“The Wish for a Tyrannical Leader”
(Part II of Pyramids and the Origin of Western Civilization)
by Richard A. Koenigsberg
“The Wish for a Tyrannical Leader” appears below.
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It is doubtful that these heroic public works—that demanded an almost superhuman effort and purpose—would have undertaken for any purely mundane purpose. “Only prostration before the mysterium tremendum, some manifestation of godhead in its awful power and luminous glory, could call forth such excessive, collective effort.”

IV. The Origins of Tyranny

Eli Sagan’s At the Dawn of Tyranny: The Origins of Individualism, Political Oppression and the State (1985) seeks to explain how human beings broke away from kinship systems and began to organize societies as large collectives or states. Central to the process of separation from tribes, bands and villages, Sagan argues, was the development of the institution of Kingship—that represented a response to the need to actualize the idea that omnipotent beings exist in the world.

As people attempted to separate from their families and kin, Sagan suggests, they needed the idea or ideal of an omnipotent leader. Such a powerful leader—with whom the individual could identify—constituted a centrifugal force that enabled individuals to pull away from the small world of the tribe or village and into the world of the large community or state. There seems to have been a need to “actualize in the real world a view of omnipotence.” The idea of this kind of power acted as a lure.

What helped people to separate from their families and kin, according to Sagan, was the idea of omnipotence embodied in the divine king. Sagan suggests that people felt better when they could believe that powerful, omnipotent beings existed on the face of the earth. It is a mistake to imagine, he says, that the evolution of tyrannical power happens without the consent of the governed. If members of society did not want this kind of authoritarian power, the entire process would have been stillborn.

The desire to create or believe in omnipotent objects goes along with the desire to submit to these objects. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that our desire and willingness to submit—to humble ourselves before certain objects—is what leads to the creation of human beings or entities conceived as omnipotent.

Hitler said to the German people, “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” In order to elevate Germany into a position of being everything, one had to conceive of one’s self as nothing. This is what the SS-man’s vow to be “obedient unto death” meant. What is being asserted is that Germany is such a significant object that one should be willing abandon one’s life in her name.

Hitler and Germany embodied the fantasy of immortality. Human beings may be willing to relinquish their own, individual lives—in the name of binding to an object that is imagined to confer omnipotence. The fantasy of immortality and idea of sacrificial submission are inextricably linked.

One might say that willingness to sacrifice is what brings the idea of omnipotence into being. So almighty were the kings of complex societies, Sagan says, that they constantly exercised the right to take human life in religious ritual. Human sacrifice constituted the “ultimate certification of the power of early kings.” In other words, the essence of being a king lay in his capacity to kill, that is, to authorize the sacrifice of human beings.

V. The Megamachine

In the second volume of The Myth of Machine entitled The Pentagon of Power (1970), Lewis Mumforduses his concept of the “megamachine” to interpret Twentieth Century phenomena such as atomic warfare and the military-industrial complex. Mumford demonstrates that the ancient model—the dynamic that arose in ancient Egypt—persists.

The concept of the “Pyramid Age,” Mumford says, refers not only to what occurred in Egypt 2700-2300 B. C., but to a typical constellation of institutions and cultural inventions revolving around the cult of divine kinship, the building of imposing monumental structures (such as temples, palaces, walled-cities, canals and irrigation systems, etc.), and to organized conquest or war.

Mumford calls this institutions or invention the megamachine: a system of bringing large numbers of human beings to work together guided by a plan. What motivated people to come together and work on these massive projects was their belief in the divinity of the king. The divine king had the power to give orders—and to be obeyed.

The Babylonian god Marduk, Mumford tells us, insisted that when he gives a command, he must be obeyed by his fellow gods without question: “Let my word instead of yours determine the fates; unalterable shall be what I may bring into being: neither recalled nor changed shall be the command of my lips.”

Mumford suggests these words are worth noting because they set forth the “terms on which the new collective mechanism was brought into being.” Men believed in the divinity of the king, and therefore were willing to do his bidding—obey his orders. Thus, it was possible to organize a great labor machine that could build megalithic structures like the pyramids, and also a military machine of great potency capable of destroying massive walls, wrecking dams, razing cities and temples.

It is highly doubtful, however, that these heroic public works—that demanded an almost superhuman effort and purpose—would have undertaken for any purely mundane purpose. “Only prostration before the mysterium tremendum,” Mumford observes, some manifestation of godhead in its awful power and luminous glory, could “call forth such excessive, collective effort.”

Through history, Mumford says, the great mission of kingship has been to call forth human devotion and effort. Attachment to the king acted to overcome the particularlism and isolation of small communities, wiping out differences that separate one human group from another. Kings demonstrate “How much popular communities, once they were collectively organized in great mechanical units, could accomplish.”

VI. The Burden of Civilization

While the development of this “ancient power complex” led to the immense productivity of the Pyramid Age, the weight of the megamachine, Mumford claims, is also the “chief burden of civilization.” Never was the burden heavier than at the beginning, when the greatest public activity in Egypt was mainly directed to “supporting the claim of the Pharaoh to divinity and immortality.”

The Pyramids constitute an extraordinary accomplishment, but they are also useless from a practical point of view. Civilization begins with a project that is entirely irrational and useless. What could cause a society to build these monumental structures? What a gigantic effort was required to cut 2.3 million stones from rocks—each weighing over 5000 pounds—to transport them to a central location, and then to lift them up to create these massive structures. The mind boggles.

In Life Against Death (1959), Norman O. Brown suggests that the need to produce an economic surplus is constructed, not on the psychology of possession, rather upon a deeper psychology of giving. The Ancient Egyptians needed an economic surplus in order to finance or fund the building of the Pyramids. Building Pyramids represented a form of sacrifice.

The labor of tens-of-thousands of men was devoted to building megalithic structures whose only purpose was to make manifest the power of the Pharaoh: to show what he was capable of. Pyramids represent a testimony to the power of the divine king. Civilization begins with a monumental act of sacrifice.

In Sagan’s view, the transition from a kinship to a complex society requires the idea of omnipotence, often projected into the person of a king. Societies, Sagan says, were “intoxicated with the idea that some human beings could become omnipotent.” It was not simply that divine kings imposed their will. Rather, people embraced the idea that the Pharaoh was god because they needed or desired this idea of omnipotence.

Mumford draws our attention to extreme forms of obedience that characterized ancient societies in the near East. The king’s commands were to be obeyed as if divine law. Sagan discusses the most extreme form of submission to the king, human sacrifice. So almighty were the kings of complex societies, Sagan says, that they constantly exercised a prerogative that even Yahweh was not sure belonged to any creature, human or divine—the right to “take human life in religious ritual.” Human sacrifice represented the “ultimate certification of the power of early kings.”

Sagan reports that on the island of Tahiti, ritual homicide made kingship. The heir to the throne, from birth on, was the subject of a multitude of rituals: circumcision, presentation to the various districts of the kingdom, coming of age, etc. At each occasion, one of several victims was killed for the greater glory of the prince royal.

In fact, Sagan tells us that so powerful a sanction was human sacrifice and so apparently necessary was it to chiefly authority, that some chiefs, upon being urged by Europeans to give up the practice, exclaimed, “If we do, there will be no chiefs.” In short, kingship required the “exercise of ritual homicide.”

The “extreme concentration of human potency” in a single person, Sagan says, would require “equally exceptional rituals of obeisance from ordinary people.” Like Mumford, Sagan emphasizes the relationship between belief in the omnipotence of the king, and the king’s right to require submission. The king’s power to compel obedience and submission, taken to its extreme, became the right to kill.

VII. Homicidal Violence

Acts of homicidal violence testify to the fact that the king—as embodiment of society or the state—is allowed to do anything. What is being demonstrated or conveyed by virtue of acts of violence is that the king—the leader of society—is not subject to the laws or limitations that govern the behavior of other people.

Violent acts performed by or in the name of the king—such as killing and ritual sacrifice—validate his omnipotence. Insofar as the king is authorized to do anything, he becomes like a god: free of limits. The fact that he is able to do whatever he wishes to do demonstrates that the King is above and beyond ordinary human beings.

Sagan hypothesizes that kings are allowed to behave in ways that put him above or beyond the law because human beings possess the desire to imagine that some people have this kind of power. In the first states, Sagan says, omnipotent human beings walked on the earth, “not in mythic fantasy but in reality.” The kind of power those first kings wielded never before had been experienced. The institution of kingship was created not only to oppress human beings, but also “to exalt them.”

In order to raise themselves up from the savannah—to leave their small, limited worlds—human beings needed an ideal to look up to: an embodiment of potency that suggested we might become more than small, limited human beings. The existence of great kings functioned to inspire people; encourage them to “be all that they could be.”

Sagan emphasizes the profound freedom that many kings possessed. Omnipotence, he says, is a pale word to describe fully the ideal of kingship in complex societies. It does not give enough of the poetic, dreamlike sense of living without bounds of restrictions, in a world in which there are no laws; no shadow between the wish and the need, no temperance, no measure, no “reality principle.”

For kings in complex societies, Sagan says, every woman in the world (save one) is food for his sexual appetite, and the death of every man is subject to the nod of his head. “Nothing is forbidden.” Nothing seems to matter except that “what is done is done on a scale of which mere humans are incapable.”

Kings, in short, were people who could do pretty much whatever they wanted to do. The function of kings, Sagan concludes, was to embody the idea that certain human beings “did not have to give up anything.” One thing kings didn’t have to give up was the desire to kill people. Thus, Sagan says, the childlike power wielded by kings unfortunately “brought death to others.”

Powerful anthropomorphic gods and kings, Sagan suggests, are both inventions of the human spirit. When we read of an omnipotent king, we tend to describe him as “godlike.” In advanced complex societies, Sagan says, it is equally accurate to describe gods as “kinglike.” People did not “invent the gods first and then monarchs in imitation of them.”

Rather, Sagan concludes, the creation of both powerful kings and powerful leaders was the result of something more fundamental: the wish for the existence of that kind of power.

Both gods and divine kings are human creations that articulate or fulfill psychological desires. And there is one central desire giving rise both to the idea of gods and divine kings, namely the need to project a fantasy of omnipotence into the outer world: to believe that some people are more than human; to imagine that some beings or entities not subject to the laws that govern ordinary lives.

The most painful reality of human existence is the fact of death. Like all organisms, human being are born, live, and then pass into non-existence. The reality of death gives rise to the idea of beings that are capable of living eternally.

Gods are imagined to be immortal—not subject to death and decay. The Pharaoh was conceived as a divine king—united with a god—who could live forever if only the proper measures were taken. Pyramids were built to assure the immortality of the Pharaoh.

Kingship represents a social institution that evolved out of the need to believe that omnipotent beings exist on the face of the earth. The institution of kingship, Sagan says, was “invented in a thousand places because there was a human need for that kind of symbolism.” If one could not be a king oneself, one could identify with the king, partaking of his omnipotence and immortality. Sagan observes that even the “lowliest person on the ladder wants that kind of power to exist in the world.”