Aristotle & Alexander

Yesterday I flew from India to London by way of Istanbul. Throughout the trip I was both reading and gazing out the window. The book on my lap, a biography of Alexander the Great, paralleled my trip. Centuries ago—starting in 334 BCE—Alexander marched his Macedonian and Greek forces all the way to India, defeating every army that faced him. I was now looking down at places he had traversed and conquered.

It took hours, even at jet speed, to cross the realms he captured in ten years—from India to Albania—while he was in his twenties and thirties. I knew many of the facts from my earlier history studies but until I looked out the window yesterday I had never thought about the man’s fearless ambitions. By every measure, save one, he qualified for the title “Great”. The notable figures of our day pale to nearly nothing by comparison.

What stood out to me in this biography was Aristotle’s role in the story. Philip of Macedon, Alexander’s father, had recruited the great philosopher to educate his son. From this training the young man had grown in his skills as an observer and analyst while also learning history, rhetoric, biology, and medicine.

This struck me because over the years I’ve spent time getting to know Aristotle. I read his Nicomachean Ethics, Metaphysics, writings on the soul, and more. In reading him I met one of the most penetrating and prolific minds ever. His capacity to give order to a wide range of subjects was remarkable—his ambition was to survey and analyze all of life and being. He was, in sum, the main architect of Western thought: the builder of the noetic bookshelves and the analytical concepts we all use today. Before Aristotle arrived there had been keen minds but he was extraordinary: brilliant in every respect, save one.

With my reflections came a dawning. God, in his wisdom, arranged for these two premier figures of human history not only to live in the same era, but also to know and work with each other.

I’m not overstating this unlikely convergence. Aristotle is acknowledged to be a supreme figure in philosophy. And if ever there was an ultimate figure in the use of military power, it was Alexander. In the Bible he appears as the epoch changing “king of Greece” of Daniel 8-10.

What should we make of this? Not much except that God’s manifold wisdom is often evident in history—biblical and otherwise—and his providence was certainly present in this remarkable meeting of ultimate alpha figures.

But we can still ask, what did God have in mind here? So let’s return to my double caveat.

Both men were “great”—somehow admirable—in every known respect, save one. Their shared fault was that they were both utterly blind to the true God. As such they reflected the values of the Prince of the Power of the Air rather than those of the Prince of Peace. Each was in his own way the epitome of godlessness rather than Godliness.

Martin Luther certainly thought as much in relation to Aristotle. In his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, for instance, Luther wrote that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is “the worst enemy of grace.” The reformer also said of the philosopher, “If I didn’t know he was a man I would think he was the Devil himself!” Strong words!

What was the problem? Aristotle’s error was his basic framing of theology: he presented God as a monadic power broker who is utterly and necessarily disaffected. As such this “unmoved mover” version of God demands compliance from creation without caring for anyone or anything other than himself. God, according to Aristotle, can only think of himself. This, of course, reverses the reality of God’s Triune love that motivated him both in his creation and his redemption.

Unfortunately the guiding Islamic philosophers—Averroes and Avicenna—took up Aristotle as their theological mentor in defining God. The resulting fixation on God’s power rather than his love defined their faith then and now. Luther, in his complaints, had seen the same result in Christianity when many Christians assimilated Aristotle’s version of God by way of Thomas Aquinas.

So, too, Alexander is the archetype of all those who aim to rule their worlds—whether a Napoleon, a Hitler, a Stalin, a petty and local despot, or an insufferable boss. The longing to “be like God” regularly erupts in ugly bloom when a fallen soul manages to gain power over others.

In his campaign to defeat the Persian rulers of his day Alexander showed off the central motif of this demonic ambition when against good sense he left his army for more than a month to visit a shrine in Siwa, North Africa. His quest? To discover from the local high priest whether he, Alexander, might have been birthed as a god. The priest’s answer: yes!

Alexander wanted to be God. Aristotle wanted to define God.

Could it be, then, that God chose to unleash these two ultimate exemplars of broken human values in the same time and place of history just to remind us that he, the only true God, is alert to human values? And that what Satan means for evil God uses to his own good by showing what evil produces?

Might it also be that the warning of Jeremiah 9:23-24, “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom [and] let not the mighty man boast of his might,” is something we all need to recall whenever the impulses of an Aristotle or an Alexander attract us?

For now, we can be sure, we’re only wise when our own boasts center on God’s loving kindness, his justice, and his righteousness.

That alone delights him, and it gives us a taste of true greatness. The flight and the book were fascinating. The Bible helps give sense to both.

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2 Comments

  1. Gretchen

    The thing that strike me as I read this post is how many Alexanders and Artistotles still exist today. Oh, their spheres of influence may be smaller, but there are still those who spread the same kinds of values. May we be Jeremiah 9 people! Thanks, Ron, for helping us see more clearly.

  2. Judy

    Your flight over the empire that Alexander conquered, while reading about him must have been surreal. Isn’t it fascinating how these two “Great” men collided in time and space? I just read the book of Daniel and noted the Greek empire under Alexander the Great, mentioned and yet, his ultimate defeat was imminent, no matter how “great” he thought himself. I find it so interesting that God revealed to Daniel details of his ultimate plan and we can read about it today. It seemed power was the ultimate tempter to the devil and to Alexander and Aristotle and us as well.

    It is so comforting to know that nothing is stronger that God’s love, shown in the birth of Jesus into the world at Christmas! Your piece gives warning to us to be cautious, examining our own emotions and thoughts in light of God’s Word, aligning our thoughts and emotions with His wisdom and knowledge and His ultimate love. Thank You, Judy

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