Samuel Johnson.

Oriental religions and their relation to universal religion online

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its living symbol ; nerve-fire condensed into personality,

' Pyrrho the sceptic, Anaxarchus, disciple of Democritus, Callisthenes, Ptolemy, Perdiccas,
accompanied him. Diogenes Laenius, ix. Also Zeller's Sioics.


darting like the lightning east and west, and filling the
world with its flames. For him the elements are made ;
his foot plays all the pedals of the world's music ; history-
is but the echo of his march. The continents are dead
and silent everywhere, save where he moves and sum-
mons them to renovated life.

Alexander is not European after all. He belongs to
Iran. Of the thirteen years of his reign, eleven are spent
on the soil of Asia. Once leaving Macedon for the East,
he never returns. Greece emigrates in him ; her gods
follow the star of a master which may have risen in the
West, but which stays proudly in the Eastern sky, and the
Magi are not his guests but his hosts. Greek Dionysus
found a home in Eastern Asia, and men saw in the de-
bauches in which the conqueror stained his hand with the
blood of friends the god's revenge for his neglected
worship, or for the woes of his beloved Thebes. A new
Hercules frees Prometheus on a new Caucasus at the
opposite boundary of Iran, and his name is Alexander of

It was not without more positive grounds than these that
Iranian tradition adopted the invader into the line of native
kings. ^ For this was in ethnic truth the Agamemnon of
the East returning to claim his ancestral domain as well as
to punish the Achaemenides for invading Greece. He is
Iranian not only by the scene of his triumphs, but by his
Aryan descent, and even by the Orientalism of his govern-
ment, manners, and dress, and by the ungovernable pas-
sions which the situation developed in him, over which
even his Greek panegyrist can only mourn. ^ This per-
sonality has the true Iranian dimensions, is the true type
of inward Iranian Dualism and moral struggle. The fierce
war of Ormuzd and Ahriman rages here on a scale which

' Firdusi: S liah- N aiiuh. Hamza of Ispatian ; El Masudi ; Tabari.
- Arrlaii, iv. S.


involves the fate of civilization. So the native legend
adopts him, and he becomes for it, as afterward for the
Mahometan chroniclers, the legitimate son of Darab (Da-
rius) by a daughter of Philip of Macedon, and the half-
brother of Darius Ochus, who is Darab's son by another
wife.^ He is the Iskander of the Shah-Nameh,^ brought
up at his father Philip's court, unconscious, like Cyrus, of
his royal rights, and succeeds to a tributary throne only to
throw off allegiance, and by defeat of Dara to reach his
ancestral crown. The historical groundwork of the con-
quest is worked up into a tale of mutual tenderness and
trust between the brother kings. Iskander v/eeps over the
dying Dara, receives his blessing, promises to avenge his
murder, to marry his daughter, and to spread the faith of
Zoroaster. The empire receives him with joy, and there
follows an epoch of order, prosperity, and glory ; while the
true successor of Kaianian kings makes Egypt and India
his tributaries, and attended by prodigies and omens visits
all the sacred shrines of Iran, and restores the supremacy
it had once enjoyed. The legend knows nothing of the
enormities which historians have ascribed to that march
from Tyre to the heart of India, the massacres in Phoeni-
cian cities, the deportations, the burning of Persepolis, and
the slaughter on the sacred soil of Bactria. But they had
not been forgotten; nay, in some of the religious traditions,
they have been greatly exaggerated. It was this very in-
terfusion of terribly destructive elements with far more con-
spicuous ones that were truly creative and humane, which
made his history attractive to a race whose very conscious-
ness turned on the struggle of good and evil powers for

' The Shiih-Ndmeh, the heroic epos of Persian legends and traditions covering the whole
life of Iran down to Alexander, j;atliered and compiled at the court of Ghuznin, was finally
wrought up by Firdusi, in the eleventh centui^.

2 Even Spiegel, who singularly enough thinks the Iranians did not like Alexander, can-
not find any ground for believing this tradition to have a foreign origin. Eran. Alterth.,
ii. 599.


possession of the heroic will. These traditions endowed
Iskander with the symbolic gifts of this personal ideal, its
spells for commanding Nature, its talismans to bind de-
monic powers. They gave him the physical strength to
slay monsters, to repeat the labors of Hercules and his
prototype the sun, the intuition to foresee his destiny, the
piety to recognize the insignificance of kingdoms com-
pared with the service of God and man.

Nor does it appear that Firdusi, the restorer of the
Iranian legendary history, added any more of Islamitic
coloring to the traditional fame of Iskander than he gave
to those earlier heroes of the national legend, whose type,
thoroughly the same as Iskander's, has evidently preserved
its original features even under his Mussulman hands. As
it was the fitness of Alexander to fill this old type of ideal
personality that attracted the national genius, so only in
him could it rise to the height of its historical function.
To all ordinary personal forces that genius refused to re-
spond. The succession he bequeathed " to the strongest"
did not command its allegiance. The brief career of the
SeleucidcE, lasting little more than half a century, only
irritated the people by using the powers he had gained to
suppress their religious faith and the local self-government
by which he had won their hearts. Though the dynasty
was not without energy as a whole, though Seleucus I.
had great gifts and swayed an empire almost as large as
that of Alexander himself, and though Antiochus Epipha-
nes achieved a fame as wide as it was odious (the Ahri-
man of Jew and Gentile), these heirs {diadockoi') of
Alexander's empire were a blank for Persian imagination,
and furnished it no ideal food. The Seleucidae on the
Tigris and the Orontes, and the Parthian and Graeco-
Bactrian dynasties which ruled respectively the western
and eastern provinces that seceded from their empire, were
dropped from the national chronology. It wholly passed


over the five and a half centuries between the death of
Alexander and the advent of the Sassanide Ardeshir, who
in the very spirit of the old heroic legend restored Iranian
freedom and faith.

It was the glory of Iran to feed the imagination of those
races which were making history with colossal types of
heroic Will. By no mytho-poetic accident did her great
Caspian headland front Europe with that eternal symbol
of Prometheus, unconquerable sufferer for the good of
man ; while close beside it towers the form of Zohak,
image of tyranny and hate, bound in hopeless chains
by Feridun, the spirit of freedom. Here personality
first becomes a universal idea, a world-consciousness, As
Cyrus had been the ideal of the highest Hebrew and Greek
intelligence, so Alexander became the ideal of far more
widely-spread intellectual and religious forces at a later
date. From the fascination of his world-opening career
no corner of civilization was exempt. For centuries hosts
of chronicles, itineraries, romances, myths, and legends mul-
tiplied around it, of every race and every quality; but all
so dominated by his dazzling personality, that the thought-
ful historic annals of Arrian and Diodorus and Strabo,
and the learned (but not so trustworthy) compilation of
Plutarch, prove often as puzzling to the historic sense
as the palpable tissues of fable spun by a pseudo-Callis-
thenes, or a Quintus Curtius, or by those mythologists of
Egypt, Armenia, and Rome, from whom their threads were

This grasp of the imagination, then first, we may say, set
free to work upon genuinely historic materials and forces,
knew no limits in geographical space. All the weird stories
of supernatural phenomena and monstrous shapes of beasts
and men, with which the unexplored wilds of Central Asia
had been peopled, mainly on the authority of Ctcsias's
Persian history, were woven into the marching robes of


this king of Nature and men.^ His glory was the honor
of all nations. Like Persia, Egypt claimed him as in the
direct line of her kings.^ The god of the Lybian desert
predicts his coming, and owns him as his son. Sesostris,
conqueror of continents, rises from his throne among the
dead, and visits him in vision, to sink his own fame in the
greater master who shall found a metropolis of nations,
and identify Egypt with an all-unifying name. Darius
Ochus and Serapis pay him similar honors. The Jew makes
him a worshipper of Jahveh and the savior of his Holy
Temple.3 The Alexandrian Greek makes him abolish all
the old cults, yet not by force, and become the apostle of
a universal theism, whose prayer to the " Eternal One,"
at the head of his army, brings the Caspian mountains
together, that he may build gates of brass to bar out
Scythian Gog and Magog forever from the lands of the
true faith.*

Age after age brought fresh accessions to that Egyptian
epopee which, under the assumed name of Callisthenes,
continued down to the time of Firdusi, and even to the
Middle Ages, to be the main stream of this mythic lore.^
It was conspicuous among the resources of Firdusi's muse.
In this legend an Egyptian Magus substitutes himself for
the god Ammon, and brings about with the wife of Philip
the divine birth he has himself predicted to her. Alex-
ander afterwards kills him; but his statue at Memphis
speaks out to hail the world-master at his coming, and
places a globe on his head. Here Alexander instructs
his master Aristotle even in childhood, reconciles his
parents, slays his father's murderers, but scorns to harm

1 Rapp {Zeitschr. d. Deutsch. Morgenl. Geselhch., xx. 64).

' Pseudo-Callisthenes.

s Josephus : Antiguities of the fe^vs, xi. chaps, v. viii.

* Chassang : Histoire du Roman, p. 333.

s Through the Armenian translation, probably in the fifth centiir\'. For account of Pseudo-
Callisthenes, see Spiegel : Eran. Alterth. ii. p 5S6, et seq. And Lifsen : hidische Alterih.,
ii. 734. Also Chassang : Histoire du Roman.


a foe who wounded him in battle ; forgives his enemies,
makes war only for humanity's sake, and binds the na-
tions in brotherly ties ; and, so testifies the Byzantine
age, dives to the depths of ocean and mounts to heaven
upon eagle's wings.^

In later legends of the same cycle (plainly Mahometan),
he follows the setting sun to reach the fountain of im-
mortality ; nay, he hears the admonition of the Angel of
Judgment, waiting on his mountains for God's command
to blow the last trumpet. He learns the inherent neces-
sity of evil in the treasures of this world from the heap of
stones beside the way, from which he who takes and he
who refrains from taking shall be equally miserable ; be-
cause when they are found to be gems, the one becomes
wretched because he has not taken more, and the other
because he has not taken any when he might have had
what he would. His death is foretold him by a king
whom he finds throned within a mountain, and by two
trees of the desert that speak, the one by day, the other
by night, — the warning of Nature, if we may interpret
the myth, that even her master is also her child, and must
return to her bosom. Whfcn he lays his hand on the cof-
fers of the kings of Iran, she goes out of her way to re-
peat the same omen by a monstrous birth. Greeks and
Persians contend for the right to bury his body; but the
oracle gives it to Alexandria, where the wise of all nations
gather to celebrate his obsequies.

As the Jew claimed him as a pilgrim to Jerusalem, so
the Mussulman finds him at his Kaaba, and a Syrian poet
sings his praise as a follower of Christ.^ Mahomet him-

1 The Mahometan legends say that Alexander came to Abraham while he was building
the temple of Mecca with Ismael, and acknowledged him as the messenger of Allah, and
walked seven times round the place. They describe him as able to turn day into night and
night into day, by imfurling one or the other of two magic standards, and so defeating his foes
at his will ; and even as having found himself so near the sun in a dream that he was able to
seize him at his two ends. Weil : Biblical Legends, p. 70-

= Spiegel: Eran Alterth., ii. 607.


self celebrates him, it is commonly believed, under the
name Dhu'lkarnain (the Two-horned), as a prophet sent
to chastise the impious and reward the just with easy-
yoke ; who prefers the service of God to the tributes of the
nations.^ Mussulman writers placed him beside Moses,
Abraham, Jesus, and the rest to whom revelations had
come. In the Chronicle of Nizami, he is the son of a
pious Hebrew woman, adopted by Philip, — a saint and
sage; more than a king.^ By the gift of a stone, which
outweighs everything save a handful of dust, the angels
cure him of the desire to gain the whole world. A city
whence men are summoned away one by one, to vanish in
a mountain, and cannot be held back from obeying the
call even by his kingly power, teaches him the inevitable-
ness of death. How mythology, the world over, holds all
lords and masters to spiritual realities and ethical laws !
What transforming power there is in the wand of imagi-
nation, to bring a world-conqueror from his throne of
centuries to his knees, before the primal conditions of
human life and personal success ! — a process whose
operation illustrates the unhistorical character of ideal-
ization of the founders of religions and States, while at
the same time it teaches that such imaginative construc-
tions are under control of the conscience and aspirations
of mankind.

To Mirkhond, the great Persian historian of the fifteenth
century, Alexander's name signifies " lover of wisdom." ^
He is the ideal philosopher as well as king. He receives
from Philip political counsels as fine as those which the
Cyrus of Xenophon hears from Cambyses ; for the natural
flow of wisdom from age to youth, from father to son, is
a premise of our ideal sense of continuity, which asserts
itself wherever it is permitted to do so. He must make no

1 Koran, sura xviii. 81, 90. 2 Spiecel : Eran. Altcrth., ii. p. 607.

3 Shea's Translation (Oriental Fund Series), p. 368, 369.


distinction in his treatment of rich and poor, Persian and
Turk, remote and near, farmer and soldier, native and
stranger. He must never be indifferent to the sufferer,
■nor oppress the poor.^ Before the assembled nobles, after
his father's death, he disclaims all special rights, consult-
ing their judgment as one of themselves, and accepts the
throne only at their desire. So for near two thousand years
endures the repute of Alexander for having identified his
conquests with local and personal liberties. His victories
are in Allah's name, and his letters are Moslem sermons.
Even while, as true Moslem, he must of course have de-
stroyed " the accursed faith of the Magi," it is admitted
that he had all their science translated into Greek.^ All
the wise men in Persia, India, Macedon, shower on him the
didactics of ancient wisdom ; but not even the Brahmins
can reprove his destructive trade of war without being
silenced by his credentials from the Creator to overturn
unbelief and wrong everywhere, — " commands which I
will faithfully execute till I die." ^ He institutes discus-
sions between rival creeds and schools, and exalts the
Hindu sage, who can answer all his questions and inter-
pret all symbolic acts and gifts. He answers those who
ask things impossible, even for his power, with edifying
self-depreciation and humble recognition of human limits.
Here is the Mahometan ideal of Nushirvan and Akbar
referred back to a period eight hundred years before
Mahomet was born. Into this tribute-heap are thrown
aphoristic treasures, old and new, till the conversational
wisdom of Iskandcr is a catechism of the virtues for any

"In what should a kin^ show perseverance?" "In meditatinc;
on the interests of his people by night, and securing them by day." —
" From what do you gain most pleasure ? " " From rewarding good
service." — " The day passed without redressing some wrong or grant-

1 Sliea's Translation (Oriental Fund Series), p. 377. - Ibid., p. 396. ^ Ibid., p. 405.


ing some petition, is no part of life." — " My instructor deserves more
of my respect than my father, because my father brought me from
heaven to earth ; but Aristotle raised me from earth to heaven." —
" I refuse to make stealthy attacks, by night, on an enemy." — " The
noble mind, even of a poor man, is forever held in honor ; but the
mean person, of whatever rank, is condemned." — " Man wants under-
standing more than wealth." ^

His last message is a tender letter to his mother. Over
his remains the sages moralize on the contrast of his glory
with his dust; and then with the tribute that "Fortune has
hidden him from human gaze, like treasures of silver and
gold," consign him to his Alexandrian grave, " enveloped
in the mercy and forgiveness of the Almighty, whose per-
fection endures while all things else decay." ^

Quite as marvellous as this decree of natural change
over which the Mussulman sages moralize in awe, is the
contrast between the Alexander of history and these
products of religious tradition, weaving ideals of succes-
sive ages around his name. While the pith and point in
Plutarch's sayings of Alexander befit a master-mind that
swayed men as it did nations, the commonplaces of the
Mussulman ideal belong to a traditional moralist or a
meditative saint. Probably no other character in history
has afforded scope for a similar variety of construction.
Such the universality of his function in history ; such the
significance for the future of the first appearance of per-
sonal supremacy, on a scale that matched the importance
of that element in the evolution of humanity as a whole.

Such a Titanic force was not only accorded ideal rights
by the voice of mankind, but strictly held to correspond-
ing ideals of duty. And this moral criticism of one whose
reported claim was that of being adored as an incarnate
god is extremely creditable to the ages immediately suc-
ceeding him. Yet the fact is, that most of the crimes

' Shea's Translation (Oriental Fund Series), pp. 421-26. - Ibid., pp. 428-29.



recorded against him are such as grew inevitably out of
the dehrium of his success and the real or imaginary
perils from friend and foe which the situation involved.
The difficulty of reconciling his outbreaks of fury with the
grandeur, or at least the breadth, of his purpose and the
equity of his general conduct, is increased by the puzzling
variety of testimony and explanation concerning them.
And we hardly know whether to ascribe these outbreaks
to an intense nervous susceptibility which drove him to
the madness of rage in his grief over the natural death of
one friend,^ and made his hasty revenge on another pro-
duce a revulsion of conscience to the insanity of despair,^
or to believe that none of these dark tragedies have
been related in their true connection with events. Per-
haps here, as often elsewhere, the wine-cup is deep and
red enough io solve much of the mystery. But careful
study of the biographies of Alexander confirms the old
belief, that, however superior to vulgar conquerors, he was
in many respects a slave of unregulated passions, and es-
pecially of an ambition for personal sway, which could
efface for the moment every consideration of mercy, jus-
tice, or private affection that appeared to stand in its path.
The splendid star of empire that beckoned him in his early
youth, when he complained that Philip was leaving him no
lands to conquer,^ gathered more and more of earthly ex-
halations about it, which showed that it was not made to
shine steadily in the heavenly ether. It is painful, as we
follow his track, to see how his victories multiplied the
sharp temptations of his lower instincts, — necessities of
cruel wrong, monstrous delusions about the plans and
motives of others, barbarous sacrifices of life (brutal in-
dulgences), and the slaughter of friend after friend upon
suspicion, or in the fury of intoxication. These were the

J Death of He/>hcFstion (Arrian), vii. 14. - Drath of Clitus (Arrian), iv. 9.

■■' Plutarch: L'fe nf AL'xand r.


dreadful fatalities of a battle waged not against kingdoms
so much as against nature, against possibility, against all
rivalry of gods or men. Even Arrian, a most lenient
judge, and perhaps the most dispassionate of his biogra-
phers, does not pretend to know what he designed ; but
" undertakes to say that he would never have been satis-
fied with victories, but would have been roving after places
more remote from human knowledge. If he could have
found no other foe to encounter, his own mind would
have kept him in a constant state of warfare." ^ This is, we
repeat, the incarnation of that internecine strife of the Two
Principles, which belonged to the Iranian conception of life
and the universe. The terrible conditions of that world-
development were, that for three thousand years Ahriman
should be master, though the germs of Ormuzd's victory
are struggling and shaping through the whole; so that
the very deliverance of the world must be purchased by
the costly sacrifice of the noblest part of men's natures
to the worst. The representative of this process is the
career of personal Will. Translated into the facts of his-
tory, it has no type so perfect as Alexander's towering
ambition, and its tragic fates of good and evil. By its
triumph should man be brought to the consciousness of
his unity. But the master-will shall not come to its throne
without the slaughter of the man's own best instincts in the
terrible struggle with opposing wills that must be trodden
under his feet. Such the plane on which the conflict moved,
poindng beyond itself to higher planes ; such the inevi-
table conditions, of which he who should play the role of
conqueror must be the instrument, — subject none the less
to moral forces, since our responsibility is forever proved
real by what we are, and by what our condition brings.
Neither Sophocles nor Shakspeare has fathomed the tra-
gedy of personal character which is involved in every step

' Exficditipu of Alexander, vii. i.


of human progress. Only the grandeur of the end can
absorb the anguish with which we must contemplate the
actual implications of every great historic function. And
our judgment alike of the suffering and the shame is
obliged to accept that personal equation which interprets
both these elements by the conditions of the age and its
work ; its susceptibilities of pain and pleasure, good and
ill ; its alternatives of choice ; its ideal hopes, which direct
the currents of individual aim ; and the infinite stress of
its invisible forces, which must smooth their own most
destructive track through the natures they have them-
selves prepared to be their instruments. Even contem-
porary history records only the striking facts, the patent
results, and these inaccurately at best: their causes and
conditions and their spiritual quality, in the minds of the
actors, lie mainly beyond its ken. If a past age cannot
give these elements for judging its own leaders, our later
times must supply them in part, by discerning the extent
to which those leaders were, as they largely must have
been, representatives of the age, as we now comprehend
it, — their characters and conduct the work of its hand.

In the case of Alexander, we have the most conspicuous
instance in history of the representation in one man's life
and destiny of the power of an age to shape its instrument
to its own historic purpose. In him its constructive as
well as its destructive energies found play. And in our
respect for the criticism which he received through all
the glamour of his success, we cannot forget that the
very historical conditions which rendered such criticism
possible were in part results of the stimulus given by
him to moral forces of which he was no mere passive
instrument, but to some extent a conscious and earnest
producer. He who can effect the advance to an ethical
standard higher than his own conditions allowed, and capa-
ble of bringing his own life into judgment, i=, oven on that

Online LibrarySamuel JohnsonOriental religions and their relation to universal religion → online text (page 32 of 65)