Marcus Aurelius on Alexander the Great

Stoic Philosophy versus the Lord of Asia

Stoic Philosophy versus the Lord of Asia

Marcus Aurelius is famous today as a Roman emperor who was also a Stoic philospher — perhaps the closest history has to the ancient Platonic ideal of the philosopher-king. Marcus lived nearly five hundred years after Alexander died yet he’s still a figure who looms large for him, as he did for most Roman leaders. Indeed, Marcus mentions Alexander five times altogether in The Meditations.

However, Marcus doesn’t revere Alexander and seek to emulate or outdo his military achievements. Instead, he views him from the perspective of Stoic philosophy, with a greater degree of cynicism regarding his love of conquest. Contrast this with the stories about Marcus’ predecessor, Julius Caesar, reported by three Roman historians: Plutarch, Suetonius and Cassius Dio.

Dio says merely that when Caesar beheld a statue of Alexander, in the temple of Hercules, at Gades in Spain, “he had groaned aloud, lamenting that he had performed no great deed as yet.” With the detail in mind that Alexander died at the notoriously young age of thirty-two, Plutarch tells a slightly more elaborate version of the story:

[We are told that] in Spain, when he was at leisure and was reading from the history of Alexander, he was lost in thought for a long time, and then burst into tears. His friends were astonished, and asked the reason for his tears. “Do you not think,” said he, “it is matter for sorrow that while Alexander, at my age, was already king of so many peoples, I have as yet achieved no brilliant success?” — Plutarch, Life of Caesar

Suetonius likewise says that:

Noticing a statue of Alexander the Great in the temple of Hercules, he heaved a sigh, and as if out of patience with his own incapacity in having as yet done nothing noteworthy at a time of life when Alexander had already brought the world to his feet, he straightway asked for his discharge, to grasp the first opportunity for greater enterprises at Rome. — Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars

At one point, Marcus possibly implies that in addition to his philosophical notebooks he was writing a historical account of famous Greeks and Romans.

Run astray no longer; for you are not likely to read those notebooks of yours, or your accounts of the deeds of the ancient Romans and Greeks, or the extracts from their writings which you were laying aside for your old age. (3.14)

It may be that this would have focused on some of the historical figures he likes to mention in The Meditations, such as Alexander the Great. However, as we’ll see, Marcus’ appraisal of the deeds of these “ancient Romans and Greeks” would undoubtedly have criticized them, from the perspective of Stoic ethics.

Marcus on Caesar and Alexander

Marcus tends to lump Alexander together with Julius Caesar, and his rival Pompey the Great, as examples of famous military leaders, who are nevertheless viewed with disdain by philosophers. For instance, Marcus says that Alexander, like Julius Caesar and Pompey after him, “often razed whole cities to the ground and slaughtered tens of thousands of horsemen and foot-soldiers on the battlefield.” Nevertheless, he says, “there came a day when they too departed from this life” (3.3).

Indeed, “Alexander the Great and his stable boy were brought to the same level in death”, for they were either dissolved back into the soul of Zeus, or perhaps merely scattered alike among atoms (6.24). Either way, for the Stoics, they were both returned to the same state. The achievements of these rulers impress ordinary people but they’re of little importance in the grand scheme of things. Though remembered for many centuries, they will one day be forgotten.

Indeed, Marcus appears to have viewed Alexander’s legacy as short-lived. According to Herodian, another Roman historian:

This learned man [Marcus Aurelius] was disturbed also by the memory of those who had become sole rulers in their youth. […] The arrogance and violence of Alexander’s successors against their subject peoples had brought disgrace upon his empire.

“Go on, then, and talk to me of Alexander,” says Marcus, and of other celebrated rulers.

If they saw what universal nature wishes and trained themselves accordingly, I will follow them; but if they merely strutted around like stage heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them. The work of philosophy is simple and modest; do not seduce me into vain ostentation. (9.29)

Marcus likes to remind himself that there’s nothing new under the sun and that the lives of great men like Alexander were essentially the same as other rulers throughout the centuries.

Constantly reflect on how all that comes about at present came about just the same in days gone by, and reflect that it will continue to do so in the future; and set before your eyes whole dramas and scenes ever alike in their nature which you have known from your own experience or the records of earlier ages… (10.27)

For example, he says, think of the entire court of Alexander, or the emperors Marcus knew such as Hadrian or his own adoptive father Antoninus — “in every case the play was the same, and only the actors were different.”

Wisdom is more important than glory. “What are Alexander, Julius Caesar, and Pompey when compared to Diogenes the Cynic, Heraclitus, and Socrates?”, asks Marcus (8.3). The philosophers, he says, were in control of their own minds. They understood all things properly, he says, distinguishing between “cause and matter”. He probably means, as we would say today, that the wise distinguish betweem concepts and the external events to which they refer — by closely observing their own thoughts and feelings.

“As to the others,” Marcus concludes, “consider how many cares they had and to how many things they were enslaved!” Although they were, in their times, the most powerful men in the world, Alexander, Caesar, and Pompey, were enslaved by their own passions, such as the craving for glory. They lacked insight into their own minds and therefore they lacked self-control. It was a familiar paradox of ancient philosophy that Diogenes the Cynic, a penniless exile, a beggar who died as a slave, could look upon Alexander the Great, the most powerful man in the world, as his equal, if not his inferior. Alexander had everything but he always wanted more. Diogenes had only what little would fit in his knapsack but he needed nothing, having mastered his own desires. Hence, the philosopher was, in Stoic terms, more powerful and more kingly even than the Lord of Asia.

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