Best in Life/The Greatest Joy?

23:38 Tue 08 Jun 2010
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These are arguably the most famous lines from Conan the Barbarian:

Khitan General: What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!

Random browsing recently led me to learn that this was inspired by the words of Genghis Khan.

According to Wikiquote’s Genghis Khan entry, Khan said:

The greatest joy for a man is to defeat his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all they possess, to see those they love in tears, to ride their horses, and to hold their wives and daughters in his arms.

This mindset clearly helped Khan in his conquests, and a culture that supported such a view would be quite suited to military aggression. That said, of course it’s also a vengeful and bloodthirsty outlook. One of the things that strikes me is that its ferocity and focus elicit a certain admiration from me, despite my considering it abhorrent and wrong.

Part of this is definitely from its focus—simple answers to questions like “what is the greatest joy” tend to be compelling. My own view on life doesn’t provide such a focused (or pithy) answer, instead acknowledging (or buckling under) the complexities of existence.

The bloodthirst, however, is an inherent part of its draw. Absolutist moralities tend to allow extreme actions under certain (sometimes quite common) conditions, and this is probably a feature, not a bug—morality is generally a complicated and often confusing constraint. The ability to grant ourselves exemptions from it based on some apparently-coherent larger structure is quite a draw. I also suspect that humans are drawn to intense experiences and that philosophies such as Khan’s benefit from making those more likely (with plenty of drawbacks, clearly).

It is nevertheless telling that even Khan felt the need to add justificatory rationalizations for his actions:

I am the flail of god. Had you not created great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.

(A line which is sadly likely to work on more people than one might think.)

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