The evil of empire.
Empire is evil for various reasons, but I want to explore one of the key ways it is evil in this piece; the temptation to ‘fix things’ that achieving empire offers.
A lot of conservatives get offended when you seek to explain to them the evil of empire, especially if you criticize the British Empire or today’s American Empire. There is a reflexive patriotism on behalf of many English, Australian and American conservatives that sees only the good in the Anglo-American empires.
After all, because of the expanse of the British Empire, the gospel was taken further afield than it had ever gone before. The evils of paganism in many societies were pushed back and suppressed.
I wrote about this myself recently with the example of how Lord Napier suppressed the evil of Sati in the land of India. Many similar examples can be given. Because well-meaning conservatives – I used to be a conservative of this sort* – see a lot of the good our nations have done in the world, we tend to reflexively defend the Anglo-American Empire in ways that we should not.
Just because you would be better off being colonized by the British, than the Mongols, does not mean the British Empire was righteous. It was better, but being better and being wholly good is not the same thing.
I think a brilliant short novel The City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, by John C. Wright, helps us to understand how to parse this difficult topic. In a sense, the book is about an empire, but a different kind of empire. It is an empire ruled by the city Metachronopolis which is controlled by the Time Wardens – people who can travel through time at will.
Time travel is an interesting concept and has been executed in various ways in books and media. The most famous examples are H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine which coined the phrase, ‘Time Machine’, and popularized the genre. Back to the Future, which is a beloved trilogy exploring the dangers, morality and adventure of time travel. And Avengers: Endgame which committed the great cinema sin of unravelling its own storyline by utilizing time travel. But John C. Wright takes a different approach in his work, City Beyond Time.
Wright correctly identifies the core problem with time travel is not that you will corrupt the timeline, but that you will face being corrupted yourself. Time travel is not just an interesting piece of technology that allows you to explore the great events of the past.
Time travel grants you power over the world, power over your own past and therefore the power to change both the past, present and future. Time travel gives you a power akin to the power of the gods, and therefore, in a real and genuine sense, accepting the ability to time travel is like saying yes to the Devil’s temptation in the Garden of Eden to help mankind become like gods.
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The ability to change time, to direct the course of events, to go back and change things, to fix things in your life, or your loved ones’ lives, is to give yourself more power than the human can handle. Therefore, to accept the power to travel in time is akin to accepting the Devil’s ownership of your soul and destiny, and to ensure your own destruction.
It does not even matter that you might begin this course with good intentions. You might want to fix a wrong you or someone else did. You might want to fix a great wrong in history, go back in time and stop that serial killer or stop that dictator, or stop some significant terrible event. But good intentions do not matter, because when you seek to take control of something you have no right controlling you etch away at your own soul and can only tend towards self-destruction unless you repent.
Metachronopolis is filled with the decaying souls of those who seek to colonize time, it is an empire of sorts, an empire that illustrates the dangerous temptation to fix things that are not your right to fix.
This is precisely the temptation that conventional empire offers as well. The thing those of us who have defended the British Empire or American Empire as wholly good, or even just majority good, have gotten wrong in the past, is the erroneous assumption that we have any right to seek to dominate the world and forge things into our image in the first place.
God does not give nations authority over each other. He gives a nation the right to rule over itself, and no one else. Even those nations God has empowered to control others, God himself roundly condemns and judges for their rule.
The reason this desire for empire is so wrong is even if you begin it with good intentions, it offers to one people a temptation of power that is far beyond what most people can handle. To rule over many nations tends to make people think and act as gods who believe they have the right to control the destinies of other peoples.
The rulers of empires become not Time Wardens, but Land Wardens, or Morality Wardens, or Culture Wardens. They believe the land on a thousand hills is theirs when it is not, and they have no right to rule over it. They believe their culture is superior in every way and all others must be forced into submitting to their ways, when in truth no human culture is perfect. It’s not the objective morality of God they end up enforcing, but their subjective cultural identity. This can only create backlash and it does.
This sort of power cannot but corrupt a people. It is not a coincidence that all empires get wealthy, rich, powerful and then decadent, immoral and filled with vice. The attraction of empire is that it grants you power, the danger of empire is that you can achieve that power, and the curse of empire is that the power it grants will conquer you and enslave you to its lusts.
The good that the British or American empires have done in the world, is not an argument for such empires to exist. It is an illustration of how having good intentions does not stop an evil enterprise from corrupting those who engage in it.
There is no doubt that these empires are far superior in morality and good to many other empires. We have highlighted the Mongol Empire, but the Assyrians, Ottoman Turks and other empires could be unfavourably compared to them as well. But it is irrelevant.
The pursuit of dominating other people is inherently wrong, and it will destroy those peoples who pursue such a course. The rapid decline of the Anglo-Saxon peoples is another example of this law of history. The growing understanding of the evils these empires have done is proof that this law has been in effect for some time.
No human empire avoids this curse.
*I would now refer to myself as a Christian-nationalist.