Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Two Philosophers: Genghis Khan and John Locke

Genghis Khan was a courageous warrior, a brilliant and ruthless military commander, an inspiring political leader, and an original philosopher. Edward Gibbon believed that the religious philosophy of Genghis Khan had inspired John Locke. In Volume Four of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon wrote: “But it is the religion of Zingis that best deserves our wonder and applause. The Catholic inquisitors of Europe who defended nonsense by cruelty, might have been confounded by the example of a barbarian, who anticipated the lessons of philosophy and established by his laws a system of pure theism and perfect toleration." [Gibbon has used the name Zingis Khan for Genghis Khan.]

In a footnote on the same page, Gibbon left this intriguing comment: “A singular conformity might be found between the religious laws of Zingis Khan and Mr. Locke.” To justify his contention of a connection between Khan and Locke, Gibbon specifically cites the constitution of South Carolina, then a British colony. Locke had played a fundamental role in the drafting of the constitution of South Carolina. Gibbon believed that Locke’s utopian constitution for South Carolina was inspired by Genghis Khan’s vision of a secular political community based on common law. 

The great achievement of Genghis Khan and his descendants was not that they conquered several tribes, cities, and nations, and created the largest contiguous land empire in history, but that they enabled people of different faiths, cultures, and geographical backgrounds live together under the Great Law (the constitution of the Mongol Empire). The Great Law made it a crime to victimize any person in the Mongol Empire on account of his religion. While most Mongols adhered to the Mongol tradition of God of the “deep blue sky,” a significant part of the population of the Mongol Empire was made of Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Confucians, Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Manichaeans, and animalists. The Mongol Empire served as a religious and cultural melting pot—it was history’s unrivaled carrier of ideas.

The founding fathers of America were aware of the philosophy of Genghis Khan. The biography of Genghis Khan, History of Genghizcan the Great, First Emperor of the Ancient Moguls and Tartars (published in 1710), edited by the French scholar François Pétis de la Croix, was introduced to the American colonies by Benjamin Franklin. The book was in the library of George Washington. Thomas Jefferson possessed several copies of this biography. He presented the book to his granddaughter Cornelia Jefferson Randolph as a gift on her seventeenth birthday, and on the book’s first page he wrote a note that she must try to learn from Genghis Khan’s biography. Jefferson’s copies of the book have entered the United States Library of Congress and the library of University of Virginia. On May 26, 1795, Jefferson wrote a letter to Jean Francois Froulle, a bookseller in Paris, asking him to send him more leather bound copies of the book. 

In his work of history, Gibbon has devoted several passages to describing the conquests of Genghis Khan and his descendants. Here’s a line from Gibbon, “By the arms of Zingis and his descendants, the globe was shaken from China to Poland and Greece: the sultans were overthrown: the caliphs fell, and the Caesars trembled on their throne.” The Mongol tribe under Genghis Khan numbered about a million—from this small tribe he recruited an army of less than one hundred thousand warriors who destroyed the old decadent civilizations and created space for the emergence of a new world.

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