A pattern that emerges from history is the propensity of Europeans to use innovative technologies to change the rules of the game and thus gain a power advantage. This proclivity seems to arise from a deep structure in European cognition that identifies power as a value in itself, even if gaining such power causes massive disequilibrium.
How deeply ingrained in European culture was this readiness to violently disrupt an equilibrium for the sake of power? An unscientific but intriguing comparison of two legendary conquerors suggests this European mindset goes all the way back to the birth of Western culture in ancient Greece.
Alexander and the veneration of brute force
Even today, after more than two millennia, people are awed by the breathtaking military feats of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE), who created one of the largest empires in the ancient world in a few short years, conquering the entire Persian empire and then, desiring to reach the “ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea,” led a campaign to invade India, only turning back when his army threatened mutiny.
Historians have long wondered about the psychology underlying Alexander’s spectacular achievements. In the words of one, “Alexander seems increasingly to have seen his progress in terms of a Grail-like quest for the supposedly unattainable. He sought the ‘ocean’, the ultimate limit of terrestrial empire. Through knowledge of this great ‘beyond’, he aspired to a kind of enlightenment which… would become a cliché of Western exploration.”
A famous legend that hints at Alexander’s frame of mind – and strikingly portends the later European approach to power – is the story of the Gordian knot. According to ancient lore, the Phrygians were once without a ruler and an oracle prophesied that the first person to enter the capital in an oxcart would be their next king. The peasant Gordias was that man, and he dedicated his cart in gratitude to the gods, tying its shafts to a post in an elaborate knot. The same oracle then prophesied that whoever undid that knot would become the king of all Asia. No-one had ever succeeded in undoing it because of the special way it was tied together, without any loose ends to work. When Alexander arrived there, he came up with a devastatingly simple solution. He drew his sword and sliced the knot cleanly in half. As the oracle predicted, he did go on to become ruler of all Asia.
The significance of the story is that Alexander’s approach established a paradigm of power: an equilibrium was destroyed by violating the previous rules of the game with brute force. Most importantly, instead of being condemned as “cheating,” Alexander’s behavior was lauded to the extent that it became the stuff of legend.
The remorse of Ashoka
Now let’s turn to another great ruler of ancient times: Ashoka of India (304-232 BCE), who inherited an empire covering most of the Indian subcontinent forged by his grandfather Chandragupta. Ashoka showed military prowess himself, conquering the region of Kalinga, which we know about because he erected a monument commemorating his achievement. What is amazing about this monument is how Ashoka describes what he has done: rather than glorying his conquest, Ashoka, now converted to the new religion of Buddhism, laments the destruction he has caused. In his own words:
On conquering Kalinga the Beloved of the Gods [His Majesty] felt remorse, for, when an independent country is conquered, the slaughter, death and deportation of the people is extremely grievous to the Beloved of the Gods and weighs heavily on his mind… Today if a hundredth or a thousandth part of those people who were killed or died or were deported when Kalinga was annexed were to suffer similarly, it would weigh heavily on the mind of the Beloved of the Gods…
Perhaps even more remarkable than Ashoka’s self-recrimination is the admonition he then offers his descendants:
This inscription of dhamma (dharma) has been engraved so that any sons or great-grandsons that I may have should not think of gaining new conquests… They should only consider conquest by dhamma to be a true conquest, and delight in dhamma should be their whole delight.
In the words of Indian historian R. K. Mookerji: “Herein lies the greatness of Ashoka. Even as a mere pious sentiment this is hard to beat; at least no victorious monarch in the history of the world is known to have ever given expression to anything like it.”
Conquering with virtue
These are, of course, just two rulers out of a host of monarchs throughout history, but their stories stand in stark contrast to each other and appear emblematic of two contrasting approaches to the meaning of power. Ashoka did not believe in relinquishing power itself, but rather in using it to promote an enlightened set of values, an approach that was not unique to him but imbued in his culture.
During the reign of his grandfather, a classic of statecraft named the Arthasastra was written, which advises how a ruler should treat nations conquered in battle. “Having acquired new territory,” it goes, “the conqueror shall substitute his virtues for the enemy’s vices and where the enemy was good, he shall be twice as good. He shall follow policies that are pleasing and beneficial by acting according to his dharma and by granting favours and exemptions, giving gifts, and bestowing honours.”