In Part I of this series, we provided a general outline for how the Kahn’s empire provides an example of the transition from conquest to ecumenism—from the identification of a universal idea with a global polity to the pursuit of that idea through decentralised, pluralistic mechanisms. Here, in Part II, we supplement this with a more specific account of how this transition occurs in terms of commercial incentives and the political reassertion of conquered peoples.
In the span of a single man’s lifetime, the clans of the East Asian steppe, nomadic and sparse, were transformed into an unrelenting force, not of nature, for their victories seemed to defy natural explanation, but of providence, so some would claim—instruments of punishment for the excesses of civilization.
In 1652, the 5th Dalai Lama travelled to the historic centre of Mongol power to contact the departed spirit of that man whose life’s work had been to bring this about, Ghenghis Khan. According to Buddhist tradition, the spirit of the Khan was thereby certain to remain faithful to sound spiritual principles. The legacy of Mongolian conquest, then, was taken up by a vision of religious order, outliving many of its political structures and its capacity to wage war.
A few decades before the Lama’s journey to the eastern seat of Mongolian power, the far West (Europe) would, for its part, also begin to, in some sense, redeem the legacy of the Khan.
In the 1620s, Francis Bacon singled out “printing, gunpowder, and the compass as three technological innovations on which the modern world was built.” These had been “unknown to the ancients” but had since “changed the appearance and state of the whole world; first in literature, then in warfare, and lastly in navigation.” And as ethnographer and anthropologist Jack Weatherford observes weightily, “all of them had been spread to the West during the era of the Mongol Empire.”
Yet this spread need not have been as brutal as it was. Genghis understood himself as undergoing a mission of righteous vengeance when, in the thirteen century, he led his army into the Central Asian Khwarezmian Empire, beginning the Mongol’s devastating westward spread. The campaign was a reprisal for the Khwarezmian violation of trade agreements, theft of Mongol caravans, and outrageous treatment of Mongol emissaries (who were disfigured before being sent home).
Prior to this, Genghis had written to the Shah of the Khwarazm region, Muhammad II, declaring explicitly that he had no need for new dominions, wanting only to establish commercial relations. He would only conquer these eastern territories because his trading caravans were seized, and because the Shah not only refused to punish the guilty party, but terribly mistreated Mongol envoys.
The ravaging of these mostly Muslim populations was considered a punishment, one which could have been avoided. But apart from obtaining satisfaction for Muhammad II’s transgressions, conquest of Persianate Islamic Asia was a ‘plan B’ for establishing those commercial relations the Khan had initially pursued through diplomacy. Many potential trading partners were ruined, but this only guaranteed the fealty of others, and therefore the stability of subsequent economic ties.
Mongol conquest conforms somewhat to British anthropologist Ken Dark’s (and colleagues’) application of “internalisation theory” to empires:
Internalisation theory explains how the boundaries of firms are set … internalisation occurs when a company expects that activities will be more profitable when they are under common control.
Applied to geopolitics, “newly discovered knowledge is a global public good; it is therefore efficient to apply it simultaneously in all territories to which it is relevant.” But if some territory should pose serious resistance, internalisation theory suggests the sort of cost-benefit analysis that would lead to imperial conquest:
Although knowledge is a public good, there are obstacles to transferring it between locations. A knowledge-intensive state frustrated by barriers to knowledge transfer may therefore resort to force and take over.
The spreading of technologies across the Eurasian landmass in the manner detailed by Professor Weatherford is mainly discerned retrospectively. It paled in the face of the terrors wrought by the Khan and his descendants. While fighting the Mongols, contemporary Muslims and Christians conceived of their presence as a “purgative technology” so to speak—mirroring, we might say, the purgation to which the legacy of those conquerors and their leader himself would have to be subjected (by the Lama, for example, or by rulers and scholars integrating the positive legacies of the Mongols while rejecting their excesses and restoring/expanding the polities they trampled).
Early tradition ascribes the mission of punishing disobedient peoples to the Mongols, like Assyrian deportations of the Biblical Israel. In this context, the Khan might appear as a righteous avenger. We may read this opinion in Dante, when he prophesied concerning “the giant” and “the whore” (perverted images of the Holy Roman Empire and the Church) in the Divine Comedy. Here, the two nefarious figures are defeated by a greyhound. This dog has been linked to the Mongols by some commentators, exploiting the assonance between cane (“dog” in Italian) and Khan (the symbolism of the dog in European Christian tradition, however, would deserve its own lengthier treatment).
This is consistent with Genghis’ own opinion of his mission vis-à-vis the Khwarezmian Empire. There is much in his early conquests (prominently of the Jurchen in Manchuria) that was brutal in its treatment of non-combatants—destroying villages and sending peasants into the cities to burden the enemy with an enlarged, hungry population. But it is Genghis’ later, westward invasion of Muslim Central Asia and the Near East that was properly genocidal.
Conquering the Legacy of Conquest
Imperial expansion can function as a technology for spreading ideas and innovation, ending certain practices and exacting punishment. With respect to the spread of technology, conquest is generally a sub-optimal method, analogous to the painful asceticism to which we need to subject ourselves if and after a bad habit has taken root (the dietary discipline that follows addiction to sugar, for example.).
The concept of “punishment” invoked by mediaeval sources, for its part, is equivocal and needs to be developed. Punishment can refer to specific actions for which amends must be made. Beyond this, however, the punitive dimension can refer to the shock delivered upon a calcified order. After spending all day indoors, sunlight “punishes” our eyes.
A competing claim to universal authority (in this case, that of the Khan as terrestrial representative of the divine Tengri, God) can cause a civilization (Christian or Muslim) to understand its own external forms (Imperial-Papal, Caliphal) as vulnerable and, therefore, conceptually distinguishable from what is essential in its tradition and from its basis for legitimacy (Roman destiny and Christian faith, Islam). No longer can the truth of a religion be unequivocally (and idolatrously) tied to the outward successes of a certain (Papal, Caliphal, etc.) institution. Less abstractly, the encounter with a fanatical, vigorous ‘Other’ can cause a civilization or intellectual tradition to galvanise its energies and rediscover (or ‘reinvoke’ as a matter of sheer necessity), faith in itself.
Both the spread of technology and the supposed scourging of transgressors—even manifesting as a vicious desire for profit and punishment—can be conquered by the conquered, turned to the advantage of a besieged people.
Today, the international system is an agent of the monoculture, of cultural homogenization. But it is also unfolding an age of innovation, furnishing us with all sorts of technologies (computers, the Internet) that we could appropriate in the service of rooted, morally upright communities.
The West’s relationship to the Mongolian empire and the fact that modernity owes itself to that empire in myriad, often overlooked ways, suggests how foreign domination can be turned to the long-term advantage of its subjects.
This can occur by 1) indigenizing the technological advancements to which a conqueror gives us access without acquiescing to that conqueror’s cultural superiority (separating the fact of economic prosperity or technical prowess from cultural prestige); and 2) understanding that our truth claims (religious or otherwise) and the legitimacy of our civilization do not depend on continuous, outward institutional success or stability (and neither should our faith in long-term victory).
Finally, encountering alternative bids to universal sovereignty (like that of a Khan as opposed to a Caesar or Pope endowed with temporal authority), allows us to distinguish between the imperial ideal as such and any specific culture or people manifesting it. More generally, it also allows us to distinguish between the idea of world order or a harmonious ecumene, and that of political domination and centralization.
Perhaps when the Dalai Lama rode east in 1652, it was with an awareness of these principles that he confronted the departed Genghis and his people.