Political realism : an African invention

The Instructions for Mérikaré is an Egyptian text almost 4000 years old that very strikingly anticipates the writings of European writers in history such as The Prince by Machiavelli. It thus prefigures the philosophical doctrine of political realism.

By African Strategies

Instructions for Mérikaré

The teachings for Mérikaré is an almost 4000 years old Egyptian text. It deals with advices given by a king at the end of his life to his son and successor. This king is Khety, a king of the First Intermediate Period, more precisely of the Heracleopolitan period, which corresponds to the ninth and tenth Egyptian dynasties (around 2081-1987 BC). It is addressed to his son Merikare Khety, hence the title given to the text, ‘Teachings / Instructions for Mérikaré’. However, the text was probably written later, during the Middle Kingdom period.

The Middle Kingdom lasted from the 20th to the 18th century BC. The First Intermediate Period was a period of political instability in ancient Egypt which took place between the more stable periods of the Old and the Middle Kingdoms. During the Heracleopolitan period, Khety and Mérikaré were rulers of a small kingdom based around the city of Heracleopolis in southern Egypt. This text is a kind of manual for how to reign and retain power.

Political realism in the Western world

Political realism is a current of philosophical thought. Its supporters claim that politics, both external and internal, must take into account human reality as it is and not as one would like it to be. Selfishness is an integral part of humanity and human beings and states, by extension, must take it into account. The absence of an international government obliges states to have to fight for their own interests and their survival, independently of, or at least before any moral or ethical consideration.

Political realism: an invention of Ancient Greeks?

Thucydides was a Greek general and philosopher from the 5th century BCE. He took part in the Peloponnesian War. This war pitted his city of Athens against that of Sparta. Thucydides wrote a history of this conflict, ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’. In this book, he presents conflict without the filter of religion. A passage in the book which particularly illustrates the concept of political realism is that of the ‘Melian dialogue’. In it, the Athenians, in fact more powerful than the Melians, ask them to choose between submitting to them or being invaded and destroyed.

Political realism, an African invention: Antique portrait of Thucydides, Pushkin Museum

The Melians refuse, citing their right as a city to remain neutral and free. They say they are ready to fight and are convinced that they will be helped by their gods and by justice, despite their military inferiority. They claim that the enemies of Athens, the Spartans, are related to the Melians and will come to their aid because of this kinship.

The Athenians respond cynically and claim that they have no reason to not invade them. Justice does not apply between unequal powers. The Athenians then carry out their threats. They lay siege to the city of Melos, kill able-bodied men and enslave the city’s women and children. In the text, the Athenians can be seen as the archetype of the one abusing his power, and the Melians of the idealist. The realistic position is somewhere in between.

The Athenians abuse of their force by using it against an enemy that poses no threat. It was this same abuse of force, coupled with the pride of the Athenians that would later lead them to their catastrophic invasion of Sicily, an invasion that was a turning point in the Athenians’ final defeat in the war against Sparta.

A parallel situation is found with regard to the kingdom of Dahomey, a state located to the south of the current Republic of Benin between the 17th and 19th centuries. The kingdom’s economy was based on raids on other neighboring populations. This use of force against populations sometimes defenseless ended up causing serious problems for the survival of the kingdom after ensuring its prosperity. The neighboring populations manifested itself their hostility on several occasions, until the conquest of the kingdom by the French colonists was acclaimed by the great majority of the neighboring populations of the kingdom.

Machiavelli’s political realism

Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian politician and writer of the 15th and 16th centuries. He is best known for his work ‘The Prince’. This is a manual explaining how to gain and maintain power. Machiavelli dedicated it to one Lorenzo de Medici, whom he hoped would rule the city state of Florence, the city of Machiavelli, and retain power there.

Breaking away from the writings of his contemporaries and predecessors imbued with Christian and Greco-Latin morality and ethics, Machiavelli puts any recourse to morality and ethics in the background to the detriment of what is good and necessary for the good and the maintenance of the State. To ensure these latter objectives, Machiavelli justifies the recourse to acts which he considers to be ‘bad’. Although he did not use it in ‘The Prince’, the phrase ‘the end justifies the means’ is often used to symbolize ‘Machiavellian’ thought.

Despite the negative connotation associated with his name in the collective subconscious, Machiavelli was actually a Florentine patriot concerned about seeing a prince unify Italy under a strong state. His wish at the time is not very different from what many Africans and Afro-descendants expect today, tired of seeing the black continent destroyed by conflicts and unable to defend themselves from its exploitation by outside powers.

Hobbes’ political realism

According to Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century English philosopher, nature is inherently anarchic. In his book Leviathan, he explains that man can at any time be a victim of violence from his neighbor, to have access to resources, glory and power. He must be able to defend himself from these natural aggressions and can have recourse to violent actions to avoid being the victim of such aggressions.

Only the submission of men to a sufficiently strong sovereign can put an end to this state of anarchy and provide them with security.

In the history of Africa, this situation is perfectly illustrated by the insecurity reigning in the south of the present Republic of Benin in the 18th century and before, in the context of the slave trade. As Patrick Claffey explains, citing Robin Law:
« The transatlantic slave trade exerted enormous pressure on the companies of the Guinea Coast. European traders competed with each other and sought monopolies with local powers and by the beginning of the 17th century, the evidence suggests a Hobbesian scenario of » war of each against each other ”in an attempt to satisfy the demand of the slave factories on the coast.

[Dahomey], like [the empire] Asante, emerged early in the 18th century in response to growing chaos, having succeeded in defeating the small kingdoms of Ouidah and Allada. Allada, the dominant power at the time, was a weak state, lacking the necessary structure and coercive power to control the situation. Between 1690 and 1724, Ouidah was in conflict both internally and with Allada to which he was subject.

In this situation, it is hardly surprising that what emerged was an excessively strong state, and which in the 18th century presented « a cohesive picture… . . characterized by three main elements: militarism, brutality (notably the practice of human sacrifice) and despotism in government ”.

However, the simple fact was that “Dahomey [had] finally succeeded in restoring order to the region, because it was organized on radically different principles; « Its political structure was very centralized, its kings elevating their authority over military conquest rather than dynastic law, and enjoying effectively unlimited autocratic power. » It was a Hobbesian solution to a Hobbesian problem. « 

Further, as Edna Bay wrote, « although slaves sold into the kingdom and prisoners of war could be sentenced in the name of state religion, the state elite paradoxically showed in principle great respect for human life, and carefully controlled the fact of taking the life (of others) « , this for the subjects of the kingdom of Dahomey of course and not for their neighbors object of their exactions.

The epic of Soundjata, founder of the Mali Empire around the 13th century presents it as the restoration of social order, especially in the raids to which the populations of Manden, the region which constituted the heart of the Empire, were subjected. Thus, for Ibn Battuta, visitor to the Mali Empire in the 15th century:

« Among their qualities is the meager degree of injustice among them, because there is no people who are so far removed from it. Their sultan does not forgive anyone in any matter of injustice. Among these qualities, there is also the prevalence of peace in their country, the traveler need not be afraid of it, nor the one who lives there need to be afraid of the thief or the robber.

They do not interfere with the property of the white man who dies in their country, even if it is made up of great wealth, but rather entrust it to a trusted person among the whites who keeps it until the legitimate suitor does not recover it ”.

Likewise, in 1728, an anonymous French traveler reported from King Agadja that « he cuts off the head of anyone who flies even a cowry; we travel in his country with more safety than in Europe; those who find something on the road don’t dare touch it, it stays there until the person who lost it gets it back. « 

The situation was, according to foreign travelers, different in Ouidah where insecurity reigned. William Baillie, in 1718 for example, had noted that « no one can say of his affairs that they are in safety in this country ».

Political Realism and Its Application to Everyday Life by Robert Greene

Robert Greene is an American writer. He is the author of numerous works on social dynamics such as the 48 laws of power, the Art of Seduction, the 33 strategies of war and the 50th Law (with the rapper 50 Cent). Nicknamed the Machiavelli of the 20th century, he uses examples from history from around the world to illustrate laws about nature and human behavior.

One of the most famous laws enunciated by Robert Greene comes from his first work the 48 Laws of Power: « Never outshine the master ». With this advice, Greene explains how the desire to take remarkable actions to impress their hierachical superiors can sometimes backfire against them. Rather than satisfying them, they weaken the ego of their hierarchical superiors who do not usually hang around to get rid of them.

In Africa, a particularly illustrative example of this situation is found in the epic of Soundjata Keïta, founder, in the thirteenth century of our era of the Empire of Mali. A passage from this epic features Tiramagan Traoré, one of his most loyal generals. Soundjata entrusted him with the conquest of the kingdom of Djolof, in present-day Senegambia. The ruler of Djolof had disrespected Sundiata by refusing to sell him horses. As John William Johnson recalls:

« Sundiata therefore gives [Tiramagan] command of the campaign and the ancestor of the Traore conquers the Gambia, beheading its king, washing away the affront and unquestionably becoming a hero in his own right. Before setting out on the road back to Mali, [Tiramagan] observes a strange scene where a huge eagle descends on a mighty falcon flying lower in the sky.

The warrior Traore interprets this vision as a sign of his imminent death with himself in the role of the falcon and Sundjata in the role of the eagle. Obviously, a band of assassins unexpectedly arrives from Mali and kills [Tiramagan], who had become a hero of such magnitude that he now threatened the might of his master. « 

Political realism: similarities between the Teachings for Mérikaré and The Prince of Machiavelli

Several researchers have compared the Instructions for Mérikaré and The Prince of Machiavelli. The most recent and the most detailed of them is the work of the German Christian Langer.

One of the most famous passages of the Prince of Machiavelli is probably that which explains how to possess territories in safety, « it is enough to have exterminated the line of the prince who was the master ». Adding to this another passage from the same work, « it should be noted that men must be either caressed or crushed: they take revenge for slight insults; they cannot do so when they are very large; hence it follows that, when it is a question of offending a man, it must be done in such a way that one cannot fear his revenge « , we find ourselves with a perfect parallel with the passage of the Teachings for Merikare which says:

« If you find someone who originally did not have many supporters and whom his fellow citizens did not know, but whose supporters are now a multitude, who respect him for his possessions and for his intelligence, whom he has won people’s trust, that he has entered into the good graces of his dependents and who persists in causing trouble and making people talk about him, get rid of him and kill his children, make his name disappear, destroy his supporters, and banish his memory from that of those who respect him. »

Another parallel drawn by Langer concerns the following passage of Mérikaré:

Promote your dignitaries so that they obey your requests, because he who is rich will not betray you, and he who lacks nothing is a rich man. A man who thinks ‘If I had had …’ can’t be trusted. He will be partial to the one who is generous to him and biased to the one who pays him. Great is the sovereign whose dignitaries are great (…) It is the facade of a house that allows its rear to be respected.

Parallels with the contemporary world

Some authors have suggested that the brutality of the commentary on the Egyptian text is probably due to a particular context. Egypt was then living the troubled period of the First Intermediate Period. Egyptian territory was fragmented and characterized by anarchy and the absence of a strong power capable of guaranteeing the security of the population throughout the territory.

We could say that it is also this need to maintain order, after a period of insecurity in medieval Mali which had also led Soundjata Kéïta, founder of the Empire of Mali to assassinate the old rulers of the region who refused to submit to his authority of Mansa (king of kings).

In comparison, one of Soundjata’s successors, the Mansa Sulaiman, did not spill the blood of his main wife and reigning partner, who nevertheless sought to depose him and replace him with one of her brothers. He only dismissed her and replaced her with one of his wives after a short exile, with a sincere apology from him and his family.

Later in history, the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III, after his capture of Qadesh, did not indeed apply the instruction for Mérikaré. On the contrary, he placed Egyptian supervisors there, saved the lives of the Syrian leaders, but deported their children to Egypt. They were forced to do child labor.

However, this activity seems to have been carried out in a less coercive manner than that of Syrian deportees from lower social classes. This hostage-taking forced the local rulers to keep quiet and not to rebel against Egypt.

When they were to return to reign in their countries of origin, the young princes, working under better conditions than their compatriots, would be brought up in recognition of Egypt, in a feeling of nobility and would become allies of the Egyptians and little quick to rebel.

However, other examples show that Egyptian kings were not as scrupulous as Thutmose III. Amenhotep II, for example, had personally executed seven Syrian princes and hung their corpses upside down on the bow of his boat. One of them was hung in Napata, in what is now Sudan, to discourage any hint of rebellion in this region.

Egyptologists who compared these passages from the Teachings for Merikaré and the Prince noted a difference between the two. While Machiavelli is completely disinterested in the question of Christian morality, the Teachings for Merikare are described as being in conformity with Maat, the divine order.

The social realism of the ancient Egyptians is also found in the treatment of subordinates. For the authors of the instructions for Merikare, loyalty is the privilege of the highest bidder. Not all people are satisfied with living a carefree life.

Beyond the minimum necessary to live and support their own, their ego leads them to be jealous of their neighbor and to demand an identical or even higher remuneration or status.

Political realism: what reappropriation by Africans?

As we have seen, political realism is, in the current state of our knowledge, an invention of the ancient Egyptians, and therefore of Africa. Africa and Africans today can be proud of it and claim it. Without abuses against human rights, but to situate themselves, as it should, in a world which is not populated, as Robert Greene would say, by descendants of angels, but by descendants of chimpanzees guided by their egos and personal interests.

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