I belong to a book club, called “So Many Books, So Little Time”. Although we get into the occasional stoush about whether a book deserves to live or not, we are a rather peaceable group. So it might seem a bit strange that recently we opted to read a book called “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Western World”.
I approached the book with a certain trepidation. I knew Genghis Khan to be one of history’s truly barbaric men, lusting for conquest, brutal, a looter of titanic proportion. But factually, what I understood about him you could fit into a small wooden bowl of horse’s milk.
Two things I feel rather strongly about are killing people and stealing from them, so you can understand my unease launching into the book. To my surprise, the author, Jack Weatherford, took a somewhat benign view of Genghis and the Mongol hordes. Weatherford began his history by describing the four years he’d spent wandering the Steppes on horseback with local guides, historians and geographers, and the experience had obviously got under his skin. He’d become Mongol.
It was a long book, and for several weeks I suspended belief as best I could. These are things I learned about Genghis Khan and the subsequent Mongol Empire (say, 1200 AD to mid-1300):
- Genghis was deeply offended by torture, a technique beloved by the “civilisations” to the east, west and south of him.
- He operated a meritocracy. If you were competent, you got promoted and got to rule a lot of armies, peoples and lands. Being a blood relative didn’t necessarily buy you anything.
- He practiced religious tolerance, not caring one way or the other about a person’s beliefs.
- He was a shrewd administrator, carefully and wisely structuring regiments, communication systems and trade networks.
- He opened up the East to the West (and vice versa)—two powerful civilisations with no previous knowledge of one another—with thousands and thousands of miles of safe-passage trade routes.
- He revolutionised warfare. He invented new techniques and technology and didn’t play by the rules.
- Although the Mongols produced very little, other than horses, Genghis respected and treated well anyone who could build bridges, make paper, colour silk, write, navigate—who could create, invent, produce, manufacture or construct.
- At its strongest, the Mongol Empire covered 33 million square kilometres.
However, before you become too enamoured of Genghis’ merits, consider this: the Mongols may well have killed as many people as Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin or Mao—maybe all of them combined, and at a time when there just weren’t that many souls on the planet. If people were in his way, Genghis got rid of them. Rather a lot of people were in his way.
Although Jack Weatherford brought the Mongols to life for our book club, it was all somewhat remote. About the worst thing the eight of us do is on rare occasions to share books in violation of copyright. There is no looting, kidnap or murder, and probably never has been in all our lives. We worked for what we have, and all the important things in our lives have been handled by agreement, not force. “Will you marry me?” we asked, when the time was right. “Will you work for me?” “Will you buy my product? Can I buy yours?” There was much negotiation and convincing involved. Genghis would have rolled his eyes at the waste of time and energy. “Kill the husband and take the woman,” he’d have said. “Trample the guards and grab the jewels.”
So the world is very different today from what it was 700 years ago.
I read today in the Sydney Morning Herald more about the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, about further loss of life in the Ukraine as Putin seeks to reclaim lost Russian territory, about the Manus Island detention centre massacre, about Eddie Obeid helping himself to whatever he wanted. This morning over breakfast I learned from Eve’s and my B&B hostess that on average every week in Australia a woman is murdered by a spouse or an ex. Visions of Genghis rose before me.
Perhaps that’s the value of reading history, of dropping into Genghis Khan’s world for a while. I can do a bit of soul searching (in the good company of the book club) about where we’ve come from. And how far we’ve come. Or not. A few days ago someone made a comment that had me in an instant white-hot rage. I found myself so angry that…well, if I’d had Mongol habits things might not have turned out well. I’m grateful for the veneer of civilisation that helps keep me on the straight and narrow.
We all learned early on in the schoolyard that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. I’ve thought of that phrase as a saucy stab at a defence against verbal bullies but otherwise not entirely accurate. I’ve know the odd verbal Genghis, who did their share of damage. I get hurt by words—but that’s because I let myself be. Sticks and stones and swords and bombs are a different kind of violence. Genghis understood that. He was a practical man. Figure out what you want and then get it. If words help, use them. Otherwise, don’t bother.
Here’s what I see: the world is arguably a better place than it was 700 years ago, partly because of Genghis Khan and partly in spite of him. Overall, we don’t hurt each other quite a freely as we did then. Bullying is no longer as well-regarded. Being unkind seems to come naturally to human beings but as we experience greater prosperity, longer lives, and better education and communication, our worlds open up. We regard life more benevolently. Surely there’s been an improvement as we unravel the tangle of fight-or-flight genetics we’ve inherited. Michelangelo is attributed with saying, “Genius is eternal patience”—and I’m afraid that’s what it’s going to take.
I think about our book club, about our Shedders community, about my family and friends. Along with most of the rest of the world, we are people who’ve been beating our swords into ploughshares. That’s progress.
One of my favourite philosophers is Robert Heinlein, and I am reminded of a quote of his from Time Enough for Love: “Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other ‘sins’ are invented nonsense.” He adds, “Hurting yourself is not sinful — just stupid.”
Now, that’s a simple formula for living well.