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Why Conquer?

June 16, 2015

A friend recently asked an interesting question: In history, why does someone who already has power go conquering? Why does a lord need more power? Here’s my answer:

  1. Henry_Kissinger_1976c

    Henry Kissinger got lots of sex — despite being chubby, homely, and not too young — and he put it best: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

    Sex & Natural Selection: A powerful man gets to sleep with lots of women. So men who seek power, and succeed, father more children, leading to natural selection favoring the power-hungry. We really don’t need another explanation, at least for power-hungry men: evolution has embedded it in our genes. And our genes don’t recognize a “point of diminishing marginal returns,” after which more sex isn’t worth the bother. Genghis Khan and his sons, for instance, fathered so many children that 8% of modern Asians carry their Y chromosome, according to some researchers. As history’s most successful conquerors, the Mongol rulers had the power to sleep with mind-boggling numbers of women, and they did.

  2. Power is Money: Through most of history, the only way to increase wealth quickly was to take it from other people, by force. That’s how Julius Caesar got rich, to take one of countless examples. He rose from debt-ridden politician to ancient Roman gazillionaire in a few years, by conquering and pillaging Gaul. Of course, today you’re more likely to get rich through commerce than by joining the military. But modern economies are unusual. Commerce didn’t offer a reliable route to riches until the last few centuries.
  3. Sadism: In past times, people were more eager than now to injure, rape, maim, and murder. (See my post: The Least Violent Time Ever? Now.) And conquest provides lots of outlets for our sadistic urges.
  4. RWS15303 The Ravager; by Dollman, John Charles (1851-1934); © Trustees of the Royal Watercolour Society, London, UK; English, out of copyright

    Are these Vikings following their lord into battle — or threatening to kill him if he doesn’t fight?

    Restless Underlings: Maybe some lords nevertheless felt they had enough power and would’ve preferred to take a pass on conquest. But what about the men (and women) under them, and their desire for wealth and power? If a Norse earl, for instance, didn’t lead raids or conquests, the eager Vikings under him might replace him — and not at all gently.

  5. Restless Neighbors: We often imagine conquerors’ victims innocently minding their own business until invaders rampaged across their lands. That’s just wrong. Conquered people were usually potential conquerors themselves, or at least raiders. So subduing them was good risk-management. The Scots, for example, will never forgive the English for conquering them during the Middle Ages. But incessant Scottish raids actually triggered the English invasions as much as anything else. Even World War I began as a defensive struggle. The Russians and French thought the Germans and Austrians were about to invade, and vice versa, so they all started shooting.

Yes, much of this reasoning is circular: the need for power triggers the need for power. That’s why the cycle’s so hard to break.




  • Henry Kissinger in 1976, from the Dutch National Archives, provided through Wikimedia Commons
  • The Ravager (1906), by John Charles Dollman — cropped

© 2015 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

The Ugly Duchess

April 29, 2015
The Ugly Duchess, Quentin Matsys

The Ugly Duchess, Quentin Matsys, c. 1513

The Ugly Duchess isn’t a post-modern surrealist painting. Nor is it a cover from Mad Magazine or an R-rated version of the Duchess from Alice in Wonderland. It’s a Renaissance masterpiece, created around 1513 by Flemish painter Quentin Matsys. No one knows who sat for the picture. Nor can anyone answer the really interesting question: Why did Matsys paint The Ugly Duchess? Read more…

Why the Right Despises Obama: His Missing Racial Stereotype

February 27, 2015

Americans expect tension between the president and his opposition. But Barack Obama’s Republican opponents despise him so much they can’t work with him. They can’t compromise, particularly in Congress, and that’s unusual. No president’s drawn such fevered opposition since Abraham Lincoln presided over the nation’s bloodiest controversy ever. Why? Read more…

European Antisemitism Isn’t Back

February 20, 2015

Islamist attacks on Jews have triggered repeated warnings about the return of antisemitism to Europe. Benjamin Netanyahu recently capitalized on the concern by suggesting European Jews flee to Israel. One American commentator went so far as to invoke Hitler’s last will and testament, suggesting the Nazi dictator’s ideology has come back far faster than Hitler himself predicted. But do these terrorist attacks really return Europe’s Jews to the dangers of the Nazi era, or to the antisemitism of Europe’s last few centuries? No. Read more…

Did Ancient Semites Father the Germanic Languages?

January 9, 2015
Could Sigurd, the legendary Germanic hero, have been a Phoenician?

Could legendary heroes of the Germanic people have been Phoenicians?

German, English, Swedish, and the other Germanic languages belong to the Indo-European family, but they’re odd members. They and Proto-Germanic, their common grandparent, have a lot of vocabulary and grammar utterly unlike other Indo-European languages. Rather, it resembles Semitic languages, like Hebrew and Arabic. That suggests a fascinating lost history, with civilized Middle Easterners setting up camp among the primitives of northern Europe’s great forests. Read more…

America’s Enemies Already Knew

December 12, 2014

Wolf Blitzer asked Senator Feinstein whether she’d feel guilty if the enhanced interrogation report led to American deaths. Many Republicans have made the same point: our enemies will now torture and kill our soldiers.

Their assumption is wrong. Our enemies already know we tortured their men. It’s a poorly kept secret, and our enemies don’t trust American democracy so much that they won’t accept clams of torture without proof. The report doesn’t reveal the truth to our enemies but rather to us: to the American people who still doubted the government of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln would torture.


December 10, 2014

Every tyrant throughout all history could argue that torture prevented war, stopped terrorism, or otherwise saved lives. That’s not the point.

None of us is safe under a regime that uses enhanced interrogation — under a government that tortures.


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