Alexander The Great as Plato's Philosopher King
Throughout all of history, there have been leaders whose influences have been so impactful that their name and all that it encompasses will never be forgotten. Such leaders include the powerful Macedonian ruler, Alexander the Great. Alexander was known for being both an intellectual and a powerful king. In fact, he was taught by the famous philosopher, Aristotle; the student of another well-known philosopher, Plato. While both Aristotle and Plato contributed heavily to the knowledge of politics, Plato’s Republic is a piece of work that has had a long-lasting impact on the field of political science. Throughout this work, the reader learns what a just society should be and the type of ruler of that society, which Plato deems as a philosopher king. When one is to analyze what Plato describes as this type of ruler, I argue that Alexander the Great was indeed a philosopher king.
Plato is known to be one of the greatest Western philosophers of all time. With his equally famous predecessor and teacher, Socrates, Plato was certainly destined for greatness. Around 427 BCE Plato was born into a wealthy Athenian family in Athens, Greece (blackboard pdf). Born as Aristocles, son of Ariston of the deme Cloytus, the name Plato was a nickname reportedly given to him by his wrestling coach due to his broad shoulders (“platon” means broad in Greek). Despite Plato’s later comprehensive political and philosophical works, his initial interests were more vested in the arts where he often wrote plays and poetry as a youth. It was not until Plato was in his late teen years that he became intrigued by Socrates and decided to shift directions to study under him; a common trend for elite young men. Plato would go on to produce one of his most famous works to date, the Republic, which introduces the widely discussed notion of a philosopher king.
Plato wrote the Republic presumably during 380 BCE when he established his Academy in Athens. The Republic has often been the logic used for the creation of political institutions and governments around the world. Furthermore, Plato’s Republic is one of the most contested pieces of literature because of the dialogues that take place between the main character, Socrates, and the people he encounters. The dialogue begins with a consideration of what justice means and goes on to develop the ideal, perfect state. The Republic is trying to establish a strong correlation between this ideal state and the attainment of justice. It is particularly in Book V, where the reader is introduced to the notion of a philosopher king that Plato uses as part of the correlation between justice and the ideal state. In this section, Socrates argues how a just city can not be created until philosophers rule as kings or kings become philosophers.
Plato describes a philosopher king as one who is just, moderate, courageous, a quick learner, and a lover of truth. Plato describes that it is this last quality, a lover of truth, that is needed to have the moral ethics to be free from the temptation to abuse one’s power. Additionally, a philosopher king should be wise, have military and government experience, and not be ignorant. He should also showcase political greatness and their intelligence. When it comes to education, one should be versed in subjects such as mathematics, philosophy, science, the arts, and have practical political training. It is important to be trained and specialized in rational thinking and philosophy to discern good, apply knowledge and make rational judgments for the whole of society. The philosopher king has reached the hall-mark of wisdom, philosophy, justice, and dialectics. The philosopher king, therefore, is seen and selected as the best in the republic which Alexander the Great was when looking at all he has accomplished in his life.
When analyzing the type of childhood Alexander the Great had, it should be noticeable how he was equipped with the education and skills needed to be a philosopher king. Before he became Alexander the Great, he was born as Alexander III of Macedon on July 21, 356 BCE. His father was King Phillip II of Macedon and his mother, Olympias, was the daughter of King Neoptolemus of Epirus (ancient encyclopedia). As a young child, Alexander was taught to fight and ride by the famous general, Leonidas, and to participate in forced marches. It is clear how physical education was of utmost importance for the young prince. Phillip II was very involved in making sure the future king would be one of many talents and it was for this reason he would have different tutors teach his son. He brought Lysimachus of Acarnania to teach Alexander reading, writing, and how to play the lyre. Alexander even had a habit of carrying books with him on his way to conquer other lands. His love of reading has been attributed to his later teacher, Aristotle, and his appreciation for art and culture. This goes to show how Alexander followed the criteria for Plato’s philosopher king which includes: always seeking the truth, intelligence, and being a lover of philosophy.
A more influential teacher Phillip II brought to Macedonia was Aristotle in 343 BCE when Alexander was only 14 years old. It would have been expected that Aristotle would have taught Alexander various subjects he profusely studied such as biology, medicine, logic, mathematics, and especially philosophy. Aristotle made such an impression on Alexander that he constantly carried Aristotle’s works with him on his conquests and introduced his philosophy to the east when he took over the Persian Empire. Indeed, Alexander was such a strong lover of philosophy that he even appointed Aristotle’s great-nephew as his court philosopher when he became king. Alexander would also bring the court philosopher with him while conquering the east. With the help of Alexander, Aristotle’s works were able to be spread, eventually influencing others and their future schools of thought. Going back to Alexander’s childhood, there were many stories exalting Alexander as a naturally intelligent and inquisitive individual. One example was when he was able to tame the “untamable” horse, Bucephalus, at the young age of 11 or 12 years. He was able to tame Bucephalus by deducing that the horse was scared of its shadow and thus proceeded to speak in a soft voice and turn the horse so that it did not see its shadow. From such a young age, Alexander was able to use deductive reasoning skills, critical thinking skills, and then make a wise, rational decision based on logic. With all these life experiences mentioned, it is clear how Alexander the Great was intelligent, wise, and excelled in many of the education criteria that Plato prescribes a philosopher to have.
Alexander the Great was known for his military leadership as he was able to conquer Persia, Syria, and Egypt as well as help his father unite all the Greek city-states. When it came to political and military experience, Alexander the Great was especially proficient in these fields. As heir to the throne, it would be expected that Alexander would have at least some political experience but there were even times when his father would trust him with the entire kingdom. An example of this trust was when Philip II went to battle the Byzantiums and left Alexander in charge of Macedonia when he was just 16. As Phillip II was a proficient and respectable ruler in his own right, for him to give his son such an important responsibility indicates the certainty Phillip II had in Alexander’s political and leadership abilities. Around this same time, in 338 B.C., Alexander proved his military worth by leading a cavalry against the Sacred Band of Thebes during the Battle of Chaeronea. While still young, Alexander obtained a decisive Macedonian victory and defeated the Greek allied city-states which would later be united under Macedonian rule. Alexander’s willingness to put his life on the line to obtain such a victory indicates the courage he had while fighting for his country and what he believed would be for the good of the Greeks. Alexander’s choice to help unify the Greek city-states was an extremely wise decision and very politically significant. If Alexander had not scored a victory during the Battle of Chaeronea there would have been a chance that the allied Greek city-states won. If this were the case, Alexander’s political power and position as king may not have been as stable or strong as it was. It is through these actions that we see Alexander’s political and military greatness as a king.
When Philip II was assassinated in 336 BCE, Alexander assumed the throne and embarked on the great campaign his father had been planning; the conquest of the Persian Empire. During his various battles and conquests, the decisions Alexander made during these times showcased his rational and dialectic nature, good decision making, political greatness, and more. With a large army, Alexander crossed over to Asia Minor in 334 BCE and destroyed the city of Baalbek, renaming it Heliopolis. He then liberated the Greek city of Ephesus from Persian rule and offered to rebuild the Temple of Artemis which was destroyed by arson on the night of his birth, but the city refused his gesture. Through these actions, it can be argued that while ruthless, Alexander’s actions can be considered as extremely fair and just. Although he conquered Baalbek, he still got justice for his fellow Greeks and liberated them. In addition, he even offered to rebuild their sacred and holy site. This is definitely not an action someone who is obsessed with power and is evil would do; especially those of a royal background. In this regard, Alexander as a king was humble enough to rectify what he considered his wrongdoing. He thus clearly personifies the modest and just character that Plato describes a philosopher should have. In addition, we also see a brief instance of Alexander’s diplomatic skills on display while demonstrating his political awareness. His gesture alone had the capability to win over the hearts and minds of the people in Ephesus. When you have the hearts and minds of the people, your power and authenticity as a ruler are more solidified. Although it can be argued that Alexander’s offer was, in part, because he believed that his divine lineage was at play in the burning of this temple, he nonetheless did not have to give such an offer as he already liberated them. These sorts of gestures to maintain good relations with the lands under his control would continue throughout his entire campaign to conquer the East.
Although Alexander the Great successfully conquered major areas of the East, he was not interested in imposing his own ideas of truth, religion, or behavior upon the subdued people as long as they willingly supported his troops and complied with his authority. In fact, during Alexander’s campaign of conquest, he would often adopt aspects of local cultures showing his interest in learning cultures different from his. One example includes the time when Alexander adopted the title ShahanShah (King of Kings) which was used by the rulers of the First Persian Empire. Alexander also introduced the Persian custom of proskynesis to the army, making those who addressed him, kneel and kiss his hand. While introducing these customs Alexander still brutally defeated Persia but he surprisingly showed compassion to his greatest enemy, King Darius III of Persia. When King Darius III was assassinated in 331 BCE, Alexander was said to have treated his body with the utmost respect and extended that respect to King Darius’s surviving family members. By showing respect to the Persian royal family, Alexander avoided what could have been a political nightmare; a nightmare where Alexander ruthlessly killing the royal family could have caused a blood-thirsty battle of revenge and hatred between the Greeks and the Persians. It can be argued that Alexander’s wise decision was not one made by pure self-interest but for the safety of the Greeks. Therefore, this level of respect and justice Alexander had was what truly made him a philosopher king.
Plato’s Republic is one of his most influential works as it describes the dialogues Socrates had with the various people he meets. Through these dialogues, we come to learn what justice means and what a just city entails. Plato specifically explains how the one to rule such a city is a philosopher king. When looking at all criteria that Plato defines for a ruler of this just city, Alexander the Great of Macedonia was a philosopher king. Although Alexander the Great died in 323, at a young age of 32, he was a philosopher king whose impact will never be forgotten.
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