Philosophy in the Narrative Mode: Alexander the Great as an ethical character from Roman to medieval Islamicate literature
Histories of Arabic and Islamic philosophy tend to focus on texts which are systematic in nature and conventionally classified as philosophy or related scholarly disciplines. Philosophical principles, however, are also defining features of texts associated with other genres. Within the larger field of philosophy, this might be especially true of ethics and within the larger body of literature this might be especially the case for stories. Indeed, it is sometimes argued that the very purpose of storytelling is to reinforce and disseminate moral conventions. Likewise, the moral philosopher can be conceptualized as a homo narrans.
The aim of this contribution is to apply the approach to narratives as a mode of debating ethical or moral principles to biographies of Alexander the Great. More than any other figure of the classical world, Alexander was religiously validated in the Islamic tradition due to his quasi-prophetic status as the ‘man with the two horns’ in the Qur’an. He appears prominently in the larger orbit of Arabic and Islamic philosophy as interlocutor and disciple of Aristotle and is adduced anecdotally in philosophical literature as an example to teach larger lessons of life. As a world conqueror, he provided an attractive model for those who sought to reconcile philosophical insight with worldly ambition.
Focusing on biographies of Alexander, this article explores ethical principles which are inscribed in this body of literature and thus reads the texts as a narrativized form of philosophy. The analysis is comparative in two ways. Biographies of different periods and regions of the Islamicate world will be discussed, but comparisons with pre-Islamic biographies of Alexander (notably Roman biographies and the Alexander Romance) are included as well.
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This article was originally published in Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, available at https://doi.org/10.5617/jais.9372
This work is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).