Is History Inevitably Recursive?

There are a great number of stories throughout history that exemplify the iniquity often associated with Totalitarianism. To be sure, the twentieth century was abundantly active in this arena, but certain stories from Herodotus’ Histories reverberate in my mind as if I were present to see them unfold.  Herodotus was exceptional at depicting acts of honor, sacrifice, glory and servitude.  Though some of his stories have lost favor with posterity, many remain as models of virtue.  Indeed, the more I cogitate on one in particular, the more I become incensed with his era’s concept of virtuous behavior. To serve our “superiors” is described as the ultimate reward.  It is a notion so overtly antithetical with one’s dignity, it’s difficult to conceptualize its success.  Yet, it’s not entirely absent from societal expectations today.

To appreciate this story in its entirety, I’ll have to begin with Cyrus the Great.

Cyrus was a man of ingenuity and relative tolerance.  At the time of his birth, Persians fell under the dominion of Media.  As with any idealized hero, Cyrus’ ascension to power was nothing short of miraculous.  He was noble by birth but nurtured by commoners.  His maternal Grandfather – the Median king, Astyages – had a dream that his thrown would one day be usurped by Cyrus, so he ordered him executed at birth.  But instead of executing the child, the nobleman assigned to this task gave Cyrus to a shepherd.  Despite being brought up in obscurity, he distinguished himself from the lowly working class.  This was to be expected as it was thought that nobility was a hereditary characteristic.

Against all odds, Cyrus would one day fulfill Astyages’ dream by defeating his grandfather; and since Cyrus was Persian on his father’s side, the Medes lost control of Western Asia.  As a result, the Achaemenid dynasty was born, which would subsequently control most of the known world until the conquests of Alexander the Great.

One of the central expansions during Cyrus’ reign was his annexation of the Babylonian Empire.  Babylon was an important epicenter of Western Asia, and upon its fall, Cyrus repatriated most of the captive people found within its walls.  This act was also coupled with numerous humanitarian deeds and is historically supported by artifacts such as the Cyrus Cylinder.  Biblically speaking, this is one event that has some semblance of historical abutment; although, the Cyrus Cylinder doesn’t actually mention the Jews as being one of the repatriated peoples.  Nevertheless, it can be argued that Cyrus was one of the few men from history that had total authority over a vast empire, and refrained from abusing his power – that is, if we can forgive him for murdering his Grandfather.

Of course, the same cannot be said for his successor.  Perhaps Marcus Aurelius and Commodus were the reincarnated emperors of Cyrus and Cambyses II; for like Cambyses, Commodus was nothing like his father.  Cambyses was to Cyrus what religion is to progress: incongruous and diametric.  He was an altogether different sort of man; a tyrant by any standard of the imagination.  He had everything provided for him from birth, but his insatiable appetite for women, and the pressure to attain fame equal to his father, proved fatal.  Throughout his rule, Cambyses would perform detestable acts on the level of some of history’s most notorious psychopaths; such as Caracalla, Hitler or Stalin.

From what we are told, Cambyses’ path of destruction began with the failure of a request.  He asked Amasis – the king of Egypt – for one of his daughters.  Amasis, knowing that his daughter would not become a queen, but rather, would become one of Cambyses’ many concubines, decided to send a substitute.  Amasis was apparently not very bright, however.  In his daughter’s stead, Amasis sent the daughter of his predecessor – the daughter of the king that he deposed by leading the Egyptian people to rebel.  This woman didn’t take long before informing Cambyses of the trick, and so, Cambyses went to war with Egypt.

The Egyptian expedition ended in Cambyses’ favor, but I will spare you most of the details.  It is enough to understand that Cambyses made some key decisions that would irreversibly alter the royal landscape.   First, he ordered the assassination of his brother Smerdis due to a nightmare involving what he presumed to be the foreshadowing of Smerdis’ ascension to power.  Moreover, he ordered this assassination to be conducted in secret, so very few were privy to the information.  Next, he murdered his pregnant wife by kicking her in the stomach – she was also his younger sister – over a comment on the fate of Smerdis.  Finally, in an act of kindness to the rest of humanity, he mounted a horse and stabbed himself in the thigh; eventually dying from the wound.

Because very few were aware that Cambyses’ brother was murdered, two Magi who were left in charge of the royal palace took advantage of the vacated thrown.  One of the Magi – conveniently named Smerdis – resembled the royal brother, so he assumed control of the empire.  To be sure, certain nobles were suspect to Smerdis’ claims; and after confirming their suspicions through the use of a royal concubine, seven conspirators devised a plan to overtake the Persian crown – again, I’ll refrain from expanding on this. With their usurpation successfully executed, the next step was to decide upon a successor. Unable to reach an agreement, however, they settled to leave the decision to the whim of a horse.  Yes, that’s right; a horse was left to decide the future of a kingdom.

Darius’ horse was the first to neigh at the sight of the rising sun; thus he was selected as the successor to Cambyses’ empire.  Elsewhere, in an attempt to take advantage of this tumultuous time, various subject cities began rebelling; many of which were at one time impressive in their own right.  Such was the case for Babylon.  As previously indicated, Cyrus had just recently subjugated the mighty Babylonian Empire – historically speaking.  Hence Babylon’s secession at the first sight of Persia’s vulnerability.  To avoid the total collapse of the Persian Empire, Darius immediately set himself upon recapturing Babylon.

However, this particular undertaking proved to be more difficult than he anticipated.  The Babylonians, in preparation for a siege, strangled every woman in the city save each man’s mother, and one woman to cook him bread throughout the length of the siege.  Albeit immoral, this act was militarily brilliant.  For even Cyrus was unable to overtake Babylon by force; he diverted the Euphrates and snuck men into the city while the Babylonians celebrated a festival.  Cognizant of this, the Babylonians were confident that if they could avoid trickery, they could comfortably wait for Darius to give up; which he nearly did.

Eighteen months into the siege, Darius grew increasingly impatient.  But in an attempt to end the war and gain Darius’ favor, one nobleman put into action a plan that epitomized servitude.  By his own hand, Zopyrus viciously mutilated his face and body to give the appearance that he lost favor with Darius.  He cut off his ears and nose, and whipped his body into a swollen, lacerated mess of flesh.  After this, Zopyrus presented himself before Darius.  Bewildered at the sight of Zopyrus, Darius proclaimed that those responsible would pay dearly.  But Zopyrus explained that his wounds were self-induced and necessary to end the siege.  Then, Zopyrus explained his plan to all those present and gained unanimous approval.

Accordingly, Zopyrus made his way to the gates of Babylon.  Upon his arrival, the Babylonians granted him entrance and rushed him to the city magistrates.  Zopyrus explained that Darius was responsible for his wounds because he had urged him to abandon the siege.  He then offered his assistance in destroying Darius’ army.  The Babylonians, unsuspectingly, agreed to grant Zopyrus command of a portion of their army.

Next, as agreed upon, Darius stationed one thousand poorly armed men outside the Semiramis gates.  Zopyrus made his first move and quickly slaughtered his own country men, as they were armed with only daggers.  This helped establish further confidence in Zopyrus’ story amongst the Babylonians.  Seven days later, Darius placed two thousand men outside the Nineveh gates; again, armed only with daggers.  Just as before, Zopyrus marched out and annihilated his brethren.  Now Zopyrus was gaining rapid popularity within the whole of Babylon. The third assault came twenty days after the Nineveh massacre.  Darius positioned four thousand men outside the Chaldaean gates and watched as Zopyrus methodically killed every one of them.  This was enough for the Babylonians to promote Zopyrus to General in Chief.

Just as Cyrus had done two generations before, Darius was about to conquer Babylon by chicanery.  Darius ordered a total assault on the city and while the defenders were concentrated on the walls, Zopyrus opened the Cissian and Belian gates.  A flood of Persian infantrymen entered Babylon and chased the defenders to the temple of Bel.  Unlike Cyrus, however, Darius destroyed Babylon’s defenses and impaled thousands of leading citizens.  This time, Babylon was completely reduced to servitude.  Zopyrus, for his efforts, was rewarded with the governorship of Babylon – so the story goes.

Herodotus illustrates most of the acts described above as justified, honorable and virtuous.  I cannot help but to put myself in the shoes of those that were relegated to be the means to an end.  In their last breath, did they feel their death was justified?  Is the abstract concept of honor more valuable than life itself?  One could probably make a utilitarian argument for Zopyrus’ plan; after all, it successfully ended the siege.  However, that would lead to an endless regress of questioning – was the siege necessary, etc.  But these questions are inconsequential; instead of deliberating on the nature, our focus should be on the commonality between such acts.

Accordingly, one will discover that the ambition to attain power and influence is at the heart of each.  Moreover, we tolerate meaningless notions such as honor and glory that cloud reality.  As a result, we become easily manipulated whereby we unknowingly permit social injustices.  The events above happened twenty-five hundred years ago; yet, anyone can describe similar wrongdoings from every succeeding century.  Perhaps these incidents are inevitably recursive; perhaps the disposition to establish order is coupled with inequality.  Whatever the case, simply being aware of history hasn’t abated our mistakes.  Or, most of us are unaware of how often they are repeated.

Categories: History

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33 replies

  1. Brother, this is an interesting history lesson.
    I was reading the meditations of Marcus Aurelius and they say he was a good and just man.

    • Aurelius was a great man! Probably the first true “philosopher king”, as Plato described. However, he is a polarizing figure today due to his persecution of Christians; but they’re usually taken out of context. Even so, they stand as a reminder that he was human.

      Glad you enjoyed my little lesson!

      • I think he didn’t as a person order the persecution of christians but didn’t do much to stop it, to that extent he is culpable.
        I have been asking myself, after reading this, what has happened us? We seem to regress whereas, there is so much we could learn from and move to greater heights of humanity!

  2. Technically you’re entirely correct: History is recursive because we haven’t actually moved a single step beyond the need for resources, where resources equal power. If the conditions haven’t changed then history (as a thing) will also not change. Person A will always think they’d better manage/use X resource than person B.

    Perhaps, however, there is a light on the horizon. 3D printers are getting better by the day. Here is the Star Trek replicator. NASA is already working on one to go to the ISS to make tools in space as opposed to bringing them up. When (not if) these ‘printers’ start playing with carbon atoms our world will truly change. The whole concept of resources will retreat. Even the notion of ownership might lessen by degrees? Exciting times to be alive, my learned friend!

    • That’s very interesting, John. I’ve seen these printers, but I never connected the dots. If (when) we are capable of manipulating carbon atoms, that will certainly set us in the right direction! Thanks for bringing that to my attention. If you need me, I’ll be reading about NASAs plans for these printers.

  3. I would contend that the events you portray here are explained very well by the science of Ponerology.

    The psychopathic minority has been manipulating the general populace since the time of the Neolithic Revolution. The acquisition of power through cunning and deceit are the only real skills of the pathological.

    Whilst honing those skills through countless generations, they have been responsible for the rise and fall of all the hierarchic and tyrannical empires, pathocracies, that have been a plague upon our species.

    So until we can learn to end the process of ponerogenisis by identifying and isolating the pathological, we can expect the cycle of empire to continue unabated unto the extinction of the human species, which now seems imminent.

    Sadly I doubt we will be around long enough to see the “replicator” become a reality.

    • You have mentioned this once before. I must admit that before you had cited Ponerology, I was wholly unfamiliar with it. It’s very intriguing and one I agree with to a certain degree. My only contention with this hypothesis is the position of “countless generations”. Even the oldest families can’t be traced much further than a few hundred years. What you’re proposing is the seamless coordination of multiple generations. I don’t see evidence for that. I agree that power hungry minorities are at the heart of this; my contention simply lies at the coordination. Do you have evidence to the contrary?

      • Have “countless generations” of wolves employed “seamless coordination” in their endless predation?

        • There have certainly been countless generations. Likewise, I would not argue that amongst them there was not some form of coordination. Was it seamless? In other words, did one endless cast of people coordinate the oppression of culture after culture? I think not. Take Stalin, for example. The Tzars oversaw every aspect of the Russian populace for centuries, and Stalin was keenly aware of that. However, there was no coordination between the two. Stalin simply took advantage of a system that was already in place. That seems to indicate that certain people are aware of this chink, while the majority unknowingly permit it. I see no coordination; I see knowledge and initiative, motivated by power.

  4. Riveting history lesson. And on human behaviour. Similar historical / mythological stories abound in all cultures. In Hindu mythology, the evil king Kamsa tries to get his newborn nephew Krishna killed as there was an “Akashvani” (heavenly voice) that prohecised that Krishna will kill him. Of course, Kamsa’s efforts to kill Krishna fail, he grows up, slays Kamsa, and become a popular and generous king.
    So, what is the point?
    In my view, it is a given that man will strive for more, for better than his neighbour. Even great religious and humanitarian leaders, it could be argued, are trying to impose their way of thinking on others, ostensibly for greater good.
    So, what does one do?
    Make rules within our societies to ensure that there are common standards of behaviour, which I think is what has been done over many centuries now, and punish deviance. And keep fingers crossed and hope that due to the foolish actions of one or a few people, humanity does not end in “sudden death”.

    • Indeed, it makes perfect sense while simultaneously being strange that similar occurrences can be cited throughout history, in every culture.

      I agree that we have implemented rules that largely reduce these atrocities, but there are always exceptions. It seems that we have a disconnect between implementation and enforcement.

  5. I’ve been trying to post a rather lengthy reply to your last response R.L. and it keeps disappearing. Any thoughts?

  6. Families can only be traced so far. Because we can’t trace them back to the neolithic revolution doesn’t mean they suddenly sprang into existence or sprouted from the ground like a weed at some particular moment in history.

    It is my conclusion, or “opinion” if you prefer, that before the neolithic revolution it was a simple matter for small groups of gatherer/hunters to spot the pathological and deal with them.

    I refer you once more to the story of the kunlangeta;

    “A story reported by Dr. Jane M. Murphy, now director of Harvard’s Psychiatric Epidemiology Unit, serves as an example of the vigilant stance that one millennia-old indigenous culture – a group of Inuit in Northwest Alaska – takes regarding psychopathic types within their midst.

    So aware is this group regarding the existence of these individuals that their language includes a term for them – kunlangeta – which is used to refer to a person whose “mind knows what to do but does not do it,” resulting in such acts as lying, cheating, stealing and taking advantage of the tribe without making sufficient contribution.

    And how seriously do the group’s members take the need to respond to the threat such individuals pose to the group’s sustainability? When asked what the group would typically do with a kunlangeta, Murphy was told ‘Somebody would have pushed him off the ice when nobody else was looking’.”

    However, once a group or groups made the fateful decision to give up that nomadic existence and the population began to grow, the opportunity for ponerogenisis through hierarchic systems was greatly enhanced. It became possible for those kunlangeta who were extremely adept at deceit and manipulation to “hide” in the larger populace and apply those skills to acquire positions of authority and power.

    I think that the decision to stop wandering and “settle” in one spot was probably the first example of successful ponerological manipulation. It’s, of course, impossible to know exactly how events unfolded. I do feel however that some of the conclusions to be drawn from the archaeological evidence at sites like Gobekli Tepe point to the establishment of “religion” being the first application of mass indoctrination.

    “Anthropologists have assumed that organized religion began as a way of salving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies.
    Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt’s way of thinking, suggests a reversal of that scenario: The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. It suggests that the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it”.

    This would provide the perfect breeding ground for ponerogenisis. The first pathocracy most likely took root with the establishment of the first “organised” religions in the earliest “settlements” of the neolithic revolution.

    In my opinion, the “kunlangeta” are almost like a separate subspecies of homo sapiens. Their survival strategies do not depend upon working in cooperation for the benefit of all. Instead, they use cunning, deceit and manipulation to attain “alpha” status and live off the labour of “normal” humans.

    So, as far as “families” go, the pathological are basically one big predatory family. They have managed to pass their genetic predisposition for pathological behaviour down through “countless generations”.

    “Evolutionary psychologists regard psychopathy as an inherited personality style that has evolved because glib, deceitful individuals—as a minority within a larger population of trusting folk—often reproduce with much success.”

    “Other investigators, such as neuroscientist R.J.R. Blair of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Md., regard psychopathy as the result of a still-unspecified genetic disorder. The inherited defect interferes with the workings of the brain’s emotion system, which is centered in the amygdala, a structure especially concerned with perceiving dangerous situations.”

    I can only suggest that, in order to understand why I have reached certain conclusions, it would be necessary to devote a substantial amount of time and effort to researching the science of Ponerology.
    If you’re interested;

    • Richard, it seems the length of this comment was the cause behind its disappearance. I found them in my spam folder, which I’ll make sure to check more often. Also, apologies for the delayed response; I’ve been quite sick for the last few days.

      I respect your perspective tremendously, so let’s be clear about any dialogue moving forward: I will not take anything personally, and I think you are of the same mind. I too am not trying to recruit anyone to my “side”, if you will. I’d like to get that out of the way to avoid either of us prefacing comments with apologies. 🙂

      Your conclusion, I admit, is persuasive. I’d like to play Devil’s Advocate here and would really enjoy seeing this in a full post. First, if identifying psychopathic behavior was much simpler prior to the development of civilizations, why were psychopaths still around after 90,000 years (assuming modern H. Sapiens have been around for 100,000). Second, are you arguing that psychopaths are conscience of their nature? I recommend looking into the research of James Fallon. I say this because in order for the events to take place in the manner you portrayed, these individuals would be making conscience decisions; whereby they would be guiding communities in anticipation of certain favorable outcomes.

      This portion of your comment closed the door on one of my contentions.

      “So, as far as “families” go, the pathological are basically one big predatory family. They have managed to pass their genetic predisposition for pathological behaviour down through “countless generations.”

      Since I’m sick today, I’ll be spending most of my time reading the reference material that you provided. Thanks again, Richard. Hope to see this in a post soon!


  1. How Did They Do That And Do They Even Know What They’re Doing? « The Baby And The Bathwater
  2. Psychopathy, Ponerogenesis and Pathocracy | The Rise and Fall of the Human Empire
  3. How Did They Do That And Do They Even Know What They’re Doing? | The Rise and Fall of the Human Empire

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