Saturday, February 12, 2011


Hybris or philosophy? Why did Alexander do the things he did?

Certainly, like anyone else Alexander had many motivations. He did not conquer widely strictly as a result of his philosophical inheritance, to achieve philosophical goals. He grew up to lead the militaristic culture of Macedonia that had succeeded in developing an outstanding military force, so he was going to conquer someone regardless of Aristotle's input to his upbringing.

But Aristotle did shape the way Alexander chose to express his will to conquer.

For example, Alexander's father had already defeated the Greeks, leaving Alexander with a problem - how could he securely rule both Macedonia and Greece while simultaneously conquering new lands? It was Aristotle who warned Alexander that the people of Athens and the other Hellenic city-states would not stay conquered in the sense of submitting meekly to foreign rule. The Greeks were too ambitious, too competitive, too spirited. If he expected the abject submission an ancient conqueror usually expected from his conquered peoples, he was going to be disappointed.

Aristotle told Alexander that if instead he changed his expectations, he could rule even more securely than a traditional conqueror, albeit in a paradoxical way. The Athenians were too proud to submit, but they could be ruled through that very pride. With the right frame of mind and the right guidance, the Greeks could be made to conquer themselves, to rule themselves on his behalf.

Alexander snake-charmed the Greeks, fascinated them by his personal bravery and energy and vision, to draw their attention away from a galling, shameful past - in which Macedonia defeated them, in which they were victims who needed to strike back - to an unthinkably glorious future in which the Greeks and Macedonians would not be conquered and conquerors but rather fellow soldiers fighting side by side to conquer the known world.

Instead of Macedonia conquering Hellas (Greece), the two needed to merge to become something new, a Greek-derived (or Hellenistic) civilization.

They did.

It worked.

It often does.

That strategy, which was poetically described by Heraclitus as bending a force back upon itself as with the lyre or the bow, was explicated millennia later by the German philosopher Hegel, who named it dialectics. Hegel dedicated his entire philosophical career to developing those ideas because the principle involved, in which the conflict between two irresistible forces either is or can be resolved by the generation of a third force, is one of the core principles of the cosmos and helps shape the course of history.

Alexander could have just focused on winning, on merely using his undefeatable military to defeat as many enemies as possible, but had he done that he would have spent all his time defeating, destroying, leaving the world less than it was when he began. Alexander wanted to create, to unite, to leave a positive legacy, and because of Alexander's expert tutelage he knew that his army could not do that if merely used to win.

Leaving the world better than you find it requires more than zero-sum, winner-or-loser thinking, more than an unbeatable army.

If you want to change the world, you have to be willing to change yourself, too, so that together you and the world can synthesize something new.

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