Through A Glass Darkly

“Part of understanding Alexander’s success in conquering such a vast empire is to realize that Alexander’s ultimate goal was personal glory; all else was secondary. To put it simply Alexander was about conquest for conquest’s sake. He was not out to change the world, he was out to conquer it.”
Edward M. Anson Alexander the Great Themes and Issues

This is a great quote, though for me it identifies the beginning of what Alexander was about rather than the end.

The reason I say this is because I don’t believe that Alexander was simply ‘about conquest for conquest’s sake’. Anson seems to imply that this was so in his statement that ‘Alexander’s ultimate goal was personal glory’ only to conclude that Alexander ‘was not out to change the world’ only ‘to conquer it’.

To be fair to Anson, I think his last statement is true, although only to a point. While Alexander was certainly ‘out to conquer [the world]’, he was only not interested in changing it in terms of ushering in a new political or social order. That’s because he was very interested in changing himself and how the people of the world saw him.

Thus, rather than be known as Alexander son of Philip, he wanted to be Alexander whose deeds were greater than those of Herakles, Dionysos and Achilles, and by this excellence he wanted his enemies to be terrified of him, and his friends/allies to admire and adore him.

This is not the end of the matter. Anson’s Alexander is a rather pitiless conqueror. My Alexander, a vainglorious man. Neither portrayal is supported by the texts. Alexander was always happy to fight when necessary but also to use diplomacy if so required. He was capable of treating his enemies with exceptional kindness and was equally generous towards his friends. As for being vainglorious – how could he be truly so when he was empathic enough to identify himself with another man? And how could a vainglorious king ever be loved in the way that Alexander was by his men? Or excite the kind devotion that Sisygambis showed towards him.

Lots of questions. And, if truth be told, there is probably an answer for each and every one of them. It’s inevitable. Why? Because Alexander’s inner life, the only place where the truth about a man can ever be found, is hidden from us. We complain about the sources for Alexander’s life being written hundreds of years after the event but the truth is even if we had Ptolemy’s, Aristobulos’, Cleitarchus’ and Callisthenes’ books, they would still be the work of other people – however loyal they may have been – and therefore liable to being imperfect portraits of his character.

Our only real opportunity to understand Alexander would have been if he had published his autobiography. But even if he had, given the human capacity for (self-)deceit and manipulation – something Alexander was adept at – we could not guarantee a fully truthful work. Maybe it would have contained less truth than Ptolemy’s or any others.

It is for this reason that I regard Anson’s statement as a beginning rather than an end. The ‘end’, that is, the truth about us is simply too hidden to ever be found, or rather, fully revealed. In this life we may only look through the glass darkly.

But, at least we can look, and how boring life would be if we saw all, and understood all straight away! Maybe our bane is after all a boon.

* This is a slightly edited version of three posts from my Facebook Alexander the Great page, published between 27th-29 Dec. 2016

Categories: Alexander Scholars, On Alexander | Tags: | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Through A Glass Darkly

  1. terrioak

    I would love to have had a biography or history written by Hephaestion. Biased, sure, but at least it wouldn’t have been written as some others did while trying to make themselves look good.

    Liked by 1 person

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