Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Primate Model of Chief Executive Rulers as Alpha Males

In most political communities around the world and throughout history, one person has held the highest political position--the office of the ruling chief executive.  There is always someone who is the big man, the chief, the monarch, the dictator, the emperor, the prime minister, or the president--the number one man (and it's usually a man).  Much of politics is all about the competition for that alpha male position.

Why is that?  Why do some people strive to be at the top, even when that striving exposes them to hardships and dangers, even death?  Why do many people defer to dominant rulers, while others resist being dominated?

The best way to answer these questions, I believe, is to say that human beings have biological drives to dominance, deference, and resistance to dominance that they share with other primates (monkeys and apes). One of the best theories supporting this view is Arnold Ludwig's primate model of political rule, which he set forth in his book King of the Mountain: The Nature of Political Leadership (University of Kentucky Press, 2002).  A slightly revised version of his model is a fundamental element of what I have called biopolitical science.  (Some years ago, I wrote "Why Males Rule," a review of Ludwig's book for the Fall 2003 issue of The Claremont Review of Books.)

Ludwig presented his theory as an empirical science based on the study of three kinds of data.  His first--and most rigorously collected and analyzed--database was the list of all the political leaders of all independent nations who held chief executive power for any length of time in the twentieth century (from January 1, 1900 to December 31, 2000), which was 1,941 individuals from 199 countries.  From this list, he then identified those who had separate encyclopedia entries in either the Encyclopedia Britannica or the Encyclopedia Americana.  He then did a bibliographic search to identify those on this shorter list for whom there was adequate data available about their personal lives and professional careers, who were selected as a sample for in-depth study and analysis.  This special sample contained 377 rulers.

He then prepared information forms to record all appropriate biographical data about all 377 rulers.  Based on these forms, he prepared data forms consisting of 182 items to be filled out for each individual, with definitions and criteria for recording all these variables.  With this, he could then do statistical comparisons among ruler types and other categorial variables to determine relative frequencies or percentages of certain characteristics or events for these rulers.

For example, Ludwig saw that 36 percent of the rulers in his sample had come to power with the help of mentors or colleagues.  He could then determine the likelihood of their betraying or remaining loyal to those who had helped them.  He found that 58 percent remained loyal, while 42 percent betrayed their friends.  He also saw that 100 percent of the tyrants and 86 percent of the monarchs were betrayers, while only 25 percent of the democratic rulers were betrayers.  It also seemed that betrayal was advantageous because while the loyalists spent an average of eight years in office, the betrayers spent an average of fourteen years in office.  He concluded that this confirmed Machiavelli's advice in The Prince that it is foolish for a new ruler to "keep faith" with those who helped him come to power: "because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them" (94-95).

Ludwig's second kind of data consisted of anecdotal biographical data to illustrate the generalizations from his statistical data.  So, for example, after giving the statistics for betrayal and loyalty, he gives six instances of betrayal by dictators and three instances by democratic rulers.  The first case comes from Pakistan:  "As prime minister of Pakistan, Bhutto appointed General Zia, a little-known military officer at the time, as chief of the army staff in 1976 because he felt he was completely trustworthy.  About one year later Zia overthrew his benefactor and hung him on the charge of murdering a political opponent" (95).  Ludwig relates these biographical anecdotes in vivid and often amusing ways that engage the reader.

This is similar to Machiavelli's writing in The Prince because he often states a general principle or maxim for prudent princes that is followed by dramatically colorful stories that illustrate the point.

Finally, Ludwig's third kind of data came from the reports of primatologists (like George Schaller, Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal, and Robert Sapolsky) that show how the striving for alpha male status among monkeys and apes resembles the political life of human beings.  For example, as evidence that political betrayal and shifting allegiances in the competition for political dominance is common in other primates, Ludwig quoted from Sapolsky's account (in A Primate's Memoir) of the political competition in the savanna baboon troop in Kenya that he had studied for over twenty years.

When Sapolsky was 21 years old, he first joined the troop of sixty baboons in 1978.  Solomon had been the alpha male for three years, but this became his last year because he was unseated by Uriah.  Then, in 1980, Saul deposed Uriah after one day of fighting.  

Saul proved to be an extraordinarily successful ruler.  Whenever he was challenged, even if it was a trivial provocation, he responded with a ferociously vicious attack.  Consequently, everyone learned to never challenge him about anything.  But he never started fights.  He never engaged in aggression pointlessly.  "Saul was what most males aspired to, if only they had a stitch of smarts or discipline or energy" (A Primate's Memoir, 103).  He was the model of a baboon Machiavellian prince.

There was a group of young males in their prime who were frustrated by their lacking the ability to individually challenge Saul.  Finally, they decided to form a cooperative coalition.  Joshua and Menasseh made coalitional appeasement gestures to each other that established their partnership.  They jointly challenged Saul, but he defeated them.  The next day, Joshua and Menasseh formed a coalition with Levi; but Saul forced them to run away after only a few seconds of fighting.  The day after that, four of them--Joshua, Menasseh, Levi, and Nebuchadnezzar--fought jointly with Saul, but they failed.

Then, the next day, these four had formed an even bigger coalition with two others--Daniel and Benjamin--so now it was six against one.  In their fight, Menasseh got in a lucky hit on Saul's haunches.  Saul fell, and all the others jumped on him.  His body was punctured with many canine bites.  He survived.  But he went to the bottom of the hierarchy.

What happened to the victorious coalition of six?  Sapolsky reports:

"The wonderfully cooperative junta that had overthrown Saul lasted all of a morning before it disintegrated into factionalism and both metaphorical and literal backbiting.  All hell broke loose for months afterward.  Joshua, Menasseh, Levi, Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel, and Benjamin were clearly the upper-ranking cohort now.  For example, in a social interaction, any one of them dominated a subadult like David, Daniel's old buddy.  But they didn't have a clue where they stood with respect to each other.  Ranks flip-flopped daily. . . . Chaos reigned.  Everyone was scheming, spending hours forming coalitional partnerships that would collapse within minutes of their first test.  Nearly 40 percent of the time, when it did collapse, the erstwhile partner would wind up on the other side.  The number of fights went through the roof, as did the rate of injuries" (Sapolsky, 169; Ludwig, 124).

Ludwig quotes this to show that political alliances are as easily broken up by betrayal among baboons as among human beings.

There is one weakness, however, in Ludwig's comparisons of human beings and other higher primates as showing the Machiavellian drive for alpha-male dominance:  this does not seem to be true for one ape species--the bonobos--who seem to show female dominance and a more peaceful life than is the case for the other great apes and monkeys.  Ludwig refers to this "apparent exception of the bonobos," but without explaining it (Ludwig, 8-9, 355, 376, 410).


One way to summarize the primate model of politics is to list the similarities in the struggle for alpha-male dominance among human beings and other primates.  Here's Ludwig's list (355):


Males Dominant

No Special Experience or Skills Needed

Danger of Physical Harm

Vie with Competitors for Power

Form Alliances to Topple Leader

Repetitive Attempts to Depose Leader

Physical Prowess and Courage

Cunning and Deviousness Useful


Greater Access to Females

Breeding Advantage

Material Rewards

Deference by Subordinates


Keeping Peace among Subjects

Risking Harm During Challenges

Repeat Mistakes of Past Leaders

Resist Giving Up Power

Posturings and Displays

Change in Demeanor and Manner

Fending Off Challengers

As I have indicated previously, I agree with Christopher Boehm in seeing a Lockean political rhetoric among chimpanzees that turns on three themes--dominance, deference, and counter-dominance.  Ludwig is not as clear as he should be about the theme of counter-dominance.  To make that clear, I would add a fourth part to his primate model:


The Alpha Male Is Overthrown by the Ambitious Few Who Want to Dominate

The Alpha Male Is Overthrown Because the Normally Deferential Many Resist His Oppressive Dominance


Ludwig distinguishes six different ways of ruling as an alpha male--four kinds of dictators and two kinds of democrats (41):


Supreme Monarchs

Consecrated by Church or Authority by Kinship to Esteemed Figure

Absolute Rule or Strong Constitutional Powers

Rule for Life

Endowed with Special Powers Such as Healing Touch, Infallibility

For Example: Ibn Saud, King of Saudi Arabia (1932-1953)


Authority to Rule Based on Military Backing

Decrees and Edicts, Implemented by Force

Commonly Display Cruelty, Greed, Corruption

No Ideological Basis for Governing

For Example: Francois Duvalier ("Papa Doc"), President of Haiti (1957-1971)


Totalitarian Rule

Promotion of a Particular Political Ideology

Social Engineering

No Fixed Term in Office

For Example: Benito Mussolini, Prime Minister of Italy (1922-1943), Duce of the Italian Social Republic (1943-1945)


Dictatorship Established to Preserve Social Stability

Emphasis on Law, Order, and Tradition

Bureaucratic Rule Common with Emphasis on Regulations

No Fixed Term in Office

For Example: Janos Kadar, First Secretary of Hungary's Communist Party (1956-1988)


Transitional Democrats in Emerging Democracies

Rule Country After Liberation or Independence

Introduction of Constitutional Democracy with Fixed Terms in Office

Usually Show Autocratic Tendencies

Many Have Special Status as "Father of Nation"

For Example:  Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe (1987-2017)

Democratic Leaders of Established Democracies

Elected to a Limited Term in Office

Executive Powers Defined by Constitution

Balance of Power with Judicial and Legislative Bodies

Greater Emphasis on Negotiation and Compromise

For Example: Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States (1933-1945)

We do not see these six kinds of alpha-male rulers among non-human primates.  But we do see the dichotomy between dictators and democrats.  For example, Frans de Waal has observed that while rhesus monkeys show a "despotic dominance style" in which subordinates cannot challenge dominants, chimpanzees show an "egalitarian dominance style" in which subordinates can restrain dominants.  Dominant individuals are expected to mediate conflicts within the group and to lead the group in conflicts with other groups.  Among chimpanzees, dominant individuals can be challenged or even deposed if they do not properly carry out their conflict-mediation role.


Holding high political office is a dangerous profession.  Being a chief executive ruler of a country is one of the most lethal activities known to human beings.  Ludwig's data shows that 12 percent of all twentieth-century rulers died a violent death--either by assassination (7 percent), execution (4 percent), or suicide (1 percent).  Within the sample of 377 rulers, the death rate was 18 percent.

Even if they are not actually killed, rulers have to worry about assassination attempts.  In the twentieth century, if the ruler was a tyrant, there was a 77 percent chance that someone would try to kill him.  For a monarch, it was a 61 percent chance.  For a visionary, a 56 percent chance.  For an authoritarian, a 46 percent chance.  Leaders in an emerging democracy had a 51 percent risk of being attacked.  Leaders in established democracies had a 19 percent chance of being exposed to attempted assassinations.

American presidents have faced many assassination attempts.  Four presidents have been killed in office--Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John Kennedy.  Others have been shot and came close to death--Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

Prior to the twentieth century, the danger of violent death for rulers was even greater.  In the first systematic and quantitative study of regicide in Europe, Manuel Eisner has collected data on the frequency of violent death and regicide among 1,513 monarchs in Europe between AD 600 and 1800 ("Killing Kings: Patterns of Regicide in Europe, AD 600-1800," British Journal of Criminology 51 [2011]: 556-577).  He has distinguished four categories of violent death: accident, battle death, murder, and legal execution.  He found that in the seventh century, the frequency of regicide was 2,500 murders per 100,000 years in office.  There was a long decline in regicide.  So that by the eighteenth century, the frequency of regicide was about 200 per 100,000 years in office.  By comparison, the homicide rate in Western Europe today is around 0.6-1.5 per 100,000 person-years.  Clearly, then, European kingship before the Industrial Revolution was one of the most dangerous occupations in the world, comparable to that of soldiers in combat.

Eisner found that for most of this history, regicide was carried out within the noble elite in the competition for political rule.  But, then, by the seventeenth century, regicide became increasingly a matter of legal execution--such as the execution of Charles I in 1651 and the execution of Louis XVI in 1793.  In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, James II was deposed without being executed.

Even if they do not die a violent death, rulers face a high chance of bad outcomes.  In the twentieth century, tyrants faced the greatest risks: assassination (15 percent), thrown out of office by election (10 percent), deposed by coup (50 percent), or overthrown in a lost war (10 percent).  As Ludwig said, "that is a whopping 85 percent chance of leaving office in disgrace or in a casket" (120).

Simian alpha males face a similar likelihood of bad outcomes, including assassination.

In my next post, I will apply this primate model of political rule to the history of the Stuart monarchy in seventeenth century England.

The Pathetic End of Richard Spencer's Nietzschean Alt-Right


This is Richard Spencer leaving the Federal Courthouse in Charlottesville, Virginia.  He is carrying his daughter's stuffed animal.  He brought it to court every day, he said, to be his "emotional support animal."  This is a good image for the pathetic death of Spencer's Nietzschean Alt-Right.

Yesterday, a jury awarded $26 million in compensatory and punitive damages to plaintiffs claiming damages from the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville in August of 2017.  $14 million of the damages were assessed against James Field, who is serving a life prison sentence for driving his car into a crowd and killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer.  Spencer was ordered to pay $1.2 million.

I have written previously about Spencer (here and here).  Spencer's ultimate aim has been to overthrow liberal democracy and establish a "white ethnostate" in North America and Europe.  For him this kind of thinking all began when he first read Nietzsche as a college student at the University of Virginia.  Then, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he began to study Leo Strauss, who he saw as sympathetic with Nietzschean fascist thinking.  (I have written a series of posts on the Strauss-Nietzsche connection.)  Later, he did some graduate work at Duke University where he took a course on "Nietzsche's Politics" from the Straussian political theorist Michael Gillespie; and his paper for that course--"Politics in the Grand Style: Nietzsche, the Judeo-Christian Legacy, and European Unification"--is perhaps the fullest statement of his Nietzschean Alt-Right thinking.  He argued that "the deeper character of the Ethno-State . . . is Nietzschean at its core."

Suddenly, at the trial in Charlottesville, Spencer announced that his Nietzschean Neo-Nazism was all wrong.  He said that this kind of thinking showed him at his "absolute worst," and that it was all a product of his "animal brain."  At one point, he testified: "That was me as a 7-year-old, and it's a 7-year-old that's probably still inside me.  I'm ashamed of it.  Those are not my sincere, thoughtful beliefs.  That is a childish, awful version of myself."

After the verdict, Spencer told reporters that the Alt-Right movement that he created is over.  "That's long dead and gone in my opinion.  And it's buried.  And I don't want to have anything to do with it."

He also said: "I'm going to develop ideas that I think are important to the future of the world.  I've evolved a lot.  I think that populist energy of a few years ago, I think it brought out the worst in a lot of people, and it brought out the worst in me.  I don't think saying I'm sorry would help anyone.  I think the main thing is to move forward with integrity and seriousness."

Is this the death of the Nietzschean Alt-Right?  Surely, some of the Nietzschean Alt-Right thinkers will say that rather than showing the death of the movement, what this really shows is the stupid mistake of people like Spencer who shout in public that the final goal of the Alt-Right is a military ethnostate, which provokes a public backlash.  The smart strategy is to keep quiet about this.  

As I have noted, "Bronze Age Pervert" has recommended to his readers that they should study the idea of the military ethnostate as a guide for their "final aims," but they should be careful not to talk about this in public, because this would only expose them to their enemies.  They should join the Trump movement as the best way to work for overthrowing liberal democracy and moving towards a Nietzschean military dictatorship.  But they should never say that this is their aim because "you must have an instinct for how much normies are able to take" (Bronze Age Mindset, 170-71, 176).

In other words, don't march in a torchlight parade chanting Neo-Nazi slogans and assume that you won't be punished by your enemies!

Can this Straussian "secret writing" strategy of Bronze Age Pervert work?

Well, a recent report on "The Global State of Democracy 2021" concludes that the United States has joined the growing list of countries that are "backsliding democracies"--democracies whose democratic institutions and norms are declining--while at the same time the illiberal authoritarian regimes are expanding.  Does this suggest that the historical conditions in the world today are growing ever more favorable to the ultimate triumph of the Nietzschean Alt-Right?

Sunday, November 14, 2021

The Evolution of Vigilantism and the Right to Self-Defense--Returning to Locke's State of Nature

Closing arguments in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse are scheduled for Monday.  Rittenhouse, 18 years old, is charged with murdering two men and wounding a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  In the summer of 2020, he traveled from his home in Illinois to Kenosha with an AR-style semi-automatic rifle, claiming that he was going to protect property from the violent protests that had been provoked by the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a white Kenosha police officer.  He shot three men.  Two died.  The third was badly wounded.

Rittenhouse's lawyers are arguing that he shot these men in self-defense.  They contend that the first man killed--Joseph Rosenbaum--had threatened to kill Rittenhouse, and he was shot after chasing Rittenhouse and lunging for his rifle.  Rittenhouse then killed Anthony Huber after Huber had hit him with a skateboard.  Finally, Gaige Grosskreutz was wounded after he had chased Rittenhouse while pointing a pistol at him.  The defense lawyers argue that this was legal under the Wisconsin self-defense law that allows the use of deadly force only if "necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm." 

It can be argued, however, that Rittenhouse was the "initial aggressor"--he provoked the encounters that led to his use of force.  He went to Kenosha with a rifle that he had illegally, and he pointed that rifle in a threatening way at all three of his victims.  All three of them could have said that they were the ones acting in self-defense.  In fact, Huber and Grosskreutz were responding to Rittenhouse's killing of Rosenbaum; and so they thought they were trying to stop an active shooter.

Although there is disagreement over whether Rittenhouse was truly acting in self-defense, most people (with the exception of some Anabaptists) agree that we all have a right--perhaps even a natural right--to use lethal force in defense of our lives.  What I find most interesting about this is how it seems to confirm John Locke's claim that we all have the right to act as vigilantes in enforcing the law of nature, which includes the law against taking innocent life, whenever we cannot rely on the state to enforce the law; and thus we are thrown back into a state of nature, where we all have "the executive power of the law of nature," which includes the power to execute wrongdoers.

If we accept Max Weber's definition of the state as a public government of officials that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory, then the state has never existed, because no state has ever had a complete monopoly of the use of force in enforcing the law and punishing violators.  

Every state must rely to some extent on the self-help of private individuals in enforcing vigilante justice.  That the state must accept killing in self-defense as justifiable homicide is the clearest and most dramatic manifestation of this.


In the evolution of the state's enforcement of law, we can distinguish three eras: the stateless societies of the foraging era (beginning hundreds of thousands of years ago), the presumptive states of the agrarian era (beginning about 5,000 years ago), and the expansive states of the modern era (beginning about 200 years ago).  A good account of this history is the new book by Peter Baldwin--Command and Persuade: Crime, Law, and the State across History--although he says almost nothing about the prehistoric foraging era of stateless societies.

Throughout most of human evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers, the only law was vigilante law, which was what Locke called the law of nature.  There was no state to make and enforce law and punish wrongdoers.  But each band of foragers was an ordered society that was governed by customary laws made and enforced by all the adults in the band making decisions by collective deliberation leading to consensus, in which some individuals were recognized as leaders, but no individual adult could command the obedience of any other individual without that individual's consent.  In this way, all adults were equal in their freedom from domination by others and in their freedom to live as they pleased so long as they did not harm others.  Those who did harm others were punished by the group.  The punishment ranged from gossip and ridicule to expulsion from the group or the ultimate punishment--execution.

We could call this vigilante law.  The English word "vigilante" originated in nineteenth-century America as the term for those who formed "vigilance committees" to make and enforce customary laws where enforcement by the state was either absent or unreliable.  For example, in the mining camps of the American West in the first half of the nineteenth century, law and order was provided by vigilance committees.

The latest archaeological evidence as surveyed by James Scott and others confirms that indeed through most of human evolutionary history, for hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors lived in stateless societies in bands of hunter-gatherers.  For them, all justice was vigilante justice.

About 7,000 years ago, some people in Mesopotamia formed settled villages with farming and herding, but they still organized their social life without a state apparatus.   It was only about 5,000 years ago that the first states began to appear first in Mesopotamia.  Moreover, even after the emergence of states, most human beings continued to live outside the state as "barbarians."  At the time of Locke's birth in the seventeenth century, a majority of the human population around the world was probably living in stateless societies.

The evidence from those first states in ancient Mesopotamia shows a odd contradiction between their claims of absolute sovereignty and the reality of their severely limited powers.  For example, in their written legal codes, one can see what Seth Richardson has identified as "the curious absence of the state in the text." In the prologue and epilogue to Hammurabi's Code, Hammurabi claims absolute divinely granted authority over Babylonia.  But in the hundreds of laws in his code, there is almost no reference to himself or to the central state as providing judgment or enforcement of the law.  Most of the laws seem to assume private enforcement: when something goes wrong, the wronged party must act on his own with the help of local people to investigate, try, convict, and punish the guilty parties. 

What we see here is what Richardson has called the "presumptive state": the early states in Mesopotamia were presumptive in claiming a sovereignty that they did not in fact possess. Their rhetorical claims for absolute sovereignty have been mistakenly interpreted as evidence for the reality of Oriental Despotism.

Over the past 5,000 years, some states have expanded their power to rule through autocratic bureaucracies--for instance, China under the Song dynasty (960-1279).  But even the most powerful states have had to rely to some degree on law enforcement by private individuals acting through customary laws of vengeance and compensation.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, some states began to extend their law enforcement power by inventing modern professional policing.  Previously, people had policed themselves.  Robert Peel founded the London police in 1829.  The English Reform Act of 1835 extended this system of policing to all municipal boroughs.  Boston established the first American police force in 1838.

Even today with modern state policing, most policing is by private individuals.  In the United States, there are three times as many private police as public police.  Even in statist China today, half of the police are privately employed.  That we must still rely so much on private governance shows that absolute statism--the state holding a complete monopoly of power--is impossible.

Peter Baldwin shows that throughout the history of law, for thousands of years, "justifiable homicide" has been a way for weak states to permit vigilante justice:

"Even as the authorities promulgated laws, much remained left to self-help. . . . In medieval common law, victims' widows and children personally dragged killers to the gallows, and a violated woman herself castrated and blinded the rapist.  Justifiable homicide is the polite fiction whereby a weak state agrees that certain killings are legitimate.  Ancient Greek and Roman law defined justified homicide expansively, as did most Western legal codes for the next two millennia.  A highwayman in the act, a robber using force, anyone stealing at night, someone robbing clothes at the public baths, a man having sex with another's wife, mother, sister, daughter, or concubine, a rapist of free-born women or boys: according to various codes, all could be justifiably killed on the spot.  The killer of a manifest felon would likely not be prosecuted in medieval England, or he would be protected against retaliation from the criminal's kin.  Someone burning down a house in medieval Iceland could be instantly killed in the act, as could trespassers.  Absent reliable intervention by the authorities, self-help remained the victim's most likely source of satisfaction" (48-49).


Allowing homicide to be justified as self-defense shows that even the formidable power of executing wrongdoers cannot be monopolized by the state.  Locke explained the reasoning for this.  In the state of nature, hunter-gatherers adopted the customary law of nature that it was wrong to harm anyone by threatening their life, liberty, or property.  They also knew, however, that harming others was justified as punishment of those who violated the law of nature.  Consequently, any individual could rightly harm others--or even kill them--if this was necessary as self-defense against aggressive attacks (Second Treatise, secs. 6-11, 16-21).

And yet even if this was true in the state of nature, when people lived in stateless societies, we might think that once the state was established to make and enforce the law, private individuals could no longer claim a right to take the law into their own hands--to act as vigilantes.  But Locke argued that even when people are living under the rule of a state, there are circumstances that throw people back into a state of nature, so that, if only momentarily, they have the natural right to exercise the executive power of the law of nature in punishing those who threaten their life, liberty, or property, which includes the right to kill in self-defense.

Locke observed: "Want of a common judge with authority puts all men in a state of nature: force without right, upon a man's person, makes a state of war, both where there is, and is not, a common judge" (ST, sec. 19).  When a man aggressively attacks me, and there is no time to appeal to our common judge, then I have the liberty to kill that aggressor, because the law offers me no remedy for the irreparable harm that the aggressor might do to me.  By attacking me in circumstances where I cannot appeal for protection from the legal authorities, the aggressor has thrown us into a state of nature where I have a natural right to defend myself with lethal force.

To justly claim that natural right, however, I must satisfy some standards for the justifiable use of force in self-defense.  Brandon Oto has summarized the four main ideas as Ability, Opportunity, Jeopardy, and Preclusion (AOJP).

To rightly invoke your right to use deadly force in self-defense, you must show that you believed that your attacker had the ability to cause you serious harm.  If you thought he had a gun or other deadly weapon, that would have given him the ability.  Or if he was a very strong man, or even a trained fighter, that would have given him the ability to harm you.  But if your attacker was an unarmed woman, and you were a strong man, it would not be clear that she had the ability to inflict great harm on you.

You must also show that the attacker had the opportunity to harm you.  If he had a knife, but he was far away from you, you probably would not be justified in shooting him with a gun.  You have to show that he was right in front of you, and that he could have inflicted harm on you in a few seconds.

You must also show that you were in imminent jeopardy of being harmed.  Even if your attacker has threatened you, he might turn to walk away, and then you are no longer in imminent jeopardy.  Or even if he attacks you, but then he walks away, you cannot shoot him in the back.

Perhaps the most complex standard for justifying the use of force in self-defense is preclusion.  The idea is that you should use force only when the circumstances preclude you from choosing any alternatives to force, so that there are no other safe options.

One feature of the preclusion rule is the principle of proportionality: the kind and the the degree of force that you use against an aggressor must be in due proportion to the threat.  If a man punches you, you are not justified in shooting him, unless you believe that he is capable of killing you with his fists--perhaps he's a trained boxer--and shooting him is the only way to remove his threat.  Or if you're a battered wife, in fear of being killed by your husband, you might justify shooting him as your only safe option.

One form of the preclusion principle is the "duty to retreat."  You cannot rightly use force against an aggressor if you can easily run away and safely avoid a fight.  In the United States, 12 states impose a duty to retreat when one can do so with complete safety.  But in all of those states, the duty to retreat does not apply when someone is in his home and defending it against an intruder.  This is called the "castle doctrine," based on the maxim that "one's home is one's castle."  In some states, this castle doctrine is extended to apply to when a defender is in the defender's vehicle or place of work.  This is a partial exception to the preclusion rule.

Another kind of exception to the preclusion rule is the "stand-your-ground law."  In the U.S., 38 states have laws providing "that there is no duty to retreat from an attacker in any place in which one is lawfully present."  There has been intense debate about the wisdom of such laws.  One famous example is the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012.  Martin was a 17-year-old African American.  Zimmerman was a 28-year-old Hispanic American.  Zimmerman was a volunteer for a community watch group patrolling a gated community in Sanford, Florida.  He thought Martin looked suspicious, and he reported him to the Sanford police.  Before the police arrived, Martin and Zimmerman had an altercation; and Zimmerman shot him dead.  Zimmerman convinced the police that he had killed in self-defense, and that this was justified by Florida's stand-your-ground law.  A year later, Zimmerman was acquitted of second degree murder and manslaughter.  Many people saw this as showing how a stand-your-ground law could encourage a "shoot-first" attitude in the minds of racist people acting under the pretense of self-defense.

Even though this illustrates the disagreement over the exact standards of self-defense, there does seem to be a universal--or nearly universal--acceptance of the natural right to self-defense in all legal systems, because this right is rooted in our natural human psychology shaped in our evolutionary history in the foraging state of nature.

There are, however, some possible exceptions to this.  Joyce Lee Malcolm has suggested (here and here) that while the natural right to self-defense was once generally recognized as one of the basic rights of Englishmen, England in recent decades has moved towards denying that right.  In England, the state has really insisted that the government has a complete monopoly on the justified use of force, so the the citizens of England are prohibited from using deadly force in self-defense.  Citizens are told that when they are attacked on the street, they are prohibited from using force against their attackers.  They should shout "Call the Police" rather than "Help."  And bystanders must not help them.  A few years ago, an English householder called the police when burglars broke into his home.  He held them with a toy gun that looked real.  When the police arrived, they arrested him for a firearms offence.

In 1999, Tony Martin, a 55-year-old man, was living alone in his farmhouse in rural England.  His house had been burgled many times, and he had complained that the police had refused to protect him.  One night, two burglars--29-year-old Brendon Fearon and 16-year-old Fred Barras--broke into his house.  They had many prior convictions for various crimes.  Martin shot at them with a shotgun.  Barras was killed.  Fearon was wounded.

Martin claimed that he shot in defense of himself and his home.  But amazingly, he was charged and convicted of murder.  Later, this was reduced to manslaughter.  He served three years in prison.  He had been denied parole, because he refused to express remorse for what he did.

Cases like this suggest that the English no longer have a right to self-defense.  But there also has been an intense public outcry in England against the injustice of these cases, which might indicate that they run contrary to our natural moral sense, which includes the moral intuition that all human beings have the natural right to use force in defense of their lives, their liberty, and their property: vigilante justice is natural justice.


Vigilante justice is morally ambiguous, because it can serve either good or bad causes.  We can feel moral sympathy when we see the good face of vigilantism:  citizens in the nineteenth-century American West who enforced order in an otherwise lawless territory; Guardian Angels with red berets volunteering for safety patrols in high-crime neighborhoods; or people organizing to drive drug dealers out of their communities.  Many fictional vigilantes evoke the same sympathy--such as Robin Hood, Batman, or the Virginian.

But vigilantism also has an ugly face--as in the hate-filled mob justice of lynching in the American South, or in the long history of killing Jews in pogroms.

The jury in Kenosha will have to decide whether Rittenhouse was showing the good face or the ugly face of vigilante justice.

Friday, November 05, 2021

Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia?

Some years ago, I wrote some posts (herehere, and here) on how "Liberty Begins at Sumer."  Sumer was the earliest human civilization, located in southern Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq).  I was particularly interested in understanding why Pierre Goodrich adopted the cuneiform symbol for the Sumerian word amagi as the logo for the Liberty Fund--the first word in the oldest written language for "liberty."  I suggested that recent archaeological studies of ancient Mesopotamian history confirm Goodrich's insight that here we can find the first written evidence for the human struggle for liberty in the rebellion against autocratic government over 5,000 years ago.  

Recently, I have been thinking more about this after reading David Stasavage's claim in The Decline and Rise of Democracy that democracy began in Sumer and elsewhere in Mesopotamia.  If democracy in its broadest sense means political rule by consent of the people, then democracy began long before Sumer among our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors living in stateless societies.  But in Sumer, we see the emergence of the first "states"--such as the city-state of Uruk, where a city wall was first built around 3,200 BCE--and so here we can look for evidence of how democracy might have first emerged in a society with a specialized state apparatus (with a royal bureaucracy, military, and priestly class).  If there is such evidence, that would indicate that the formation of states did not extinguish the natural desire for democratic liberty that had evolved among prehistoric hunter-gatherers. 


In 1943, Thorkild Jacobsen--a famous Assyriologist at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago--wrote an article on "Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia."  Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, European archaeologists had led excavations in the Near East that uncovered evidence for the emergence of the first human civilizations--with the first cities, the first writing systems, the first religious temples, and the first bureaucratic states--in the ancient Near East over 5,000 years ago.  The monumental architecture and the written records displayed the grand power of kings ruling with absolute and divine authority, which seemed to confirm what the ancient Greeks had said about the "Oriental Despotism" of the East as the powerful alternative to the freedom-loving world of the Greek polis.  But Jacobsen challenged this old story of Western freedom versus Eastern despotism by arguing that prehistoric Mesopotamia had a tradition of democratic governance that had left some traces even in the autocratic kingdoms of historic Mesopotamia.

Jacobsen assumed a simple dichotomous taxonomy of political regimes--democracy or autocracy.  He defined democracy according to the original Athenian conception of democracy as the regime in which a large portion of the community--the free adult male citizens--consent to all the major decisions, exercise supreme judicial authority, and consent to rulers and magistrates.  He defined autocracy as any form of governance that concentrates power in a single individual and those he appoints to carry out his will.

The ancient Greeks who invented the word democracy (democratia) distinguished three forms of government based on the rule of one, few, or many, corresponding to kingship, oligarchy, or democracy.  Oligarchy was rule by a council of aristocrats or nobles.  Democracy was rule by an assembly open to the great multitude of the people (the demos), or at least the free adult male citizens, which was a large group but still a minority of the whole population of a polis.

By contrast, Jacobsen thought that oligarchy merged into democracy insofar as both were forms of collective governance as opposed to autocracy.  Even in a democracy, those of high status or seniority (the elders, the wealthy, or the nobles) will often fill the councils of governance, but these councils will sometimes have to have the approval of popular assemblies.  So what Jacobsen calls democracy might be identified as what Aristotle called the "mixed regime," which combined aristocratic and democratic elements.

Stasavage agrees with this, and he points out that classical scholars have recognized that in ancient Greece, "all polis constitutions were mixed" (Hansen and Nielsen 2004:84).  Most oligarchies had both an assembly of the people to which all citizens had access and an oligarchic council to which only the wealthiest citizens had access (Hansen 2006:112).  Some Greek historians (like Thucydides) and philosophers (like Aristotle) identified the balanced mixture of the few and the many as the best regime.

I should add here, however, that there is a good argument for Clifford Bates's claim that the best regime for Aristotle is actually limited democracy--democracy restrained by the rule of law.  All regimes are imperfect, Aristotle suggests, but democracy constrained by law is the least imperfect (Bates 2003).  Bates's book was originally a dissertation at Northern Illinois University that I supervised.

It might seem odd to look for democracy in ancient Mesopotamia, where the monarchic rulers identified themselves as kings with ultimate authority conferred on them by the gods; and so one might think they did not need the consent of their people to their rule.  But if one reads the legal and political documents from ancient Mesopotamia, it is clear that the ruler needed the cooperation of his people for the proper functioning of the state (Van De Mieroop 2017).  He needed soldiers to fight for him.  He needed laborers to work for him.  He needed taxpayers to provide revenue for him.  He needed judges to adjudicate legal disputes.  He also needed his people not to run away from or revolt against his state.  (In fact, as I have indicated in previous posts, over 3,000 years of Mesopotamian political life, there were hundreds of rebellions.)

And, sometimes, the king needed his people to meet in an "assembly" (unkin in Sumerian, puhrim in Akkadian) to consent to public policies.  For example, in the Laws of Hammurabi, which was compiled sometime around 1750 BC by the king of Babylon, it is said that if a judge unjustly overturns a judgment, "they shall unseat him from his judgeship in the assembly, and he shall never again sit in judgement with the judges" (Roth 1997, LH, para. 5).  One form of punishment for a criminal is that "he shall be flogged in the public assembly with 60 stripes of an ox whip" (LH, para. 202).

Jacobsen thought that these public assemblies in the historic Mesopotamian city-states were vestiges of a prehistoric Mesopotamian democracy in which popular assemblies had exercised the ultimate authority of the people to consent to governance, although gradually the government of Mesopotamia had moved from democracy to autocracy.  He offered four kinds of evidence for this.

First,  many Mesopotamian documents indicate that the adjudication of legal disputes, both civil and criminal, was carried out by each city or "town" (alum in Akkadian), and often the word "assembly" was equivalent to the "town," suggesting that the citizenry of each town had the authority to adjudicate cases. That this was open to the citizenry at large is implied by a Babylonian proverb that Jacobsen quotes:

"Do not go to stand in the assembly;

"Do not stray to the very place of strife.

"It is precisely in strife that fate may overtake you;

"Besides, you may be made a witness for them

"So that they take you along to testify in a lawsuit not your own" (Jacobsen 1943:164).

Here is seems that anyone who passes by an assembly could join it and participate in its legal process.

As we have seen, the Legal Code of Hammurabi assumes that the "assembly" will exercise judicial authority.  In previous posts on "The Lockean Social Contract in Ancient Mesopotamia," I have written about Seth Richardson's observation that Hammurabi's Code shows the "presumptive state"--that is, Hammurabi presumes in his code that he has absolute authority to make and enforce laws, but when you read through the laws, you notice that there are few references to the king; and so it seems that the actual exercise of legal power depends upon the people in each city.  The king's rhetorical presumption of absolute autocratic power is contradicted by the reality of popular assemblies exercising the real governing power.

So here we see within the presumptively autocratic state, Jacobsen suggests, a survival of the older traditions of popular rule that dominated the early stateless democracies in Mesopotamia before the emergence of states.

Jacobsen points to a second kind of evidence for the primacy of popular assemblies in prehistoric Mesopotamia in some of the epic tales about Gilgamesh.  The "Epic of Gilgamesh" in Akkadian is the most famous of those stories, which many of us read in college as the first assigned reading in our "world literature" class.  But there also are five Sumerian stories of Gilgamesh, one of which can be entitled "Gilgamesh and Agga."  

The Story of "Gilgamesh and Agga" in the Sulaymaniyah Museum, in the Kurdish Region of Iraq

Gilgamesh was a king of Uruk, who probably ruled sometime between 2900 BC and 2350 BC, although some scholars wonder whether he was a purely mythical creation.  "Gilgamesh and Agga" relates a story about the conflict between Gilgamesh as king of Uruk (or Erech) and Agga as the king of Kish (Kramer 1949).  The envoys of Agga to Gilgamesh ordered him to surrender Uruk to the rule of Agga.  In response, Gilgamesh convened "the assembly of the elders," and he proposed to them: "Let us not submit to the house of Kish, let us smite it with weapons."  But the elders rejected his proposal, saying "Let us submit to the house of Kish, let us not smite it with weapons."  Refusing to accept this advice from the elders, Gilgamesh convened the "assembly of the men of his city," and again he proposed: "Do not submit to the house of Kish, let us smite it with weapons."  This popular assembly agreed with him, and he was pleased: "At the word of the men of his city, his heart rejoiced, his spirit brightened."

Gilgamesh ordered his soldiers to go to battle, and Agga besieged Uruk.  The account of subsequent events is somewhat unclear, but apparently Agga was finally persuaded to lift the siege, and Uruk was not conquered.

In History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History, famous Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer identified this as the story of "The First Bicameral Congress."  Here he saw the Sumerians taking the first steps towards democratic government in which the power of kings was restrained by popular political assemblies.  Like the American Congress, there were two "houses": a "senate" or assembly of elders and a "lower house" or assembly of arms-bearing male citizens.  So Kramer agreed  with Jacobsen in seeing this as evidence for "primitive democracy" in Mesopotamia.  (For the scholarly debate over the interpretation of the "Gilgamesh and Agga" story, see Ridley 2000.)

It was probably because Pierre Goodrich had read Kramer's book that Goodrich decided to put the name of Gilgamesh at the beginning of his history of liberty on the walls of the Goodrich Seminar Room at Wabash College.  (I have written about this in my post on "Amagi: Mesopotamian Liberty in the Goodrich Seminar Room.")  

Jacobsen's third piece of evidence for a prehistoric tradition of Mesopotamian democracy came from the Enuma Elish (named for the first words of the poem "When above"), the Babylonian Creation Myth, and the primary source for Sumerian cosmology (Heidel 1952).  The Enuma Elish was probably first composed during the reign of Hammurabi (1810-1750 BC).  Hammurabi extended Babylonian rule over almost all of Mesopotamia.  This Babylonian dominance of Mesopotamia included spreading the worship of Marduk, the supreme god of the Babylonians.  The Enuma Elish tells the story of how Marduk became the ruler of the gods, which might have provided cosmological justification for Babylonian dominance.

Hammurabi Receiving His Royal Insignia from Marduk (or Shamash), The Relief on the Top Part of the Stele of Hammurabi's Laws, Held in the Louvre in Paris

Since the Sumerians and the Akkadians depicted their gods as human-like in living a life like that of human beings, and thus the stories of the world of the gods were a projection of the human world, Jacobsen inferred that the political life of the gods should be an image of the earliest political life of the Mesopotamians.   He found it significant, therefore, that the political order of the gods looked democratic.

Enuma Elish refers many times to an "assembly of all the gods."  The word "assembly" (puhrum) is used 26 times (see Heidel 1952, I, 55, 146, 151-52; II, 33, 38-39, 125-26; III, 37, 43, 60-61, 95, 100-101, 118-19, 131-32; IV, 15; VI, 86, 162, 165; VII, 13, 37). Before the assembly, the gods sit down to a sumptuous meal with wine and beer, much like the lavish banquets that some Mesopotamians enjoyed.  Once the banquet is over, they talk about whatever it is they must decide.

Enuma Elish tells the story of how the assembly of the gods met to decide how to handle the danger from Tiamat, the goddess of the primeval waters, who was planning war against them.  The young god Marduk offered to lead them in war if they would give him absolute authority as their war leader.  After deliberating, the assembly agreed to this, and Marduk became the war leader of the gods.

Jacobsen observed that not only could the assembly grant kingly authority, it could also revoke it.  Kings were given a "term" (bala) of office, a limited period of rule.  One city and its god could rule over Mesopotamia for a time, but then it could be overthrown by another city and its god.  Texts such as the Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur would then tell the story of how the assembly of the gods had decided that a ruling city and its god had reached the end of its term.

Jacobsen saw this as a projection in religious myth of how popular assemblies in prehistoric Mesopotamia had originally appointed kings to rule over the people of a city, particularly in time of war when they needed a military leader. 

To reinforce this claim that the political order of prehistoric Mesopotamia was democratic, Jacobsen made a fourth argument--that this same kind of primitive democracy could be found in the earliest societies of people around the world.  To illustrate this in the early history of Western Europe, Jacobsen (1943:172) quoted two statements by W. J. Shepard:

"Among all the primitive peoples of the West, there seems to have been some kind of popular assembly which shared with the tribal chief or king and with a council of lesser chieftains the powers of social control."

"The significant political institutions of the primitive Teutonic tribes who overran Western Europe were a folkmoot, or meeting of all the adult males bearing arms; a council of elders; and in time of war a war leader or chieftain.  All important questions, such as peace and war, were decided by the folkmoot.  The council of elders prepared questions to be submitted to the folkmoot and decided minor matters.  It was a rude form of democracy in which government was not differentiated nor law clearly distinguished from religious or social custom."

As I have indicated in a previous post, Stasavage has added to these empirical findings by showing that some form of democratic council governance has been widespread in human societies throughout history.  Using data from the Standard Cross Cultural Sample of 186 societies that were representative of the best described societies for specific geographic areas, Stasavage found that for most of these societies there was some council governance, either at the local level or at the level of a central authority (Stasavage 2020; Ahmed and Stasavage 2020).  He also found, however, that autocratic political executives could sometimes develop rule by bureaucracy as a substitute for shared rule with a council.

So in ancient Mesopotamia, as in all of human history, democracy is natural but not inevitable, as human beings move between the two poles of democracy and autocracy.  Another way to think about this is to say that all governmental rule depends ultimately on the support of a "minimal winning coalition," and in an autocracy, that coalition is very small, while in a democracy, it is large.

Do we see this same choice today in the emerging geopolitical struggle between American democracy and Chinese autocracy for hegemony?


Ahmed, Ali T., and David Stasavage. 2020. "Origins of Early Democracy." American Political Science Review 114:502-518.

Bates, Clifford. 2003. Aristotle's "Best Regime": Kingship, Democracy, and the Rule of Law. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Hansen, Mogens Herman. 2006. Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hansen, Mogens Herman, and Thomas H. Nielsen. 2004.  An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heidel, Alexander. 1952. The Babylonian Genesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jacobsen, Thorkild. 1943. "Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 2:159-72.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. 1949. "Gilgamesh and Agga." American Journal of Archaeology 53:1-18.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. 1956. History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ridley, Ronald T. 2000. "The Saga of an Epic: Gilgamesh and the Constitution of Uruk." Orientalia 69:341-367.

Roth, Martha T. 1997. Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. 2nd edition. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.

Stasavage, David. 2020. The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Van De Mieroop, Marc. 2017. "Democracy and the Rule of Law, the Assembly, and the First Law Code." In Harriet Crawford, ed., The Sumerian World, 277-89.  London: Routledge.