Happy Alexander the Great Day!

Today (June 10) marks the anniversary of the death in 323 B.C. of one of the most fascinating figures from classical antiquity, Alexander the Great, in Babylon. Alexander lived by the motto “Live fast, die young (after conquering the known world).”

His conquests and the subsequent division of his empire among his successors changed the course of history, leading to widespread Hellenization far beyond the boundaries of Greece and to the use of the Greek language as a koine.

I recently read Steven Pressfield’s novel about Alexander, The Virtues of War. It was good, though not as good as Gates of Fire.

Among those who considered Alexander one of history’s great men was Philip Melanchthon. He mentions him several times in his Philosophiae moralis epitome. Most of them are complimentary, though not without qualificaiton. I share here most of those passages from my forthcoming translation, which will appear under the title A Summary of Moral Philosophy.

Excerpts from A Summary of Moral Philosophy

  • The second auxiliary cause [of virtue] is natural impulse. For just as poets and other exceptional artists are helped by a special impulse of nature, according to the following remark: “You will say or do nothing by compulsion, O Minerva”—so also exceptional virtue cannot be brought about without a special inclination and motion toward virtue, as was the case for Alexander or Gaius Caesar with respect to courage and some other virtues. These natural impulses are rightly called and are gifts of God, and are customarily called “heroic motions.” For that reason, Cicero, too, says that no great man has existed without some divine inspiration.
  • But virtue is twofold: common and heroic. Heroic virtue is when great men are goaded on by an extraordinary divine impetus to certain honorable actions. From this, there comes a virtue that is lofty, rising above the common capacity of human beings—as, for example, there was a heroic courage in Achilles, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Scipio, that is, a courage that was loftier than the type that can exist in human beings without an extraordinary divine motion.
  • Therefore, some affections are good and are pleasing to God. Stoic ἀπάθεια [apatheia, “impassibility, apathy”], therefore, must be rejected, since it is in harmony neither with nature nor with the Word of God. For this reason, although the rather harsh views of the Stoics are sometimes praised, the prudent reader should nevertheless apply his judgment, and should be aware that absurd opinions that conflict with nature and with the Word of God are to be avoided. Indeed, good affections have been placed in our nature in order to be spurs or, as Aristotle says, helps to the virtues. But one must reject evil affections, that is, those that are out of harmony with reason and the law of God. And the views expressed in the Sacred Scriptures are to be understood in a prudent way, so that they are not transferred to Stoic opinions. For although the Sacred Scriptures show that all the affections in an ungodly person are vicious, they still want the distinction to be retained, namely, that some are vicious in themselves, and are only vicious, and are to be rejected; but that others, implanted by God, are polluted by the disease of corruption that is in human nature; for example, Alexander the Great has many good affections and heroic virtues. But because he lacks the fear of God and faith, the rest of his gifts are not pleasing to God. And he himself adds vices to his virtues: he does not give thanks to God; he does not acknowledge God’s presence; he puts his trust in his own powers; he seeks his own glory; he plunges heedlessly into every shameful act. But in the pious, the good and natural affections are praised, because in them are added the fear of God and faith, by which it comes about that the rest of their good works are pleasing.


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