Forget Aristotle: Alexander the Great and the military origins of modern political organisation

Forget Aristotle: Alexander the Great and the military origins of modern political organisation

By Lucian M. Ashworth

Limerick Papers in Politics and Public Administration, No.2 (2003)

Introduction: In the thirteenth century Western Europe rediscovered Aristotle. Very soon, and thanks largely to the scholarship of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle entered the pantheon of classical originators of Western ideas. Indeed, Aristotle’s views on government became the basis of an intellectual revolution, supported by the Church, that played up the moral value of political life. Yet, the classical texts also contained a second tradition. This second tradition is a crucial cornerstone of our thinking about political organisation today. The books that contained the literary side of this tradition were not works of philosophy, but histories of great deeds. These histories spoke to the concerns, prejudices and goals of Early Modern state-builders, and led directly not only to the idea of the modern state, but also to its cosmopolitan rivals. Modern warfare and human rights; bureaucratic government and multiculturalism; the World Trade Organisation and Oxfam: all trace their roots to this, the most persuasive and long-lasting legacy of the ancient world. So persuasive are its doctrines that we have ceased to see them as an invention of a time and place.

Texts on the history of political theory often stress that there is a sharp break between Aristotle and the later Roman and medieval approaches to politics. Yet, despite this realisation, this discontinuity is skipped across with alacrity. For most political theorists Aristotle gives way cleanly to the more universalist ideas associated with imperial Rome, the Church triumphant, and some even cut straight to Machiavelli. Very little attention is given to the political theory of empire constructed by Alexander the Great, his biographers and successors, despite the fact that it was Alexander who finally abolished the cosy closed world associated with Aristotle’s ideal. Alexander had been Aristotle’s pupil, and Aristotle’s great paean to the perfection of the ideal polis, his Politics, was written at a time when the new Macedonian empire was rewriting the rules and categories of politics. This article argues that it is Alexander, not Aristotle, that is the founder of the western political tradition, and that the idea of empire, and imperialist political organisation, forms the core of what it means to be western. We can trace this idea back to the Macedonians and Romans. In this sense, the ‘classical Greeks’ are an aberration in the development of the idea of the West. More controversially, it also implies that the idea of the West is at its roots an imperial and military legacy. Just as capitalism in Marx made socialism possible, so rampant military imperialism has also given us cosmopolitanism and racial tolerance.

My argument is that it was the political organisation of the Macedonian military, developed by Philip of Macedon, that formed the basis of Alexander the Great’s notion of empire. This, in turn, formed the template of future Near Eastern and Mediterranean polities; and through the influential histories of Arrian, Quintus Curtius, Caesar, Plutarch, Tacitus and Livy became the model for European state creation from the high Middle Ages onwards. Aristotle’s politics was based upon civic virtue, while Alexander’s relied on an instrumental rationality that had its roots in Macedonian military doctrine. Position and authority were judged by their effectiveness. Equally, imperial policies required a sophisticated use and understanding of inter-cultural relations. From this came Alexander’s notions of cosmopolitanism, which influenced the Stoics and Roman imperial policy. Opponents of militarism, like the Stoic Zeno and later pacifists, looked not to Aristotle’s territorially limited vision, but rather to the instrumental rationality and cosmopolitanism of their militaristic adversaries. The Macedonian system became the template for empire in the ancient world, and was adopted consciously and explicitly by the Parthians, Sassanid Persians, Carthaginians and Romans.

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