In Peter Green’s illuminating biography of Alexander the Great, Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C., I ran across an eerily resonant passage concerning torture. The incident involved Alexander’s decision to bring down one of his most experienced generals, Parmenio, who had served under Alexander’s father Philip and whom he considered a rival, by framing Parmenio’s son Philotas for treason. Philotas was falsely charged with conspiring to murder Alexander, a crime whose penalty was death; but Alexander needed more in order to establish grounds for getting rid of Parmenio. Here’s how Green describes the situation:
[I]t was agreed that Philotas and his fellow-prisoners should all suffer the traditional penalty—death by stoning. But there were two things Alexander wanted to get first: a written confession from Philotas himself, and some sort of statement implicating Parmenio. Craterus, Hephaestion and Coenus were therefore authorized to torture Philotas until he provided both. […] Then he withdrew to his quarters and let them get on with it—or, according to Plutarch, observed the proceedings from behind a curtain.
Before morning the torturers had their written confession and probably enough extra details, imagined or remembered, to implicate Parmenio as well (at one point Philotas asked Craterus, with weary cynicism, to explain just what it was he wanted said).
Alexander, like Dick Cheney, understood the purpose of torture, which is not to elicit the truth but to produce useful lies.
Evidently, though, the ancient conqueror lacked Dick Cheney’s poetic nature, since Alexander freely used the word “torture,” while Cheney uses the euphemistic metaphor “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe the same practice. And what an influential poet Cheney has turned out to be! Look how the usually unpoetic mainstream media have mindlessly adopted his metaphor.
Do we really need to ask if poetry can matter? Clearly when it comes from the highest levels of our government, it matters a great deal more than the instructive details of history.