“We’re not interested in Alexander I.”
That’s what one of my colleagues said to me about Alexander the Great (who was Alexander III, but no matter).
I thought about this as I returned to Greece recently on another “Legacy of Alexander the Great” tour, this time with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Arrangements Abroad. I thought about this as we swept by plane from Thessaloniki — Greece’s second largest city, named for one of Alexander’s younger sisters — spitj to Athens, the capital, on a 12-day tour that included buscapades to many of the nation’s most important museums and archaeological sites.
I thought about this as I watched Germans, Asians and African-Americans — to name but three distinct non-Greek groups — swarm over Delphi, site of the Temple of Apollo and his prophetic priestess, whom Alexander visited before embarking on his successful conquest of the Persian Empire (in 331 B.C.) that would change the locus of power and culture from East to West and cement the tension between the two that is still being played out in America’s relationship with Iraq, Afghanistan and, now, Iran — the heart of Alexander’s old empire. (Told that the priestess was off the day he visited, Alexander nonetheless sought her out and dragged her back to her tripod for divination, whereupon she replied, “My son, you are invincible.” OK, maybe she just said, “You’re a persistent cuss, aren’t you?” In any event, Alexander got the answer he sought. Seekers always got the answer they sought, the prophecy having to be general enough to uphold the oracle’s reputation.)
What is the real legacy of Alexander and the rest of the ancient Greeks? They along with the earlier Egyptians and the later Romans created the Western civilization that we are heirs to. Not everyone is inured in Western civ, as it used to be known in school — although given the history of the world, it’s hard to imagine a culture the West has not interacted with.
But fair enough. In South America, Africa and parts of Asia, the West was an evil, colonizing influence. Still, why must we throw out the cultural baby with the colonial bathwater? There is much that is great in Western culture. Alexander, for instance, taught me much about leading from the front and coping with difficult parents, His tutor, Aristotle — subject of Edith Hall’s brilliant new book, “Aristotle’s Way” — made me realize that people are friends in spots and that I shouldn’t expect much from a friendship based on mutual usefulness.
If you were to ask me the greatest legacy of the Greeks — beyond their contributions to mathematics, the sciences, philosophy, literature, the visual arts, all of which Alexander’s conquest disseminated — I would say it was their brilliant understanding and upholding of the individual mind.
So the ancient Greeks aren’t everyone’s ancestors. But they are the ancestors of American civilization, which has welcomed many cultures. We should accept these cultures. But by the same token, they should respect the underpinning of American culture.
Failing to understand this invites a kind of knee-jerk response that is the essence of Trumpian nationalism.