, become traditional in the West. The beauty of Polytheism is that is can include Monotheisms within it, i.e., in the ancient world, each individual or nation was free to choose one particular favorite God or Goddess out of the many and worship Him or Her supremely or even exclusively, as, e.g., the Babylonians did with Marduk, as the Cretans seem to have done with their Goddess, as the Hebrews did with their God YHVH.

Unfortunately, pure Monotheism, of the type of Islam or the more radical, political forms of Islam, cannot seem to coexist with Monotheism. As de Benoist has pointed out, Monotheism leads to Monism, to unity and uniformity, and thus toward Communism.

Polytheism is the Old Time Religion, the ancient, eternal religion or type of religion. Polytheism is what is most conservative, or reactionary. Monotheism, particularly Islam, is new and revolutionary. Muhammad was a revolutionary.

On a spectrum, the spectrum used by holy Dawn and her holy Negro wife Norma, Polytheism is the Right, Monotheism is on the Left, and Atheism to the Left of that. I choose to be on the Right, Extremely Right.

Steven Malcolm Anderson   ·  November 22, 2004 5:09 PM

"Akhenaton was the first Communist."

Lots more comments by me under your original Alexander the Great post. Trying to make up for being so remiss in commenting, in the past, for some inexplicable reason.

Cyrus the Great. Great indeed, as that inscription shows.

"Heathenism, utility, tolerance"? vs. "monotheism, morality, intolerance"?

Heathenism, beauty, freedom. The highest type of morality.

By the way, as to all this business about the sexual orientation of the Nazis? It's obvious to me what that was. Neither homosexual nor heterosexual. The piles upon piles of millions of corpses in the death camps and mass graves. The gas chambers, crematoria, skin made into lampshades, hair made into pillows, fat made into soap, etc.. The death's head insignia of the SS. Necrophilia!

" Emperor Julian (the so-called Apostate) who arguably made a last valiant attempt at religious tolerance."

What, precisely, was tolerant about Julian's war on Christianity? The razing of churches, or perhaps the divestment of parishes? Maybe the killing of Christians for their beleifs? See Gibbons (no religious nut, he) in this respect. Julian indeed opened up other religious worship in the Empire, but he also forcible repressed Christaiin worship. One would hope that you don't take Julian as a model of religious tolerance.

One also hopes your post is sarcastic, at least in relation to Julian's "tolerance".

Kristian   ·  November 23, 2004 5:04 PM

I did say "arguably" because it is indeed arguable. Earlier Christian emperors had severely persecuted pagans (including Julian himself) and Julian tried to stop that, and by many accounts, genuinely wanted tolerance and coexistence.

For at least one view contrary to yours, I suggest reading Robert G. Ingersoll's account.

I was not being sarcastic, but I tried to make it clear that the history of Julian remains in dispute.

However, I don't think there's much dispute that the early Roman Christians were anything but tolerant. Consider the following:

Probably more Christians were slaughtered by Christians in two years [A.D. 342-343, during the Arian controversy] than by all the persecutions of Christians under the Romans during the previous three hundred years. - Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 4, The Age of Faith
In the century opened by the Peace of the Church [after the first Christian Roman Emperor began his rule], more Christians died for their faith at the hands of fellow Christians than had died before in all the persecutions. - Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries

More here and here.

Don't get me wrong; I think religious intolerance is awful and I don't approve of pagans persecuting Christians, or vice versa. I think God is ill-served by crude attempts to stamp out "heresy" (however well-meaning).

Eric Scheie   ·  November 23, 2004 7:29 PM

If Julian the Apostate did persecute Christians, then I would have to classify him spectrumologically as an authoritarian reactionary, trying to restore by force the religion of his ancestors, as General Horemheb did after Akhenaton's death.

Perhaps he could be compared to some of the anti-Communists in the 1950s who wanted to lock up or deport all Communists, or some conservatives today who want to deport all Muslims.

Reminds me of something a Bircher once wrote:
"A Communist kills the President with a rifle. Liberal solution: outlaw all rifles. Conservative solution: outlaw all Communists."

The _style_ of that is interesting, but I myself believe that the best way to counter wrong, even subversive, ideas is with good ideas. Let Truth and Falsehood meet each other on the open battlefield.

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