Genghis Khan Was a Progressive Humanitarian Who Sparked the Western Enlightenment

Genghis Khan(born as Temujin) is remembered for conquering most of the known world. Many people remember Mongols as barbarians. Yet in reality Mongols were a civilizing force, according to Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Mongols conquered because they were pragmatic learning machines that improved the societies they entered. He was ahead of his time in promoting religious freedom and tolerance, along with the modern ideas of free speech, free trade, and meritocracy. Genghis Khan didn’t bother to build elaborate statues or buildings, but he built more bridges, both literally and metaphorically than any leader in history.

As he smashed the feudal system of aristocratic privilege and birth, he built a unique system based on individual merit, loyalty and achievement. He took the disjointed and languorous trading towns along the Silk Route and organized them into history’s largest free- trade zone. He lowered taxes for everyone, and abolished them altogether for doctors, teachers, priests and educational institutions. He established a regular census and created the first international postal system. His was not an empire that hoarded wealth and treasure; instead, he widely distributed the goods in combat so they could make their way back into commercial circulation. He created international law and recognized the ultimate supreme law of the Eternal Blue Sky over all people. At a time when most rulers considered themselves to be above the law, Genghis Khan insisted on laws holding rulers as equally accountable as the lowest herder. He granted religious freedom within his realms, though he demanded total loyalty from conquered subjects of all religions. He insisted on the rule of law and aoboloshed torture, but he mounted major campaigns to seek out and kill raiding bandits and terrorist assasins. He refused to hold hostages and, instead, instituted the novel practice of granting diplomatic immunity for all ambassadors and envoys, including those from hostile nations with whom he was at war.

Indeed, we can credit Genghis Khan for inspiring the European Renaissance. German cleric Nicolaus of Cusa in 1440 wrote an essay called “On Learned Ignorance” which made heavy use of Mongol ideas, and sparked the trends gave rise cultural, artistic, political and economic rebirth during the Renaissance. Genghis Khan grew up in a tribal society, but he was the first to show the modern world was possible:

The ideas of the Mongol Empire awakened new possibilities in the European mind.  New knowledge from the travel writing of Marco Polo to the detailed star charts of Ulugh Beg proved that much of their received classical knowledge was simply wrong, and at the same time it opened up new paths of intellectual discovery.  Because much of the Mongol Empire had been based on novel ideas and ways of organizing public life rather than on mere technology, these ideas provoked new thoughts and experiments in Europe. The common principles of the Mongol Empire- such as paper money, primacy of the state over the church, freedom of religion, diplomatic immunity and international  law were ideas that gained new importance.  

My notes below are organized around a few themes:

  • Pragmatism and Constant Learning
  • Loyalty
  • Religious Freedom and Tolerance
  • Free Speech
  • Free Movement of People
  • Rule By Law
  • Mongol Economics
  • Mongols as a Civilizing Force
  • Civility and Nonviolence
  • Meritocracy

Pragmatism and Constant Learning

The Mongols were rigorously pragmatic. They learned what worked, and took it from anywhere they could find it. They promoted knowledge diffusion and Mongol society had higher literacy than Western societies of the time. Everytime they conquered new land they passed skills on from other lands they had conquered. Their ability to pay close attention to their environment combined with extreme resourcefulness proved a lethal advantage compared to other civilizations. Robert Bacon noted that “…they have succeeded by means of science. Although the Mongols are eager for war they have advanced so far because they “devote their leisure to the principles of philosophy.”

Genghis Khan had a “penchant for finding a use for everything he encountered” His ability to learn was actually his greatest advantage:

Genghis Khan’s ability to manipulate people and technology represented the experienced knowledge of more than four decades of nearly constant warfare. At no single crucial moment in his life did he suddenly acquire the genius at warfare, his ability to inspire loyalty of his followers, or his unprecedented skill for organizing on a global scale. These derived not from epiphanic enlightenment of formal schooling but from a persistent cycle of pragmatic learnings, experimental adaptation, and constant revision driven from his uniquely disciplined mind and focused will. His fighting career began long before most of his warriors at Bukhara had been born, and in every battle he learned something new. In every skirmish, he acquired more followers and additional fighting techniques. In each struggle he combined the new ideas into a constantly changing set of military tactics, strategies, and weapons. He never fought the same war twice.

When Mongols conquered new lands, they would gladly adopt local customs where appropriate. Rather than forcing their way of life on their subjects, they worked to constantly improve on the best in each society.

While the Mongols consistently rejected some parts of Chinese culture such as Confucianism and footbinding, the refinement of the monetary system shows their great appreciation for other aspects of Chinese culture. Khubilai proved willlingness to reach far back into Chinese history for ideas and institutions that showed practical value.

They would also take what they learned from one culture that they conquered, and use it to conquer another society. It was the compound knowledge principal applied to world domination.

For the Mongols, written history also became an important tool in learning about other nations in order to conquer and rule them more effectively.

Prior to launching an invasion, they did thorough research and intel gathering not just about the natural environment, but also about local political relations. Genghis Khan was a master of due diligence (describing invasion of what is modern day Georgia):

Systematically, but persistently, the Mongols probed the area. With the usual emphasis on reconnaissance and information gathering, they determined the number of people, the location of cities, the political divisions and rivalries among them.  

Mongols were masters of preparation. Referring to the invasion of Europe:

Preparation for the campaign toward Europe required two years. Messengers went out in all directions to deliver the decision and distribute assignments…Before the actual invasion, the Mongols sent in small squads to probe enemy defense and to locate appropriate pasturelands and water sources for the Mongol animals. They identified valleys and plains that would best feed sheep or goats and those that would support cattle and horses. Where the natural grassland seemed inadequate, the Mongols opened up farmland for pasture by sending in small detachments of soldiers to burn villages and farm settlements in their future path. Without farmers to plow and plant the land, it reverted to grassland before the Main

They willing to experiment with unconventional methods and were highly adaptable to different situations. Again, referring to the invasion of Europe:

In 1236, the Year of the Monkey, the main army set out.  They moved with a party of about two hundred scouts in front and with a rear guard of another two hundred warriors. Once they reached the Volga, the real invasion began.  At this point, the Mongols enacted their unusual, but for them, tried and true strategy of dividing their army and invading on at least two fronts at once. In this way, the enemy could not tell which city or prince would be the main target. If any prince took his army from his home city to help another prince, then the other Mongol army could attack the undefended one.  With such uncertainty and danger to his home base, every prince kept his army at home to guard his own territory, and none came to the aid of the others.  

Their pragmatism allowed them to travel lite, which was a huge advantage in warfare:

In contrast to almost every major army in history, the Mongols traveled lightly, without a supply train.  By waiting until the coldest months to make the desert crossing, men and horses required less water. Dew also formed during this season, thereby stimulating the growth of some grass that provided grazing for horses and attracted the  game that the men eagerly hunted for their own sustenance. Instead of transporting slow-moving siege engines and heavy equipment with them, the Mongols carried a faster-moving engineer corps that could build whatever was needed on the spot from available materials.  When the Mongols came to the fist trees after crossing the vast desert, they cut them down and made them into ladders, siege engines and other instruments for their attack.  


Genghis Khan inspired loyalty in his people:

Though the steppe tribes of his changed  sides at the least provocation and soldiers might desert their s leaders, none of Temujin’sgenerals deserted him throughout his six decades as a warrior.  In turn, Temujin never punished or harmed one of his generals. Among the great kings and conquerors of history, this record of fidelity is unique.  

Loyalty was an important part of  his innovation in social policy.

In another innovation, he ordered that a soldier’s share be allocated to each widow and to each orphan of every soldier killed in the raid.  Whether he did this because of the memory of his own mother’s predicament when the Tatars killed his father, or for more political purposes, it had a profound effect.  This policy not only ensured him the support of the poorest people in the tribe, but it also inspired loyalty among his soldiers who knew that even if they died, he would take care of their surviving families.

Religious Freedom and Tolerance

The steppe people included people from just about every religion in the world(Buddhism, Christianity, Manicheanism, Islam, etc) , each of which claimed it was the true religion, and the only one. Genghis Khan welcomed them all.

In probably the first law of its kind anywhere in the world, Genghis Khan decreed complete and total religious freedom for everyone. Although he continued to worship the spirits of homeland, he did not permit them to be used as a national cult.

To promote all religions, Genghis Khan exempted religious leaders and their property from taxation and from all types of public service. 

At a time when the Western world was rife with sectarian violence, Mongol society was an expanding oasis of open minds. Indeed there are some records of refugees from European religious violence being accepted into mongol society. There was actually a thirty year old Englishman who had somehow been recruited as an officer in the Mongol military. Historians speculate that he had been involved in the effort to force King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, and had been forced to flee England, ended up being excommunicated from Catholic church. He found employment with the Mongols, who were much more tolerant.

Free Speech

Rather than kill each other over different interpretations of ancient texts, Mongols encouraged their citizens to debate. They would organize civil debates between scholars of different religions Some priests, etc found this difficult when it first started. Mongols suggested that different scholars take time to write out their thoughts more clearly and return for fuller debate.

The debates between religious scholars became kind of like a sport for the open minded Mongols.

The Mongols loved competitions of all sorts, and they organized debates among rival religious the same way the organized wrestling matches. IT began on a specific date with a panel of judges to oversee it.

The panel consisted of members of each religion. The Mongols had one strict rule. On pain of death, no one was allowed to speak words of contention against each other. With Ad Hominen attacks strictly forbidden:

The religious scholars had to compete on the basis of their beliefs and ideas, using no weapons or the authority of any ruler or army behind them. They could use only words and logic to test the ability of their ideas to persuade.

The debates usually own with everyone from all religions getting incredibly drunk and singing. In Europe, different people from different religious factions were killing and torturing each other, But in the mongol empire, they held a party together.

Genghis Khan had his own personal beliefs, but didn’t force them on people. At the same time, he couldn’t resist pointing out the hypocrisy of the societies he conquered.

We Mongols believe in one God by Whom we live and Whom we die and toward Him we have an upright heart… Just as God gave different fingers to the Hand so He has given different ways to men. To you God has given Scriptures and you Christians do not observe them.

Genghis Khan didn’t leave behind much written record, however the author describes a letter that he sent to a Taoist monk in China that reveals his true thoughts:

His voice comes through as simple, clear, and informed by common sense. He ascribed the fall of his enemies more to their own lack of ability than to his superior prowess:  “I have not myself distinguished qualities. He said that he Eternal Blue Sky had condemned the civilizations around him because of their “haughtiness and their extravagant luxury.”  Despite the tremendous wealth and power he had accumulated he continued to live a simple life. “I wear the same clothing and eat the same food as the cowherds and cowherders. We make the same sacrifices, and we share the riches.  He offered a simple assessment of his ideals: “ I hate luxury,” and I exercise moderation/.” He strove to treat his subjects like his children, and he treated talented men like his brothers no matter what their origin was. He described his relations with his officials as being close and based on respect: “We always agree in our principles and we are always united in mutual affection.  “

Free Movement of People

Mongol society was more cosmopolitan and progressive than Western civilization of their time.

The Mongols made culture portable. It was not enough to merely exchange goods, because the whole system of knowledge had to be transported in order to use many of the new products. Drugs for example, were not profitable items of trade unless there was adequate knowledge of how to use them. Toward this objective, the Mongol court imported Persian and Arab doctors in to China, and they exported Chinese doctors to the Middle East. Every form of knowledge carried new possibilities for merchandising. It became apparent that the Chinse operated with a superior knowledge of pharmacology and of unusual forms of treatment such as acupuncture,… Muslim doctors, however, possesssed a much more sophisticated knowledge of surgery, but , based on their dissection of executed criminals, the Chinese had a detailed knowledge of internal organs and the circulatory system. To encourage a fuller exchange of medical knowledge, the Mongols created hospitals and training centers in China using doctors from India and Middle East as well as Chinese healers. Khublai Khan founded a department for the study of Western medicine under the direction of a Christian scholar.

The plague ultimately devastated Mongol empire, because it led to isolation, and cut off the flow of people and ideas temporarily.

Rule of Law

The Western enlightenment concept of rule by law not men actually originated with the Mongols.

Enforcement of the law and responsibility to abide by it began at the highest level, with the khan himself. In this manner, Genghis Khan had proclaimed the supremacy of the rule of law over any individual, even the sovereign. By subjugating the ruler to law, he achieved something that no other civilization had yet accomplished. Unlike many civilizations, most particularly western Europe, where monarchs ruled by the will of God and reigned above the law, Genghis Khan made it clear that his Great law applied as strictly to the rulers as to everyone else.

Genghis Khan, Applied Economist

When they conquered new territory they made sure to stabilize the local economy. They would even pay off the old rulers debts to merchants and foreigners. The Mongols were also pioneers in paper currency, which they were careful to manage and standardize so as not to cause debasement and inflation. Genghis Khan authorized the use of paper money backed by precious metals and silk shortly before his death. The practice grew erratically, but had important implications for the long run success of Mongols empire.

… standardization of currency allowed Mongke Khan to monetize taxes, rather than accepting payment in local goods.  In turn, the monetization allowed for standardized budgeting procedures for his imperial administration, since instead of accepting taxes in goods, the Mongols increasingly accepted them in money.  Rather than relying on government officials to collect and reallocate tribute of grain, arrows, silk, fur, oil and other commodities, the government increasingly moved money rather than goods. For the first time, a standardized unit of account could be used from China to Persia.  So long as Mongols maintained control of money, they could let merchants assume responsibility form the movement of goods without the loss of government power.  

Mongols are most known for their use of strength and propaganda, but they also understood good policy and administration. When Khublai Khan invaded China, he was able to achieve national unification. Chinese elite had dreamed of this for centuries, but struggled with constant wars between factions. It took took a horde of Steppe barbarians to achieve unification of the most advanced civilization of the ancient world.

Mongols grasped the concept of free trade centuries before Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

The Mongol elite’s intimate involvement with trade represented a marked break with tradition. From China to Europe, traditional aristocrats generally disdained commercial enterprise as undignified, dirty, and often, immoral; it ranked with the manual trades bbeneath the interest of either the powerful of the pious. Furthermore, the economic ideal in feudal Europe of this time was not merely that each country should be self–sufficient, but that each manor estate should strive to be a self-supporting a spractical. Any goods that left the estate should not be going to trade for other goods for the peasants on the land but to buy jewelry, religious relics, and other luxury goods for the aristocratic family or church. The feudal rulers sought to have their peasants supply all their own needs- to produce their food, grow their timber, make their tools, and weave their cloth- and to trade for as little as possible. In a feudal system, reliance on imported goods represented a failure at time.

…The traditional Chinese kingdoms operated under centuries of constraints on commerce. The building of walls on their borders had been a way of limiting such trade and literally keeping the wealth of the nation intact inside the walls. oFor such administrators, giving up trade goods was the same as paying tribute to their neighbors, and they sought to avoid it as much as they could. The Mongols directly attacked the Chinese cultural prejudice that ranked merchants as merely a step above robbers by officially elevating their status ahead of all religions and professions, second only to government officials.

Mongols as a Civilizing Force

Mongols invaded countries in a manner that was frighteningly efficient. Yet they they were never uneccesarily cruel, and they never tortured anyone, even though torture was common practice in Europe at the time. They were ruthless towards elites, but gentle and kind towards common civilians.

Although the army of Genghis Khan killed at an unprecedented rate and used death almost as a matter of policy and certainly as a calculated means of creating terror, they deviated from standard practices of the time in an important and surprising way. The Mongols did not torture, mutilate or maim. War during that time was often a a form of combat in terror, and other contemporary rulers used the simple and barbaric tactic of instilling terror and horror into people through torture or gruesome mutilation…

…By comparison with the terrifying acts of civilized armies of the era, the Mongols did not inspire fear by the ferocity or cruelty of their acts so much as by the speed and efficiency with which they conquered and their seemingly total disdain for the lives of the rich and powerful.

Their kindness was of course, never weakness.

Those cities that surrendered to the Mongols at first found their treatment so mild and benign, in comparison with the horrific stories that circulated, that they naively doubted the abilities of the Mongols in other areas as well. 

Overall Mongol ruthlessness was probably exaggerated in history. Some of this was partly the result of Genhis Khan’s humility, partly the result of his strategy.

He showed no interest in having his accomplishments recorded or in panegyrics to his prowess; instead, he allowed people to freely circulate the worst and most incredible stories about him and the Mongols 

Civility and Nonviolence

Its a common myth that the Mongols were violent for the sake of violence. Yet Mongol culture was actually less violent than western culture at the time.

In their patronage of popular culture to entertain themselves and the masses, the Mongols adhered to their cultural abhorrence of bloodshed.  Although they enjoyed wrestling and archery, they developed no counterpart to the gladiatorial games and public slaughter that fascinated the Romans nor any of the traditional European sports of pitting animals against each other, as in bear baiting and dogfights, or animals against humans as in bullfighting.  Mongols did not permit the execution of criminals to become public sport, as in the beheadings and hangings common in European cities. The Mongols offered no counterpart to the common public entertainment of burning people alive that occur so frequently in western Europe wherever the Christian church had the power to do so.  

When the Mongols invaded China, they reduced violence in the society, and also improved the criminal justice system. Mongols instituted a parole system, which required fingerprinting, and having all family members signing documents. Also, family members were given opportunity to register complaints about sentencing. Although they had the death penalty, the number of criminals executed was few, far less than modern China, or the modern United States

The so called barbarians actually made the most advanced civilization of the time more civil(On Khublai Khan, after he invaded China) :

Overall, he installed a more consistent system of laws and punishments as well as one that was substantially milder and more humanitarian then the Sung’s .  Where practical, he substituted fines for physical punishment, and he installed procedures to grant amnesty to criminals who repented of their wrongdoings. In a similar way, Mongol authorities sought to eradicate torture, or at least, to severely curtail its use.  Mongol law specified that before torture could be applied to elicit a confession, the officials had to already have substantial evidence, not mere suspicion that the person had committed the particular crime. The Mongol legal code of 1291 specified that officials must “first use reason to analyze and surmise, and shall not impose abruptly any torture.”  By comparison, at the same time that the Mongols were moving to limit the use of torture, both church and state in Europe passed laws to expand its usage to an ever greater variety of cries for which there need be no evidence. Unlike the variety of bloody forms f torture, such as stretching on the rack, being crushed by a great wheel, being impaled on spikes, or various forms of burning, on other countries, Mongols limited it to beating with a cane.

Their civility and nonviolence not only led to better law enforcement, and fit with the broader principles of freedom, pragmatism, and meritocracy.

The Mongol procedures not only improved the quality of law enforcement, but corresponded with the overarching Mongol policy that all people, not just an educated elite should know and be able to act through the law.

At a time when only priests were allowed to read in Western Literacy the Mongols promoted widespread literacy:

… the Mongols promoted general literacy as a way of improving the quality of life for everyone.  Khubilai Khan created public schools to provide education to all children, including those of peasants.  Until this point, only the rich had the time and income to educate their children and thereby maintain power over the illiterate peasantry for generation after generation. The Mongols recognized that in the winter, peasant children had time to learn, and rather than teaching them in classical Chinese, the teachers used the colloquial language for more practical lessons.


When Mongols took over a new country, they would kill the aristocrats, but avoid harming any of the common people unless necessary for self defense. Indeed he was extremely generous to the common people.

The Mongols captors slaughtered the rich and powerful.  Under the chivalrous rules of warfare as practiced in Europe and the Middle East during the Crusades, enemy aristocrats displayed superficial and often pompous respect for on another while freely slaughtering common soldiers.  Rather than kill their aristocratic enemy on the battlefield, they preferred to capture him as a hostage who they could ransom back to his family or country. The Mongols sought to kill all the aristocrats as quickly as possible in order to prevent future wars against them, and Genghis Khan never accepted enemy aristocrats into his army, anr rarely into his service in any capacity.

Genghis Khan’s emphasis on meritocracy continued with his successors, including Khubilai Khan.

Just as Genghis Khan promoted men from the lowest levels of society to the highest ranks of leadership based on their skills and achievements rather than birth,  Khubilai’s administration constantly promoted men from the lowest jobs such as cooks, gatekeepers, scribes and translators.

He distrusted higher ranking people, but willing to trust people outside clan if deserved. 

… he would judges others primarily by their actions toward him and not according to their kinship bonds, a revolutionary concept in a steppe society. 

Genghis Khan was the intellectual pioneer of the modern world.

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