As we move into the holiday season, I would like to share one of the best of the many seasonal movies out there: Die Hard.
There is one particular scene that has stood out to me the many times I’ve watched the movie. It’s towards the beginning of the movie, which in part explains why I only just now decided to follow up on it.
The line in question, for those unable to discern due to my lackluster film clip, is “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.” Hans smirks, and states that it comes as a benefit “of a classical education.” As I mentioned, I have always been interested in the line, but never really followed up on it. That is, until today. Needless to say, I was a bit surprised to find my initial search coming up a bit empty as it seems that the line in question doesn’t actually exist in any sort of classical works. I realized that I was going to have to do a bit more digging.
After some extensive Googling, I finally found what most people consider the source of the quote. It comes from an essay called “On Contentment of the Mind” by Plutarch. In the midst of the essay, Plutarch makes mention of a conversation between Alexander the Great and his traveling philosopher, Anaxarchus. It seems that as they were traveling through India, conquering all the known world, Anaxarchus had made mention of the idea of there being an infinite number of worlds (an idea that seems in line with his beliefs as an atomist). It is here that Alexander laments “Is it not a matter for tears that, when the number of worlds is infinite, I have not conquered one?”.
Alexander is known as one of the world’s most brilliant military commanders and greatest leaders. Despite having conquered the vast majority of the known Western world, we get a sense that Alexander was hardly satisfied with his achievements. It’s hardly a wonder, though, when considering the mindset it takes to have gotten as far as he had. Alex’s travelling philosopher, Anaxarchus, on the other hand, was known as “the happiest man” for his ability to be content in just about any situation. It seems as if this interaction arose out of Anaxarchus’ attempt to remind Alexander that the world is just too big to have everything, and at some point you have to be happy with what you’ve already sacked and rampaged.
Now, there’s a pretty good chance that their interaction never actually happened, seeing as it was so many years ago (even more years ago than Die Hard is old, if you can imagine that). And in the meantime, it’s not totally hard to see how the original quote transformed into the Hans Gruber classic, nor does it seem to lose much of it’s meaning. It even seems to retain the original sense of warning as well, seeing as it’s Han’s greed that is his eventual downfall (his last act, in fact, is to grasp at the 80s era symbol of power – the gold watch).
So, it seems that there is only a little truth in any of the above stories. But, like a lot of tales, the point is hardly in whether or not it is true, but in what we can take from it. We have on the one hand the bigger than life Alexander the Great, who very nearly conquered the world. And the other, Anaxarchus, who remained content even through his horrifying death. And in reel time (you’re welcome) we find Hans Gruber, the conqueror, attempting to steal a ridiculous sum of money played against John McClane, the down-to-earth cop, wowed by the excess of corporate America and forever on the side of right.
The quote, if nothing else, speaks to that idea of contentment and the willingness to be happy. It was certainly not for Alexander to be content with anything other than a complete domination, even though that would forever allude him. Perhaps, if the ancient philosophers and Die Hard can teach us anything this holiday season, it’s to look around at what we have and, for a moment at least, find some happiness in the worlds that we’ve conquered. So, this season, maybe work on being more like McClane and less like Gruber.