The Great Khan
I recently rewatched Mongol (2007). It’s an excellent movie, telling the rise of Ghenghis Khan while displaying the incredible beauty of the steppe and the culture of its medieval people.
It is also romantic, depicting young Temujin’s search to find Borte, his first wife, when she is taken from him.
I rewatched Mongol to complement my book group’s study of Dan Carlin’s Wrath of the Khans podcast, which I also recommend.
But Carlin emphasizes another side of the Khan. You know—the 35-60 million deaths. The mountains of skulls. The cities of civilians, told they’d be freed upon surrender, just to be surprised with the slaughter of the men, the rape of the women, the children taken captive. The burning of the House of Wisdom, a tragedy comparable to the burning of the Library of Alexandria.
Quotes from Muslim authors are evocative:
“… they do not seek territory or wealth, but only the destruction of the world that it may become a wasteland.”
— Ibn al-Labbad
“For some years I continued averse from mentioning this event, deeming it so horrible that I shrank from recording it and ever withdrawing one foot as I advanced the other. […] For even Antichrist will spare such as follow him, though he destroy those who oppose him, but these Tatars spared none, slaying women and men and children, ripping open pregnant women and killing unborn babes.”
— Ibn al-Athīr
Mongol (2007) does foreshadow the horrors to come, but even so, one might be forgiven for walking away with an overly rosy picture of the guy who perpetrated this cataclysmic bloodletting. Because, of course, the Golden Horde and its courageous leader are extremely interesting and—dare I say it—extremely cool.
Wherein lies the tension. We have to reject the genocide, but we love some of the vibes. Conan the Barbarian—admittedly a less prolific murderer—utters that famous line, attributed (rather dubiously) to the Mongol Khan himself. What is best in life?
How can we dispense with this embarrassing admiration? For the 160 pound recurve bows? The fascinating religion? The courage and glory of conquest?
When one sin is enough
The dilemma reminds me of something in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits. The Exercises guide readers through a series of meditations, including ones on Hell, on Eden, and in one case, the first sin of the angels (emphasis mine):
This will consist in using the memory to recall the first sin, which was that of the angels, and then in applying the understanding by reasoning upon this sin, then the will by seeking to remember and understand all to be the more filled with shame and confusion when I compare the one sin of the angels with the many sins I have committed. I will consider that they went to hell for one sin, and the number of times I have deserved to be condemned forever because of my numerous sins.
We garner a picture of Lucifer—the literal worst among dudes—as essentially having one sin, that of Pride, from which the rest of his evil follows.
This is one reason I’m less intrigued by depictions of the Devil as a moustached goblin, and more intrigued by those that remember that he was an angel. For example, in Gaiman’s Preludes and Nocturnes, the first chapter of The Sandman:
One might devise a framework. Instead of this:
We can try on this:
I am also reminded of a section of CS Lewis’ short work, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”. For context,
(The scene is in Hell at the annual dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for young devils. The principal, Dr. Slubgob, has just proposed the health of the guests. Screwtape, a very experienced devil, who is the guest of honour, rises to reply:)
At one point Screwtape bemoans a recent lack of really delicious, high quality sinners to feast on. Emphasis mine:
Then there was the lukewarm Casserole of Adulterers. Could you find in it any trace of a fully inflamed, defiant, rebellious, insatiable lust? I couldn’t. They all tasted to me like undersexed morons who had blundered or trickled into the wrong beds in automatic response to sexy advertisements, or to make themselves feel modern and emancipated, or to reassure themselves about their virility or their “normalcy,” or even because they had nothing else to do. Frankly, to me who have tasted Messalina and Cassanova, they were nauseating.
The worst people counterintuitively have some of the best qualities. Sure, Cassanova is a lustful maniac - but at least he means it!
We find the same pattern in well-written fictional villains. The Joker is never mediocre; that’s what makes him fascinating. He’s inventive, novel, fearless, committed, etc. He shows good traits in an unmistakably evil package. The Joker who frets over his diet and can’t get out of bed before noon is merely mortal, and far less interesting.
I’m also reminded of Abe Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, a speech in which the 23 year old warned that tyrants might spring up amongst the American people - drawn towards greatness, rather than goodness, whatever the cost:
It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle.
What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. […] It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.
I’m inclined to think that Lincoln, who took at least one of the above branching paths, saw in himself the risk of becoming a very bad man - a risk which may be particularly high among those who aspire to be particularly good.
Perhaps Ender provides an answer.
In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them.... I destroy them.
See also: Why friendship is a mystery cult.
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Enjoyed this! Appreciating the good qualities within the bad people seems important at a moment of merciless “cancel culture” where ironically, one sin condemns.
Speaking of which, you may enjoy this talk on angels, which contains a detailed overview of their psychology. Potentially relevant is they were created with abstract knowledge of everything, but not of particulars. Eg, they can think “dog” and instantly know everything it’s possible to know about dogs, but not know what a particular dog is going to do today. This is why during exorcisms, just mentioning the names of Jesus and Mary causes them pain -- because just mentioning those names calls to a demon’s mind everything they mean, and are. This is also why the angels were condemned after one sin -- their one sin was committed with full knowledge of the implications.