"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 30, 2018

Emperors, Shahs, Kings, And Shoguns–The Enduring Allure Of Power, Ambition, And Conquest

We live in an age of compassion.  Community, collaboration, and cooperation are the moral ideals to which we ascribe.  Monarchy, capitalism, empire, and sexual adventure have all been discredited, relics of an unwoke history which valued power, ambition, and conquest, and of no relevance to a new age of social reform and justice. 

Yet the idealistic notion of social harmony has never prevailed.  It is the clash of civilizations which has defined human history. Despite recent attempts to socialize the natural aggressive individualism which has characterized society for millennia, it is the competition between cultures, countries, and individuals which has prevailed – the expected, predictable expression of human nature.

Civilizations have prospered not in spite of this natural aggressiveness, but because of it.  Persepolis, Rome, Japan, China, India, and the colonial empires of Europe were built on the wealth acquired through conquest.  Art, music, literature, science, and philosophy were the products of powerful societies whose military might and political rule allowed for the growth of culture.  While empires were constantly at war, the spoils of war built palaces, temples, and chateaux.  Armies grew in strength, sophistication, and number; and culture, patronized by kings and courtiers, gave national identity, character, and purpose.

This socio-political and cultural dynamism did not happen collectively – a random sorting of talent and ability – but from leadership.  It was the shahs, shoguns, mandarins, princes, kings, and emperors who provided direction, governance, and authority.  The Caesars, the Ptolemies, the Mauryas and Ashokas, Song Taizhu and Tang Xuanzong were powerful, visionary leaders who not only consolidated and expanded their empires but symbolized and centralized political, cultural, and religious authority.

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The first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang (247-220 BC)  built the Great Wall, commissioned the Terracotta Army, conquered and pacified the warring states and brought them under his central control, thus laying the groundwork on which China emerged as the preeminent cultural and political power in East Asia. His reforms standardized language, numerical units, and monetary measures.

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At the same time he was brutal and relentless during and after his conquest of the various states; and was tyrannical and unforgiving as a ruler.  Yet without him and his unique intelligence, will, certainty, and canniness China would never have so quickly progressed to a world leader.

The wars of Europe were incessant.  Spain, France, and England were constantly battling for territory, naval supremacy, territory, and colonial rule.  The Holy Roman Emperor, the Popes, and minor fiefdoms were smaller, but important players in the constant reconfiguring of the continent.  Along with this aggressive use of force came the riches that new lands and opportunities afforded.  Each of the empires grew wealthier and this wealth permitted the growth of knowledge and culture.

Tolstoy, writing in War and Peace debunked the Great Man theory of history, said that everyone’s actions are so conditioned by what has come before that to glorify them is vain and ignorant.  Yet he had no doubt that great men like Napoleon, whatever their origins, were special, unique, heroic, inevitable, and necessary.

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Russia would not be the world power it is without the tsars; Rome nothing without its emperors; Britain insignificant without its kings and queens. The Ghana and Gao empires of Africa were no different and both extended over vast territories of West Africa.  Their rulers were as centralizing, powerful, and expansionist as any.

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While times have changed, human nature has not.  Individuals and the societies which they have created are just as aggressive, territorial, and expansionist as at any time in history.  The Twentieth Century was no aberration as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hirohito demonstrated.  The Twenty-first shows no signs of hoped for peaceful unification.  There has been no end of history as Francis Fukuyama predicted thirty years ago as the Soviet Union crumbled and the hopes for a universal liberal democracy seemed realizable.  Countries are dividing themselves in ways which beg for consolidation and central rule.  The movement for multi-culturalism, pluralism, and ethnic and racial identity has created divided, contentious, aggressive groups all demanding their rights.  It is not surprising – given the experience of Qin Shihuang, the shoguns, and Garibaldi among many others – that there are reactionary movements to regain cultural authority, reestablish cultural homogeneity, and to secure national borders.

There seems to be no one in the wings to take matters in hand.  No shah-in-waiting or even a Winston Churchill.  The ethos of liberal, participatory democracy has encouraged exactly the political pluralism that Alexander Hamilton feared.  Without aristocratic, educated, patriotic leaders, the country would be left to its own petty devices.  Jeffersonian populism was anathema to Hamilton because he had studied history and understood that the mob was anti-democratic at best and to be feared at worst.  Hamilton’s worst fears have been realized in America.  Democracy has become unmoored from its Enlightenment foundations, given up on universal principles of morality and ethics, confined religion to personal expression and refused to acknowledge its central importance in any society.  Dostoevsky’s idea of a state subsumed within the Church, an organization guaranteeing the rule of right rather than the rule of law, does not seem so farfetched today.

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Along with the socialization of society – i.e. conceding primary authority to individual identity groups and encouraging an individualistic populism – American culture continues ironically to devalue the individual.  Nietzsche understood that in a secular society dominated by venal interests, the only value of life is the expression of individual will, an expression ‘beyond good and evil’.   On the contrary, today’s society first and foremost judges performance on the basis of very basis of good and evil.  History has amply shown that dominant, heroic figures all have big appetites, little concern for the immediate consequences of their actions, and intent only on power and authority.  They have been brutal, rapacious, and demanding. The fact that they had lovers, mistresses, and concubines as well as multiple wives meant nothing.  Qin Shihuang was not necessarily ‘a good person’ but an indisputably great one.

Such moralistic devaluation of the individual has infected all levels of American society.  Boys are expected to behave like girls in class; and their physicality, competitiveness, and other typically male behavior censured.  Young adult men attend men’s groups to discuss how to better understand women, become more caring and compassionate, and better husbands and fathers. Sexual adventurism is decried as retrograde misogyny.  Fidelity and respect for women and putting them first after decades of patriarchy is de rigeur, a sign of maturity and social evolution.  In short, the very traits that have characterized powerful leaders throughout history have been condemned.  The hope is that soon they can be expunged from the maleness.  There cannot be any more Casanovas, Napoleons, or even JFKs, MLKs, or LBJs – men of big appetites, lack of moral convention, and weak rectitude, but important leaders.

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The rise of identity politics at the same time as the devaluation of the individual – particularly the male individual – signal trouble ahead.  No nation, empire, or shogunate has ever survived on caring, compassion, and doing the right thing. While there is of course room in any society for these values – and in fact no society can do without them – they have only a specified place and need not nor should not apply to all.

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