November 22, 2004
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.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.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.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."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.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.)
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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Classical Values has a great little (read lengthy) post regarding the upcoming Alexander movie and Stone's spin on things. [Read More] Tracked on November 23, 2004 4:27 AM
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