Monday, May 31, 2010

Genghis Khan and power

I recently finished a history of Genghis Khan and the empire he created. The novelist fashioned a rather favorable opinion of Genghis Khan and not just his method of making war but also his statesmanship and the positive cultural aspects of his reign. To read the book lends credence to the belief that Genghis Khan was an enlightened dictator more than a bloodthirsty barbarian. It is also eye-opening from the perspective of the role of authority and how it is imposed (for lack of a better term) for the benefit of all. Indeed, while Genghis Khan was portrayed in the West as a curse sent by God to punish the morally wayward it would seem that this book offers a more enlightened view, such as it were.

While I found the book to be engaging with its introductory approach to both his military prowess as well as his model of governance, it also caused me to reflect upon the idea of government and freedom such as we espouse today. While acknowledging Genghis's approach as all-or-nothing (you either lived under his rules or not at all), the book makes the argument that there were many benefits to his rule. Trade and commerce flourished under Mongol rule to each of its domains. Furthermore, there was a rather liberal approach to religion. I should caveat that by liberal I mean that the role of the church was sublimated to the role of the state and that there was an egalitarian view of each of the religions that operated under the with neither special favor nor particular disfavor toward any of them. Each was free to practice as they saw fit so long as it did not impinge upon others. In one section of the book, the author discusses a contest between theologians of the various major religious sects of that time and region (I believe it was Christian, Muslim and Buddhist) organized by the Mongol leadership. The main rule was that (on pain of death) "no one shall dare to speak words of contention." And thus did a discussion among equals on the merits of their various beliefs proceed. Though none of the contestants necessarily changed their minds it offered an example of the power of the state to reduce and/or modulate the stress caused by the otherwise fractious relations between the various religions. Indeed, the offspring of Genghis Khan worshiped as they wished without the concerns that permeated much of the rest of the world at that time. The result was Mongols who converted to Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and other religions - unheard of in that time. Considering that many states of that time were ruled by religious fiat (which granted the power to rule to a select few who paid homage to the religious leadership as a condition for God's approval of their rule), the difference is certainly striking.

The Mongols, once they had acquired a territory, sought out professionals who could help them to maintain their empire. These included engineers, scientists, teachers, doctors and other professionals. And once they were found, they were then included as part of the state entity to help facilitate the process of ruling the many far-flung lands they had conquered. The obvious benefit was the spread of information and knowledge from one place to many others. And more information, even if it is not something with which the recipient will necessarily agree, is better than not enough. The collaboration that was a natural result of this process, as noted by the author, provided several benefits to everyplace under the Mongol domain.

Many of the issues that play out in the world today are issues that were not so different almost 800 years ago. Power is often the ultimate goal regardless of the dressing worn - ethnic, religious, nationalistic or otherwise. Genghis Khan in his time sublimated each of them to his own rule under which was allowed to exist in harmony within the larger framework of the state that he created. Does this mean that everything should be sublimated to the state in order to promote the harmony that people often desperately pursue? As with all other issues, there is not a clear answer. Perhaps the best answer is a patchwork approach that allows for the resolution between power and freedom. Under the seemingly benevolent dictatorship approach proffered in this book, it would seem that submitting to the authority of said dictator offered a great many other benefits (including the freedom of choice in many personal issues like religion). But this did not last more than a few generations beyond the death of Genghis Khan himself. In the end, any dictatorship - benevolent or not - will inevitably become a not so benevolent one depending upon the actual people in charge. So a combination of freedom to make the choices of individual preference combined with some level of subservience to a protective authority may be of benefit. But to maintain that level is not a hard and fast issue and will require constant attention to ensure that the scales do not tip too far to one side or the other.

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