Sunday, September 23, 2012

Alexander the Great Meets the Gymnosophists

  ( Originally written and posted on MySpace on February 13, 2009 )
Reading ancient history may often seem to be drudgery, but there are two historians who lighten the burden: Gibbon and Plutarch. Gibbon’s long history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is enlivened with his wit, while Plutarch has his own special method in approaching his subject. He writes the lives of the noble Greeks and Romans, not their histories. In his words, following the translation of Dryden, he affirms:

    It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and
    of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their
    great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I
    should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen
    rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than
    to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It
    must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories,
    but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish
    us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men;
    sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest,
    informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the
    most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest
    battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact
    in the lines and features of the face in which the character is
    seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to
    give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of
    the souls of men, and while I endeavor by these to portray their
    lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles
    to be treated of by others.

One of the intriguing episodes which Plutarch relates regarding Alexander the Great is the conqueror’s encounter with the philosophers of India. (It is also Plutarch who tells the delightful tale of the encounter between Diogenes and Alexander, which is much more widely known.)  The Indian philosophers, called gymnosophists, seemed to be as much Sophists as fakirs.  E. Cobham Brewer, in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, defines them as "A sect of Indian philosophers who went about with naked feet and almost without clothing.  They lived in woods, subsisted on roots, and never married.  They believed in the transmigration of souls.  Strabo divides them into Brahmins and Samans. (Greek, gumnos, naked; sophistes, sages.)"   The philosophers successfully answer a series of questions which Alexander puts to them as follows:

    In this voyage, he took ten of the Indian philosophers prisoners,
    who had been most active in persuading Sabbas to revolt, and had
    caused the Macedonians a great deal of trouble. These men, called
    Gymnosophists, were reputed to be extremely ready and succinct in
    their answers, which he made trial of, by putting difficult
    questions to them, letting them know that those whose answers were
    not pertinent, should be put to death, of which he made the eldest
    of them judge. The first being asked which he thought most
    numerous, the dead or the living, answered, "The living, because
    those who are dead are not at all." Of the second, he desired to
    know whether the earth or the sea produced the largest beast; who
    told him, "The earth, for the sea is but a part of it." His
    question to the third was, Which is the cunningest of beasts?
    "That," said he, "which men have not yet found out." He bade the
    fourth tell him what argument he used to Sabbas to persuade him to
    revolt. "No other," said he, "than that he should either live or
    die nobly." Of the fifth he asked, Which was eldest, night or
    day? The philosopher replied, "Day was eldest, by one day at
    least." But perceiving Alexander not well satisfied with that
    account, he added, that he ought not to wonder if strange
    questions had as strange answers made to them. Then he went on and
    inquired of the next, what a man should do to be exceedingly
    beloved. "He must be very powerful," said he, "without making
    himself too much feared." The answer of the seventh to his
    question, how a man might become a god, was, "By doing that which
    was impossible for men to do." The eighth told him, "Life is
    stronger than death, because it supports so many miseries." And
    the last being asked, how long he thought it decent for a man to
    live, said, "Till death appeared more desirable than life." Then
    Alexander turned to him whom he had made judge, and commanded him
    to give sentence. "All that I can determine," said he, "is, that
    they have every one answered worse than another." "Nay," said the
    king, "then you shall die first, for giving such a sentence."
    "Not so, O king," replied the gymnosophist, "unless you said
    falsely that he should die first who made the worst answer." In
    conclusion he gave them presents and dismissed them.

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