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A list:

  • Alexander the Great
  • Shi Huang De
  • Genghis Khan
  • Chaka the Zulu
  • Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Adolf Hitler
  • Saddam Hussein

Historical problems
What do these people have in common?

All of them organised sudden impromptu empires (as compared with the long lasting empires like Rome and Britain which grew gradually over a long period). None of them lasted long, though Alexander's had long lasting effects and the Mongol Empire influenced subsequent culture. Shi Huang De of course is an exception as he unified China which has lasted most of the time since his conquests.

All of them seemed to have shared the contempt for other people that is sometimes labelled "psychopathy" in the clinical world. Certain criminals appear to have no moral sense at all. Perhaps these "great" leaders also shared that quality.

Should Lenin and Stalin also be in this list? And Pol Pot? And Shining Path? Perhaps, but although Pol Pot and the leaders of Shining Path shared the lack of feeling for ordinary people, they did not create empires. The same can be said of Saddam Hussein who, although he invaded his neighbors in Kuwait, showed no sign of being able to create an empire. A man entirely immune to human feeling he may have been but a worldwide threat he wasn't.

Napoleon came out of the French Revolution. Was he part of that revolution? Or did the revolution merely give him the scope for exercising his powers? Could Stalin have risen to power without the collapse of the old monarchy in 1917?

Seward points out that Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin were all from the fringes of their societies. Napoleon was from Corsica, an Italian speaking island, only legally French from just before his birth. He himself scarcely spoke French when he first arrived in France. Like Saddam Hussein he surrounded himself with his family, especially his brothers and sisters, most of whom never learned French. His Corsican family were originally from near Florence. Stalin was Georgian, speaking a non-Russian (non Indo-European) language. Hitler came from Austria, outside the aristocratic Prussian group that had ruled Germany. Saddam Hussein came from the criminal milieu of Tikrit, a small town outside the more aristocratic circle of the rulers under the king.

What allowed Genghis Khan to conquer the main part of Eurasia? Why did a previously fairly harmless tribe of horse nomads suddenly become an all conquering scourge of all the civilised people in the settled lands?

How did a civilised people like the Germans come under the control of a gang of criminals like the Nazis?

How did the French submit so willingly to a man of Italian culture? His activities actually ruined France and ended the hegemony the French had enjoyed in Europe since the 17th century. And yet the French people, or at least some of them, still apparently revere the memory of this man.

Napoleon theme park

Shaka the Zulu turned his clan into a Great Power and caused the Mfecane.

Saddam Hussein had a career similar in some respects to Hitler's. Like Hitler he seems to have had no feeling that other people mattered, other than as part of his own ambitions. Like Shaka and Genghis Khan he had a catastrophic family life as a child. Like Napoleon he trusted, in so far as he trusted anyone, only members of his own wider family and clan. The list of his cabinet members and other close associates is full of people from his own town Tikrit and his cousins, from a more or less criminal family. Like Hitler's his regime was the coming to power of gangsters without common morality.

Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is another case. He ruled for 42 years until an uprising against him in 2011 deposed him at last. Even as the people were in the streets demanding his departure he claimed "my people love me". (But at the same time he was proclaiming his intention of sending his troops into Benghazi where the rebels controlled the city searching house by house for "traitors").

His published "philosophy" (in his Green Book) seems to owe a great deal to Mussolini's fascism (Italy under Mussolini had been the colonial power). His brutal practice also has been revealed after the Revolution that deposed him. Eventually he was killed while trying to escape from his last stronghold, in Sirte his birthplace. He ended in the way of many tyrants, by being assassinated in a scuffle after hiding in a culvert under a road.

The interesting case in the modern world is how many people with psychopathic tendencies come to power and influence in business. That is, how far is the worldwide crisis of the difference between rich and poor and the unhappiness of many people working for corporations caused by the fact that many of the CEOs can be shown to have psychopathic personalities - and these are the people who actually run the world.

Certain media companies seem to be run by people with no concepts of "right and wrong". One of the biggest in both Britain and the United States is under scrutiny by a judicial enquiry in Britain.Murdoch story

Democratic systems are supposed to filter out such people, but sometimes they bring to the top completely incompetent people. Could there be a medium way between energetic tyrants and complete nincompoops? Maybe in the US Roosevelt was the medium, and in Britain Churchill (despite his many faults).

However, there is no mechanism in business to filter them out. (There could be if we adopted the ethical principles of Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum 1891 and the practical application in the Mondragon companies, and other types of cooperatives).

 Monbiot on business

In their book Snakes in Suits, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare point out that as the old corporate bureaucracies have been replaced by flexible, ever-changing structures, and as team players are deemed less valuable than competitive risk-takers, psychopathic traits are more likely to be selected and rewarded. Reading their work, it seems to me that if you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a poor family, you're likely to go to prison. If you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a rich family, you're likely to go to business school.

Terry Pratchett satirises the type in his character Reacher Gilt in his fantasy novel Going Postal.

See Hilaire Belloc, below

 Hilaire Belloc was a writer who was often associated with his friend Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Chesterton is known today mostly from his religious books, though he was a far more important writer than this suggests.

Belloc was of mixed French and English origin and was at home in both cultures. Belloc wrote a huge number of books, many of which would be worth reviving. The two writers were associated with a political movement, the Distributists, which, following the encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII, advocated an amelioration of capitalism by forming cooperatives, something followed up in the latter part of the 20th century in the Mondragon companies of the Basque country in Spain, now expanding to other countries.

Belloc's book "The Mercy of Allah" is a satire on the way rich financiers made their money. It is the story of a rich man and the dishonest means by which he cheated his way to riches. Belloc strongly disapproved of parasitical Finance as a means of making money and preferred industry which actually makes things people need. One can imagine his comments on the modern situation by which the sociopathic "banksters" have come to dominate and ruin the economies of the west. His book has thus become, once again, timely.

I have known of one chapter of this book "Al Kantara" (the bridge) for many years since I read it in an anthology of Belloc's writings in the 1960s. I have vaguely wished to find the complete book, and now it is available as a reprint. The satire is set in the Islamic world but is clearly commenting on the financial situation of contemporary Europe (the 1920s).

Belloc was accused of anti-semitism in his time and some of the followers of the "Chesterbelloc" drifted off towards the fascism of the 1930s (though Belloc condemned Hitler). This book does not show anti-Jewish sentiments, and its setting in the Islamic world is a literary device, showing that financial sins are universal. I recommend this book as a witty satire which deserves to be better known.

In preparation

Until I write more, these are just questions to think about.

Some Reading
 In the footsteps of Alexander - Michael Wood

 John Man Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan review
 Shelley Klein - The Most evil dictators

 Ricardo Orizio-Talk of the Devil
Interviews with ex-dictators

Talk Of The Devil
Desmond Seward Hitler and Napoleon

 Ian Knight - Anatomy of the Zulu army

 Lessons in leadership by terror

Lessons On Leadership By Terror: Finding Shaka Zulu In The Attic:
Jerrold M Post - Leaders and their followers in a dangerous world

Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World: The Psychology of Political Behavior (Psychoanalysis & Social Theory S)

 E.A.Ritter - Shaka Zulu, the Rise of the Zulu Empire

Shaka Zulu: The Rise of the Zulu Empire

Alan Bullock - Hitler

Hitler: A Study in Tyranny

 Samir al Khalil (Kanan Makiya) Republic of Fear The classic account of Saddam's regime before the US invasion.

 Nicolo Machiavelli - the Prince

Der Fürst

Le Prince : Texte intégral, analyse

 Simon Baron-Cohen - The Science of Evil

Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty

The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty

Review of Baron-Cohen

Baron-Cohen, a well-known psychologist, believes empathy is a skill that can be learned

Radio discussion of Baron-Cohen's ideas

Paul Babiak and Robert Hare - Snakes in Suits

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work

Menschenschinder oder Manager: Psychopathen bei der Arbeit
Terry Pratchett - Going Postal

Going Postal: A Discworld Novel

Ab die Post: Ein Scheibenwelt-Roman

Les annales du Disque-Monde, Tome 30 : Timbré
Adam Kotsko - Why we love sociopaths

Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television

 Simon Sebag Montefiore - Titans of History

Titans: The Monsters and Heroes Who Made History
Review Review
Hilaire Belloc - The Mercy of Allah

The mercy of Allah

Hilaire Belloc. La Grâce d'Allah : Roman. Traduction de Jules Castier

Last revision 11/06/12

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