To understand who we are today, we need to understand kings, conquerors, and their dysfunctions, and what life looked like in their kingdoms. It wasn’t pretty.
For the past couple of decades – longer, if I include the background questions that prompted my ideas – I have been working on a book, Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths, with the working subtitle, The Power of Demagogues.
It’s the reason I started this blog. Modern media is pretty ugly; the pursuit of ideas and information has been largely eliminated. Even when ideas are profitable, that’s not good enough; instead it’s about what turns the fastest buck. We can see this everywhere in broadcast and print journalism, but nowhere is it more worrisome than in the nonfiction book industry. Regardless of how rapidly books are declining, they are still the spine of our intellectual life. But the media barons are destroying books, too.
Their greed and short-sightedness is one of the things I want to talk about. Ironically, part of my book is about what is wrong with books.
It’s the unfortunate reality. So to get into a respected publishing house today, the publisher wants you pre-marketed, you need to start with a ready audience. If you’re not famous or a renowned academic, then you’ll have to develop a following. A highly-respected agent told me that the best way to develop a following, is to write a blog.
Voiçi. But the real goal here is the book, not the blog. I have to keep reminding myself of that.
Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths
This is my thesis for the book:
Some of the most highly-celebrated figures in history were remorseless killers who viciously trained and bred our ancestors to uncritically obey authority.
Ambitious thesis, to be sure. But if I can make that case, it goes a long way toward explaining some very scary things in the world today. One of those scary things is our blind obedience to all sorts of demagogues, even when the demagogue is making no sense at all.
So here’s my three-floor elevator speech about kings and conquerors:
- Conquest is murder and theft.
- Conquerors are remorseless killers.
- Remorseless killers become kings.
- Kings designed civilization, and humanity, largely by crushing independent thought and action.
Those points need more exposition, and we will cover them in future posts. But part of our problem is that we have these romantic and completely false notions about kings, conquerors, nobles, princes and princesses, knights, castles, and the myth of the peaceful, wisely-ruled kingdom. In fact, the historical situation, until quite recently, looked a lot more like The Sopranos than Walt Disney.
Actually, not quite. The mob is more respectable, more honorable, and more humane, than the monarchs of old. That will become more apparent as we go.
One insight for my argument comes from Adolph Hitler, easily one of the most significant figures of the 20th century. The atrocities of the Nazis, particularly toward the genetically ‘impure’ – not just Jews, but Poles, Roma, homosexuals, the handicapped, and others – was a shock to the modern world.
It should not have been a shock at all. Our histories have always been there, we only needed to read them without the romance of our traditions. The only difference between Hitler and the despots of old, and even the despots of today was, a) the much-acclaimed German efficiency, which allowed for the quick dispatch of millions in centralized locations which concentrated the horror; and, b) that same duty-bound German culture which richly documented Nazi crimes.
So I’m arguing that, in a weird parallel with some of our current events, the Nazis didn’t do anything other despotic cultures did. The real difference is that that the Nazis didn’t invest much energy in hiding their atrocities. They saw nothing wrong with what they were doing, and they were proud of it.
Other that those clerical attributes, Hannah Arendt was was right about the Nazis, and really, everyone: evil is banal. What Arendt, and almost no one in the modern world has recognized, is that evil was always banal. Hitler’s version of evil was exactly that: just one more version.
I argue that Hitler has been with us for the past 10,000 years. The modern one was simply a failed 20th century anachronism, the echo of the kings, conquerors and psychopaths of old. The earlier versions of the ‘Hitler of a thousand faces’, on the other hand, fostered a highly successful program of genetic purity, only one that was not so much based on physical traits, as on behavioral traits. The perennial Hitlers have exacted from humanity unwavering devotion and obedience, not just in our words and in our bodies, but in our minds. We do not only submit and comply to any crazy thing the king demands.
We also agree, we fervently believe what we are told.
Legacy of the Conqueror
The legacy from our centuries of cultural and genetic selection is vast. The problems from our millennia of compliance are all around us, to the point that we are the cliché of the fish in water: we have a problem recognizing what is everywhere. Melville said that nothing exists except in contrast to something else, and the saturating, suffocating culture of the conqueror leaves us with few places we can go for contrast or comparison. Like the fish, we can only begin to understand the reality of water by alternatively diving to the darkest, coldest depths of of our history; and then ascending to the dangerously thin air at the highest of human aspirations.
That is where this blog has been heading. Now we will began to drill down on these ideas.
Marble head of Alexander courtesy of Wikimedia.