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What Did Aristotle Teach Alexander the Great?

Aristotle teaches young Alexander the Great by Charles Laplante. Public Domain
Greek philosopher Aristotle teaches young Alexander the Great, by Charles Laplante, published in 1866. Public Domain

When philosopher Aristotle was summoned to teach young Alexander the Great, it was a tutorage that helped shape the course of Greek civilization.

One of the wisest Greek philosophers, Aristotle, was also the teacher of the world’s most powerful conqueror, Alexander the Great. The teacher-student relationship lasted for almost twenty years, with the teaching starting when young Alexander was thirteen years old.

Aristotle of Stagira (384-322 BC) was a student of Plato. He was a pioneer in that he employed systematic, scientific examination in all aspects of human knowledge. His contemporaries called him “the man who knew everything.”

Aristotle’s approach was empirical and observational. He believed in the importance of evidence and experience in the pursuit of knowledge. He also introduced the concept of metaphysics, while his writings span a wide range of disciplines, such as logic, ethics, political theory, aesthetics, and rhetoric.

The philosopher from Stagira was one of the first to describe emotions and control over them as the most important part of personality development. Aristotle also delved into non-philosophical fields such as empirical biology. He was an excellent observer and wrote extensive descriptions of plants and animals.

Why did Philip II summon Aristotle?

For King Philip II of Macedon, the great philosopher would be the ideal tutor to teach his son, Alexander, to become a powerful heir to his throne. Furthermore, Philip wanted to bring culture and education to his kingdom to match the intellectual and cultural achievements of the well-organized and cultured Greek city-states.

By the time the King of Macedon summoned Aristotle to teach Alexander the Great, Macedon was already transforming from a turbulent area to a veritable kingdom. This kingdom was located in the crossroads of several different cultures that were not easy to merge.

The ambitious Philip had realized that military prowess alone would not suffice to create a strong, well-respected kingdom. For Aristotle, it was a challenge, as he would be able to apply his philosophical principles to mold the future ruler. Alexander would be the ruler of a land that, until that time, was derided by the kings of the organized and cultured Greek city-states.

Aristotle Teaching Young Alexander

In 343 BC, when Philip summoned Aristotle to tutor his son Alexander, a close seven-year relationship started. Aristotle chose the Temple of the Nymphs at Mieza to be the teaching place for its serenity and beautiful natural surroundings.

The curriculum he devised was a mix of rhetoric, philosophy, politics, natural sciences, and the arts. This was so as to cultivate Alexander’s intellect and character. The method the teacher utilized was one based on interest and grounded in observation and experience.

While walking through the greenery of Mieza, the two had conversations. Their discussions ranged from the methods of government to the structure of plants and animals. Aristotle wanted Alexander to think analytically and critically.

Teacher and student also talked about emotions. Discussing emotions was crucial to the shaping of Alexander’s character because the young royal was impulsive and often tempestuous. Yet, he had an inquisitive and receptive mind.

Ruins of the school where Aristotle taught Alexander, on the site of ancient Mieza. Credit: Jean Housen/Wikimedia Commons
Ruins of the school where Aristotle taught Alexander on the site of Ancient Mieza. Credit: Jean Housen/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Gradually, the relationship between student and teacher became a dynamic partnership of mutual respect. The partnership ended in 336 BC, when the young heir ascended to the throne after his father was assassinated.

In 335 BC, when Alexander began his ambitious campaign in Asia, the philosopher returned to Athens, but the two men remained in contact through letters.

Alexander Carries Aristotle’s Teachings to His Conquests

Aristotle’s influence on the world’s greatest conqueror can be seen in Alexander’s carrying along books with him on several subjects throughout his grand campaign. More importantly, it was evident in his skillful diplomacy in handling difficult political problems throughout his lifetime as a mighty emperor.

Knowingly or not, Alexander became a product of the Hellenistic tradition, imbued with a sense of cultural mission and desire to spread Greek ideas and values. As Alexander moved through Asia Minor, Egypt, and Persia, he promoted the fusion of Greek and local cultures, a policy known as Hellenization.

Ancient Greek style temple in Kashmir India
Ancient Greek style temple in Kashmir India. Image source: GreekReporter/Arunansh B. Goswami.

Aristotle’s lessons in poetry, and especially Homer, inspired Alexander to develop the story of the brave Achilles as the standard to which he would aspire. Hence, Alexander chose the path of the moral hero, placing honor and self-restraint above all else. He did not indulge in sexual excesses and practiced the same self-restraint with food.

Furthermore, the renowned philosopher imparted in him an interest in medicine, leading Alexander to prescribe treatments for many of his friends. Aristotle’s teachings in zoology and botany even motivated Alexander to take an army of botanists and zoologists to Asia alongside his regular army.

These men took with them large amounts of specimens that would actually prove useful for later scientific advancements in the respective fields.

Aristotle, Alexander the Great, and Diplomacy

A book called Secretum Secretorum (Secret of Secrets), which was very popular from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, is purportedly a treatise on letters containing advice from Aristotle to Alexander the Great. The advice is about everything from Alexander’s diet to how to conduct war.

The origin of the treatise is unknown. It is claimed that the 9th century Arabic edition was translated from Greek. No Greek texts have, however, been found. Scholars believe the texts were originally written in Arabic by Yaḥyā ibn al-Biṭrīq, an Assyrian scholar who pioneered the translation of Ancient Greek texts into Arabic.

Among the advice on everyday issues such as health, nature, and eating habits, the philosopher delves into serious political issues as he responds to Alexander’s questions on how to rule the new lands he conquered and deal with the natives.

Below is an example of a question Alexander allegedly posted:

O my excellent preceptor and just minister, I inform you that I have found in the land of Persia men possessing sound judgement and powerful understanding, who are ambitious of bearing rule. Hence I have decided to put them all to death. What is your opinion in this matter? 

Aristotle responded:

It is no use putting to death the men you have conquered; for their land will, by the laws of nature, breed another generation which will be similar. The character of these men is determined by the nature of the air of their country and the waters they habitually drink. The best course for you is to accept them as they are, and to seek to accommodate them to your concepts by winning them over through kindness.

This account of Aristotle’s advice to Alexander shows the value of counselors, secretaries, and administrative elites, and, more importantly, bolsters the need for diplomacy in strenuous situations.

After taking over the Persian Empire, Alexander treated the Persian royal family with chivalrous respect and married the daughter of King Darius, Stateira (also known as Homa). He also had two other noble Persian wives, Barsine and Parysatis. It was his notion to integrate and infuse Greek culture into the conquered lands. Alexander’s best friend, Hephaestion, also married a Persian noblewoman named Drypetis.

It is not certain if Alexander followed his mentor’s good advice in all issues. Nevertheless, the Greek conqueror ruled supreme in a big part of the known world of the time, and his legacy remains strong to this day.


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