Any conservatism worthy of the name must seek to reconcile the universal to the particular. In geopolitical terms, this means reconciling the imperial ideal to multipolarity; the concept of imperium to the defense of differentiated civilizational spheres and national sovereignty.
A philosophy of history that is coherent with this reconciliation must see the failure of attempts at world-domination in a positive light, while acknowledging their role in forming particular, culturally unique spheres. In addition, it should steer the formerly expansionist urge towards global hegemony into a new mode of expressing human unity.
This new mode pursues harmony rather than hegemony. Multiple civilizations may become global to the degree that their contributions to world order interpenetrate one another, structuring the whole, while rejecting homogenization. Our watchwords are harmony over hegemony; wholesomeness over homogeneity.
For a theoretical treatment of this paradigm, see “The Imperial Ideal and Multipolarity.”
The following two-part series on the Mongol empire (along with “The Lama and the Kahn”) explores the above ideas through the great Khan’s legacy, which it treats as a case study. Similar profiles for other imperial projects, ending with an assertion of their specific, cultural legacy and contribution to world order, may follow.
The Khan’s Epiphany
“You will have no companion but your shadow!” So cried his mother upon finding out what he had done. The young Temujin, who history would remember as Genghis Khan, had killed his eldest half-brother, who admonished his killer with the same words. “No companion but your shadow.” Perhaps, but how many souls will make it—how many will take refuge in that shadow, and how many will ride under its cape?
His eldest brother would have been chief of Temujin’s orphaned family, having been abandoned by their clan following the death of their father. It was that departed father who bound them together, for Temujin and the budding chief did not share mothers, and this seems to have been a source of added aggravation. One day, the eldest had taken from Temujin the fish he had caught, lording his authority over the youngling, and the wronged boy had gone to his mother. Temujin was scolded for complaining, implying that, one day, the older boy would take her for his wife, as was typical in the case of widows and the eldest sons of their husbands by another woman.
Such an outcome, it seems, the future Khan could not abide. As a member of a forest dwelling clan, unable to afford cattle, the son of a concubine rather than a first wife, a younger brother, in a family abandoned by their clan, having lost his father, Temujin was part of an underclass, and so he was particularly aware of the injustices of steppe, nomadic society. Eventually, he would also be apprehended and forced into slavery on account of the murder of his brother (for the steppe was not lawless) and robbed of his wife by raiders; the same fate had befallen his mother’s original bridegroom, Temujin’s father having kidnapped her. Indeed, the clan that took his wife were his mother’s original family, avenging their kinswoman by violating her son’s marriage, in an act typical of the sort of insular, clannishness that freedom-loving nomadism can degenerate into (what the Muslims call Jahiliya, in reference to idolatry and tribal disunity among pre-Islamic Arabs).
But he escaped slavery and took his wife back, just as he had avoided the life to which he seemed fated as a younger member of an outcast family. Years later, he would end the practice of raiding and the back-and-forth of tribal vendetta. He would also create a meritocratic state and military structure, and ensure that plundered wealth was distributed equitably, including to the widows and orphans of his men. The ills that had befallen him (and his mother), fruit of tribal squabbles, social hierarchy, poverty, and the death of a father, would find permanent redress among his people.
These reforms are the social dimension of his global ambition—to express the unity of Tengri (‘The Sky,’ God). Political unity and social equality were of a piece, and so was unifying the steppe tribes with unifying the world (although the particular character of the Mongols and their neighbors as receivers of this mission would be preserved within that empire, and was expressed by their enjoying certain privileges).
We might speculate that Temujin’s personal trials led him to take refuge in Tengri: Being alienated from those prevailing structures and practices that caused him hardship, he divorced them from the ultimate, underlying source of their legitimacy in steppe society—Tengri—and conceived of new structures and practices that might more properly manifest that source. Personal trial and crisis can, therefore, lead to a sense for the transcendent by separating one from a specific context (even from one’s own persona—in Temujin’s case, his expected role), so that the subject’s fundamental principles can be understood abstractly and thereby reapplied in a new context. This would occur on a macro-level to Mongolian civilization when it experienced its “fortunate fall.”
For now, however, the new emphasis on transcendence that Genghis had arrived at inspired radical reform and a radical unifying sense of purpose. Because this epiphany was disconnected from any clearly defined spiritual system (shamanism being a pre-theological religion, so to speak), Mongol expansion simply emphasized power—the “revelation” to be embraced seems to have been Mongolian rulership as such.
His religious mission was articulated in terms of traditional Mongolian shamanism and its concept of Tengri. But Genghis Khan’s was a realm of religious toleration, and in 1227 he assigned the highest religious authority in his empire to a Taoist Master, Ch’ang Ch’un. The expression of human unity was not confessional, so far as the Mongols were concerned, but political.
We move forward a few decades, following Temujin’s long shadow. Competing claims to divinely assigned temporal power came to the fore in Kuyuk Khan’s correspondence with Pope Innocent IV in 1246, to whom he wrote:
You have written me these words: “You have attacked all the territories of the Magyars and other Christians … Tell me, what was their crime?” … Chinggis [Genghis] Khan and Ogatai Khakan revealed the commands of Heaven. But those whom you name would not believe the commands of Heaven. Those … slew our envoys. Therefore, in accordance with the commands of the Eternal Heaven, the inhabitants of the aforesaid countries have been slain and annihilated. If not by the command of Heaven, how can anyone slay or conquer out of his own strength?
He goes on to question Papal authority:
And when you say: “I am a Christian. I pray to God. I arraign and despise others,” how do you know who is pleasing to God and to whom He allots His grace? How can you know it, that you speak such words? Thanks to the power of the Eternal Heaven, all lands have been given to us from sunrise to sunset. How could anyone act other than in accordance with the commands of Heaven? Now your own upright heart must tell you: “We will become subject to you, and will place our powers at your disposal.” You in person, at the head of the monarchs, all of you, without exception, must come to tender us service and pay us homage; then only will we recognize your submission. But if you do not obey the commands of Heaven, and run counter to our orders, we shall know that you are our foe. That is what we have to tell you. If you fail to act in accordance therewith, how can we foresee what will happen to you? Heaven alone knows.
The argument here seems, rather unsatisfactorily, to be that if one is able to conquer, one has done so by divine warrant, and so one is also divinely warranted to continue conquering.
Concerning the relationship of the Mongols to Christianity, a letter written by Hulegu Khan to King Louis IX of France in 1262 adds more specificity to the Mongol concept of legitimate rule:
God … spoke to our grandfather Genghis Khan by Teb Tengri (meaning Prophet of God), his relative, miraculously revealing the future through the same Teb Tengri saying: “On high, I alone am God Almighty and made you lord over peoples and kingdoms.”
We should add that Genghis had this prophet killed and replaced with another shaman, because the original shaman and his brothers were accruing excessive power and wantonly humiliating a member of Genghis’ family. And yet, the revelation is considered valid—albeit coming through a vessel that became corrupt—and it is precisely in being able to replace a shaman that Genghis was understood as having manifested his own shamanic power:
We, by the power of Mengutengri (living God), Hulegu Khan, leader of the Mongol army to Louis, illustrious King of the Franks and to all France, Barachmar (greetings), revealing the above revelation we notify you to follow the command of God, considering well that we received our power from the same Mengutengri.
Of the Pope, the Khan writes “he is a holy man who prays to God incessantly on behalf of all the nations of Misicatengrin.” ‘Misica,’ here, derives from the word Messiah, and Tengri, again, is the name of God, ‘the Sky.’
Hulegu Khan is therefore referring to Jesus, and adopting the Christian concept of messiahship, even as he asserts the prophetic revelation to Genghis of Mongolian imperium. What we have is a Tengrist-Christian conception, then, not dissimilar to that historically held by Muslims concerning the temporal authority of the Khalif as successor to Muhammad—in a post-Christian dispensation that recognizes Jesus as messiah.
Genghis’ descendant, Mongke Khan, would tell a Christian priest at his court by the name of Rubruck, that just as a hand has many fingers, God has seen fit to confer different religions upon humanity: “just as God gave different fingers to the hand, so has He given different ways to men.” And while the Christians have been given scripture (“to you God has given the Scriptures”), the Mongols have been given shamans (this despite many Mongols being Christian). We may think of Origen of Alexandria’s words concerning Jewish people having the advantage in laws and oracles, while gentiles have the advantage in faith, as though these were complementary spiritual vocations (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans).
And yet, Mongke goes on, somewhat contradictorily, to add that while religions are plural, God is one and His oneness must be expressed in the sovereignty of Mongols upon the whole earth, so that every people must pay tribute to him. They were clearly monotheists: “We Mongols believe in one God by Whom we live and Whom we die and toward Him we have an upright heart,” said Mongke to Rubruck. But we have here a clear example of how the belief in Divine Unity can be incorrectly translated into a belief in earthly uniformity.
Unity should translate into harmony, not homogeneity, otherwise we are confusing the stratosphere for the atmosphere, like a painter who sees a rainbow refract from the sun’s light and so mixes all the colors on his pallet in hopes of rendering the brilliance of the sun. Even if this is consciously understood, however, pursuing harmony by forcing every state into vassalage, on pain of extermination, is subtly dualistic: it assumes the world is chaos, not a realm made by the one God, however fallen, and so containing its own order in need of shepherding forth and harmonizing, not simply clamping down upon.
We turn to another descendant of the great Khan. It would be with Kublai Khan that the Mongol experiment would find its highest expression. Unlike the Golden Horde ruling eastern Europe, and the steppe Mongols covering a swath from Siberia to Kazakhstan, Kublai ruled China, replacing the Sung dynasty.
And he neither replaced nor remained apart from Chinese culture, instead making it the center of his political project. He commissioned portraits of his ancestors, including Genghis, in the Chinese style, and offered China genuine political unity and, we might say, a national state. His rule was also largely peaceful, executing far fewer people, in terms of population percentage, than either modern China or the U.S., as Jack Weatherford points out.
We may look upon Kublai Khan as a fulfiller, because he transcended the mistaken equation according to which the oneness of Tengri should translate into a single, central political sovereignty, and because he balanced the nomadic way of life which Genghis had reformed in order that he may preserve it, with Chinese civilization.
Turning commercial trade routes towards Mongolia had never provided a satisfying answer to the question of how men are to live: if nomadism is superior, but the goods made by sedentary peoples are superior to those made by nomads, as the Mongols tacitly admitted by making ample use of these, including in the days of Genghis, then humanity must consist of a nomadic master race surrounded by cattle-civilizations who produce its goods. Kublai moved towards a synthesis of the two, the savage and the civilized, the steppe and the city, by building the forbidden city, in which Mongols could live outdoors and in yurts while also participating in, and contributing to, the administration of complex, urban life. (I have addressed the question of this synthesis in other contexts.)
Of course, the organization of Kublai’s capital mainly allowed Mongols to retain their way of life while ruling from the heart of a sedentary civilization, but it is nonetheless suggestive of an arrangement in which a people can remain nomadic while being civilized, and it coincided with a trickling down of positive elements of Mongolian culture, including a disdain for torture, through Chinese society.
Eventually, in the 14th century, the Mongols gave up on global political-marshal hegemony, coming to understand their role as one of coordination and harmonization (a conception that was already articulated by Genghis in his letter to Muhammad II, Shah of the Khwarazmian Empire). This has been described as the Pax Mongolica. Writes Jack Weatherford:
Civilizations that had once been separate worlds unto themselves … had become part of a single intercontinental system of communication, commerce, technology and politics.
The Mongolian role in bringing this about required a change in modus operandi:
Instead of sending mounted warriors … the Mongols now dispatched humble priests, scholars and ambassadors. The time of Mongol conquest had ended, but the era of the Mongol peace was only beginning … Western scholars later designated the fourteenth century as the Pax Mongolica or Pax Tatarica.
This was not a change in first principles, so to speak. The same analogy between the oneness of God, Tengris, and the unity of humanity was still operant in the minds of the Genghis’ descendants, only
the Mongol Khans now sought to bring about through peaceful commerce and diplomacy the commercial and diplomatic connections that they had not been able to create through force of arms.
Crucially, “the Mongols continued, by a different means, to pursue their compulsive goal of uniting all people under the Eternal Blue Sky.”
And yet such a change, brought about by the logistical impossibility of actual world-conquest, conveys a profound shift in ethos. We may refer to this shift as the empire’s “fortunate fall.” God’s oneness is not, any longer, thought to require earthly uniformity, His singularity does not urge centralization, but rather, more benevolently, a polycentric harmony that precludes homogenization. This is a philosophically more profound, truer, understanding: it recognizes that transcendent oneness is always beyond creation, that no created thing can exhaust it, and so, creation is necessarily plural.
It should be noted that when Genghis Khan wrote to the Shah of the Khwarazm region, Muhammad II, he declared explicitly that he had no need for new dominions, wanting only to establish commercial relations. Later, he would only conquer these eastern territories because his trading caravans were seized, and the Shah not only refused to punish the guilty party, but killed and disfigured the Mongol envoys who reached him. The Khan referred to the terrible ravaging of these mostly Muslim populations as a punishment. We may conclude that, for Genghis, the revelation of his being “lord over peoples and kingdoms” was, at least at that time, not taken to be a literal injunction to conquer the whole world. A few centuries after him, the original intention with which he had reached out to the West would reemerge.
Eric Voegelin understands history as a process leading the conqueror and world-empire builder to exhaustion, so that, in the end, “distinguishable units” appear. We may say that attempts at global conquest burn out and result instead in local civilizational spheres, culturally coherent regions. This is what happened to the Mongol empire, presenting us with one case of an imperial project’s transition from a bid to universal hegemony to a culturally distinct jurisdiction within the international system whose architecture it helped structure.