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Friday, January 26, 2024

The Greatness Of Empire - Fear And Loathing Of Kings, Shahs, And Emperors

 In these days of ‘diversity', ‘inclusivity’, and historical revisionism, it is easy to lose sight of where we came from – our collective legacy of Persian Shahs, Roman and Chinese Emperors, Mauryan Kings, and Russian czars. While we may not be descended directly from them, we are the privileged beneficiaries of what they built and did.   We have the Romans to thank for bringing high culture, language, public works, administration, and governance to the tribes of Europe. Thanks to the influence Constantine and his successor’s proclamation that Christianity was to be the official religion of the Empire, it spread quickly throughout Europe.

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French writers like Moliere and Racine grew in reputation and renown thanks to the patronage of Louis XIV who provided funds and commissions for artists, musicians and composers whose contribution to European culture was seminal, historically important,, and culturally influential.  He founded the Académie Royale de Danse, the first dance institution established in the Western world, the Académie d’Opéra from which classical ballet arose, and institutes for the arts and sciences.

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Under the guidance of King Louis, the modest residence at Versailles was transformed into the architectural and garden complex still seen today.  Every detail of construction was overseen by Louis who supervised the work of his select team of architects.  Charles Le Brun was responsible for all interior decoration, and landscape artist André Le Nôtre created symmetrical French gardens and elaborate fountains.  A visit to the Great Hall of Mirrors alone suggests the power and influence of Louis and his importance to European and world cultural history.

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Louis governed well and was responsible for the reform of antiquated legal codes, medieval practices in trade and commerce, and incoherent taxation policies.  In short his reign was one of the most influential in Europe building on the traditions of antiquity, the entitlement of the divine right of kings, and intelligence, insight, and a unique national and European vision.

The Winter Palace was an official residence of the Russian sovereign from 1732 until 1917, and the last, perhaps most influential ruler and the most like Louis in terms of architectural vision and patronage of the arts was Alexander II, who ruled from 1855 to 1881.  During his reign he acquired many new works of art such as the ancient and archaeological collection of the Marchese di Cavelli in 1861 and Leonardo da Vinci's "Madonna and Child" in 1865.  A walk through the Hermitage Museum, the Winter Palace, is to walk through two hundred years of Russian imperial history.

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Long before European high culture and civilization and at its apogee, the Persian Empire extended its reach far beyond Persepolis.

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The Shahs of Persia were as influential as the European monarchs who followed centuries later and extended cultural influence, art, literature, architecture, and science.

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The Tang Dynasty is considered a golden age of Chinese arts and culture. In power from 618 to 906 A.D., Tang China led by powerful emperors like Taizong and thanks to Buddhism, spread its culture across much of Asia, and is remembered for its contributions to poetry, art, and calligraphy.  Laozi who lived shortly before the Tang Dynasty was perhaps China’s greatest philosopher; and along with Confucius and the teachings of Buddhism influenced not only Asian but European thinking.

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The list of kings, queens, emperors, czars, and shahs is long; and the empires they helped create, extend and rule are the foundations of both Western and Eastern civilization.  Not all rulers were great and some were destructive, harsh, and punitive, but in the main the emergence of kingdoms and empires of power, wealth, and influence enabled rapid development of the arts, science, and governance.  Without the collective intellectual wisdom, artistic vision, and political purpose of these rulers, the world would not be the sophisticated, intellectually enlightened, and spiritually endowed place it is

To those who appreciate this long sweep of cultural history, the current move to ignore it, demean it, and worst dismiss it for its irrelevance seems barbaric – no different from the tribal world of Northern Europe before the Romans, the Middle East before the Persians, the Subcontinent before the Aryans.

The defiance of history and the purist demands for removing all characters and events except those that embody current political philosophy is even more misguided.   The Iron Age tribes that wondered Europe before the Romans living a basic subsistence existence knew no better.  Those who today choose to revile history as a whole, throw out grandeur, glory, achievement, merit, and brilliance in one great revisionist housecleaning should know better.  They should be able to understand the dynamics of cultural relativity – the impossibility of ascribing guilt to entire generations based on current convictions.  They should know that colonialism may have been exploitative but that it was also the vehicle for the extension of a more evolved, developed culture.
They should recognize that slavery has been part of human society since its beginnings, and that ancient Romans, Greeks, Persians, Aryans, and Africans kept and traded slaves.  That it was an institution, reviled only since England forbade slavery in the early 18th century.  It was not the make-or-break consequence of civilizations.

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Those who look at society only through the narrowest lens possible – to see current life as the only existential reality, devoid of antecedent, bare of influence, and stripped of historical relevance – are no different from Pol Pot who declared Year Zero, a moment before which there was no meaning, and after which would only be a Communist Utopia.  Pol Pot not only intended to reform Cambodian society based on his radical Maoist principles, but to destroy it, level it to the ground so that a new, pure, untainted society could emerge from the ashes.

The American revisionists of today are no different.  They are intent on first creating a Year Zero – a complete expungement of the American past; a derogation and complete erasure of all those historical figures who do not complete conform to their authoritarian criteria; and the creation of a society without class, without origin, without historical determinants, without ancestry, and without culture.  The new progressive society is to be as deliberately primitive as the pre-Roman Iron Age tribes of Northern Europe.

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The toppling of statues of American heroes – Jefferson, Washington, Jackson, and others – is only the first step towards Year Zero, a thuggish reactionary move at the most obvious targets.  Before long the leaders of the Cancel Movement will realize that historical pollution is everywhere.  Every name has retrograde connotations.  Every remembrance of historical events must be suspect and inadmissible.  Western civilization is not, for these cultural renegades, the best expression of human nature, spirit, and ambition, but totally corrupt, devious, and destructive. It must be forgotten, entirely, completely, and with no reservations.

Will this anti-historical, revisionist cancel culture juggernaut be stopped?  Doubtful, since there are few institutions equipped, ready, and committed to do so.  The Catholic Church, the central, universal cultural institution of the last thousand years, responsible at least in principle, for promoting and enforcing Christian moral values, is but a shadow of its former imperial self.  No secular institution is there to take up the slack. Historians are intellectually self-sequestered in universities, either fully supportive of or intimidated by woke, cancel culture of ‘inclusivity’, ‘diversity’, and ‘identity’.  Politicians looking for votes are afraid to offend, and since progressive watchdogs have hair triggers, they say nothing.

The leaders of China, Turkey, and Russia who understand the importance of history and hope to restore the imperial tradition to their countries, are reviled in the United States; and yet in their implacability, their fierce determination, savvy, and economic power refuse to give in to the demands of an increasingly inarticulate United States.  We don’t get it, and they do.  Before long we will be ungovernable, and they will have arrived.

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