Closing thoughts on Plutarch’s Alexander.

Plutarch imparts many virtues on Alexander. He is physically impressive, in both appearance and ability. Alexander is portrayed as noble, treating the women in the territories he conquers with respect, including the family of his arch rival Darius. Finally, Plutarch shows Alexander as intelligent and curious: a student of Aristotle and consumer of Homer’s works.

He is also ambitious. When his father has success in expanding the Macedonian empire early in Alexander’s life, Alexander confided in his friends that he worried that Philip “would anticipate everything, and leave him and them no opportunities of performing great and illustrious actions.” Which leads to the question of whether he thought himself a god. Two exchanges with the sophist Anaxarchus illuminate the issue. First, early on,

when it thundered so much that everybody was afraid, and Anaxarchus, the sophist, asked him if he who was Jupiter’s son could do anything like this, “Nay,” said Alexander, laughing, “I have no desire to be formidable to my friends, as you would have me, who despised my table for being furnished with fish, and not with the heads of governors of provinces.” . . . From what I have said upon this subject, it is apparent that Alexander in himself was not foolishly affected, or had the vanity to think himself really a god, but merely used his claims to divinity as a means of maintaining among other people the sense of his superiority.

Hence, Plutarch believes that at first he did not think himself a god. However, after having conquered “Asia” and prior to his invasion of India there was a turning point. Alexander killed Clitus, one of his companions in a fit of rage. Alexander could not be comforted by Callisthenes, the philosopher who studied with Aristotle. Anaxarchus employs a different technique and scolds Alexander for being troubled by Clitus’s death.

“Is this the Alexander whom the whole world looks to, lying here weeping like a slave, for fear of censure and reproach of men, to whom he himself ought to be a law and measure of equity, if he would use the right his conquests have given him as supreme lord and governor of all, and not be the victim of a vain and idle opinion? Do not you know,” said he, “that Jupiter is represented to have Justice and Law on each hand of him signify that all the actions of a conqueror are lawful and just?”

Forgive my detour into politics, but how much does this sound like the claims of those promoting American exceptionalism? You are above the law; you are the law! Plutarch seems to cast this as the point when Alexander’s demons gain the upper hand over his virtues, noting, “With these and the like speeches, Anaxarchus indeed allayed the king’s grief, but withal corrupted his character, rendering him more audacious and lawless than he had been.” From here on out Callisthene becomes less and less favored by Alexander, as does Aristotle.

Toward the end of the piece, Alexander has returned to Macedonia and is considering charges made against one who he left behind to rule in his absence, Cassander. Alexander asks Cassander why someone would travel all the way to India to lie to him about Cassander’s actions. “To which Cassander replied, that their coming so far from the evidence was a great proof of the falseness of their changes, Alexander smiled, and said those were some of Aristotle’s sophisms, which would serve equally on both sides.” The detail of Alexander smiling while at the same time disparaging his old teacher almost sends chills down my spine.

Alexander is often pointed to as an example of what can be accomplished while we are young; or more often, what we’ve failed to accomplish by the time we are thirty. Plutarch seems to present Alexander more as an example of the corrupting power of ego.

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