Empire, Order, and the “Truth of History”

If this isn’t amazing, I don’t know what is:

“All of the early empires, Near Eastern as well as Far Eastern, understood themselves as representatives of a transcendent order, of the order of the cosmos; and some of them even understood this order as a ‘truth.’  Whether one turns to the earliest Chinese sources in the Shu King or to the inscriptions of Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, or Persia, one uniformly finds the order of the empire interpreted as a representation of cosmic order in the medium of human society.  The empire is a cosmic analogue, a little world reflecting the order of the great, comprehensive world.  Rulership becomes the task of securing the order of society in harmony with cosmic order; the territory of the empire is an analogical representation of the world with its four quarters; the great ceremonies of the empire represent the rhythm of the cosmos; festivals and sacrifices are a cosmic liturgy, a symbolic participation of the cosmion in the cosmos; and the ruler himself represents the society, because on earth he represents the transcendent power which maintains cosmic order. . . .

In so far as the order of society does not exist automatically but must be founded, preserved, and defended, those who are on the side of order represent the truth, while their enemies represent disorder and falsehood. . . .
[a discussion of the self-understanding of the Achaemenid and Mongol empires follows]

This meeting of truth with truth has a familiar ring. And the ring will become even more familiar when a few corollaries of Mongol legal theory are taken into account.  The Order of God on which the imperial construction was based is preserved in the edicts of Kuyuk Khan and Mangu Khan:

‘By order of the living God
Genghis Khan, the sweet and venerable Son of God, says:
God is high above all, He, Himself, the immortal God,
And on earth, Genghis Khan is the only Lord.’

The empire of the Lord Genghis Khan is de jure in existence even if it is not yet realized de facto. All human societies are part of the Mongol empire by virtue of the Order of God, even if they are not yet conquered.  The actual expansion of the empire, therefore, follows a very strict process of law.  Societies whose turn for actual integration into the empire has come must be notified by ambassadors of the Order of God and requested to make their submission.  If they refuse, or perhaps kill the ambassadors, then they are rebels, and military sanctions will be taken against them.  The Mongol empire, thus, by its own legal order has never conducted a war but only punitive expeditions against rebellious subjects of the empire.

It will have become clear by now that the Behistun Inscription and the Mongol Orders are not oddities of a remote past, but instances of a structure in politics that may occur at any time, and especially in our own. The self-undersanding of a society as the representative of cosmic order originates in the period of the cosmological empires in the technical sense, but it is not confined to this period.  Not only does cosmological representation survive in the imperial symbols of the Western Middle Ages or in continuity into the China of the twentieth century; its principle is also recognizable where the truth to be represented is symbolized in an entirely different manner. In Marxian dialectics, for instance, the truth of cosmic order is replaced by the truth of a historically immanent order.  Nevertheless, the Communist movement is a representative of this differently symbolized truth in the same sense in which a Mongol Khan was the representative of the truth contained in the Order of God; and the consciousness of this representation leads to the same political and legal constructions as in the other instances of imperial representation of truth.  Its order is in harmony with the truth of history; its aim is the establishment of the realm of freedom and peace; the opponents run counter to the truth of history and will be defeated in the end; nobody can be at war with the Soviet Union legitimately but must be a representative of untruth in history, or, in contemporary language, an aggressor; and the victims are not conquered but liberated from their oppressors and therewith from the untruth of their existence.”  —Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, 54-55, 58-59.

To this last paragraph, particularly mindful of all the sections I have bolded above, we might readily add that the principle is also recognizable equally in the ideology of “the West,” the Pax Americana and the liberal order it strives to impose, with its appeals, against challenges both domestic and foreign, to its foes being “on the wrong side of history.”  Even at the very point where we most pride ourselves on having far surpassed the superstitious political mythology of the pre-modern world, we find ourselves most fully re-encapsulating it in a distinctively modern form.

One thought on “Empire, Order, and the “Truth of History”

  1. Very interesting, indeed. At the risk of being simplistic, isn’t it the nature of children of Adam to want to lord it over others, buttressing this desire with some transcendent sanction? I see this principle in Muhammad (or those who concocted most if not all of him).


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