Minimalism and the Mongols

Having read Ghengis Khan and the Making Og the Modern World by Jack Weatherford, I was struck by the Mongol’s lessons in materialism and how this relates to my own modern day struggle to keep my possessions from becoming excessive. In the last 6 months, I’ve given away about 50% of my wardrobe and to see my clothing clearly has been invigorating, the toastie machine is now toast, and the front room has only a brief selection of favourite books. How did materialism effect the Mongol empire?

The Mongols were nomadic tribesmen on horseback riding across the planes of modern day Mongolia so they had to pack light. As Ghengis Khan took over more cities, he would systematically loot each city of valuables and bring these valuables back to his tribes. This created an appetite for material positions which was, on many scholarly accounts, insatiable. “Novelties became necessities” says Weatherford, to which I fear in my own life a breakfast at Pret used to be a novelty which is now a daily necessity at the cost of £3.00.

The more Ghengis Khan conquered, the more he was obliged to conquer because he had to feed this beast of demand coming from his own people. How could he have avoided this situation? How can a “nation” improve, develop, grow, expand without exposing members to new stuff which they then desire? Globalisation challenges in 2017 seem to be similar to 1200. Today, the power and value of a nation state may be in people’s brains more so than armies and grain reserves. So for me, to ensure I don’t get carried away buying material possessions I’m exposed to in cosmopolitan London advertising, I need to focus on valuing ideas and experiences rather than stuff that would weight me down.

Nearing the end of his life, Ghengis gave his sons advice related to minimalism which I love:

“Genghis Khan warned them against the pursuit of a “colorful” life with material frivolities and wasteful pleasures. “It will be easy,” he explained, “to forget your vision and purpose once you have fine clothes, fast horses, and beautiful women.” In that case, “you will be no better than a slave, and you will surely lose everything.”

Humility, it seems was the answer for Ghengis to keep himself routed:

“I wear the same clothing and eat the same food as the cowherds and horse-herders. We make the same sacrifices, and we share the riches.” He offered a simple assessment of his ideals: “I hate luxury,” and “I exercise moderation.”

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