A Dialogue between Alexander the Great, and Diogenes the Cynic

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A Dialogue between Alexander the Great, and Diogenes the Cynic  (1743) 
by Henry Fielding

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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WHAT fellow art thou, who darest thus to lie at thy ease in our presence, when all others, as thou seest, rise to do us homage? dost thou not know us?

Diog. I cannot say I do: but by the number of thy attendants, by the splendour of thy habit; but, above all, by the vanity of thy appearance, and the arrogance of thy speech, I conceive thou mayst be Alexander the son of Philip.

Alex. And who can more justly challenge thy respect, than Alexander, at the head of that victorious army, who hath performed such wonderful exploits, [1] and, under his conduct, hath subdued the world?

Diog. Who? why the tailor who made me this old cloke.

Alex. Thou art an odd fellow, and I have a curiosity to know thy name.

Diog. I am not ashamed of it: I am called Diogenes: a name composed of as many and as well-sounding syllables as Alexander.

Alex. Diogenes, I rejoice at this encounter. I have heard of thy name, and been long desirous of seeing thee; in which wish, since fortune hath accidentally favoured me, I shall be glad of thy conversation a while: and that thou likewise mayest be pleased with our meeting, ask me some favour; and as thou knowest my power, so shalt thou experience my will to oblige thee.

Diog. Why then, Alexander the Great, I desire thee to stand from between me and the sun; whose beams thou hast withheld from me some time, a blessing which it is not in thy power to recompense the loss of.

Alex. Thou hast a very shallow opinion of my power, indeed; and if it was a just one, I should have travelled so far, undergone so much, and conquered so many nations, to a fine purpose truly.

Diog. That is not my fault.

Alex. Dost thou not know that I am able to give thee a kingdom?

Diog. I know thou art able, if I had one, to take it from me; and I shall never place any value on that which such as thou art can deprive me of.

Alex. Thou dost speak vainly in contempt of a power which no other man ever yet arrived at. Hath the Granicus yet recovered the bloody colour with which I contaminated its waves? Are not the fields of Issus and Arbela still white with human bones? Will Susa shew no monuments of my victory? Are Darius and Porus names unknown to thee? Have not the groans of those millions reached thy ears, who, but for the valour of this heart, and the strength of this arm, had still enjoyed life and tranquillity? Hath then this son of Jupiter, this conqueror of the world, adored by his followers, dreaded by his foes, and worshipped by all, lived to hear his power contemned, and the offer of his favour slighted, by a poor philosopher, a wretched Cynic, whose cloke appears to be his only possession!

Diog. I retort the charge of vanity on thyself, proud Alexander! for how vainly dost thou endeavour to raise thyself on the monuments of thy disgrace! I acknowledge indeed all the exploits thou hast recounted, and the millions thou hast to thy eternal shame destroyed. But is it hence thou wouldst claim Jupiter for thy father? Hath not then every plague or pestilential vapour the same title? If thou art the dread of wretches to whom death appears the greatest of evils, is not every mortal disease the same? And if thou hast the adoration of thy servile followers, do they offer thee more, than they are ready to pay to every tinsel ornament, or empty title? Is then the fear or worship of slaves of so great honour, when at the same time thou art the contempt of every brave honest man, though, like me, an old cloke should be his only possession?

Alex. Thou seemest, to my apprehension, to be ignorant, that in professing this disregard for the glory I have so painfully achieved, thou art undermining the foundation of all that honour which is the encouragement to, and reward of, every thing truly great and noble; for in what doth all honour, glory, and fame consist, but in the breath of that multitude, whose estimation, with such ill-grounded scorn, thou dost affect to despise? A reward which hath ever appeared sufficient to inflame the ambition of high and exalted souls; though from their meanness, low minds may be incapable of tasting, or rather, for which pride, from the despair of attaining it, may inspire thee to feign a false and counterfeit disdain. What other reward than this have all those heroes proposed to themselves, who rejected the enjoyments which ease, riches, pleasure, and power, have held forth to them in their native country, have deserted their homes, and all those things which to vulgar mortals appear lovely or desirable, and, in defiance of difficulty and danger, invaded and spoiled the cities and territories of others; when their anger hath been provoked by no injury, nor their hope inspired by the prospect of any other good than of this very glory and honour, this adoration of slaves, which thou, from having never tasted its sweets, hast treated with contempt?

Diog. Thy own words have convinced me (stand a little more out of the sun, if you please), that thou hast not the least idea of true honour. Was it to depend on the suffrages of such wretches, it would indeed be that contemptible thing which you represent it to be estimated in my opinion: but true honour is of a different nature; it results from the secret satisfaction of our own minds, and is decreed us by wise men and the gods; it is the shadow of wisdom and virtue, and is inseparable from them; nor is it either in thy power to deserve, nor in that of thy followers to bestow. As for such heroes as thou hast named, who, like thyself, were born the curses of mankind, I readily agree they pursue another kind of glory, even that which thou hast mentioned, the applause of their slaves and sycophants; in this instance, indeed, their masters, since they bestow on them the reward, such as it is, of all their labours.

Alex. However, as you would persuade me you have so clear a notion of my honour, I would be glad to be on a par with you, by conceiving some idea of yours; which I can never obtain of the shadow, till I have some clearer knowledge of the substance, and understand in what your wisdom and virtue consist.

Diog. Not in ravaging countries, burning cities, plundering and massacring mankind.

Alex. No, rather in biting and snarling at them.

Diog. I snarl at them because of their vice and folly; in a word, because there are among them many such as thee and thy followers.

Alex. If thou wouldst confess the truth, envy is the true source of all thy bitterness; it is that which begets thy hatred, and from hatred comes thy railing; whereas the thirst of glory only is my motive. I hate not those whom I attack, as plainly appears by the clemency I shew to them when they are conquered.

Diog. Thy clemency is cruelty. Thou givest to one what thou hast by violence and plunder taken from another; and in so doing, thou only raisest him to be again the mark of fortune's caprice, and to be tumbled down a second time by thyself, or by some other like thee. My snarling is the effect of my love; in order, by my invectives against vice, to frighten men from it, and drive them into the road of virtue.

Alex. For which purpose thou hast forsworn society, and art retired to preach to trees and stones.

Diog. I have left society, because I cannot endure the evils I see and detest in it.

Alex. Rather because thou canst not enjoy the good thou dost covet in it. For the same reason I have left my own country, which afforded not sufficient food for my ambition.

Diog. But I come not like thee abroad, to rob and plunder others. Thy ambition hath destroyed a million, whereas I have never occasioned the death of a single man.

Alex. Because thou hast not been able; but thou hast done all within thy power, by cursing and devoting to destruction almost as many as I have conquered. Come, come, thou art not the poor-spirited fellow thou wouldst appear. There is more greatness of soul in thee than at present shines forth. Poor circumstances are clouds which often conceal and obscure the brightest minds. Pride will not suffer thee to confess passions which fortune hath not put it in thy power to gratify. It is, therefore, that thou deniest ambition; for hadst thou a soul as capacious as mine, I see no better way which thy humble fortune would allow thee of feeding its ambition, than what thou had chosen; for when alone in this retreat which thou hast chosen, thou mayest contemplate thy own greatness. Here no stronger rival will contend with thee; nor can the hateful objects of superior power, riches, or happiness, invade thy sight. But, be honest and confess, had fortune placed thee at the head of a Macedonian army —

Diog. Had fortune placed me at the head of the world, it could not have raised me in my own opinion. And is this mighty soul, which is, it seems, so much more capacious than mine, obliged at last to support its superiority on the backs of a multitude of armed slaves? And who in reality have gained these conquests, and gathered all these laurels, of which thou art so vain? Hadst thou alone past into Asia, the empire of Darius had still stood unshaken. But though Alexander had never been born, who will say the same troops might not, under some other general, have done as great, or perhaps greater mischiefs? The honour, therefore, such as it is, is by no means justly thy own. Thou usurpest the whole, when thou art, at most, entitled to an equal share only. It is not, then, Alexander, but Alexander and his army are superior to Diogenes. And in what are they his superiors? In brutal strength — in which they would be again excelled by an equal number of lions, or wolves, or tigers. An army which would be able to do as much more mischief than themselves, as they are than Diogenes.

Alex. Then thy grief broke forth. Thou hatest us because we can do more mischief than thyself. And in this I see thou claimest the precedence over me; that I make use of others as the instruments of my conquests, whereas all thy raillery and curses against mankind, proceed only out of thy own mouth. And if I alone am not able to conquer the world, thou alone art able to curse it.

Diog. If I desired to curse it effectually, I have nothing more to do, than to wish thee long life and prosperity.

Alex. But then thou must wish well to an individual, which is contrary to thy nature, who hatest all.

Diog. Thou art mistaken. Long life, to such as thee, is the greatest of curses; for, to mortify thy pride effectually, know, there is not in thy whole army, no, nor among all the objects of thy triumph, one equally miserable with thyself; for if the satisfaction of violent desires be happiness, and a total failure of success in most eager pursuits, misery (which cannot, I apprehend, be doubted), what can be more miserable, than to entertain desires which we know never can be satisfied? And this a little reflection will teach thee is thy own case; for what are thy desires? not pleasures; with that Macedonia would have furnished thee. Not riches; for, capacious as thy soul is, if it had been all filled with avarice, the wealth of Darius would have contented it. Not power; for then the conquest of Porus, and the extending thy arms to the farthest limits of the world, [2] must have satisfied thy ambition. Thy desire consists in nothing certain, and therefore with nothing certain can be gratified. It is as restless as fire, which still consumes whatever comes in its way, without determining where to stop. How contemptible must thy own power appear to thee, when it cannot give thee the possession of thy wish; but how much more contemptible thy understanding, which cannot enable thee to know certainly what that wish is?

Alex. I can at lead comprehend thine, and can grant it. I like thy humour, and will deserve thy friendship. I know the Athenians have affronted thee, have contemned thy philosophy, and suspected thy morals. I will revenge thy cause on them. I will lead my army back, and punish their ill usage of thee. Thou thyself shalt accompany us; and when thou beholdest their city in flames, shalt have the triumph of proclaiming, that thy just resentment hath brought this calamity on them.

Diog. They do indeed deserve it at my hands; and though revenge is not what I profess, yet the punishment of such dogs may be of good example. I therefore embrace thy offer; but let us not be particular, let Corinth and Lacedaemon share the same fate. They are both the nest of vermin only, and fire alone will purify them. Gods! what a delight it will be to see the rascals, who have so openly in derision called me a snarling cur, roasting in their own houses.

Alex. Yet, on a second consideration, would it not be wiser to preserve the cities, especially Corinth, which is so full of wealth, and only massacre the inhabitants?

Diog. D—n their wealth; I despise it.

Alex. Well, then, let it be given to the soldiers, as the demolition of it will not increase the punishment of the citizens, when we have cut their throats.

Diog. True — Then you may give some of it to the soldiers; but as the dogs have formerly insulted me with their riches, I will, if you please, retain a little — perhaps a moiety, or not much more, to my own use. It will give me at least an opportunity of shewing the world, I can despise riches when I possess them, as much as I did before in my poverty.

Alex. Art not thou a true dog? Is this thy contempt of wealth? This thy abhorrence of the vices of mankind? To sacrifice three of the noblest cities of the world to thy wrath and revenge! And hast thou the impudence to dispute any longer the superiority with me, who have it in my power to punish my enemies with death, while thou only canst persecute with evil wishes.

Diog. I have still the same superiority over thee, which thou dost challenge over thy soldiers. I would have made thee the tool of my purpose. But I will discourse no longer with thee; for I now despise and curse thee more than I do all the world besides. And may perdition seize thee, and all thy followers!

[Here some of the army would have fallen upon him, but Alexander interposed.

Alex. Let him alone. I admire his obstinacy; nay, I almost envy it. — Farewell, old Cynic; and if it will flatter thy pride, be assured, I esteem thee so much, that was I not Alexander, I could desire to be Diogenes.

Diog. Go to the Gibbet, and take with thee as a mortification; that was I not Diogenes, I could almost content myself with being Alexander.

Author's Notes[edit]

  1. This is an anachronism: for Diogenes was of Sinope, and the meeting between him and Alexander fell out while the latter was confederating the Grecian States in the Peloponnesse before his Asiatic expedition: but that season would not have furnished sufficient matter for this dialogue; we have therefore fixed the time of it at the conqueror's return from India.
  2. Which was then known to the Greeks.