An Unlit Lamp


At the edge of Corinth’s marketplace, crowded with the sounds of stall owners hawking their wares and the idle chatter of the day, two men sat inside of a wine barrel. The taller of the two was clad in the finest of silks, dyed a deep violet and embroidered with gold along its hem, his profile sharp as a razor’s edge and gaze even sharper still as he considered his companion. Here was someone living the greatest and purest freedom, released from the shackles of expectation. A man who lived his life freely, eating as he wished, sleeping as he wished, doing as he wished, and not giving a damn except to spread such virtue to others. “If I were to live another life,” he declared after careful observation, “I would wish to be Diogenes.” What Alexander would give, to be like this even for a day.

“If I were to live another life, I would also choose to be Diogenes.” The more dishevelled of the two collected spit freely in his throat before hocking it onto the ground. Where his companion was dressed in finery, he was dressed in the telltale rags of a beggar man, stained beyond all recognition by dirt, phlegm, and substances not worth being mentioned. Even so, despite the filth that collected on every aspect of his being, there was a proud and tempestuous flame behind the lowly man’s gaze. 

Together, they watched the spittle spread itself thin onto the sandy ground, absorbed slowly in the midday sun until it was nothing but a darkened stain.  “Wishful thinking,” the philosopher declared, “is only for those with things they yearn to leave behind. Kings, conquerors, politicians: at the end of the day, you are all cut from the same cloth. Desiring to have what you do not, then when you have it pining for that which you once had.” Diogenes smirked, exposing crooked and yellowing teeth that seemed halfway from rotting out of his head. “No man can live honestly when he wields power. He is forced either to lie to maintain stability, or else find himself degenerating into madness if he remains for too long.”
“So what should I do then?” asked Alexander. 
“Live freely,” answered Diogenes. The wind blew a gentle breeze through Corinth, carrying the scent of freshly-baked bread and the beginning strains of rain along with it. The cynic’s eyes were closed, no longer paying any heed to the rapt attention Alexander was paying him. “That is the truth behind virtue. Not living shackled by a society’s rules of propriety, nor by the chains of vice that damn a man to a hedonistic hell. A man is virtuous when he abandons that which he would be slave to, whether pleasure or pain, duty or desire. It is then, and only then, he will truly be happy. But tell me, oh great one,” he said with a sharp-edged sneer in his voice, “What do you desire? Money? Women? Men?”

“A perfectly ordinary death, like any man could have.” The words were stated simply, without the pomp and boastfulness a conqueror was meant to possess. For a moment, Alexander’s face softened into itself, showing the creases and wrinkles he kept so carefully hidden beneath caked on makeup and a ruler’s smile. There were bags under his eyes, the dark circles deeply settled into the inclines of his face as if carved into marble. “If I were to be killed on the battlefield, they would hold me up in glory and plunder in my name. If I were to be assassinated, then I would be a martyr and villages razed for my vengeance. Let me die in my bed, whether it be plague or old age that takes me. All I ask is that when my life is snuffed out, the world mourns for but a moment before history moves forward without me.”

“Oh?” For the first time, Diogenes turned to face Alexander and truly look at him. Scum looked upon gold, the cynical lens of a hound steered towards the majestic mane of a lion. Here was a conqueror in all of his finery, adrift in a sea of humanity. If Diogenes was cosmopolitan then Alexander was doubly so, a man who was beholden to the world but belonged to none of it. “Look this way,” he commanded, sharply turning the conqueror’s face so that they would see eye to eye.

“As I thought.” The faded scars of a warrior, adorning Alexander’s body as proof of battles hard-won. The fine, chiselled jaw of a king, held within an appraising grasp. And yet, here were the eyes of a pupil, watery with confusion and desperately in need of guidance. This was all that the cynic needed to see to come to a conclusion. “Where you sit right now, you’re blocking the sun.”

“Apologies, teacher.” Alexander turned to move, already readying himself to leave. His horse Bucephalus lingered nearby, whinnying in frustration and boredom, and no doubt there was a mountain of responsibilities that needed to be attended to once again. It was back to reality now, to the steppes of Asia and the battlefields crying for blood. To the Alexandrias of the world, and to the mantle of the Great. “This has been a pleasant diversion, but I’m afraid I will have to take my leave. I…” He hesitated, wondering if his request would be considered rude, and then halted that line of thought in its tracks. It did not suit an emperor to fear the sharpened tongue of a cynic. “I hope I can come to see you again, if it is not too much trouble.”

“Not at all, young upstart!” Once again that yellow, gap-toothed grin, although where once there was fire and fury behind the philosopher’s eyes was now a glimmer of delight. It had been a long time since he had had a pupil, and a longer time still since he had been sought out by so intriguing a character. “It’s good sport, poking fun at you and your ilk, and rare is the opportunity to throw verbal jabs at such a venerated boy as yourself.”

“Then I shall come again,” said Alexander with an eager grin of his own, revitalized and ready to seize the world on the back of his horse. Here he was at thirty-two years old, in the prime of his life. Thoughts of death sat side by side with those of conquest, culture, and creation, weighing as they always did upon his shoulders, but here in this moment all the Macedonian could consider was living. There was so much to do, after all, and such little time to do it in.

“And I’ll be waiting here to knock you down a peg!” 
Diogenes watched the figure of Alexander disappear into the horizon on his noble steed, his hands scrambling for the rusted lantern kept always by his side. With a grunt he lifted it, framing the departing emperor within its slats until his silhouette was surrounded on all sides by the rusted iron. For a moment, perfectly captured within this metal cage, the world was held within Diogenes’ grasp. The next, it was gone, vanishing beneath thundering hooves and the distant drums of war. 

Kyle is a dreamer, writer, and full-time complainer from the Philippines. Her fiction has been published in Idle Ink, Mineral Lit, and Analogies & Allegories among others. She has a special fondness for both Alexander and Diogenes, although would be hard-pressed to say which historical figure she prefers. @PercyPropa 


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