When we were kids, we earned some small change by selling burlap bags of corn cobs that we got free from a huge pile of cobs at Stickles' Mill on Baltimore Street. In those days (circa 1935), many homes cooked on coal stoves using corn cobs as kindling wood. We had so much fun playing “king of the mountain” as we wrestled each other to get to the top of the pile and control the spot the longest. So, you can imagine the surge of delightful memories when I saw “King of the Mountain” for sale at a bookstore. The subtitle, “The Nature of Political Leadership,” made this a must read.
Arnold M. Ludwig, professor of psychiatry at the University of Kentucky, spent 18 years of intense and comprehensive research and writing to produce a remarkable study of more than 1,000 rulers. His fundamental thesis is that rulers of nations behave in many ways like the well-observed conduct of primates such as monkeys and apes. They strut and control in much the same way as alpha male primates do when they dominate their harem and usurp the privileges of rank. Kings and lower primates glory in being “King of the Mountain” — with more serious consequences for Homo sapiens.
To be sure, many will find objections to various points made by Ludwig, but they will concede that his command of history is masterful and his insights rich. The only reservation I had was the sense that he might have damaged the reputation of monkeys and apes. True, they are genetically within several percent of similarity to Homo sapiens, but that difference is huge in consequences. With a cranial cavity three times larger, Homo sapiens have the wonderful gift of language, self awareness, moral judgment and art. Yet, you may search the record of these primates in vain to find a record of mayhem, cruelty, material and environmental destruction, and calculated evil to match that of human beings.
In this column and the next, I will share a portion of riches found in this fine study of political rulers. To begin, we could appreciate the author’s way of presenting the “great man” theory of history. This is important because the history of rulers is largely the story of men on which we are passing judgment. British historian Thomas Carlyle is generally credited as the leading proponent of the claim that “history is the biography of great men.” This most-flattering view of alpha males is very much contested by those who see history as the inevitable movement of social determinism — especially economic forces — proposed by followers of Karl Marx. Ludwig reconciles the two theories by “the man and the moment” theme that argues that even great men are limited by the social conditions they face.
A major contribution by Ludwig is his use of an objective list of criteria for judging the relative rank in the abilities of rulers who have crossed the stage of history. His “Political Greatness Scale” uses 11 criteria by which a student of historical rulers may create a relatively valid placement of their rank as rulers. We want to know why Alexander the Great outranks President Warren Harding.
Criteria such as military prowess, extent of social engineering, success as a moral exemplar, political legacy, statesmanship and staying power are examples of the range and style of Ludwig’s methods. While each nation will still have its collective judgment of their own rulers, it is the task of historians to present an objective ranking of historical figures.
I have no hesitation in recommending this fine book using biographical reports to make his case. Next week’s column will include more of Ludwig’s thoughts.
Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.