Thrown down by a Persian king; this statue inspired poem Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley. (Photo by George Bryant/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Gods and monsters

Even in secular regimes, theology always has its revenge

Artillery Row

Shelly’s Ozymandias endures because it teaches a timeless truth: that even the most monstrous and powerful of men will one day crumble, half-forgotten, into dust. Perhaps it is in partial recognition of this fate that those who have transcended all earthly limits in their life have sought to transcend their very humanity too. The heroes of the ancient world wished to associate themselves with the Gods — but in our post-religious age the only divine transcendence remaining is for the Supreme Leader to “be as God”, be God Himself. 

To ascend in Christianity, one must, paradoxically, seek to lower oneself

Alexander the Great’s origin would come to be infused with a deep mystical tradition — which he encouraged, knowing that he was mythologized even as he lived. One early legend suggested that his mother’s womb had been struck with a bolt from the heavens. Another insisted that the boy’s father had been given a vision of sealing that same womb with a stamp upon the seal that bore the figure of a lion. One particularly enduring story was that Philip had caught his wife bedded by a god in the disguise of a giant serpent. Horrified by what he had witnessed, he sent an aid to consult the Oracle of Delphi — only to find that the eye which had gazed upon the scene would be taken as punishment for intruding upon the business of the gods. Always careful with how others perceived him, Alexander implicitly encouraged the latter story, which gained traction in light of his unstoppable rise. When asked by an Egyptian philosopher about the nature of the gods, he opined that whilst Zeus was the father of all men, “it is the noblest and best whom he makes especially his own”.

The Egyptians understood the allure of the divine particularly well. In 41 BC, Mark Anthony, tasked with touring through the Roman East to settle disputes and re-stabilise the region, decided to meet as many local leaders as possible. He met Cleopatra in the city of Tarsus. The Ptolemaic Queen had the near-impossible task of asserting Egypt’s independence from a position of relative weakness, but without doing so in a way that would provoke Roman intervention. Cleopatra had informants placed inside Antony’s camp, and so knew that the triumvir was vain and easily influenced by flattery. 

When Cleopatra’s barge appeared on the horizon, Egypt’s destiny was altered. The ship was plated with gold and propelled through the water by silver oars. The sails were dyed purple — worth its weight in gold — and children dressed as Eros crowded the deck of the ship, surrounded by a flock of musicians playing flutes. At the centre sat Cleopatra, reclining under a golden canopy, presented as the goddess Aphrodite. To a man of significant ego and poor negotiation skills, it was as if the gods themselves had made themselves pleasing to him. Some displays of self-deification were for the good of the state. 

The dawn of Christianity in Europe made such pagan forms of apotheosis defunct. To ascend in Christianity, one must, paradoxically, seek to lower oneself. Christianity’s humble nature — what Nietzsche referred to cuttingly as “slave morality” — prioritised the last rather than the first. Those of a more ancient persuasion saw little value in it. 

Atheist world leaders had little left to venerate but themselves

During the reign of Louis XVI, the king’s birthday was celebrated as a national feast day. Once the king was deposed and beheaded, Pope Pius VII sought to curry favour with the ascendent Napoleon by ordering his legate in France to search the archives for a saint of the same name. The legate unearthed an ancient Egyptian slave by the name of Neapolus, whose feast day was dutifully fixed on August 15th — Napoleon’s birthday. The French gained a national holiday, and Napoleon won a form of canonisation-via-proxy. Writing a quarter of a century later, Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, the emperor’s companion and biographer, wrote that Napoleon would have paid tribute, like Alexander, to the religious practices of every country he wished to master: “In India he would have been for Ali, at Thibet for the Dalai-lama, and in China for Confucius.”

Napoleon’s heartier dalliance with Islam was primarily undertaken with the aim of increasing diplomatic relations with the Ottomans and easing the course of his campaign in Egypt, but paying tribute to the military accomplishments of Mohammad roused far greater sincerity than that which he could muster towards the peaceful and servile nature of Jesus Christ. “The Mohammedan religion is the finest of all,” Napoleon declared. “In a few years, the Muslims conquered half of the world.” Bonaparte’s resentment towards Christian demands could be put to one side when it was useful to him. Islam was equally useful, but the interest was more heartfelt. 

Napoleon reigned at a period of increasing secularisation, but he knew that associating himself with saints and prophets would carry weight both domestically and abroad, so he adjusted his sympathies to his audience. For contemporary politicians in western Europe, such associations are much less beneficial. In the post-Christian landscape of the 20th century, some who seek to transcend the bounds of humanity are left with nothing to idolise but themselves. 

Nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of God and gods alike, an increasing number of militantly atheist world leaders had little left to venerate. Aggressively embedding a new, secular, cult of personality into the fabric of constitutions and ordinary lives can divorce their people from religious piety and into a new devotion of the individual.

Cults of personality are of particular importance to the maintenance of a regime that would otherwise lack goodwill, and must establish a one-man or one-party state for successive generations. North Korea’s 1972 constitution set out the leader of the nation as the sole guiding principle and cultural significance of the state. In the words of Park Yong-soo, within the state, the “prestige of the [Great Leader] has been given the highest priority over everything else”. Indeed, food and shelter themselves come directly and solely from the “grace” of the Chairman.

Just as movie stars must maintain a certain distance from the public to cultivate a sense of mystique — to stay unknown enough that the audience can project perfection unto them — leaders who wish to maintain devotion must cultivate opacity so that their own audiences can conceive of them as possessing a quasi-divine status. In a warped process of history, even the leaders of states in which religions are banned are accorded a semi-divine status.

One escapee of a North Korean prison camp wrote that, in his youth, “Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were perfect beings, untarnished by any base human function. I was convinced, as we all were, that neither of them urinated or defecated. Who could imagine such things of gods?”

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