Alexander’s Failure

One thing that becomes clear in Arrian’s book is how Alexander the Great betrayed a mercurial temperament and unpredictable virtues. The Macedonian king could be alternately generous and vengeful; self-sacrificing and vain. There are many famous stories about Alexander’s respect for learning. He was, after all, a pupil of Aristotle. One suspects however that, as with his restless travels and military conquests, philosophical wisdom was simply another novelty to be sought out and experienced. Arrian argues that “Alexander, of all the monarchs of old, was the only one who had the nobility of heart to be sorry for his mistakes.” He is no doubt thinking of the drunken killing of his friend Cleitus. Yet was it true repentance or merely remorse? The answer would have been a marked change in conduct. Much more revealing is Alexander’s encounter with the Indian sages:

On the appearance of Alexander and his army, these venerable men stamped with their feet and gave no sign of interest. Alexander asked them… what they meant by this odd behavior, and they replied: “King Alexander, every man can possess only so much of the earth’s surface as this we are standing on. You are but human like the rest of us, save that you are always busy and up to no good, travelling so many miles from your home, a nuisance to yourself and to others. Ah well! You will soon be dead, and then you will own just as much earth as will suffice to bury you.” Alexander expressed his approval of these sage words; but in point of fact his conduct was always the exact opposite of what he professed to admire.

The Macedonian king fails to live up to the expectations of the ethical beliefs that Arrian learned from Epictetus. The Stoics, after all, had been harsh critics of men like Alexander and the corrupt Roman emperors. At the end of the book Arrian admits, almost with embarrassment, that he has “found fault with some of the things Alexander did.” But, as both a Greek and a military commander, he does not hesitate to “express ungrudging admiration” of the man. The Macedonian’s repeated misdeeds—though mitigated by his immaturity in assuming absolute power, and his upbringing among a warrior people—leaves us with the impression of one who sought war abroad because he could not find peace at home.

Nevertheless this restless commander, whether intending it or not, created a new cultural movement. With his mingling of Greek and Asian subjects he moved our civilization beyond the narrow parochialism of the older city-states. His conquests gave rise to a new philosophical objectivity (Stoicism), the idea of a multiethnic political order (Rome) and would eventually pave the way for universal religious and moral influence (Christianity). In this sense it is clear that history is never a “one-dimensional” process, tending only in one direction or another. As Arrian’s book reveals, Alexander both failed and succeeded on many levels.

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