An ancient high ideal that makes brutes of us all

May 28, 2004

What do Bush, Blair and Alexander the Great have in common? They have all been seduced by an Aristotlean vision of the 'civilising' empire. Margaret Doody explains.

Alexander the Great is the first westerner to aspire to empire, according to its modern meaning. The war in Asia was first presented as a war of liberation, a retaliation for Persia's insolence in attempting to forge an empire from Greek-speaking peoples in the land we now know as Turkey. Greek cities such as Ephesos, Miletos and Halikarnassos were to be freed - at whatever cost to themselves.

Leading his coalition of the willing (under Makedonian control), Alexander achieved great success. The battle of Issos (333BC) sealed the fate of King Darius of Persia and his empire. Asia Minor would be open to Greek colonists, and the ancient practices of the polis would be reinstated. It was obviously necessary to get rid of Darius, who retreated eastward, his last great defeat taking place in Mesopotamia. By January 330, Alexander had taken Babylon, centre of what we now know as Iraq; soon he was in the heart of what we call Iran. Darius was knocked off by a convenient traitor. Some thought this was the end of the war. Could the Greek army not pack up and go home? This was not Alexander's idea; he intended to capture the whole of the Persian empire, and its bordering regions - a project that took him as far as India.

Alexander's most important tutor (in our eyes, although not necessarily his own) was Aristotle. The philosopher influenced his world vision, and, as cited by Plutarch, advised Alexander how he should treat the inhabitants of his newly conquered empire. Aristotle, whose research institution was funded by Alexander, counselled him to treat the Greeks in the fashion of a leader and the "barbarians" in the manner of a master or owner: to treat the former as friends, the latter like animals and plants.

Oh Aristotle! Do we have you as well as Alexander to thank for the war in Iraq? And for the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib? What does it mean to treat people like animals?

Aristotle was the son of a physician who had attended the king. He was what we would call a scientist as well as a metaphysician and political philosopher. In my book Secrets of Life, I interpret his views somewhat humanely. I suggest that he meant that Alexander should categorise the different tribes and note their characteristics in accordance with the scientific principles that Aristotle introduced in his encyclopaedic study of animals, and his student Theophrastos proposed in his parallel study of plants. But we cannot ignore the fact that Aristotle believed that animals lacked the discourse of reason and it didn't matter ethically what one did to them. Thus, for example, there was no need for a body count of fallen barbarians.

But Aristotle was in an oddly insecure position in the eyes of some Greeks since he himself (like Alexander) was a barbarian. Aristotle was identified by Athenians as Makedonian. But his native northern town was in Thrake, rather than Makedonia, and had been captured and destroyed. Aristotle and his family were thus potentially mere "animals" taken over by the royal house of Makedon in its first imperial outreach in mainland Greece.

Aristotle in Athens was a metoikos , a resident alien. He was well connected with a superior and encircling power, and was viewed with suspicion. Yet Athens itself was the place the "barbarian" Aristotle truly loved, and he understood Athens - in some respects better than the Athenians did.

It seems bizarre to mention Alexander and Aristotle, each a towering genius, in the same breath as George W. Bush or Tony Blair. And yet there are parallels between Alexander's dream of taking over the Middle East and controlling its products and trade routes and the current situation in Iraq. Moreover, like Alexander, Bush is reliant on thinkers. America talks of civilisations, and the Greeks would have called it law and a well-constructed polis, knowledge of arts, crafts and, above all, thinking.

These were considered not only as Greek but during the war in Asia became, for the first time, solidified into an ideology and connected with an idea (however confused) of world mission. Do we bring civilisation to the "barbarians"? Or, as Alexander first thought and as Aristotle perhaps always thought, do we subdue the "natives" and establish colonies of the truly civilised? Christianity is often accused of being the originator of this kind of zeal, but its spirit antedates Christianity. When Americans and Britons claim that our role is to bring democracy to Iraq, we chant a variant of a permanently seductive charm. But on our way along this civilising path we have begun to treat the "barbarians" as animals - and become "barbarous and brutish" ourselves.

What would Aristotle have to say about the Abu Ghraib incidents? Alexander's victories demanded not only the slaughter of armies, but of whole towns, as well as selling survivors into slavery. Torture, of course, was used both for punishment and to extract information, just as it was used back home; democratic Athens insisted that all slaves who gave testimony in law cases had to be tortured, and Aristotle himself mentions some of the methods employed.

Cruelty was not really a category of thought of the Ancient Greeks, who were more concerned with anger management and self-control. Aristotle was more interested in pursuing good than dwelling on the depths of what he terms brutality. Yet Aristotle did question the causes of this brutality.

In a surprisingly 20th-century turn, he suggested that immaturity and childhood abuse could be possible causes for such brutality. And, like other classical thinkers, he turned to myth and distant history to make sense of troublesome matters; in dealing with cruelty, he alludes, in Ethics V11.5, to Phalaris, the tyrant who roasted his victims in a brazen bull so he could make it roar. He describes how excessive power and inordinate desire tempt men to hubris - a legal term for commission of outrages. Like the tragic dramatists, Aristotle was aware that hubris begs punishment from some sort of divine power.

Not that the Aristotle we meet in his writings turns to the tragic. He possessed an optimism that seems modern. He believed that we are designed to live together in a community, and that on the whole we want what is good. Yet when he took his zoom lens, as it were, and focused on the behaviour of individuals and small groups he could be very scathing about how humans function. He saw that people could be venal, stupid, cowardly and vain. That human beings are capable of doing wrong against almost anyone, enemies and friends. That a group can be seduced by what it wants to hear; that everyone has a weak side, including the wise, who are susceptible to the desire to be thought wise.

Religion gives some idea of a law beyond the needs of the state, and it can bind a community together - but the execution of Sokrates shows that it can also tear it apart. We may think we are acting well when we are acting in a morally insane way. In Ethics , Aristotle says: "Men suppose that since to act unjustly is in their power, therefore to act justly is easy. But it is not so."

Like most Greeks, Aristotle did not much value moral struggle; he deemed that undergoing great moral conflict showed that the pull of the vicious was strong within you. The guest who has to struggle hard not to steal my silver spoons is less welcome than the guest who has no such thoughts. But Aristotle could not say that it is easy to be good. At the back of his mind, perhaps even when he looked into a bronze mirror, there was the image of man the self-deluder.

Aristotle's life is not only most fascinating but has a tragic quality. He was not an Athenian, nor a Makedonian, and was doomed never to feel truly at home anywhere. Aristotle, whose death could also be said to mark the end of Athenian democracy and the Athenian state, was a great analyst of his world, but he was also doomed by it. In many ways he seems a man of the modern world, a man at the end of an era, possessing a certain rootlessness that gives him a clarity of political and analytical vision lacking in those who dwell contentedly in their own culture like fish in water. In some respects the trumpeter, even inspirer, of the imperial dream, he also suffered from it.

Margaret Doody is professor of literature at Notre Dame University, Indiana, US, where she is director of the PhD programme in literature for graduate students who wish to study literature in more than one language. She is the author of several books, including Poison in Athens , just published by Century, the latest in the Aristotle Detective series.

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