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THE FIRST ORATION OF PLUTARCH CONCERNING THE FORTUNE OR VIRTUE OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT. - Plutarch, The Morals, vol. 1 
Plutarch’s Morals. Translated from the Greek by Several Hands. Corrected and Revised by William W. Goodwin, with an Introduction by Ralph Waldo Emerson. 5 Volumes. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1878). Vol. 1.
Part of: Plutarch’s Morals, 5 vols.
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THE FIRST ORATION OF PLUTARCH CONCERNING THE FORTUNE OR VIRTUE OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT.
1. This is the oration of Fortune, asserting and challenging Alexander to be her masterpiece, and hers alone. In contradiction to which it behooves us to say something on the behalf of philosophy, or rather in the defence of Alexander himself, who cannot choose but spurn away the very thought of having received his empire as a gift at the hands of Fortune, knowing that it was so dearly bought with the price of his lost blood and many wounds, and that in gaining it,
and all this in opposition to armies almost irresistible, numberless nations, rivers before impassable, and rocks impenetrable; choosing, however, for his chiefest guides and counsellors prudence, endurance, fortitude, and steadiness of mind.
2. And now, methinks, I hear him speaking thus to Fortune, when she signalizes herself with his successes: —
Envy not my virtue, nor go about to detract from my honor. Darius was a fabric of thy own rearing, who of a servant and the king’s courier was by thee advanced to be monarch of all Persia. The same was Sardanapalus, who from a comber of purple wool was raised by thee to wear the royal diadem. But I, subduing as I marched, from Arbela forced my passage even to Susa itself. Cilicia opened me a broad way into Egypt; and the Granicus, o’er which I passed without resistance, trampling under foot the slain carcasses of Mithridates and Spithridates, opened the way into Cilicia. Pamper up thyself, and boast thy kings that never felt a wound nor ever saw a finger bleed; for they were fortunate, it is true, — thy Ochi and thy Artaxerxes, — who were no sooner born but they were by thee established in the throne of Cyrus. But my body carries many marks of Fortune’s unkindness, who rather fought against me as an enemy than assisted me as her friend. First, among the Illyrians I was wounded in the head with a stone, and received a blow in the neck with an iron mace. Then, near the Granicus my head was a second time gashed with a barbarian scimitar; at Issus I was run through the thigh with a sword; at Gaza I was shot in the ankle with a dart; and not long after, falling heavy from my saddle; I forced my shoulder out of joint. Among the Maracadartae my shinbone was split with an arrow. The wounds I received in India and my strenuous acts of daring courage will declare the rest. Then among the Assacani I was shot through the shoulder with another arrow. Encountering the Gandridae, my thigh was wounded; and one of the Mallotes drew his bow with that force, that the well-directed arrow made way through my iron armor to lodge itself in my breast; besides the blow in my neck, when the scaling-ladders brake that were set to the walls, and Fortune left me alone, to gratify with the fall of so great a person not a renowned or illustrious enemy, but ignoble and worthless barbarians. So that had not Ptolemy covered me with his shield, and Limnaeus, after he had received a thousand wounds directed at my body, fallen dead before me; or if the Macedonians, breathing nothing but courage and their prince’s rescue, had not opened a timely breach, that barbarous and nameless village might have proved Alexander’s tomb.
3. Take the whole expedition together, and what was it but a patient endurance of cold winters and parching droughts; depths of rivers, rocks inaccessible to the winged fowl, amazing sights of strange wild beasts, savage diet, and lastly revolts and treasons of far-controlling potentates. As to what before the expedition befell me, it is well known that all Greece lay gasping and panting under the fatal effects of the Philippic wars. But then the Thebans, raising themselves upon their feet again after so desperate a fall, shook from their arms the dust of Chaeronea; with them also joined the Athenians, reaching forth their helping hands. The treacherous Macedonians, studying nothing but revenge, cast their eyes upon the sons of Aeropus; the Illyrians brake out into an open war; and the Scythians hung in equal balance, seeing their neighbors meditating new revolutions; while Persian gold, liberally scattered among the popular leaders of every city, put all Peloponnesus into motion.
King Philip’s treasuries were at that time empty, and besides he was in debt, as Onesicritus relates, two hundred talents. In the midst of so much pressing want and such menacing troubles, a youth but new past the age of childhood durst aspire to the conquest of Babylon and Susa, or rather project in his thoughts supreme dominion over all mankind; and all this, trusting only to the strength of thirty thousand foot and four thousand horse. For so many there were, by the account which Aristobulus gives; by the relation of King Ptolemy, there were five thousand horse; from both which Anaximenes varying musters up the foot to three and forty thousand, and the horse to five thousand five hundred. Now the glorious and magnificent sum which Fortune had raised up to supply the necessities of so great an expedition was no more than seventy talents, according to Aristobulus; or, as Duris records it, only thirty days’ provision.
4. You will say therefore that Alexander was too rash and daringly inconsiderate, with such a slender support to rush upon so vast an opposition. By no means: for who was ever better fitted than he for splendid enterprises, with all the choicest and most excelling precepts of magnanimity, consideration, wisdom, and virtuous fortitude, with which a philosophical education largely supplied him for his expedition? So that we may properly affirm that he invaded Persia with greater assistance from Aristotle than from his father Philip. As for those who write how Alexander was wont to say that the Iliad and Odyssey had always followed him in his wars, in honor to Homer I believe them. Nevertheless, if any one affirm that the Iliad and Odyssey were admitted of his train merely as the recreation of his wearied thoughts or pastime of his leisure hours, but that philosophical learning, and commentaries concerning contempt of fear, fortitude, temperance, and nobleness of spirit, were the real cabinet provision which he carried along for his personal use, we contemn their assertion. For he was not a person that ever wrote concerning arguments or syllogisms; none of those who observed walks in the Lyceum, or held disputes in the Academy; for they who thus circumscribe philosophy believe it to consist in discoursing, not in action. And yet we find that neither Pythagoras nor Socrates, Arcesilaus nor Carneades, was ever celebrated for his writings, though they were the most approved and esteemed among all the philosophers. Yet no such busy wars as these employed their time in civilizing wild and barbarous kings, in building Grecian cities among rude and unpolished nations, nor in settling government and peace among people that lived without humanity or control of law. They only lived at ease, and surrendered the business and trouble of writing to the more contentious Sophists. Whence then came it to pass that they were believed to be philosophers? It was either from their sayings, from the lives they led, or from the precepts which they taught. Upon these grounds let us take a prospect of Alexander, and we shall soon find him, by what he said, by what he acted, and by the lessons he taught, to be a great philosopher.
5. And first, if you please, consider that which seems the farthest distant of all from the common received opinion, and compare the disciples of Alexander with the pupils of Plato and Socrates. The latter instructed persons ingenuous, such as speak the same speech, well understanding (if nothing else) the Grecian language. But there were many with whom their precepts did not prevail; for men like Critias, Alcibiades, and Cleitophon shook off their doctrine like a bridle, and followed the conduct of their own inclinations.
On the other side, take a view of Alexander’s discipline, and you shall see how he taught the Hyrcanians the conveniency of wedlock, introduced husbandry among the Arachosians, persuaded the Sogdians to preserve and cherish — not to kill — their aged parents; the Persians to reverence and honor — not to marry — their mothers. Most admirable philosophy! which induced the Indians to worship the Grecian Deities, and wrought upon the Scythians to bury their deceased friends, not to feed upon their carcasses. We admire the power of Carneades’s eloquence, for forcing the Carthaginian Clitomachus, called Asdrubal before, to embrace the Grecian customs. No less we wonder at the prevailing reason of Zeno, by whom the Babylonian Diogenes was charmed into the love of philosophy. Yet no sooner had Alexander subdued Asia, than Homer became an author in high esteem, and the Persian, Susian, and Gedrosian youth sang the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles. Among the Athenians, Socrates, introducing foreign Deities, was condemned to death at the prosecution of his accusers. But Alexander engaged both Bactria and Caucasus to worship the Grecian Gods, which they had never known before. Lastly, Plato, though he proposed but one single form of a commonwealth, could never persuade any people to make use of it, by reason of the austerity of his government. But Alexander, building above seventy cities among the barbarous nations, and as it were sowing the Grecian customs and constitutions all over Asia, quite weaned them from their former wild and savage manner of living. The laws of Plato here and there a single person may peradventure study, but myriads of people have made and still make use of Alexander’s. And they whom Alexander vanquished were more greatly blessed than they who fled his conquests. For these had none to deliver them from their ancient state of misery; the others the victor compelled to better fortune. True therefore was that expression of Themistocles, when he was a fugitive from his native country, and the king entertained him with sumptuous presents, assigning him three stipendiary cities to supply his table, one with bread, a second with wine, a third with all manner of costly viands; Ah! young men, said he, had we not been undone, we had surely been undone. It may, however, be more justly averred of those whom Alexander subdued, had they not been vanquished, they had never been civilized. Egypt had not vaunted her Alexandria, nor Mesopotamia her Seleucia; Sogdiana had not gloried in her Propthasia, nor the Indians boasted their Bucephalia, nor Caucasus its neighboring Grecian city; by the founding of all which barbarism was extinguished and custom changed the worse into better.
If then philosophers assume to themselves their highest applause for cultivating the most fierce and rugged conditions of men, certainly Alexander is to be acknowledged the chiefest of philosophers, who changed the wild and brutish customs of so many various nations, reducing them to order and government.
6. It is true indeed that the so much admired commonwealth of Zeno, first author of the Stoic sect, aims singly at this, that neither in cities nor in towns we should live under laws distinct one from another, but that we should look upon all men in general to be our fellow-countrymen and citizens, observing one manner of living and one kind of order, like a flock feeding together with equal right in one common pasture. This Zeno wrote, fancying to himself, as in a dream, a certain scheme of civil order, and the image of a philosophical commonwealth. But Alexander made good his words by his deeds; for he did not, as Aristotle advised him, rule the Grecians like a moderate prince and insult over the barbarians like an absolute tyrant; nor did he take particular care of the first as his friends and domestics, and scorn the latter as mere brutes and vegetables; which would have filled his empire with fugitive incendiaries and perfidious tumults. But believing himself sent from Heaven as the common moderator and arbiter of all nations, and subduing those by force whom he could not associate to himself by fair offers, he labored thus, that he might bring all regions, far and near, under the same dominion. And then, as in a festival goblet, mixing lives, manners, customs, wedlock, all together, he ordained that every one should take the whole habitable world for his country, of which his camp and army should be the chief metropolis and garrison; that his friends and kindred should be the good and virtuous, and that the vicious only should be accounted foreigners. Nor would he that Greeks and barbarians should be distinguished by long garments, targets, scimitars, or turbans; but that the Grecians should be known by their virtue and courage, and the barbarians by their vices and their cowardice; and that their habit, their diet, their marriage and custom of converse, should be everywhere the same, engaged and blended together by the ties of blood and pledges of offspring.
7. Therefore it was that Demaratus the Corinthian, an acquaintance and friend of Philip, when he beheld Alexander in Susa, bursting into tears of more than ordinary joy, bewailed the deceased Greeks, who, as he said, had been bereaved of the greatest blessing on earth, for that they had not seen Alexander sitting upon the throne of Darius. Though most assuredly, for my part, I do not envy the beholders this show, which was only a thing of chance and a happiness of more ordinary kings. But I would gladly have been a spectator of those majestic and sacred nuptials, when, after he had betrothed together a hundred Persian brides and a hundred Macedonian and Greek bridegrooms, he placed them all at one common table within the compass of one pavilion embroidered with gold, as being all of the same family; and then, crowned with a nuptial garland, and being himself the first to sing an epithalamium in honor of the conjunction between two of the greatest and most potent nations in the world, of only one the bridegroom, of all the brideman, father, and moderator, he caused the several couples to be severally married. Had I but beheld this sight, ecstasied with pleasure I should have then cried out: “Barbarous and stupid Xerxes, how vain was all thy toil to cover the Hellespont with a floating bridge! Thus rather wise and prudent princes join Asia to Europe. They join and fasten nations together not with boards or planks, or surging brigandines, not with inanimate and insensible bonds, but by the ties of legitimate love, chaste nuptials, and the infallible gage of progeny.”
8. But then, when he considered the Eastern garments, Alexander preferred the Persian before the Median habit, though much the meaner and more frugal garb. Therefore rejecting the gaudy and scenical ornament of barbarian gallantry, such as were the tiara and candys, together with the upper breeches, according to the report of Eratosthenes, he ordered a mixture of the Macedonian and Persian modes to be observed in all the garments which he wore. As a philosopher, he contented himself with mediocrity; but as the common chieftain of both and as a mild and affable prince, he was willing to gain the affection of the vanquished by the esteem which he showed to the mode of the country; that so they might continue the more steadfast and loyal to the Macedonians, not hating them as their enemies, but loving them as their princes and rulers. This behavior was contrary to that of persons insipid and puffed up with prosperity, who wedded to their own humors admire the single colored robe but cannot endure the tunic bordered with purple, or else are well pleased with the latter and hate the former, like young children, in love with the mode in which, as another nurse, their country’s custom first apparelled them. And yet we see that they who hunt wild beasts clothe themselves with their hairy skins; and fowlers make use of feathered jerkins; nor are others less wary how they show themselves to wild bulls in scarlet or to elephants in white; for those creatures are provoked and enraged at the sight of these colors. If then this potent monarch, designing to reclaim and civilize stubborn and warlike nations, took the same course to soften and allay their inbred fury which others take with wild beasts, and at length brought them to be tame and tractable by making use of their familiar habits and by submitting to their customary course of life, thereby removing animosity from their breasts and sour looks from their countenances, shall we blame his management; or rather must we not admire the wisdom of him who by so slight a change of apparel ruled all Asia, subduing their bodies with his arms and vanquishing their minds with his habit? It is a strange thing; we applaud Socratic Aristippus, because, being sometimes clad in a poor threadbare cloak, sometimes in a Milesian robe, he kept a decency in both; but they censure Alexander, because he gave some respect to the garb and mode of those whom he had vanquished, as well as to that of his native country; not considering that he was laying the foundation of vast achievements. It was not his design to ransack Asia like a robber, or to despoil and ruin it, as the prey and rapine of unexpected good fortune, as afterwards Hannibal pillaged Italy, and before him the Treres ravaged Ionia and the Scythians harassed Media, — but to subdue all the kingdoms of the earth under one form of government, and to make one nation of all mankind. So that if the same Deity which hither sent the soul of Alexander had not too soon recalled it, one law had overlooked all the world, and one form of justice had been as it were the common light of one universal government; while now that part of the earth which Alexander never saw remains without a sun.
9. Thus, in the first place, the very scope and aim of Alexander’s expedition speaks him a philosopher, as one that sought not to gain for himself luxurious splendor or riches, but to establish concord, peace, and mutual community among all men.
Next, let us consider his sayings, seeing that the souls of other kings and potentates betray their conditions and inclinations by their expressions. Antigonus the Aged, having heard a certain poet sing before him a short treatise concerning justice, said, Thou art a fool to mention justice to me, when thou seest me thundering down the cities belonging to other people about their ears. Dionysius the Tyrant was wont to say that children were to be cheated with dice, but men with oaths. Upon the monument of Sardanapalus this inscription is to be seen: —
What now can a man say of these apophthegms, but that the first denotes injustice and immoderate desire of sovereignty; the next impiety; and the third sensuality? But as for the sayings of Alexander, set aside his diadem, his claimed descent from Ammon, and the nobility of his Macedonian extraction, and you would believe them to have been the sayings of Socrates, Plato, or Pythagoras. For we omit the swelling hyperboles of flattery which poets have inscribed under his images and statues, studying rather to extol the power of Alexander than his moderation and temperance; as, for example, —
and that other, —
This is Alexander the son of Jove.
But these, as I said, were only the flashes of poetic adulation magnifying his good success. Let us therefore come to such sentences as were really uttered by Alexander himself, beginning first with the early blossoms of his childhood.
It is well known that for swiftness in running he exceeded all that were of his years; for which reason some of his most familiar play-fellows would have persuaded him to show himself at the Olympic games. He asked them whether there were any kings to contend with him. And when they replied that there were none, he said, The contest then is unequal, for I can conquer only private men, while they may conquer a king.
His father, King Philip, being run through the thigh in a battle against the Triballi, and, though he escaped the danger, being not a little troubled at the deformity of his limping; Be of good cheer, father, said he, and show yourself in public, that you may be reminded of your bravery at every step.
Are not these the products of a mind truly philosophical, which by an inspired inclination to what is noble already contemns the disfigurings of the body? Nor can we otherwise believe but that he himself gloried in his own wounds, which every time he beheld them called to his remembrance the conquered nation and the victory, what cities he had taken, what kings had surrendered themselves; never striving to conceal or cover those indelible characters and scars of honor, which he always carried about him as the engraven testimonies of his virtue and fortitude.
10. Then again, if any dispute arose or judgment were to be given upon any of Homer’s verses, either in the schools or at meals, this that follows he always preferred above the rest, —
Both a good king, and far renowned in war;*
believing that the praise which another by precedency of time had anticipated was to be a law also to himself, and saying that Homer in the same verse had extolled the fortitude of Agamemnon and prophesied of Alexander’s. Crossing therefore the Hellespont, he viewed the city of Troy, revolving in his mind the heroic acts of antiquity. At this time one of the chief citizens proffering to him Paris’s harp, if he pleased to accept it; I need it not, said he, for I have that with which Achilles pleased himself already,
but as for Paris, his soft and effeminate harmony was devoted only to the pleasures of amorous courtship. Now it is part of a true philosopher’s soul to love wisdom and chiefly to admire wise men; and this was Alexander’s praise beyond all other princes. His high esteem for his master Aristotle we have already mentioned. No less honor did he give to Anaxarchus the musician, whom he favored as one of his choicest friends. To Pyrrhon the Elean, the first time he saw him, he gave a thousand crowns in gold. To Xenocrates, the companion of Plato, he sent an honorary present of fifty talents. Lastly, it is recorded by several that he made Onesicratus, the disciple of Diogenes the Cynic, chief of his pilots. But when he came to discourse with Diogenes himself at Corinth, he was struck in such a manner with wonder and astonishment at the course of life and sententious learning of the person, that frequently calling him to mind he was wont to say, Were I not Alexander, I would be Diogenes. That is, I would have devoted myself to the study of words, had I not been a philosopher in deeds. He did not say, Were I not a king, I would be Diogenes; nor, Were I not opulent, an Argeades. For he did not prefer fortune before wisdom, nor the purple robe or regal diadem before the beggar’s wallet and threadbare mantle; but he said, Were I not Alexander, I would be Diogenes. That is, —
“Had I not designed to intermix barbarians and Greeks and to civilize the earth as I marched forward, and had I not proposed to search the limits of sea and land, and so, extending Macedon to the land-bounding ocean, to have sown Greece in every region all along and to have diffused justice and peace over all nations, I would not have sat yawning upon the throne of slothful and voluptuous power, but would have labored to imitate the frugality of Diogenes. But now pardon us, Diogenes. We follow the example of Hercules, we emulate Perseus, and tread in the footsteps of Bacchus, our divine ancestor and founder of our race; once more we purpose to settle the victorious Greeks in India, and once more to put those savage mountaineers beyond Caucasus in mind of their ancient Bacchanalian revels. There, by report, live certain people professing a rigid and austere philosophy, and more frugal than Diogenes, as going altogether naked; pious men, governed by their own constitutions and devoted wholly to God. They have no occasion for scrip or wallet, for they never lay up provision, having always fresh and new gathered from the earth. The rivers afford them drink, and at night they rest upon the grass and the leaves that fall from the trees. By our means shall they know Diogenes, and Diogenes them. But it behooves us also, as it were, to make a new coin, and to stamp a new face of Grecian civility upon the barbarian metal.”
11. Tell me now; can such generous acts of Alexander as these be thought to speak the spontaneous favors of Fortune, only an impetuous torrent of success and strength of hand? Do they not rather demonstrate much of fortitude and justice, much of mildness and temperance, in one who managed all things with decorum and consideration, with a sober and intelligent judgment? Not that I (believe me) go about to distinguish between the several acts of Alexander, and to ascribe this to fortitude, that to humanity, another to temperance; but I take every act to be an act of all the virtues mixed together. This is conformable to that Stoic sentence, “What a wise man does he does by the impulse of all the virtues together; only one particular virtue seems to head every action, and calling the rest to her assistance drives on to the end proposed.” Therefore we may behold in Alexander a warlike humanity, a meek fortitude, a liberality poised with good husbandry, anger easily appeased, chaste amours, a busy relaxation of mind, and labor not wanting recreation. Who ever like him mixed festivals with combats, revels and jollity with expeditions, nuptials and bacchanals with sieges and difficult attempts? To those that offended against the law who more severe? To the unfortunate who more pitiful? To those that made resistance who more terrible? To suppliants who more merciful? This gives me an occasion to insert here the saying of Porus. For he being brought a captive before Alexander, and by him being asked how he expected to be treated, Royally, said he, O Alexander. And being further asked whether he desired no more, he replied, Nothing; for all things are comprehended in that word “royally.” And for my part, I know not how to give a greater applause to the actions of Alexander, than by adding the word “philosophically,” for in that word all other things are included. Being ravished with the beauty of Roxana, the daughter of Oxyarthes, dancing among the captive ladies, he never assailed her with injurious lust, but married her philosophically. Beholding Darius stuck to the heart with several arrows, he did not presently sacrifice to the Gods or sing triumphal songs to celebrate the end of so long a war, but unclasping his own cloak from his shoulders he threw it over the dead corpse philosophically, as it were to cover the shame of royal calamity. Another time, as he was perusing a private letter sent him by his mother, he observed Hephaestion, who was sitting by him, to read it along with him, little understanding what he did. For which unwary act Alexander forbore to reprove him; only clapping his signet to his mouth, he thus kindly admonished him that his lips were then sealed up to silence by the friendly confidence which he reposed in him, — all this philosophically. And indeed if these were not acts done philosophically, where shall we find them?
12. Let us compare with his some few acts of those who are by all allowed to be philosophers. Socrates yielded to the lustful embraces of Alcibiades. Alexander, when Philoxenus, governor of the sea-coasts, wrote to him concerning an Ionian lad that had not his equal for youthful beauty, and desired to know whether he should be sent to him or not, returned him this nipping answer: Vilest of men, when wast thou ever privy to any desires of mine, that thou shouldst think to flatter me with such abhorred allurements? We admire the abstinency of Xenocrates for refusing the gift of fifty talents which Alexander sent him; but do we take no notice of the munificence of the giver? Or is the bountiful person not to be thought as much a contemner of money as he that refuses it? Xenocrates needed not riches, by reason of his philosophy; but Alexander wanted wealth, by reason of the same philosophy, that he might be more liberal to such persons. . . . How often has Alexander borne witness to this in the midst of a thousand dangers? It is true, we believe that it is in the power of all men to judge rightly of things; for nature guides us of herself to virtue and bravery. But herein philosophers excel all others, that they have by education acquired a fixed and solid judgment to encounter whatever dangers they meet with. For most men have no such maxims to defend them as this in Homer, —
And that other of Demosthenes, —
Death is the certain end of all mankind.†
But sudden apparitions of imminent danger many times break our resolutions; and the fancy troubled with the imagination of approaching peril chases away true judgment from her seat. For fear not only astonishes the memory, according to the saying of Thucydides,‡ but it dissipates all manner of consideration, sense of honor, and resolution; while philosophy binds and keeps them together. . . .
Note. — The text is defective at the end, and elsewhere in the last chapter. The sense of the clause just preceding the quotation from Homer is chiefly conjectural. A similar deficiency is found at the end of the Second Oration on Alexander, which immediately follows. (G.)
[* ]Il. IX. 325.
[* ]Il. III. 179.
[† ]Il. IX. 189.
[* ]Il. XII. 243.
[† ]Demosthenes on the Crown, p. 258, 20.
[‡ ]Thucyd. II. 87.