Longing for Greatness

In summing up Alexander I mentioned the context in which I most often hear Alexander referenced–he conquered the known world by age 30. Last year I met a young man who was not yet thirty and was set to argue a case before the Supreme Court. I compared him to Alexander, a comparison he pretended to reject because of Alexander’s young death, but which in truth I think he quite enjoyed. Reading about Caesar, I came across this.

In his journey, as he was crossing the Alps, and passing by a small village of the barbarians with but few inhabitants, and those wretchedly poor, his companions asked the question among themselves by way of mockery, if there were any canvassing for offices there; any contention which should be uppermost, or feuds of great men one against another. To which Caesar made answer seriously, “For my part, I had rather be the first man among these fellows than the second man in Rome.” It is said that another time, when free from business in Spain, after reading some part of the history of Alexander, he sat a great while very thoughtful, and at last burst out into tears. His friends were surprised, and asked him the reason of it. “Do you think,” said he, “I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable.” As soon as he came into Spain he was very active, and in a few days had got together ten new cohorts of foot in addition to the twenty which were there before.

How curious that Caesar should have these thoughts as well. Some desire to see themselves as a new version of great people. President Obama allegedly studies Ronald Regan. The Tea Party movement casts itself as the new Civil Rights Movement. Patton saw himself as the reincarnation of Hannibal. This all seems fairly similar to casting Jesus as the new Moses or the new Elijah.

I think we sometimes do this on a less grand scale, even as ordinary people. We delight in children behaving similarly to their relatives. Maybe we even enjoy sharing characteristics or traits with our parents as adults. I wonder if it creates the sensation of participating in eternal life–in life that is not bounded by our own mortality.

2 replies on “Longing for Greatness”

Four years ago I noted with some minor bitterness that at my age (then), Bill Clinton was an ex-governor.

I will never be compared with Alexander, since I am never going to conquer the world and I am way older than he was when he died.

Somehow even the older part isn't that comforting.


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