Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
"The virtues which we admire in private life and profess in our religion become secondary qualities in our rulers. The test of greatness in tsars or presidents is not in their private lives or even in their good intentions, but in their deeds." —Robert K. Massie, Nicholas & Alexandra
These are the opinions of Mr. Rovert K. Massie when writing on the failure and eventual assassination of Tsar Nicholas. The quote came up while discussing Donald Trump with my cousin at Javas's coffee shop. I was explaining to him the basics of why everyone hated Trump so much and their issues with him as president. I expressed that people were concerned about his personal views of Muslims, immigrants, and the LGBT community. I also explained to him that there was concern that since his election there has been an increase in racist violence and that was enough to condemn him as not being worthy of the title.
My cousin countered by saying that despite the president’s personal failings, his legacy as a president is going to be judged on what he did or did not do, not his racist and misogynistic viewpoints. Essentially, that a leader’s greatness was judged by the survival and perpetuation of the state he rules. Personal morality becomes a secondary element.
This isn’t another article about Donald Trump, but that idea of what standards is an effective leader judged by. And what standards should he be judged by?
In the modern world, the opinions of the populace about the leader/leaders who rule them are considered one of the highest priorities. This is especially true in democracies where the continuing rule of a person or party is based on how many people like him. It is similar to how many people judge their personal value and worth based on how many likes and shares they get on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat.
Bill Clinton for example is considered by many to be one of America’s best leaders largely because of how many people liked him. He put forth an image of an easy-going, progressive leader who wasn’t afraid to get in touch with the people. I still remember his appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show where he appeared playing the sax. It was then I knew that he was going to win the election. His Republican rival, George H. Bush, did not conduct as personable a campaign and was very much like the Pope riding in a motorcade: you can see him waving to you, but he’s blocked off by the glass box he was in.
Half of a ruler’s legacy is determined by how he is remembered. Thing is that how he is remembered can be dependent on who is remembering them and the times as well. It has been argued however that popular opinion and values judging a ruler’s effectiveness is a recent phenomenon and that it should not be a benchmark. A better one would be going by ruler’s of the past. The examples I will use for this viewpoint will be Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Genghis Khan.
Gifted and Ruthless Ambition
Starting out with Alexander, he was a prince who became king of his kingdom of Macedonia in Greece in 336 BCE at the age of 20. He then led his army on a global conquest that extended his kingdom from Macedonia, to Egypt, and as far as India. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest military minds and leaders of all time because of his uncanny ability to read the battlefield, a willingness to engage in direct combat, and one of the rare military leaders to have never lost a single battle.
However, as with all empires, revolts were always a potential threat and Alexander faced down several. These he put down ruthlessly. Killing civilians and burning entire cities to the ground was not uncommon for him, in order to secure his rule. During his campaigns in the Middle East and Egypt, after his conquests of cities, he would kill all males able to fight and sell off the rest of the populace into slavery. This had the effect of causing other nearby cities to surrender immediately rather than suffer the same fate.
He hungered for battle and its glory, the traumas and gallons of bloodshed along the way did not faze him: makes one wonder if PTSD existed back then. He proclaimed himself Pharaoh of Egypt and many say he believed himself to be a living god. Yet for all this and more, it can be said Alexander was simply following the rules of the world, of common sense according to the times and place in which he lived.
To the Rubicon and Beyond
Julius Caesar follows in a similar vane. Beginning his career as a military commander in Gaul, he is the one responsible for turning Rome from a republic into an empire. Not being born into royalty and living in a time when Rome was ruled by the Senate and not a single ruler, he was ordered to stand down his army as Governor of Gaul. Rather than risk arrest and persecution, he led his army into Rome and forced the Senate to accept his rule, becoming the first Caesar.
Though he was assassinated not long after, what he had started would continue long after him, arguably until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, as it was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, itself the Eastern Roman empire renamed. The title of Caesar would continue as well, going far beyond just being an imperial ruler and becoming a god.
In his rise to power, Julius was ruthless. During his Gaul campaign, it is said he killed one million men and sold another million people into slavery. This is probably not including those he killed in village massacres which he did frequently to instill fear and thereby, control.
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Julius Caesar is remembered for starting one of the greatest empires in history, but he also is known for killing many people to do it. These elements would lay the groundwork for its eventual fall.
The Largest Land Empire in History
Lastly is the Mongols. Coming out of the steps of Asia, the Mongols’ accomplishments in empire-building far outstrip those of either Alexander or Julius Caesar. Their empire extended from the coasts of China, to Russia and Eastern Europe, and down into the Middle East and the borders of Southeast Asia. This is over half the known world, an unbelievable feat for a people descended from a bunch of nomadic raiders. Many remember the Mongols for establishing trade routes between east and west through their overwhelming control and bring long periods of peace in areas where warfare and violence could be reliably counted on occurring as the next seasonal change.
Religious tolerance was initiated because of the numerous cultures and beliefs of the millions they ruled over. And order was strictly enforced. When the Nizari, a sect of Islam known for its assassinations and terror tactics, had resisted Mongol rule in Syria around 1253, the Mongols ruthlessly crushed them. The significance of this being that the cult was well known for intimidating its neighbors with their network of assassins from their isolated forts since 1080. Both Crusaders and other Islamic rulers had failed to subjugate them, but the Mongols had finally done so.
For all this security and stability they established, the Mongols were exceptionally violent, even by standards of the times and was rarely matched ever again. Like with Alexander, cities that failed to surrender were razed, but not only that. The entire populace wasn’t sold into slavery but slaughtered wholesale. This was the fate of Baghdad in 1258, an act which many Muslims considered the end of the golden age of Islam.
The Argument Against Legacy’s Sake
If I were to follow the argument that perpetuation and legacy are what justifies rulers, then on the surface the above examples would seemingly justify this. As my cousin said to me, the continuity of the state is the best measure of a sovereign’s effectiveness. And many argue that Trump will bring in a similar legacy. However there are problems.
In all of these actions to ensure the state’s survival, the amoral violence used to accomplish them led to later problems or their eventual fall. Alexander’s desire of seeking godhood and personal glory was passed on to his generals, whom upon his death fought with each other and destroyed his family and empire while trying to create their own.
The Gauls whom Caesar and numerous other Roman rulers had subjugated and ruled over for centuries, never entirely forgot what happened to their ancestors and when the moment arose to rebel, they often did, eventually playing a part in the fall of Rome and the Western Roman Empire.
And the greatest empire in the world, the Mongols, after centuries of rule, imploded. The empire dividing itself and in-fighting until it was no more and is all that is left is when people think of them is their extreme violence and if at all, a small republic in the center of Eurasia where they originally came from with little civilization. There is little hint of the vast swaths of territory and civilizations they conquered and destroyed: just their violence.
What does this have to do with a ruler’s values? That the survival of the state is not a good benchmark because it inevitably won’t last. As the saying goes, “empires come and go”, and when that happens what truly lasts is how they are remembered. The above examples are remembered, but no longer for perpetuating the state.
At best, people will seek to copy their achievements, without the sacrifice of human morality due to the extreme sensibility much of the world holds towards all-out war and lack of ethics. Even the most authoritarian regimes today, dress up their rule as rooted in ethics and morality to justify their existence to the people and the world at large.
Alexander, Caesar, and the Mongols simply didn’t give fuck about what their conquered peoples thought about them. They just took.
All but the most brutal of governments put some stock into how they are seen because if they don’t, it will lay the seed for future problems. And the hypocrisy when their personal values don’t match the story they're selling then discredits them. A good example is China, a government infamous for its controlling nature, purging several of their positions because of corruption. If they were effective at what they did, then why should that matter?
In some cases, a ruler’s personal values may come to overshadow their statesmanship. When I was a kid, President John Kennedy, already long dead, was known for inspiring the nation to reach for the moon, handling the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his murder. Now when I hear about him, the first thing that is mentioned is that he fucked Marilyn Monroe along with several other high profile women.
Franklin Roosevelt was and still is known for leading the country through the Depression and World War Two. However, now he also known for imprisoning an entire ethnic group in camps because they shared the same race origin as the country that attacked America.
The disgrace of a leader can lead to the disgrace of a nation.
Why a Leader’s Personal Values Matter
Whether it’s Donald Trump’s prejudice or Bill Clinton’s legal issues over past sexual encounters, the personal values of a leader do play a part in their rule because in one way or another, it sets in motion a pattern that can inspire unforeseen consequences. Those consequences may be years or even centuries down the line, but eventually it will bear fruit and it’s the state and its people that will be forced to eat it when it does.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2016 Jamal Smith