If Alexander established Hellenism as the first universality in history,1 a universality that continued to be the fashion in the Roman era, preserving the unity between education and sensitivity in a universally accepted tendency, should we see behind it a political education that the Greek world knew well, although – during those years – its enlightening quality was steadily fading into a long lasting stupor? Further, it begs Droysen’s question “could the unity fostered by Hellenism in the ancient world, the deeply hoped freedom that it would save man and the universal faith in someone that would finally save humanity, be interpreted as products of the Greek political ideal that Alexander cultivated, given the fact that in his quality as a political man, he was assimilated to God and his political ideal was invested with the absolute character of a religion?
According to Droysen’s words “In Alexander the Great, Man is raised to the highest possible level that the finite can reach and Humanity bends the knee before mortality”.2 In this way, Droysen stresses that Alexander’s politics, through the mixing of religions, the universality of social manners, the coalescing of civilisations, the promotion of scientific thought and the enlargement of knowledge, created a new Hellenism that does not forego its political origins and philosophical underlying meanings. The latter guide Alexander’s thinking, betraying an affinity with specific philosophical thoughts by Aristotle that we are going to explore in this paper.
Let it be noted in the first place that the most impressive among Alexander’s political activities, was the founding of city-states, the most famous one being that of Alexandria in Egypt for which he had a very ambitious vision. Fraser in a special study attempts to calculate the number of cities founded by Alexander and concludes that there may have been more than fifty Alexandrias (although the sources do not name the same cities), eighteen of them being more known, and Alexandria in Egypt being the most famous one.3 In this paper, we shall be examining the philosophical underpinnings of this clearly political choice that takes on the form of founding cities. The idea that the “Polis” in the ancient world was the prerequisite for the Greek political theory and praxis is fundamental. Financial and intellectual wealth of a city-state has always been a point of reference for the Greek civilisation. So, the fact that Alexander maintained the basic structure of the city-state at the core of the universality that he envisioned is explained by the fact that the city’s political conditions constitute a magnifying glass of the Greek civilisation. The establishment of cities seems to be the right answer to the quandary in Alexander’s mind as to how to convey the Greek values to such a vast and motley collection of societies. The “City”, in the young King’s mind, tended to identify with politics, which, as a concept, contained the principles that Aristotle had taught him. And as the Macedonian monarchy was not a political vision/system and attitude of life that the Greeks endorsed, the fact that Alexander was always very open to the concept of the “City-state” may only be explained as owing to Aristotle’s political teachings.
We shall here mention two examples that clearly show the interest Alexander had in maintaining his relationship with Aristotle which was the main cause for the dissemination of the Greek civilisation in the Alexandrian State:4 First example refers to the reform of sciences headed by Aristotle himself. It is also evidenced that the vast knowledge generated by Alexander’s conquests in all sciences led Aristotle to the forging of his empiricism. It is further reported that Aristotle had received 800 talents from Alexander for his naturalistic research.5 Well versed in philosophy and familiar with science, the King himself had a vivid interest in scientific research and financed generously all activities promoting it. In so doing, he never forgot to repay – in money and manner – his teacher for the thorough education the latter had inculcated in him. Second example: When Ptolemy I commissioned Demetrius Phalereus with the erection of the Library of Alexandria, with the name “Museum”, in reality, he brought to life one of Alexander’s fundamental visions: house in one single place – in his most famous city – comprising all human creative activities.6 However, the vision of a continuous quest in the fields of science, art and philosophy, enabled by the coexistence, collaboration and interaction among all the “wise” men of the time, especially, in the environment of a library, bringing together researchers, teachers, students and supervisory-scientific material, did not belong to Alexander. His idea merely copied the example of the library that Aristotle had founded some thirty years before in his Lyceum. There, the great philosopher had, very ingeniously, brought together – for the first time ever – all the philosophical and scientific activities of his time, promoting collective and complementary work as the new model for knowledge development. For Alexander therefore, the idea of a “Museum” that would be a sacrificial altar, a museum (in the modern sense of the term) and a university at the same time, would promote, internationally, the –essentially – Aristotelian concept of research: that of a collective work continuum aiming at achieving the evolution of the human intellect that humanity aspired to.7 The interaction between the two minds is obvious and proven, one might say: Alexander did prove worthy of his great teacher. He copied his scientific and research methods and followed his model of cultural progress. But what about Aristotle’s political philosophy?
According to Aristotle, man is classified as a political animal by nature, meant to live in the City, here understood as a civil society, and is not in a position to exist outside of it (a-polis).8 Alexander seems to be acting in tandem with the Aristotelian principle, by constantly founding cities, with marked persistence in this political attitude; it was like Aristotle’s words resounded like a self-fulfilling prophecy in his mind “the city is prior by nature, to the household and each of us”.9 The city, according to Aristotle, thanks to its self-sufficiency, provides the frame that secures human life and constitutes – by nature and in terms of value – the necessary condition for the individual, as only those who live in a city may be completed as rational beings. Therefore, according to the philosopher, only a man of the polis (politicos) can create laws and polities, be in the service of what is right and fair and is led to happiness as a result.10 The Aristotelian city – state comes into being for the sake of living, but it exists for the sake of living “well” and its object is a full and self-sufficient life as Aristotle often writes.11 If there was a man that fully endorsed and assimilated this principle, this was Alexander: The prosperity and brilliance of Alexandrian cities, the influx of people of letters, the patronage to artists to enable them to create their works of art in them, the creation of libraries and universities, the civil life as model of the good life come close to Aristotle’s complete, self-sufficient and happy city in which the well-being and fine acts are the common purpose of the partnership and the individual citizens.12
Alexander’s cities and especially the most brilliant among his glorious Alexandrias, do justice to his teacher’s “perfect” city. Let us see why: First of all, the actions of the citizens and the good of the city that comprise the “end” of the city, the “common interest/good”, as writes Aristotle,13 are incorporated in Alexander’s political project,14 as he envisions prospering cities in a global territory in which people sharing a common education and strong values, unity and safety, shall prosper in peace, adopting commonly accepted ways and creating material and spiritual goods for everybody’s benefit. Τhe very image of his world rule has often been likened to the reflection of a universal City the features of which are clearly those of the Greek political life, and it is noteworthy that Alexander understood the global society as a unity of free citizens, exactly like Aristotle describes the City State in his Politics.15 It is important to observe, in the third book of Politics, a phrase that, uncannily, seems to be in Alexander’s heart and mind: “The end and purpose of a polis is the good life and the institutions of social life are means to that end”.16 We believe that the notion of Aristotelian friendship prepared the notion of universality, as Alexander practiced it. The new political structure, the global world, is conceived as a partnership in harmony and unity, a place of friendship that offers fertile ground for older philosophical visions. In it, simple people, the poor and those that do not partake of public affairs will live in peace and quiet, again in accordance with Aristotle’s wishes.17 In this universality, the inhabitant of another City State or country shall not be a potential foe but a potential friend, given that the law is the same for all and the education common to all according to the Aristotelian axiom.18 Alexander created a society of friendship and Plutarch did not exaggerate in saying that Alexander did not create an empire but a common home land in which he wanted to instil the power of love.19
But the most telling Aristotelian influence was evident on Alexander’s personality: For Aristotle there are three conditions for man to become good and important, these three conditions are physis, ethos and logos20; Alexander possessed the excellent physis (nature) and the ethos (education) that allowed him to develop the penetrating intellect (logos) of a man of excellence. Further, the young king seemed to embrace the model in which a man of excellence is a citizen of excellence, these two virtues being emblematic of a ruler in the Aristotelian thought, as only this type of ruler is both “good and prudent” and can lead the City State to its ultimate purpose, happiness.21 Alexander, evidently superior to his peers both in character and intellectually, and despite his quick temper and contradictory personality (inherited from his family and owing to his closeness to his mother), despite his proclivity to luxury and pleasures, was a brilliant political ruler and a believer in goodness and virtue. His political personality and political vision were anything but the mere creations of an insatiable desire to conquer: True to his Macedonians – to the very end – he remained their partner and fellow soldier – even when he demanded to be worshipped by them – he openly confessed his mistakes, he thirsted after wisdom and endeavoured to improve his character.22 Using his renowned rhetoric eloquence that many skilled orators and politicians would envy (Plutarch attributed to him the political skill of Pericles and the prudence of Themistocles)23, he attempted to persuade and not to coerce, thus showing logos to be the highest Greek invention. Moreover, he believed in truth and he never heeded the price of it. This outstanding Aristotelian man, the personification of the Aristotelian virtues, had his own political vision, the Philosopher – King: a quality also attributed to Alexander by Plutarch,24 as – in Plato’s terms – his thought and actions were in total harmony. It is true that he was endowed with the refined thought of the Philosopher – King, something that was especially obvious in his decisions on issues of culture. Finally, Alexander, despite his characteriological contradictions, was a Greek most true to his culture, as he propagated the idea over the world, that great conquests would be devoid of meaning if they were not accompanied by the need to consolidate cultural values.25 And while Plato seems to have failed in convincing of the plausibility of his republic becoming a tangible reality, Alexander managed to propound the Greek civilisation by establishing cities and he delivered people from their savage lives by imposing the civilization of laws and principles.26 In the person of Alexander the Greek “choice of life” becomes universal. The Greek philosophical sayings are ingeniously converted into a political act used as a means to teach and, in that manner, they are converted back to philosophy. That the Acropolis of Athens was not created in order to show off the wealth of the city, but as proof that beauty was uppermost in the mind of the Greeks, can be said to be Alexander’s priority project, i.e. to make of it a universal political act and this is precisely what he did. Philosopher – king in a new philosophy of action: Although he didn’t write speeches, or develop arguments in educational institutions or defend theses, Alexander can, nevertheless, be reckoned among the philosophers of action, Plutarch reaffirms, because philosophy is appraised through actions that “teach” maybe more than words.27
If Alexander operates the passage from the era of the Aristotelian political animal to that of individuality, where a subject takes the responsibility of his life into his own hands and develops inter-subjective relations with his fellow human beings universally, then this new world will need a new philosophy, a new political thinking that will promote ideas of collegiality and, why not – for the first time – messages of love that unite people.28 Zeno and the Stoics adopted, later (during the early roman period) the philosophical vision of an ideal republic, in which there would be no separate states, and where people would want to feel like citizens in a vast city, but this time governed by a new authority, their free will and not the laws of a state. Universality, derived from an old theory of the Cynics according to which they belong to no state but are citizens of the world, cosmopolites, took on the meaning of a political “whole” that is very close to the image of a universal city in which the attributes of the citizen expand, after, however, having managed to survive in the tug of war between friendship and individuality.
But the most important idea for this paper is that the concept of the Greeks’ universal predominance does not exclusively originate in Alexander: rather prophetically, in the 7th book of his Politics, Aristotle had written: “Greece, which is situated between them (Europe and Asia), is likewise intermediate in character. Hence it continues free and is the best governed of any people and, if it could be formed into one state, would be able to rule the world”.29 In this very important and yet rather neglected excerpt, Aristotle either foresees the developments in political history on account of Alexander’s dominance or allows his readers to understand that it was he who had inspired in Alexander the vision of unity among the Greek cities and the future universal rule of the Greeks. Although Aristotle does not seem to understand that the problem of belligerence in the Greek world was the very self-sufficiency of the city-state, he clearly heralds the need for political unity among the Greeks. Alexander, as the excellent political man he was, indefatigable and of a very acute intellect, was deeply conscious of the city – state’s foundational problem and he tackled it with unique determination by creating and merging “cities” in the realm of which the new political qualities would be reproduced. Aristotle’s proposals above, sketch a miniature of the world of Alexander. If the Politics was completed in 336 BC, which is before the commencement of Alexander’s expedition,30 then, Alexander again followed Aristotle. In this light, Plutarch’s remark that Alexander started the war “having more faith in the power of Aristotle’s teachings, than in the means he inherited from his father Philip” acquires a new meaning.31
- Plutarch, Morals, Τhe fortune of Alexander Α΄ 329.
- Johann Gustav Droysen, Alexander the Great, Greek translation, introduction, commentary, Renos Apostolidis, critical edition by Irkos and Standi Apostolidi, Eleftherotypia, Athens 1933, p.663.
- P. M. Fraser, Cities of Alexander the Great, Clarendon Press- Oxford, 1996, pp. 1-3, 240-243. Plutarch mentions that there were more than seventy Alexandrias (as above, 328e)
- Also see Plutarch, Fortune of Alexander the Great, Α΄, 331Ε
- Also how Alexander spent 10000 talents for the restoration of damaged temples in Greece. See Johann Gustav Droysen, The history of Alexander the Great, Greek translation, introduction, commentary, Renos Apostolidis, critical edition by Irkos and Standi Apostolidi, Eleftherotypia, Athens 1933, p.654. Plutarch reports that Alexander gave 10000 gold coins to Pyrron from Helia, he sent fifty talents to Xenocrates Plato’s disciple and appointed Onesicritus, disciple of Diogenes the Cynic, chief of his fleet’s commanders (as above, Α΄331).
- Βenoist-Mechin, Alexandre le grand, Clairefontaine, Lausanne, 1964, σελ.193.
- Βenoist-Mechin, Alexandre le grand, Clairefontaine, Lausanne, 1964, p.192.
- Aristotle, Politics, 1253a2-5.
- Aristotle, Politics, 1253a19-20, 1253a25-28.
- Aristotle, Politics 1252b 28-31, 1253a 30-39.
- Aristotle, Politics 1280a 31-32, 1280 b 34-35, 1280 b 40-41.
- Aristotle, Politics 1278b 22-26. He notes that “the good life is the purpose οf all and each”. Also, see Politics 1331b 40-41. And Politics 1337a34-35.
- Aristotle, Politics 1282b 19.
- Aristotle, Politics 1323b31-34 There can be no fine act by man or by a city that is not done in virtue and prudence. Also 1324a 12-14.
- Aristotle, Politics, 1279 a22-23: «…the city is a partnership of free persons».
- Aristotle, Politics 1280b 39-40.
- Aristotle, Politics, 1297b6-7.
- Benoist- Μechin, ibid, pp. 188-189. Also, Politics 1337a 11-32.
- See Tarn-Griffith, Hellenistic Civilisation, University paperbacks, Methuen: London, 3rd edition, London 1952, p. 122. In accordance with Tarn-Griffith, this maybe the first time that the world community comes across this concept prior to the Christian era.
- Aristotle, Politics 1332a40-41.
- Aristotle, Politics 1277a 1-5, 14-16, 20-25, 1278 b 1-6.
- See. Plutarch, ibid, 328a «The wisdom gained from philosophy was a true asset, and so were bravery and valiance and magnanimity…».
- Plutarch, as above Β΄343Α
- Βenoist – Mechin, Alexandre le grand, Clairefontaine, Lausanne, 1964, p.190.
- Βenoist – Mechin, Alexandre le grand, Clairefontaine, Lausanne, 1964, p.191.
- Plutarch, Morals, ibid, 328 E-F.
- Plutarch, Morals, ibid, 328A-B. Also, ibid, 330e., 332dF. In reference to Alexander’s virtue, Plutarch writes that one can see in Alexander valiance at war united with charity, strength with beauty, generosity combined with prudent economy, anger with tolerance, eros with temperance… (ibid Α332D).
- Tarn and Griffith, ibid, p. 79.
- Aristotle, Politics 1327b29-32. «Which is situated between them (Europe and Asia), is likewise intermediate in character. Hence it continues free and is the best governed of any people and, if it could be formed into one state, would be able to rule the world». Aristotle points out the problem of civil wars and the belligerent attitude of the Greek cities with great sagacity, but doesn’t seem to be aware of the fact that the structure of the city–state and mainly the intended self-sufficiency of the Greek cities were the causes of the division problem. In the excerpt above, he depicts very clearly the theory on the geographical factor’s influence on humans; this theory had been originally developed by Hippocrates in his treatise on airs, waters and places. (Comment by P.Lekatsas, Politics, ibid, p.664).
- See preface G. Κοrdatos in Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, transl.-comments by G. Kotzioulas, Zaxaropoulos, p.11.
- Plutarch, Morals, Fortune of Alexander, Α΄ 327,4.
- Aristotle: The Politics, translated by T.A. Sinclair, revised and represented by Trevor J. Saunders, Penguin books, London 1992.
- Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, translation-comments by G. Kotzioulas, Athens, Zacharopoulos.
- Βenoist – Mechin, Alexandre le grand, Clairefontaine, Lausanne, 1964.
- Burns. T., “Aristotle”, in David Boucher and Paul Kelly (eds) Political Thinkers: From Socrates to the Present, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2003.
- Droysen, J. G., The history of Alexander the Great, Greek translation, introduction, commentary, Renos Apostolidis, critical edition by Irkos and Standi Apostolidi, Eleftherotypia, Athens 1933.
- Fraser, P. M., Cities of Alexander the Great, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1996.
- Mulgan, R.G., Aristotle’s Political Theory: An introduction for Students of Political Theory, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1977.
- Plutarch, Morals, Fortune of Alexander, Georgiadis, Athens 2003.
- Plutarch, Moralia, Franc Cole Babbitt, 1927.
- Ross W.D., Aristotelis Politica, Oxford Classical Texts, Oxford 1978.
- Rackham H., Aristotle, Politics, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, London 1998.
- Roberts, J., Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Aristotle and the “Politics”, Routledge, London 2009.
- Tarn and Griffith, Hellenistic Civilisation, University paperbacks, Methuen: London, 3rd edition, London 1952.
- The Nicomachean Ethics, transl. by J.A. K. Thomson, revised with Notes and Appendices by Hugh Tredennick, Introduction and Further reading by J. Barnes, Penguin Books, London 2004.
This brief article was presented as announcement at the 30th International Conferenceof Philosophy 20-26 July, 2018, Pythagorion Conference Hall, Island of Samos, Greece. Its topic was “Polis, Cosmopolis, and Globalization”.
Apeiron Centre, 2019