Breakfast with Chad: Genghis Khan’s Exceptionalism
Given everything that’s happening in the world today, I got to thinking what happens in people’s minds when sudden shifts in history take place. As a thought experiment I focused on the most exotic example I could find: the powerful but inscrutable Genghis Khan. So, the first thing I decided to ask Chad this morning at breakfast was this: “Ghengis Khan clearly changed the world in his lifetime. What was his theory of history?”
After reminding me that the great Khan never left any written records, Chad described what he was about to say as nothing more than an educated guess.
“Genghis Khan was born into a society that was deeply divided along tribal lines, with constant warfare between the various groups. He grew up in a world where might made right and where loyalty to one’s tribe was paramount. From an early age, he showed a keen sense of leadership and a willingness to take risks to achieve his goals.
As he rose to power and began to conquer neighboring tribes, Genghis Khan may have developed a view of history that emphasized the importance of military strength and political unity. He may have believed that his conquests were necessary to create a stable and prosperous society, and that the Mongol people were uniquely suited to achieve this goal.
“You’re saying he ‘may have,’” I thought to myself, “which tells me that he also may not have.”
“Genghis Khan also had a deep respect for the natural world, which may have influenced his view of history. He was known for his love of the open plains and his admiration for the power of the natural elements. He may have seen the cycles of nature as a metaphor for the rise and fall of civilizations, with empires rising and falling like the seasons.
Overall, while we cannot say for certain what Genghis Khan’s theory of history was, it is clear that he believed in the power of leadership, military strength, and political unity to create a stable and prosperous society. He also had a deep respect for the natural world and may have seen the cycles of nature as a guiding force in the rise and fall of civilizations.”
The question of Mongol exceptionalism
“Ah,” I reacted, “so he believed in a connection between nature and his military ambitions. That makes him a philosopher. But what is it about Mongol culture at the time that would distinguish it from other cultures sufficiently to create a sense of Mongol exceptionalism?”
Chad promptly explained that “the Mongol culture was deeply rooted in nomadic traditions, which gave them a unique set of skills and strengths that set them apart from sedentary cultures. The Mongols were skilled horsemen and expert archers, and their way of life allowed them to be highly mobile and adaptable to different environments. This gave them a significant military advantage over settled societies that relied on agriculture and were less able to move quickly.
Secondly, the Mongols had a strong sense of tribal identity and unity, which helped them to overcome internal divisions and maintain a cohesive society. Genghis Khan was able to forge alliances with other tribes and create a sense of shared purpose and loyalty among his people, which gave them a powerful advantage in warfare and diplomacy.
“Thirdly, the Mongols were known for their military prowess and conquests, which allowed them to build a vast empire that spanned much of Asia and Europe. This success in warfare gave the Mongols a sense of superiority and exceptionalism, as they saw themselves as a chosen people destined for greatness.
Finally, the Mongols also had a unique legal and administrative system that allowed them to govern their empire efficiently and effectively. The use of merit-based appointments, paper money, and a unified legal code helped to create a sense of order and stability that set the Mongols apart from other cultures of the time.
Overall, the combination of nomadic traditions, strong tribal identity, military success, and efficient governance created a sense of Mongol exceptionalism that helped to shape their culture and worldview.”
“OK for Genghis himself and the ruling class,” I concurred. “But did the great Khan’s conquering armies believe in Mongol exceptionalism?”
“It is likely that many members of Genghis Khan’s conquering armies believed in Mongol exceptionalism. The Mongol Empire was built on a sense of pride and superiority, and this belief would have been instilled in the soldiers who fought and conquered on behalf of the empire.
Mongol exceptionalism was based on the idea that the Mongols were a chosen people who had been granted a special destiny by the heavens. This belief was closely tied to the idea of “eternal blue sky,” which was the Mongol term for the supreme deity who had blessed their nation. The Mongols believed that their military success was a sign of their divine favor, and this belief would have been reinforced by the victories they achieved in battle.
The Mongol army was made up of warriors who were fiercely loyal to their leader, Genghis Khan, and who were committed to the success of the empire. These soldiers would have been motivated by a sense of pride and honor in their role as defenders of the Mongol people, and would have seen their military campaigns as a way of fulfilling their destiny.”
This answer led me to another reflection, which I immediately shared with Chad. “We are supposed to believe that the rationality of 18th century European civilization complemented by the successful establishment of democracy and a regime of freedoms announced in the American constitution have made the US an exceptional nation. How is the American exceptionalism we hear so much about different from the Mongol exceptionalism you’ve just described? They seem to be very similar.”
Comparing two forms of exceptionalisms 800 centuries apart
As usual, Chad agreed before disagreeing. “There are similarities between the ideas of American exceptionalism and Mongol exceptionalism in the sense that both view their respective cultures as unique and superior to others. However, there are also significant differences between the two.
One of the key differences is the basis for the exceptionalism. Mongol exceptionalism was rooted in the idea of a divine mandate, with the Mongols believing that they were a chosen people blessed by a supreme deity. American exceptionalism, on the other hand, is based on the idea that the United States is a land of opportunity and freedom, with a unique political and economic system that has allowed for prosperity and progress.
Another difference is the way in which the exceptionalism has been expressed. Mongol exceptionalism was often expressed through military conquest and the imposition of Mongol culture on conquered peoples. American exceptionalism, while certainly marked by military power, has been expressed more through the spread of democratic ideals and the promotion of American values around the world.
Finally, there is also a difference in the impact of the exceptionalism on the world. Mongol exceptionalism led to the creation of a vast empire that was marked by brutal conquests and the suppression of local cultures. American exceptionalism, while certainly marked by its own set of challenges and contradictions, has led to the spread of democracy and individual freedoms, which have had a profound impact on the world.”
Time was passing and I had other things to do. I simply said to Chad that what I was hearing sounded more like propaganda than a realistic account of history. Doesn’t Chad see the pax americana of the last 75 years as an empire?
“Democratic ideals? American values?” I objected. “Those are ideas that fit nicely into rousing political speeches on the fourth of July, but historical reality tells a different story. And your point about ‘chosen people blessed by a supreme deity’ seems to me almost identical to US exceptionalism. ‘In God we trust’ is the message on the dollar.I must run, but let’s come back to this question in another chat where we can examine these issues in more detail. There are always differences, but here the resemblances seem too important to neglect.”
*[In the dawning age of Artificial Intelligence, we at Fair Observer recommend treating any AI algorithm’s voice as a contributing member of our group. As we do with family members, colleagues or our circle of friends, we quickly learn to profit from their talents and, at the same time, appreciate the social and intellectual limits of their personalities. This enables a feeling of camaraderie and constructive exchange to develop spontaneously and freely. For more about how we initially welcomed Chad to our breakfast table, click here.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.