This biographical essay is excerpted from The Golden Thread: A History of the Western Tradition, by Allen C. Guelzo and James Hankins, forthcoming from Encounter Books in 2024.
King Alexander III of Macedon is beyond doubt among the greatest figures in world history. But was he a great man, the finest kind of human being? His extraordinary success, in combination with his moral weaknesses, must have been frustrating for some ancient moralists since, according to the philosophers, a man's worth and his ability to lead other men was dependent on the excellence of his moral character. Good moral character, they believed, could be acquired by the study of philosophy. According to the great educator Isocrates, in the finest leaders, good moral character was strengthened by wide-ranging study of the best literature, arts, and sciences.
Alexander studied for years with Aristotle, the fountainhead of Western scientific thought, whom some would say was the greatest moral philosopher who ever lived. Aristotle even wrote a number of works, now lost, intended to instruct his pupil in the arts of kingship. According to Plutarch the young king was “by nature a lover of learning and a lover of reading.” He was an admirer of the great lyric poets and Athens' fifth-century tragedians as well as a voracious reader of history. He was steeped in Homer, author of the two great epics that formed the Bible of the Greeks. According to multiple sources the young conqueror always carried his Homer with him on campaign, keeping it under his pillow, along with a dagger. He modelled his own behavior on Achilles, Homer's supreme, flawed hero.
Alexander, in other words, according to ancient ideas had the perfect formation to be a philosopher-king. There were some authorities—chiefly Plutarch—who insisted that he met the conditions to deserve such a title. Another biographer, Arrian, while stopping short of that assessment, praised his many virtues of leadership and his extraordinary accomplishments, while excusing his faults as those of a hot-blooded young man misled by scheming advisors. He points to one admirable quality ignored by modern writers on Alexander, a character trait rare among men of supreme power: The great conqueror was capable of remorse for his own faults and made no effort to conceal them. These admissions of bad behavior had good effects on his own character and gave some kind of solace to those he had injured.
Both Plutarch and Arrian, though living long after Alexander's time, beyond fear or favor, had access to far more information about him than anyone possesses today. Yet their assessment of the conqueror is strikingly different from that of his modern biographers. For in modern times Alexander's reputation has suffered a disastrous fall. Since the Second World War it has become common for historians to compare Alexander casually to Adolf Hitler or Genghis Khan, or to dismiss him as a “Homeric pirate,” or to psychoanalyze him as suffering from extreme paranoia and megalomania. Modern writers, as though determined to cut him down to size, focus on Alexander's vices, which (rightly) seem appalling to us: his ruthless elimination of rivals for the throne, and his towering, drunken rages, leading to rash acts of violence against some of his most loyal companions. These included his trusted commander Cleitus, who had saved his life at the battle of Granicus, and the Persian expedition's official historian, Callisthenes, Aristotle's nephew, who died in jail after refusing to kneel before the monarch-god. Moderns find it difficult not to interpret Alexander's obsession with his own image as the mark of a deranged narcissist, or to see his insatiable thirst for victory as anything other than a mental disorder.
Alexander's ancient biographers seem unconcerned with what modern readers (rightly) find most abhorrent: the atrocities for which he was responsible. These include the annihilation of Thebes, the slaughter and enslavement of enemies who had surrendered to him, the wolfish plundering of conquered cities. It hardly excuses Alexander that such actions were normal practices in ancient warfare, and that execution and enslavement of defeated enemies was permitted under some ancient laws. However excused, such actions were surely not those of a philosopher-king. We are shocked by these things, and by the failure of the ancients to condemn them, forgetting that our grandfathers saw no crime in the fire-bombing of German cities from the air or the nuclear incineration of two Japanese cities filled with innocent civilians.
Since all the information we moderns have about Alexander's deeds comes from the same ancient writers who profess to admire him, it can be puzzling that the moral assessments of ancients and moderns differ so much from each other. We are inclined to think of these differences as stemming from the moral blindness of the ancients. Such condescension towards the past is an odious modern habit of mind. But perhaps we should also take stock of the moral myopias of our own time, the deficiencies in our own era's ways of assessing a person's worth.
In our age of science and materialism, we tend to look past the high ideals expressed by men in the past, to think that all their achievements must be the product of historical forces beyond their control, that all their heroism is a mere cover for self-interest. We prefer to cut great historical figures down to our own modest size. Arrian, who was a Stoic philosopher as well as a historian, warns against this attitude, writing,
any one who reproaches Alexander should not do so merely by citing actions that merit reproach, but should collect all his actions together, and then carefully reflect who he himself is and what kind of fortune he enjoys, that he can condemn Alexander, given what Alexander became and the height of human good fortune he attained, the unquestioned king of both continents whose name reached every part of the world, whereas he is himself a lesser man, whose energies are spent on petty things and who does not even get these things right (Loeb translation).
If we fail to see the greatness of a man like Alexander, perhaps the reason is that we ourselves are too petty, too stunted in our outlook to appreciate it. As the Chinese poet Han Yu wrote, “A man living at the bottom of a well will think the sky is small.”
We can't accept greatness in part because we find it difficult to take ancient religion seriously; we moderns overlook the divine element in human nature, and the ability of the divine to transform us. For us, Alexander's wish to be recognized as a god can only be evidence of insanity or, at best, a cynical ploy to win support among superstitious men. The ancients excused Alexander's pretensions to superhuman status on the grounds that he did in fact have a great soul; his opinion of himself was justified. It was not hubris, because the gods did not punish but rewarded him with unbroken success. The ancients saw what we fail to see, or what we prefer not to see: that human beings can, exceptionally, achieve greatness, and this can only come through divine help. As the Theban poet Pindar wrote in his eighth Pythian Ode,
Creatures for a day! What is a man?
What is he not? A dream of a shadow
Is our mortal being. But when there comes to men
A gleam of splendour given of heaven,
Then rests on them a light of glory
And blessed are their days.
(Tr. C. M. Bowra).
James Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard University.
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