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Sunday, June 18, 2023

The Allure Of Empire - Dreams Of Power And Glory Amidst Dreary Notions Of Inclusivity

War and Peace, Tolstoy’s epic about the Napoleonic wars, is about heroism, fate, battlefield brilliance and the inevitable course of history.  Napoleon is a unique, unforgettable character of genius in a predetermined universe.  As much as current events are predicated on those past; and as much as history is a record of consequences rather than insight, there will always be heroes.  Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Ashoka, Sargon, and Alexander all had ambition, will, intelligence, and confidence.  They ruled as such men will always rule; driven by desire, clear of moral judgement, and singular of purpose.  None could stop at minor gains and for all there were no limits to their territorial ambitions.  Genghis Khan never stopped, having created a Mongol-Turkic empire from Europe to Japan.  For Russian tsars, Chinese emperors, Japanese shoguns, and Persian kings there were no perimeters and no boundaries.  Only total, complete hegemony was enough. 

As much as Utopians dream of an inclusive, cooperative, and tolerant world, human societies have always evolved to power and glory.  History is a record of empires – states of wealth, power, and culture.  Persepolis, Athens, and Alexandria were not only centers of political and economic complexity, but centers of art, science, and poetry.  Such cultural expression would not have been possible without the rule of kings.  Babylon, Versailles, and Rome were focuses of high culture where governance, religion, military strength, and enterprise were associated into a unique nexus of influence.

The ancient Romans were responsible for the spread of Christianity, the development and extension of a highly-sophisticated language, the spread of Greco-Roman art, philosophy, and culture; and the construction of infrastructure without which Europe would have lagged far behind the powerful cultures of India, China, and Persia. By the Middle Ages Florence was a major industrial and financial capital, Venice a center for Eastern trade, and the cities to the north gained in influence and reputation.

Cities outside Rome, like Paris, were slower to advance, but soon they became economic and cultural centers as well.  Economic growth produced the wealth which enabled further development and which financed the efflorescence of art, music, science, and literature.  The age of European royalty was impressive indeed, for without the patronage of kings and queens, the great art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance would not have emerged

The Romans brought Greek thought along with them; and the philosophies of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates among others. Clear, unbroken lines of influence lead from ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers to Roman Philosophy, Early Islamic philosophy, Medieval Scholasticism, the European Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. Philosophy was used to make sense out of the world outside a religious context. It dealt with a wide variety of subjects, including astronomy, mathematics, political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, ontology, logic, biology, rhetoric and aesthetics.

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Louis XIV, the Sun King, was responsible for achievements in law, governance, and the arts.  His Code Louis established a system of uniform and universal laws governing every aspect of French society, economy, and finance.  He was a patron and supporter of the arts, and he gave protection to and encouragement of Moliere, Racine, La Fontaine and others. 

He established the Royal Academy of Dance, the Paris Opera, and the French Language Academy.  He built the Palace of Versailles, known for its formal gardens, Baroque salons, banquet halls, and elaborate chambers for princes, courtiers, and visiting royalty.  His achievements extended far beyond France, and under his long reign France became worthy of its historical legacy, the nation that defeated the Muslim invaders from Africa at Roncesvalles and so became la fille ainee de l'Eglise, the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church, and became primus inter pares among the nations of Europe.

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Abbas I, Abbas the Great, was one of Persia’s greatest shahs and like Louis XIV instituted the legal, commercial, financial, and social reforms necessary for the unification of the country, thus giving it a foundation for the emergence of empire.  Under his rule the arts thrive, and during his reign Persia experienced perhaps the greatest expression of painting, sculpture, architecture, and textiles in its history.

The Chinese Emperor Kangxi was similar to other enlightened monarchs, and during his reign arts, culture, poetry, and science thrived.  As importantly – and not unlike Abbas or Louis – Kangxi reformed China’s system of governance, incorporating Confucianism into political rule.  He brought together scholars, religious leaders, philosophers, and jurists to provide the intellectual foundation for his initiatives and reforms.

The Japanese Ashikaga shoguns combined art, philosophy, religion and culture.  While always aware of their status as warriors and need to maintain their military prowess, the shoguns of the Ashikaga era recognized the importance of a strong military, and the development of new administrative and cultural talents to rule the country effectively.  From the beginning, the shogunate promoted a culture that combined aspects of samurai culture and the arts of the imperial court, with the balance between the two shifting in accordance with the interests of individual shoguns and their advisors. With the ascendancy of Zen Buddhism and the interest of many prominent monks in Chinese culture, the shogunate absorbed the arts of Chinese literature, Confucian studies, the ritualized consumption of tea, ink monochrome paintings, garden design, and calligraphy.

Ashoka, Emperor of India was similarly responsible for unifying his country through culture, language, arts, and law.  He promoted efficient public administration and cultural interaction between the developed Gangetic basin and distant backward provinces,; and under his rule the culture of his palace, characteristic of his empire, spread to Kalinga, the lower Deccan, and northern Bengal.  As importantly Ashoka is important in history for his policy of peace, non- aggression, and cultural conquest; and despite the strong, well-armed, and disciplined military under his control, he preferred a strategy of peaceful engagement and reward.

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Imperialism is not dead nor will it ever be.  While Putin, Xi, Erdogan, and the Ayatollahs are considered anomalies – ambitious renegades defying the civilizing juggernaut of democracy – they are not.  They are simply descendants of the powerful emperors of the past.  While they may not have the imperial authority of past kings and emperors, they have no less ambition and historical determination than their ancestors.  They do not hide their intentions nor do they shirk from confrontation or criticism.  Theirs is a matter of historical destiny – a China of preeminence for over 2500 years, a Russian empire of sophistication and elegance; Babylon, Jerusalem, Persepolis, and Mohenjo-Daro.

There is a tendency in this post-modern age of diversity and inclusivity to dismiss the periods and events of history that do not suit current political philosophy.  European civilization and the Greco-Roman empire that enabled the modern era are irrelevant to the new character of society.  Rome has little or nothing to do with the American slave or his descendants, nor of Sub-Saharan Africa.  There is nothing in Tacitus, Aristotle, or Pythagoras of any consequence to the new configurations of sexual identity.
The Sun King, Versailles, Darius, Alexander, or Napoleon have nothing whatsoever to do with economic and racial inequality, the fragile environment, or technology.  To look at the ancient world and to the civilizations of Europe that spread wealth, culture, science, and administration is to pay obeisance to elitism, privilege, opportunism, and inconscient territorialism.  The new reality has nothing to do with the old.

The current political culture in America today runs counter to this legacy.  European civilization, rather than the foundation for American culture, arts, science, jurisprudence, and philosophy, is derogated, dismissed, and relegated.   Europeans, say progressives, were exploitative colonizers, oppressors, slavers, and brutal, entitled aristocrats.  However much England may have contributed to American arts, culture, and political philosophy, such contributions are negated given the overwhelmingly negative influences of his reactionary politics.

Great empires ruled  the world with authority, strong cultural and religious centers, a belief in the righteousness of their expansionism, a willingness to use force, but a reliance more on religious authority and punition for control.   Empires were willing to fight to defend their territory and to conquer and exploit those who threatened it.

Glory was the cultural meme – the glory of battle, the glory of heroic victory, the glory of patriotism and cultural pride, the glory of religion.  To worship in Notre Dame, Chartres, and Rouen created as monuments to Christ where every element glorified him and told the story of his birth, life, passion, death, and resurrection,was exhilarating. The naves were high and vaulted to symbolize the heavens, the stained glass windows to depicted the lives of the saints, the vast interiors reflected the power and glory of God and his kingdom. Bach’s cantatas and fugues were religious in origin as were the paintings of Giotto, Botticelli, and Fra Angelico.

The Zapotecs lived in a world of natural, immanent power.  Spiritual forces were in the lightning and thunder, the violent storms, predatory animals, and in the rising and setting of the moon and sun.  They were brooding in the massive mountains or in the night sky.  They were everywhere, frighteningly real.  There was no distinction between human life, nature, and the gods. The exultation of participation in ritual, sacrificial ceremonies can only be imagined by worshippers at today’s tepid offerings.

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The battles of the Aztecs were more like those of Genghis Khan, for in addition to classic military strategy, organization, and a half-civilized barbarism, they added a powerful spiritual element.  Soldiers dressed in the skins of animals whose spirits they possessed.  When they attacked the enemy, they killed like a panther would; or ripped and tore flesh like an eagle.

The army of Montezuma which pursued the enemy across the Mexican highlands was not just comprised of men, it was made up of powerful animal spirits. It was the panther which killed, the eagle which ripped enemy flesh, and the jaguar which tore at enemy throats. There could be no greater spectacle of battle than that of the great Aztec armies and the wild soldiers dressed in animal skins, talons, and feathers charging across the plains.
The armies of the European Crusades fought for their Christian God, and felt his spirit within as they attacked the Infidel.  Theirs was a military engagement with strategy, operations, and tactics; but it was also a holy war, inspired by a holy cause, and guided by God himself.

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Although we may live in a quiet, orderly, predictable world, there is something violently primitive still in us all; and as much as we talk about peace, community, and diversity, we cannot ignore it. Our religions have become tame and tepid compared to the animistic and supremely powerful religions of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, where the Zapotecs worshiped thunder, lightning, earthquakes, and violent storms and sacrificed their own to appease their gods.

The world will still have wars.  They will be violent and damaging but they will be tame wars. Acts of human will and expressions of pure power are – for the time being – things of the past.  T.S. Eliot was never more right when he wrote:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper

Glory is dismissed. Greatness suspect. Passion, power, and will ignored.  Ordinariness celebrated.  This American century will be history’s lacuna – and empty space, a gap, an unremarkable, undistinguished parcel. 

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