We must be careful of the words that conjure greatness. One name above all, in the annals of conquerors, comes automatically in the company of that term, Alexander the Great. Yet what was he, in the end, but a self-willed tyrant, like all the rest, liable to be diagnosed as a psychopath on account of his insensible thirst for blood, his premeditated infliction of torturous agony upon his enemies. The French essayist Montaigne points to his maltreatment of Betis, who valiantly resisted his army’s assaults during the siege of Gaz.
Coming upon that dauntless warrior, still engaged in futile combat against the enemies of his people, the great Alexander promised him that he would not attain the glorious death he sought. No, he would have to suffer every sort of torment one is able to devise against a captive. When Betis, taking an insolent, haughty stand, replied with stony silence, the Great Macedonian flew into a rage. He taunted his captive for refusing to bend the knee; or utter some sound or syllable that might be mistaken for suppliance.
“Truly, I will vanquish this silence,” the outraged conqueror proclaimed, “if I cannot wring a word from him, I will draw forth an anguished groan.” (Montaigne, Essais, Chapter I) Thereupon, he had Betis pierced through with nails, and then torn to pieces behind a chariot.
As he strives to explain Alexander’s deplorable hysterics, Montaigne seems to dally between envious vanity, overweening pride, and preternatural rage. In any case, he portrays an insensible force, beyond the bounds of human nature; standing to humanity as a purple, swollen boil stands to the flesh it disfigures with its presence.
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As if to confirm the grotesque depravity of the conqueror’s mien, Montaigne notes his treatment of the city of Thebes, whose stubborn, death-thirsty resistance Alexander answered with implacable slaughter. The carnage spared not the disarmed or the elderly, neither women and nor their babes in arms. All were indiscriminately slaughtered. When it subsided, 30,000 souls remained alive to be sold into slavery.
No matter how many myths and lies are told to perfume the stench of his depravity; and no matter whether it was caused by bestial passion or ruthlessly calculated statecraft, the great Alexander, outdid his greatness in arms with his incomparable appetite for atrocity. Weighed in the balance, wherein all-surpassing goodness measures self-inflated evil, Alexander the Great’s career reveals the problematic character of greatness, taken as a goal for individuals and nations alike. None should be willing to do so unless they are also willing to cast the worth of humanity to the winds.
Aristotle said that someone who lives outside the bounds of human community is either a beast or a god. Alexander the Great reminds us that, either way, humanity risks being treated as of no account. In this age—wherein people grasping at the power of “gods” so readily claim the “right” to be more murderous than beasts—, we tend to forget that, the people of the United States strode onto the world stage standing upon a ground of unity defined by the decent aspirations of humanity: For the peaceful enjoyment of life, within boundaries of justice, ascertained in light of the benevolent will of our Creator, God. The only greatness truly relevant to those aspirations is the greatness of God’s commitment to our existence, and the existence of the whole He made to accommodate us.
How great is that benevolent will? How great is the God in whom it arises as the choice of His contingent love? That is a question our finite being may never, on its own, comprehend. Yet and still, it occurs to us: Because the reach of our true being exceeds the world in which our grasp is possible. The stuff that we are made on exceeds the boundaries we must accept and acknowledge in order to know that we are meant to be at all. Figures like Alexander the Great, who live without respect for those boundaries, prove out the greatness of being within us, but only at the price of reminding us, again and again that, on account of that disrespect, we must endure all the lonely suffering in the world. On account of that disrespect, a world where the image of God ought to become our life, becomes instead a habitation of chaotic fury, too often bringing life as we are meant to know it, to a sorrowful end.
People open to comprehending the humble stature of our humanity in the presence of God, may be forgiven for mistaking greatness as the goal of our existence. But in the presence of God, our little worth must always dwindle, as we realize that only the prospect of His remembrance gives us reason to claim any stature at all. To make good on that claim while trusting in His mercy— This was, and still must be the hopeful premise of our existence as a people. Is there greatness in it? God only knows.
As for the slogan, which haunts these musings, how can we regain a stature that was never ours in the first place? There is none truly great but God, as Christ also said of His goodness. But His goodness, as it turns out, is all ready for us—in the love He shared with us in the moment of our creation; and again when He consented to redeem the promise of enduring life we mistakenly cast aside. Our American way of life was never intended for people duped by the ambition to “be as gods”. Such people can purport to be arbiters of good and evil mainly because, as a species, we have proven ourselves capable of so much evil.
By contrast, from its beginning, the United States of America was to represent the aspirations of ordinary men and women—by which I mean those who accept the ordinances of God, and who are willing to abide by them. This is not to say that such people are not capable of what turn out to be great deeds. America’s experience suggests they are. But the proof of their greatness is not for us to proclaim. Its proper herald is the fruit of their right-doing—adjudged according to the purposes, intentions, and will of God.
To God, therefore, be all glory and honor and praise. For He alone remembers what we were like before we learned to sin. Therefore, He alone can renew the stature with which He endowed us in the first place. We should pray that He grants us the wise humility to beg for that forgiveness—thereby signifying our acceptance of the mercy He is already prepared to give, in and through Christ our Lord—before it is too late.
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