How Storytelling Conquered the World
Updated: May 12
As an advertiser and filmmaker, I am very interested in Story. I have a theory that storytelling may have played a major role in the conquering of the Asia minor, however, if we are not careful, it could just as easily play a major role in the downfall of the rest of the world.
Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle are widely considered some of the wisest philosophers of the ancient western world. Only one of them is responsible for the conquering of the known world. Socrates taught Plato (who is responsible for recording most of Socrates' writings). Plato, in turn, taught Aristotle. Collectively they mused on every subject from the nature of being the various methods of knowing. They extolled the virtues of poet kingship, they introduced the concept of "bridling passions" and mused on existence itself. But Aristotle's most famous student was not another philosopher, but the Alexander of Macedonia, but you probably remember him as Alexander the Great.
By all accounts, there are very few differences between Philip of Macedonia and Alexander, his son. Very few differences in their military assets. So what separates Philip, who is known for where he is from, from Alexander, who became known for what he could both conquer and unite? When you dig into the teaching of the fathers of Western philosophy, there are some interesting differences and nuances to discuss, but one of Aristotle's greatest contributions to modern thought was his basic understanding of storytelling, which he lays out in The Poetics. His essentials of storytelling still rule movies, novels, and every other form of storytelling today, including commercials.
My working theory is that this simple understanding that Aristotle certainly passed on to his student is what allowed him to unite the various and disparate cultures which he conquered. Each nation and town was able to maintain its own religion, culture, and language, but what they had to adopt was the new story, not of Alex of Macedonia, but of Alexander the Great. The conqueror and governor, the Ur hero not only as a conqueror but also as a deliverer.
Sadly we don't know all of the stories that were told about Alexander and if he was the original source. But a few stories do remain. Perhaps the most well-understood is the tale of the Gordian knot. As Alexander marched into Gordium, the capital of Phyrigia, he came across the Gordian knot. A massive knot entangling the ancient wagon of King Gordius (father of King Midas). A prophecy held that he who would untangle the knot would rule all of Asia. After struggling with the knot, Alexander unsheathed his sword and simply cut through the knot and freed the wagon.
Variations of the story abound, but the key elements are the same, if not similar. This story is quite simple, travels easily, and tells several very important facts about a conqueror. This is a man who A) fulfills prophecy, B) Thinks differently, but most importantly, C) if he can't solve the problem, Alexander will slice through it with a sword (even if the "problem" happens to be your village).
Can you imagine how a simple story like that would prepare primitive people for the arrival of an impressive army that seems to be sent from God, with a blade behind it? Could that be as important as the touted military tactics and diplomacy that he is famed for? Much of Aristotle's writing on storytelling is lost, but we still have some key elements, like the 6 core principles of a story.
The Six aspects of storytelling are Spectacle (opsis), Plot (mythos), Character (ethos), Reason (dianoia), Dialogue (lexis), and Melody (melos, which is not just about music, but about the chorus and the supporting information). Today we use the same six principles that Aristotle put forward to create compelling stories and advertising that captures consumers' attention.
Story is the most compact and hardy vector for meaning and theme, and morals. It is what makes the Bible and Quran so powerful. You can argue about whether or not to pay contractors their full due, but any culture that tells the story of the pied piper knows that the worker is worthy of his hire and neglects payment at the peril of their children (They also know to be wary of strangers offering bold promises). You don't have to profess Christianity to find great value in the story of the Good Samaritan.
Story is powerful, and it is also perilous. Because we can pack so much meaning into a tight suitcase, it can spread ideas quickly. In the advertising world, we can use this to our advantage. It is the reason we at Creatably favor long-form advertisements: they allow us to tell a complete story about a complex or new product. But a story can also become perilous. Story is a vector, like a mosquito, that carries meaning, both good and bad. Most people with wildly inaccurate understandings of the world will base their belief on a story that they feel very strongly about. "My son got a vaccine shot, and shortly thereafter, I discovered he had autism." "My mother got cancer and tried these essential oils, and now she is better," "I noticed that planes don't fly over this spot much. Therefore, the world is flat (this is a real story told by flat-earthers on youtube)". As storytellers, we have the responsibility to listen to our own stories and verify that they are true before we pass them on. A good story travels fast, regardless of the truth. So while good storytelling may have conquered most of Asia, and it may help you conquer your particular advertising problem, we have to be careful that it doesn't also destroy the world we have left.
For that reason, we end up saying "no" to quite a few clients. No amount of advertising can make up for a bad product, and in some cases, good storytelling can amplify the problems of a bad product.