Aristotle, Alexander, and The Origins of Modern Societies
The school where Aristotle taught Alexander, and the stone benches in the shady olive groves where they planned the new society are still standing. I visited the school and sat on the benches a long time ago, before I knew anything about society, before I had written anything, before I even had any idea who Alexander and Aristotle were.
My father had retired from the military and lived in Athens. I had never really known him. He and my mother hated each other and had stayed together for the kids. ‘Stayed together’ means stayed legally married. They were like water and oil, too different to even see each other’s point of view, let alone get along. My mother was raised in what even Montanans call ‘the sticks,’ in a tiny cabin along a creek in mountains local people call ‘Crazy Lady Mountains.’ My father was raised in a 7th floor apartment in midtown Manhattan. They met at a USO dance in Denver where my father was in training in the Air Force. My mother had left the misery and poverty of postwar rural Montana to find a husband. She was very pretty and had no problem. Three months after she met my father they married and 7 months after that my sister was born. The math tells me that my mother had had a plan and it had worked perfectly.
My father’s official job title was ‘photo specialist,’ but in reality he was a spy. He operated the sensitive cameras in the high altitude planes that flew mostly over Russia, but also over China, Indochina, Korea, and any other place that our government thought of as a threat. The flying work was clandestine and dangerous. The government denied that the flights were taking place. The people on the flights were given cyanide capsules to take in the event they were shot down, so the enemy couldn’t present them as proof of spying. The Russians and Chinese were trying to shoot these planes down. My father relied on faith in the superiority of United States technology (which later turned out to be misplaced) and good luck to keep him alive.
A photo specialist could either take the photographs or develop the film, enhance the results, and analyze the results. The analysts worked in the states. After a tour overseas he was supposed to get an equal length of time in the states, which he could spend with his family. But whenever he was with us, life was a nightmare. When he and my mother got into the same room I could feel the hatred and resentment. When they got close enough they would start screaming at each other at the top of their lungs. My mother was an idealist. She was married. After ‘and they got married’ in all the fairytales came ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ She had gotten to ‘got married.’ Where was her ‘happily ever after?’ This was my father’s job to provide. He could not do this and this made him defective and worthy of infinite wrath. The hell would last a few days or weeks.
My father would then give up trying and put in for another overseas assignment. They needed him over there. We would take him to the airport and he would disappear for another year.
He wasn’t allowed to tell us where he was. We wrote to him at an APO address in the states, which is a mail forwarding system that the military has set up to get mail to military personnel without their dependents (and therefore possibly enemies) knowing where they are. After he died I found his papers and saw that he spent most of his time in Pakistan, Thailand, and other countries that were within flying distance of the USSR and communist China. Presumably he was taking pictures of their missile installations to help military planners figure out where to target our nuclear bombs when war broke out.
He was actually a very nice guy if he wasn’t near my mother. But I never knew him growing up. When he retired he must have thought it would be a good idea to get to know his oldest son and invited me to come spend the summer with him in Greece.
I hated Athens. I guess I hate big cities in general. I convinced him to let his apartment go and take me on an extended road trip through northern Greece. We had a VW microbus set up as a camper. I convinced him to let things flow. We would go where the road took us.
We spent most of our time in little villages. I liked life there. The Greeks like to drink a wine called ‘retsina.’ It has a bit of wood resin in it as a preservative and has a resiny taste that a lot of people find unpleasant the first time they try it. But it grows on you. Each little mountain village had its own wineries and the wines were all different. Each had its bakeries and the bread was all different. The restaurants are outside, shaded by trees and usually along some sort of creek or stream. Like restaurants in most of Europe, they just assume you want wine when you sit down. They bring a carafe of retsina, a basket of fresh local bread, and a bowl of olive oil to dip the bread into. For the meal, you get meat cooked over a charcoal fire, vegetables cooked in olive oil, and a salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, and black olives dripping with oil and covered with feta cheese. The dollar was strong and the drachma was weak, so everything was very cheap.
The guidebook said that Naoussa was an important place in history. I thought it was worth a few days. I sat on the stone benches where Aristotle and Alexander had sat. I bought retsina and drank it on the benches. A few weeks before, in Athens, we had had dinner with some friends of my father and I was thinking about something they had said: The world was in terrible shape. Their generation had messed it up for us and now they were too old to do anything about it. It was up to the next generation to fix its problems. They were looking at me when they said it. They were talking about me.
There is a lot in northern Greece that I remember. I remember the cool dry nights and the stars, the white wine, and a pretty teenage Greek girl who wanted to do things I did not understand and could not discuss with her, because we did not share a language. I remember that the air smelled like flowers and the restaurants smelled like charcoal and olive oil. I remember that the peasant men always seemed to be sitting around playing cards and drinking retsina, while their wives, who looked like they had lived very hard lives, always seemed to be working. I remember that the pace was very slow and there was time to think things through. It was a place made for thinking.
I watched local people make charcoal, piling sticks into a mound, covering it with dirt, and then building a fire inside the mound. This must have been the way they made charcoal in Aristotle’s time. They used wooden presses to squeeze the olive oil, probably also unchanged from thousands of years ago. The young Greek girls milked the goats and made feta cheese in their homes. Local grain was ground in stone mills alongside rivers and baked into local bread. Every village had its own wineries, and wine was sold by the carafe out of wooden barrels.
It is easy to imagine that nothing was different in the time of Aristotle. Perhaps he ate at local restaurants, which had been in the same place along the same streams where I sat. Perhaps he saw the same sights and smelled the same smells as he made his trip from Athens to northern Greece, on his way to teach a 13-year-old brat (he was the son of a king—what else could he be?) for more money than he had ever made before in his life. Perhaps he was wondering if he had sold out and should just send a letter to King Phillip: He could say that he had some sort of emergency back home and would have to decline the position and return to Athens. Then he could go back to continue his research at Plato’s Academy.
Perhaps he then thought about the money and figured that it couldn’t hurt to give it a try. If it didn’t work out he would get on his horse and be in Athens before anyone in Naoussa even knew he was gone.
It worked out. He sat in the benches in the olive groves in the fragrant Greek air and worked out the future of the world with Alexander. When I read Aristotle I am still in awe of his brilliance. The young Alexander must have found it impossible to believe his luck: the smartest man who had ever lived was teaching him.
Unfortunately, most records of this era were lost when, 700 years later, an emperor decided to create a new religion and force it on the people, burning every book that might in any way contradict this religion, including the work of Aristotle. We don’t know exactly what was said. I have had to work out what they must have discussed from the surviving works of Aristotle and from what Alexander did after his lessons with Aristotle were completed. Almost certainly, they spent most of their time discussing the nature of societies, the problems that Socrates had identified, and potential ways to create new types of societies, built on some premise other than the idea of dividing the world into nations and giving each nation ‘sovereignty’ (unlimited rights) over a certain part of the world.
What We Know And Don’t Know
Alexander did the seemingly impossible. He united more than 500 million people in a new kind of society that stretched over more than 2 million square miles, included hundreds of ethnic groups with dozens of different languages and cultural backgrounds. He built more highways than had ever been built before in history, including most of the highways that are still in use today in the lands that were a part of his new society. He built the largest and most complete libraries that had ever existed, he founded universities, he introduced new kinds of capital markets, he created banking and credit systems, and he built more than 20 master-planned cities from scratch.
The changes he made led to massive increases in production, creating great prosperity, and turned Alexander into one of the few people in the world who are remembered as truly great.
And he did this all in less than 13 years.
He was in power for exactly 4,753 days.
How did he do it?
It is very unfortunate that the book burnings that started roughly 700 years later were as successful as they were. The libraries that Alexander built throughout the lands were some of the finest and most complete that have ever existed, even to this day. They almost certainly contained complete descriptions on exactly how Alexander accomplished what he accomplished. Unfortunately, the book burnings destroyed most of the details and all we have is the mostly general information.
We do know this: He did not just make a few modifications in the society he was born into. He created an entirely new type of society, one that had qualities that no society before his time had ever had. He and Aristotle clearly understood Socrates’ message: human societies are human creations and are therefore understandable by humans. (One of the two counts against Socrates was heresy, a religious crime. Claiming humans could understand societies—which were seen to have been the creation of the gods—was a clear violation of religious law.)
Socrates claimed that it is possible to use logic and reason on societies. We can work out their building blocks and figure out how they are put together. We can then figure out different ways to put these same elements together, creating different societies. After we do this, we can go over the options to find arrangements that have the potential to move the human race toward a better future, figure out how those societies differ from our starting societies, and then start moving from ‘the type of society we were born into’ to ‘a type of society that can meet the needs of the human race.’
We have seen that the societies that we were born into are built on beliefs, not logic. They start with the belief that humans are, by nature, the owners of everything, including the planet, and the first group to each unowned part of the world can claim it and it belongs to them. If we start with a belief and then reject every structure that is not consistent with that belief, we don’t have a lot of flexibility in the design of our societies. For example, if we say that the citizens of each nation have sovereignty or unlimited rights the part of the world that is their nation, we leave no rights to anything unowned and available for the benefit of the entire human race. In fact, any rights we the human race as a whole gets will necessarily infringe on sovereignty of some nation; if we reject any structure that infringes on sovereignty, we reject any structure that grants equality to all members of the human race in any respect.
Socrates recommended a huge change in the way we think about societies. If we start with logic, and leave beliefs out of the picture altogether, we have no limits. We can do anything we want to do. Socrates taught this to Plato who opened the Academy to teach it to others; the Academy’s most famous student was Aristotle, who worked out the details of a new society in the mountains of Greece with the young Alexander, who was to put them into practice.
I have tried, throughout this book, to keep as true as possible to the forensic evidence, using scientific evidence, eye-witness accounts, and scans of original documents whenever possible. Unfortunately, the forensic evidence needed to understand the details of Alexander’s system is very scarce.
Forensic evidence does appear to exist; I have found references to it in books like , , and , and ) by Diodorus Siculus. Although these books discuss the documents, they don’t reproduce the documents and I could not find scans of them, I only have a general picture of the system he set up, not the details.
This chapter must therefore be more speculative than the rest of the book. I think that a little bit of speculative discussion is warranted because of the importance of the very short period when Alexander was in power. Alexander didn’t simply take for granted that the world was as it was because some sort of invisible Superbeing in the sky made it that way, and all we can do is accept this and pray to the Superbeing to make it better. He saw that certain aspects of society that others thought couldn’t be changed really could be changed.
One illustration of this point involves the idea of sovereignty. The old societies accepted that land belonged to nations and their kings because the one who had created it had given it to them. It was the will of the Creator that this land benefits only the people of that nation. Rulers didn’t have the option of using the wealth the land produced to benefit the entire human race, because this goes against the wishes of the all-powerful Creator; they risked divine punishment if they went against these wishes.
Alexander was willing to look at societies differently. The land pours forth new wealth (food and other good things) each year. There is no logical reason to limit our options for societies to those that keep the wealth produced in each part of the world to the people and land inside the imaginary lines that determine each ‘nation.’ If Alexander needed a shipping port in one nation and the land of that nation did not produce enough surpluses to afford the port but the land of another nation did, Alexander didn’t see anything wrong with violating sovereignty by using the wealth where it was most needed.
Another illustration involves the idea of ownership. If we think of ownership as a religious principle, it is absolute. The Creator either gave the land to the people or didn’t give the land to the people. If it was given to the people, they own it; if not they don’t. Alexander was able to see that we don’t have to look at the idea of ownability that way. It is possible for people to be the owners of rights to parts of the world, without actually owning the parts of the world themselves. (An example follows.) The human race is actually harmed if their societies are built on the premise that ownership is an absolute concept created by some superbeing that lives in the sky. If people believe they own parts of the world, they believe they can do anything they want with those parts of the world, including destroy them. However, if society is set up so that people can buy certain rights to the world—say the right to improve the world and the right to keep some of the benefits the world gets due to the improvement—the human race can actually benefit from ownership.
Alexander did things no one else had ever done before and achieved things that no one after him has been able to match. It is hard to understand how he was able to do these things if we think of him as simply trying various combinations of minor alterations in existing societies and hoping for the best. If we think of him as building on the work of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to work out logical and reasonable principles that put societies on an entirely different foundation, the things he did make sense. He instituted changes that led to more wealth creation, so there was more for everyone. He then changed the systems that distributed this wealth, so that people could get it by doing things that brought benefits to the human race, rather doing things that harmed the human race.
Let’s consider a specific change that we know Alexander made in the system of ‘land tenure,’ which refers to the rights that people have to the land. He set up a system where the people who worked the land would own certain rights to the land, without actually owning the land itself. They would own the right to improve the land and make it better, and own the right to keep all of the benefits of increases in production for a very long period of time after the improvement was made. This gave them powerful incentives to figure out new and better ways to do things and to make improvements, even if they had to do a lot of work and invest a lot of money to complete the improvements.
Leasehold Ownership: An Example
Imagine you were born to tenant farmers in the old feudal system, before Alexander came to power. Let me paint the scene:
Your parents work a parcel of land for a feudal lord. A feudal lord administers the land on behalf of the king, who owns the land. Each year, assessors who work for the lord come to your farm to determine how much in rents your parents will have to pay to the lord. These people have detailed records of production of this land going back many years in the past, along with records of the production of all nearby parcels. They know how much this land has produced in the past and generally expect it to produce the same amount this year as last. They calculate production, subtract the amount that your family will need to survive until next year, and assess the difference as ‘rents.’
This land produces rice. The parcel your parents are assigned is 10 acres in size and produces 52,500 pounds of rice a year. The assessors have determined they will allow your parents to keep 2,500 pounds of this, so they have set the rents at 50,000 pounds this year. Your parents must turn over this rice to the lord’s rent collectors on a certain date. If your parents don’t do this, they are considered to be thieves, stealing rice that belongs to their lord. The lord wants people to know that they will suffer horribly if they steal from him, so he generally punishes them by public torture to death.
Your parents obviously want to make sure the rents are paid. Let’s say that, this year, the land only produces 51,000 pounds, rather than the 52,500 pounds that the assessors thought it would produce. Your parents are not going to make the lord take the shortage out of his share, because if they do, they die. They will give the lord his 50,000 pounds, and try to survive on 1,000 pounds until next year. Your family will have some very, very hard times.
As soon as you are old enough, you are expected to work on the farm. If your parents are lucky, you will live long enough to support them in their own age. When they die, you will be expected to take over their obligations to their lord. Let’s move ahead to the time after this happens to see if we can understand your incentives to make improvements in the land.
Let’s consider your incentives to improve the land in this starting system:
You know that the assessors will increase your rents if they can find any excuse to do this because the lord has incentives to collect higher rents from you. (From historical documents, I see that assessors were generally paid a commission, taking a percentage of the rents they get from the land. They clearly have incentives to set rents as high as they can with a reasonable chance of being paid.) Perhaps you might speculate that there are changes that could be made to the land that would drive up production in future years. For a simple example, level land uses water better than unleveled land. Your parcel has some high spots and low spots. You might speculate that you could take a pick and a shovel, break down the higher areas and use the dirt and rocks to fill in the lower areas. This would require a great deal of work but it has a very good chance of increasing the output of the land by 10%.
You obviously wouldn’t want the assessors to know that the land might possibly produce more, if some work was done, because if they knew this, they would set the rents higher and force you to make this change just to survive. If the assessors found out and increased your rents, but you couldn’t get the job done in time, or if you did it but the production increase wasn’t as great as you expected, you would be put to death.
During feudal times, public executions were quite common. Because people began to become desensitized to ordinary executions like hangings (which were going on all the time in permanent gallows), lords looked for more and more brutal and gruesome methods to kill people so the punishment would have greater force in pressuring people to comply with the law.
The execution methods became more and more gruesome, so they would have some residual effect on people’s thoughts. Here is a to a website that goes over methods used in Britain. The text box to the right is the legal description of the judgment to be explained to people upon conviction of crimes warranting this form of punishment.
If you did get the improvement made in time, you would live, but you would have done a great deal of work and taken on massive risk, without any benefit to yourself: the assessor would take away all increases in production for the benefit of the king and other people paid commission out of rents. You may be able to imagine that most people wouldn’t want to even think about such things, for fear their lips would slip at the wrong time and word would get back to the assessors. (It is like mentioning certain topics in on cell phones in the NSA age: certain words are not to be spoken.)
If you are a farmer working for a feudal lord, here is what you want: nothing to change, ever. As long as nothing changes, you can survive. People will act as if nothing could possibly ever cause production to go up and hope that the assessors believe this. If they have any suspicions that the land might be improvable, they will put these thoughts out of their heads, for fear they may inadvertently lead someone to mention something to the assessors. If asked, point blank, if the land can be improved, they will continue to affirm it can’t, regardless of what arguments are used on the other side.
This was the way the incentive system worked before Alexander came.
Example, Part Two
Then Alexander comes to power.
Shortly after he is crowned king, he sent people to the countryside with news of a change in policy. You will be getting a document called a ‘leasehold title’ to the 10 acres you live on. This document will grant you ownership of certain rights to the property. The leasehold title says that you will own something called a ‘leasehold.’ A leasehold is a legal right to lease a property for a certain fixed yearly payment for the duration of the term of the lease. In this case, your leasehold title stipulates that the leasehold will last 20 years and the leasehold payment will be 50,000 pounds of rice a year. The registered owner of the leasehold title owns the right to operate this farm, make all decisions on it, and keep everything it produces after the first 50,000 pounds.
You are told that the leasehold title document says this in writing. It is signed by Alexander’s representative who guarantees that you will have the stated rights. Alexander has set up courts. If you believe other people are infringing on your rights, you can take them to court. Alexander has sworn a personal oath to respect and protect the laws of the land, including the laws protecting the rights of owners of leaseholds. If others infringe on your rights, you take them to court and the court rules in your favor, Alexander’s administration will enforce the court’s rulings and make sure your rights are protected.
Before this change, you were nothing but a slave. You belonged to the land, you collected what the land produced and turned it over to your landlord. You had no rights. The lord of the feud you lived in could do anything he wanted to you, including have you tortured to death, for any reason or no reason at all. The assessors could be totally arbitrary: If they don’t like you, they can set rents that leave you with so little you won’t be able to survive. You had no guarantees and no promises.
Now you own certain rights to the land.
This is not the kind of ownership that we are used to in our 21st century societies. You don’t own the land itself. You only own the right to have exclusive use of this land, the right to make decisions on the land, the right to keep all increases in production on the land, and the right to sell your rights to the land (by selling the leasehold title.)
Alexander wants people to improve property. He wants to make it easy. He has set up something called an ‘agricultural bank.’ This bank makes loans available to any leasehold owners who can submit solid business plans for improvements in property. As long as you can convince the loan officers that the production will increase by enough to make the loan payments, you can get a loan. Alexander has also opened a university in a city and set up an ‘agricultural extension office’ in a town near your land. The extension agent collects data on farming techniques and yields; she works with people at the university to figure out which techniques work best. You can go into the office and talk to the extension agent any time you want to get advice.
This farm is not entirely level. You may suspect that, if the land were leveled, it would produce more. You can go to the extension office and talk to the agent. She has data on various rice-producing land, some of which is totally level, and some that is partially leveled, like yours. Her data shows that the totally level land tends to produce 10% more than the unleveled land. You will need to buy some tools like a shovel and wheelbarrow. You don’t have any money of course.
But she helps you fill out some forms that explain your project. This project will clearly bring enough increases in production to cover loan payments for a loan to buy the tools. You can take the form to the bank and apply for a loan. If you get the loan (and this should happen; that is why Alexander set up the bank), you can buy the tools and make the improvements. If production goes up as you expect, the farm will now produce 57,500 pounds a year. Your leasehold payment remains 50,000 pounds, leaving you with 7,500 pounds (less what you have to sell to cover your loan payment), so your income will roughly triple.
An extra 600 pounds of rice a year will feed six chickens. You can afford to have eggs every day if you want them. An extra 500 pounds a year will feed a cow. You can now have milk, cheese, and butter. With your extra income, you can afford to buy and feed a few piglets, so you will have bacon, pork chops, and barbeque ribs, something you never would have been able to afford before. You can sell some of the extra rice and use it to buy wood so you can now afford to heat your home. You can buy some cloth so you can have coats and blankets. If you get sick, you will be able to afford medicine.
You don’t own the land. But you do own rights to use the land and benefit from its existence. You own rights called ‘leasehold rights.’ These rights include the right to keep 100% of the increases in production for the balance of the term of the lease. If you improve the land, you will own the right to keep all increases for the remainder of the term of the leasehold. You get rewarded for improving, so you have incentives to improve.
For more than 2,000 years, military analysts have tried to figure out how Alexander could possibly have conquered the immense lands he gained control of in such a short time. In 13 years, he gained control over 2 million square miles (about the area of the lower 48 United States) of land, with 500 million inhabitants (more than the population of the United States). Here is a map that shows the land that was under Alexander’s control when he died:
Before Alexander came along, this land was divided into hundreds of kingdoms. The kings had all built walls, hedgerows, and other barriers and heavy fortifications to protect their land, and kept highly trained armies equipped with the best weaponry the kings could afford to protect their land. These fortifications had held for centuries.
What kind of military genius could overcome all of these defenses, taking more land in a single month than had been conquered by all military commanders combined in centuries before Alexander came along?
To see how difficult this task is, consider one tiny part of the land that became a part of Alexander’s community of nations: the 250,000 square miles that is currently called the nation of ‘Afghanistan.’ The United States has been fighting in Afghanistan for longer than the entire 13 years Alexander was in power. But this giant superpower with all its advantages and technology is no closer to forcing the people of Afghanistan to accept its rule in 2015 than it was in 2001 when the war began. This isn’t the only example showing how difficult it is to conquer the people of Afghanistan: The Soviet Union waged a similar war for 20 years before the United States arrived, and eventually had to pull out, without having had any success at all. This tells us that the people of Afghanistan don’t simply lay down to conquerors.
Alexander annexed Afghanistan in passing. He took so little time to make this land a part of his new system that the historians didn’t even record the battles (if they even took place).
How could this be?
I submit to you that Alexander didn’t try to do the things the United States and Soviet Union tried to do. He didn’t try to force them to accept control by his military.
He didn’t ‘conquer’ Afghanistan at all.
He made it clear to the people that if they joined his new system, all of the people there would be equal partners with the people of the rest of the empire. They would have the same rights as the other people who had already joined. The people who had been working land for feudal lords would, from then on, be working for themselves, for their own benefit, and would own the right to keep certain things they created or produced on the land and the benefits of improvements they made to it.
He let them know that his empire was vast, productive, and prosperous; if they joined, this prosperity would begin to flow to them. The wealth of the empire would be used to build roads, schools, parks, libraries, and other facilities that pull them out of feudalism and into the modern world.
When he expanded his empire, he didn’t consider one part the conquering country and the rest the ‘occupied territories’ or ‘vassal states.’ People were people. People had rights. Logic and reason tell us that people are far more likely to join others who are offer to treat them with respect and allow them to share equally in the benefits of living on this incredibly beautiful and productive planet, than to submit to authorities trying to exploit them.
If we try to understand Alexander’s success using traditional models, it simply doesn’t make sense. No one had ever or has ever been able to ‘conquer’ the amount of land he conquered at all. Even with an entire, full lifetime, no one has done it. If we think of him as a military conqueror, imposing outside rule on people and subjugating them by force, his accomplishments seem and I believe truly are impossible.
His success only makes sense if we accept that he was trying to do and did do a great deal more than the other ‘ordinary military commanders’ had done. He wasn’t trying to ‘conquer territory’ as the people who preceded (and followed him) were trying to do. He had worked out the changes needed to bring about a better existence for everyone in the misty summer afternoons of Naoussa, with his tutor, Aristotle. The world already produced plenty of wealth to create a utopia. It is a very bountiful world. But in the system that existed at that time, sovereign entities (nations) used the great bulk of that wealth to isolate themselves from others and build weapons to use to force people to respect their isolation.
Alexander was a very intelligent person who had incredible guidance. The inspiration came from the great thinker Socrates. Plato then built the largest school that the world had ever known (as far as records indicate) to try to get as many people as possible to actually think about the things Socrates told it was acceptable to think about: the possible structures of human societies. This school attracted truly brilliant men, including one of the most brilliant people who have ever lived, Aristotle. Alexander didn’t do it alone. He was trained by the very best teacher of the very best school of its kind, a school founded to do nothing but work out better ways to use logic, reason, and the immense power of the human intellect to create a better ‘mode of human existence’ or ‘society.’
We can only really understand Alexander’s accomplishments if we can see them in their proper context. Many historians put Alexander at the top of the list when they are describing military commanders. I think this misrepresents him totally. He really belongs at the top of the list of progressive humanitarian reformers. One person came closer to changing the realities of human existence, and putting us on a path to sustainable, peaceful, non-destructive societies, than anyone else either before or after him.
He failed. But we should not believe that this was because his plan couldn’t work. People die. Alexander died before he could finish.
Some may say that this tell us Alexander’s death must have come about because some unseen entity (a God or whatever Superbeing they believe in) interfered to prevent the changes he was putting in place from taking hold. But we have seen, throughout this book, that we don’t have to resort to believing in and evoking the will of invisible Superbeings micromanaging events to explain what we see. Irrefutable scientific evidence that is backed by infinite historical evidence tells us that humans were the result of a gradual evolution, not some decision by an invisible being at a certain point to ‘create’ us. To conclude that this fantastically important event (the evolution of humans) had nothing to do with invisible Superbeings, but that Alexander’s early death was due to anything science can’t explain, is an instance of the mental perspective that George Orwell called ‘doublethink.’ If we are wiling to accept evolution, we have to also accept that there was no micro-managing by invisible Superbeings.
He failed. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense to try again. The first time Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tried to throw a basketball through a hoop (as a child) he missed. That doesn’t mean he should have given up. We still have time. Most of the works of Socrates, and about half of the works of Aristotle, still exist. We have evidence to tell us that it is possible to build on this foundation. I will admit that the great majority of the people of today base their analysis of societies on beliefs about the intentions of invisible Superbeings, rather than logic and reason. But the same was true 2,200 years ago when Alexander tried, and he almost succeeded. Perhaps, if we try again, we may again fail, and perhaps this may happen many times before we eventually succeed. But if we start with logic and reason, if we use all the tools of science and all of the wonderful new tools like the internet that can help us with global corporation and collaboration, and we combine this with the extra 2,200 years of history and research that we have that Alexander didn’t have, and we aren’t afraid to keep going when we hit a rough patch, we just might make it.
I like to think of our situation this way: Alexander showed us something could be done that people thought couldn’t be done. It is a great advantage to know that something you want to be done can actually be done. I remember my first car, a beat up hunk of junk that I bought for $50 because the former owner couldn’t figure out how to make it run. I tried for months to make it run. I would have given up but for one thing: I knew the car could run, because at one time it did run. I knew that my goal, of ‘making the car run,’ was possible, so I kept going. Perhaps we don’t have as much of the details of Alexander’s system as we would like. But even without any details at all, we have one great advantage that not even Alexander had: we know it can be done.
What We Know and What We Don’t Know
Alexander altered the ‘land tenure’ system in the lands that joined his community of nations. He gave people who worked the land real legal rights and set up courts to enforce these rights. We don’t know the wording of the documents or the details of administration.
We do know that Alexander used the surpluses the land produced—which were paid in as leasehold payments—to pay for some of the largest infrastructure projects ever undertaken. These projects weren’t granted to nations or states based politics; they were built where they would do the most good for the most people.
Alexander died at 33, before he could make his grand plan self-sustaining. We can’t know, therefore, the details of the grand plan. I do want to lay out what I believe his vision to have been, based on the information that we have available. The historian writes that Alexander’s final instructions to his subordinates included this provision:
People of the Near East are to be encouraged to marry with those of Europe and those of Europe to do likewise; in so doing, a new culture would be embraced by all.
He wanted a world community that included all members of the human race. Their rights wouldn’t have anything to do with which ‘nation’ their mothers were in when they were born. Humans would all have human rights.
The system he started to set up would have made all humans a part of community of humankind. The members of the community of humankind would have been a kind of landlords of the planet: the rents that had been going to the feudal lords and kings would go to the human race instead. Groups of people who wanted to have exclusive rights to parts of the world could have these rights with the consent of the landlords (the members of the human race, acting as a community of humankind). But they couldn’t own or act as if they owned any part of the world. We would allow them to use it, over time, in exchange for yearly payments that went to the entire human race. The landlords (the human race) could then use the leasehold payments we get from the land for whatever the members of the human race wanted, without regard for which ‘nation’ the land that generated the leasehold payments happened to be in.
Alexander showed us that there are two ways to make changes. We can come up with changes that do not benefit people, and then use militaries to force them to accept these changes, or we can structure our changes so that everyone benefits from them. If everyone benefits from the changes, they don’t have to be forced to accept them. They will embrace the changes.
Several times in this book I have pointed out historical events that should give us hope. We were raised in societies that need war, and people fight better for what they have if they think nothing better is possible. These societies can keep people willing to fight for the systems that are already in place if they can make them believe there is no hope for anything else. But there is hope. History tells us there is hope. For a very brief period in history, we had proof.
The End of the First Incarnation of Intellect-Based Societies
Shortly after his 33rd birthday, on May 30, 323bc to be exact, Alexander got sick. The illness worsened and, ten days later, his advisors told him it was time to say goodbye to his loved ones and write his final will and testament.
Many historians have analyzed the records of the last few days of his life to see if they could figure out what killed him. They have come up with theories, but they don’t have enough facts to prove any of them. Most of the accounts I have read speculate he was poisoned.
Alexander had changed the world. The majority of the people in the new system had better lives because of the changes Alexander had made. But the minority who had held power in the old system did not like the change. These people wanted the old system back. Alexander seemed to trust people a lot more than he probably should have. He had a lot of people around him and was invited out for dinner and drinks quite often. A lot of people could have taken advantage of his lack of caution and slipped a few drops of poison into a drink or meal. His symptoms were consistent with poison. We will probably never know what killed him for sure, but we do know that on June 9, 323bc Alexander took his last breath.
According to Bibliotheca Historica by Diodorus Siculus, Alexander had not had time to name a successor. (His only son was then unborn; his wife Roxana gave birth 2 months after Alexander died.) Siculus quotes Alexander’s last words:
When he was quitting life in Babylon and at his last breath was asked by his friends to whom he was leaving the kingdom, he said, "To the best man; for I foresee that a great combat of my friends will be my funeral games." And this actually happened; for after the death of Alexander the foremost of his friends quarreled about the primacy and joined in many great combats.
Alexander was in the process of creating this community of nations and he intended to extend it to the entire world, to turn it from being a ‘community of nations’ into a true ‘community of humankind.’
In this community of humankind, no one would ‘own’ any part of the world. The world would exist for the benefit of the entire human race. Everyone who wanted rights to parts of the world could buy them, but they wouldn’t buy the land itself, they would buy the right to lease the land from the ‘landlords of the planet,’ which would be this new ‘community of humankind’ that Alexander was creating.
The oppressors would be gone. The owners would be gone. The rulers and tyrants would not have any tools they could use to oppress the people, because the wealth that had gone to them (the surpluses or ‘rents’ the land produced) would be going to the people of the world (the community of humankind) instead.
If we try to understand Alexander’s success using traditional models, it simply doesn’t make sense. No one had ever or has ever been able to ‘conquer’ the amount of land he conquered at all. Even with an entire, full lifetime, no one has done it. If we think of him as a military conqueror, imposing outside rule on people and subjugating them by force, his accomplishments seem and I believe truly are impossible.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I was a 33 year old man once. I know how I felt then: I was at the top of my game. I could do no wrong, I was the master of every situation, and nothing made me afraid. The idea of making plans for what would happen after I died would have seemed like a foolish waste of time, if anyone had suggested it. Alexander had a plan but he seemed to have been the only one who knew the details. An immense fortune flowed into his treasury each year. He had been using it to build roads, libraries, schools, and financial systems. His predecessors saw only rooms that filled up with silver as the days passed. They wanted that silver.
As Siculus notes, when Alexander died, people started immediately fighting over his empire. They didn’t fund the administrative systems Alexander had set up that protected the rights of the people Alexander had empowered. The kings saw the power vacuum and moved in to take back their kingdoms and put the old system back into place.
An era in the history of the human race had ended.