But Alexander of Macedon and Napoleon Buonaparte were poets on a throne, and the part they played in history was not that of incompetents and weakling. There are times when Nature gifts the poetic temperament with a peculiar grasp of the conditions of action and irresistible tendency to create their poems not in ink and on paper, but in living characters and on the great canvas of the world. Such men become portents and wonders whom posterity admires or hates but can only imperfectly understand. Like Joan of Arc or Mazzini and Garibaldi, they save a dying nation or like Napoleon and Alexander they dominate the world. They are only possible because they only get full scope in races which unite with an ardent and heroic temperamenat, a keen susceptibility to poetry in life, idealism and hero workship.
Sri Aurobindo, Centenary Edition, Vol III —pp. 198-99
Alexander was born in 356 B.C. His father. King Philip of Macedonia, had united Greece and had intended to free the Asiatic Greeks from Persian control. He also coveted the rich- es of the Persian Empire to pay for his professional army. At Philip's death, Alexander first quelled rebellions in Greece and then crossed the Dardenelles to start, at the age of twenty years, his 2800 mile journey into Asia. ,
During his Asian campaigns, Alexander founded or refounded
Many cities to administer the conquered territories. The greatest of these was Alexandria in Egypt. From these cities, in territories later ruled by Alexander's successors, Greek culture spread and for the next three centuries was dominant throughout much of the Middle East. This hellenisation process lasted until the spread of Roman power towards the end of the first century B.C. It all stemmed from the brief career of one man, who died at the age of 33.
Who really was the man known as Alexander the Great? In only thirteen years, between 336 and 323 B. C., he earned enough fame to fuel legends down through the ages. Thirteen years of unrelenting drive, of amazing deeds. Here was a young man able to inspire large troops of men to follow him in a whirlwind of conquests that looks like a race against time. Perhaps he knew that fate would not grant him years enough to conquer the whole world, as he could well have attempted. In fact, it has been said that the greatest blessing in Alexander's life was his early death, and his greatest good fortune was that the practical common sense of his followers prevented him from crossing the Ganges. Had Napoleon been similarly forced to recognise his limits, his end might have been as great as his beginning.
In Alexander's case, it is remarkable that one of the greatest thinkers in world history, Aristotle1, was his teacher. It can safely be assumed that Aristotle gave his pupil an enormous wealth of information and some degree of intimacy with the teachings of Socrates2 and Plato. Alexander surely must have known that man could attain his highest well-being only by acquiring a knowledge
1. Aristotle: 384-322 B.C., Greek philosopher; pupil of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, and founder of the Peripatetic school at Athens;
author of works on logic, ethics, politics, poetics, rhetoric, biology, zoology, and metaphysics. His works influenced Muslim philosophy and science and medieval scholastic philosophy.
2. Socrates: 470-399 B.C., Athenian philosopher, whose beliefs are known only through the writings of his pupils Plato and Xenophon. He taught that virtue was based on knowledge, which was attained by a dialectical process that took into account many aspects of a stated hypothesis. He was indicted for impiety and corruption of youth (399) and was condemned to death. He refused to flee and died by drinking hemlock.
That would lead him to do the right action voluntarily. This was the very teaching of Socrates: "Virtue is knowledge." Alexander also must have learned the ethical doctrine of Aristotle himself, according to whom virtue meant a mean between extremes. Aristotle was the first logician of the Western world and he must have taught his pupil the art and science of reasoning as applied to metaphysics, science and mathematics. The vast encyclopedic knowledge that Aristotle could have put at Alexander's disposal would have made Alexander, if he so chose, a great master of knowledge. Why, we may ask, did this not happen? What exactly was the determining factor that made Alexander a conqueror of lands and men instead of an expert scholar or an illumined sage? Did Alexander ever ask himself, consciously and reflectively, what his aim of life should be? We do not know with any certainty. Considering, however, that he had access to wide fields of knowledge, such a question could hardly have escaped him. But even if he asked this question, did he set about to find an answer?
Physically, he was an ideal youth, good in every sport. He possessed a wild energy that would make him shoot arrows at any passing object, or alight from and remount his chariot at full speed. During campaigns, if the going was slow, he would go hunting alone and on foot and do combat with wild animals, however dangerous. He liked hard work and hazardous deeds. He was usually sober and, apparently, in very good health, since his body was credited with a pleasant fragrance. Beyond the exaggerations of fame and legend, Alexander was certainly quite handsome, with expressive features, soft blue eyes and luxuriant auburn hair.
Alexander is a striking example of what life-force can do in a, man. More often than not, human beings are led to their career or their life's work by temperament, by likes and dislikes, and by their inner drives. The life-force in man seeks acquisition, possession, enjoyment, relationship, battle and conquest. It is often instinctive and therefore irresistible. Accordingly, it is not easy for a human being driven by an extraordinary executive power and force of accomplishment to become intellectualised. This does not mean that the intellectualisation of life energy is impossible, but it
Is evident that the tasks involved in such a process are enormous and extremely difficult.
Alexander was primarily interested in adventure. He was verily a Prince of Air, ready to fly on the wings of time just to discover novelties and unexpected experiences. His ambitions were deep-seated and illimitable. In fact, it seems that his aim of life was determined by the pressure of his ambitions rather than by any rational system of thought or any ethical discipline. He was probably so prodigious that he found it difficult to contain his energy. He brings to mind quicksilver: pursue as you may, he is always one step ahead. He did not like the idea of rest and said that sleep only served to remind him of his mortal condition. So many things to do, so much to learn, so many possibilities.... He brings to mind too the echo of a perpetual galloping on the quickest of horses.... The bursting life-force inside him was quite evidently overwhelming, as was the call of the sirens of adventure and ambition.
Mentally, he was very active and had a passion for study. His intellectual abilities could never be used fully due to the early responsibilities that fell upon him — hence, a lack of maturity of mind. As often is the case with great men of action, he would always regret not having become a great thinker as well. Even after an exhausting day of marching or fighting, he would delight in spending half the night conversing with scholars or scientists. King at twenty, absorbed in warfare and administration, he had no chance to complete his education. He was brilliant, but prone to errors in politics and warfare. He tended to be excessively superstitious, despite his broadmindedness. Capable of leading armies, of conquering millions of people, he was often unable to control his temper. Generally blind to his own faults or limitations, he too frequently allowed his judgement to be obscured by praise. Similar contradictions can be seen in his moral character. Naturally sentimental and emotional, he could be moved to tears by poetry and music. He was exceptional in friendship, very trusting and warm. He cared for his soldiers and avoided risking their lives needlessly. Besieged cities would often open their gates to him, confident in his reputation for generosity. Yet he could
Suddenly turn ferocious and resort to excessive cruelty for which he would later feel great remorse.
Despite his youth and lack of experience, he was a good admin istrator, ruling his empire with kindness and firmness. He respect ed agreements, and did not allow his appointees to oppress hi subjects. He had all the potential of a great statesman, but was not given enough time to mature in that dimension. He was driven by the vision of a united eastern Mediterranean world and, above all, of a fertile cross-breeding of many cultures under the umbrella of Greek civilisation. This was more an instinctive feeling than a product of reflection. Men like Alexander are often seized by blazing intuitions, but these often get mixed with their more fundamental ambitious drive.
A study of Alexander the Great is instructive in several ways Firstly, it shows us what the life-force in man can achieve under circumstances and conditions as favourable as Alexander's, and yet what failures attend unbridled adventure. Secondly, it shows us that the human personality has far richer potentials than is normally suspected. Thirdly, it gives us a chance to understand ourselves better, for though we have a hundred and more limitations we may discover, if we look closely within ourselves, that there i in us the same life-force as we find in Alexander. In other words we discover that somewhere within our being we have basic instincts and impulses, a universe of pressing desires, deep-seated attractions and repulsions, and longings and ambitions.
Had he lived longer, would Alexander have been able to control his wild nature? A better control of his passions probably would have given him a deeper sense of fulfilment in his achievements. Life-force may be exhilarating, but to attain superior human realisation it needs to be transformed and put in its proper place along with the other energies that meet in man. No doubt this prodigious young king was faced with a very difficult task in that respect. But the extraordinary profile of him painted for us by Plutarch may be very instructive when we ourselves are confronted with the quest of our aim of life.