I bring you a review for a non-fiction book. A pretty special one, another great offering from Rosie’s Book Review Team.
Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths: From Alexander to Hitler to the Corporation by Joseph Abraham
“I’ve always believed society to be a fundamentally rational thing, but what if it wasn’t?
What if it was built on insanity?”
—Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test
Grand Prize Short List. 2021 Eric Hoffer Award
1st Runner-Up, Legacy Nonfiction. 2021 Eric Hoffer Award
Finalist, 2021 Montaigne Medal
Winner, Current Events. 2019 Indie Book Awards
Finalist, Historical Non-Fiction. 2019 Indie Book Awards
• • •
Conquest is murder and theft.
Conquerors are vicious criminals.
Vicious criminals become kings.
Kings designed civilization.
We are the products of civilization.
What if, before the modern period, all civilization was true crime?
Despite our romantic traditions, monarchs were never wise, just, nor generous. The briefest review of history shows that, without exception, kings were the most vicious criminals who ever lived. They were serial killers who preyed upon nations.
And the only path for survival in the ancient world required unquestioningly obeying— and blindly believing— anything the king said.
• • •
“…the book’s scientific analysis, which spans Darwin’s concept of evolution to cutting-edge psychology, is a welcome addition to historical conversations…”
“…concise, compelling, and challenging exploration of how humanity became what it is.”
“Why do we excuse an act, unforgivable if committed by an ordinary citizen, if executed or ordered by a leader?”
—The Los Angeles Review of Books
“The term ‘must-read’ has been so overused. But Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths is a must-read… must-own… and, most of all, a must-ponder.”
—San Diego Jewish World
“…this may be the most important book you will ever read.”
—Robin Levin, The Death of Carthage
“…wide-ranging research and an unflinching eye for detail…”
—Candice Millard, New York Times best-selling author, The River of Doubt, & the Edgar Award-winning Destiny of the Republic
“This book is a must-read…”
—Carol Beggy, co-author, award-winning Boston book series; Ted Kennedy: Scenes from an Epic Life; and former reporter, Boston Globe
“…a stark reminder of how fragile and vulnerable to exploitation our modern democratic societies are…”
—MathValues.org, Mathematical Association of America
“A detailed and engaging examination of our haunted past and threatening future. Read it and weep.”
—John Mack Faragher, Daniel Boone, and The American Heritage Encyclopedia of American History
“…Dr. Abraham is a true Renaissance man… this book is a must-read.”
—Jim Engster, NPR affiliate WRKF
“…an insightful, novel argument based on both a keen clinical eye, and an exhaustive review of the literature… ”
—James Fallon, The Psychopath Inside
“…despite often romantic images, kings and conquerors were vicious criminals— and the fact that they were psychopaths, narcissists, and sadists became whitewashed, almost in a form of mass hypnosis.”
—Joe Gandelman, journalist, and blogger at TheModerateVoice.com
“For those who want their minds expanded and blown: Dr. Abraham is the man.”
—Pearson Cross, Bayou to Beltway, NPR affiliate KRVS
About the author:
Joseph N Abraham, MD is an emergency physician (Tulane ’86), research biologist, and award-winning author.
I am writing this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you are looking for reviews, check here), and I thank the author for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.
This is an ambitious book, and one that is not an easy read, but it is a necessary one for anybody who wants to look at the history of modern civilisation through anything other than rose-tinted glasses. The author refers often to the Emperor’s New Clothes’ tale, and it is very apt, although perhaps it is not always a case of the spectators knowing what they are watching but trying to appear honest and compliant, but rather that the stories weaved around the emperor have become alive and true in the eyes of those seeing him (or reading about him in this case), or perhaps it is a combination of both, a self-delusion helped by years of whitewashing the facts or putting a romantic spin on things that are anything but romantic.
I have long held a pretty negative view of many of the famous conquerors and civilizations in history, although I must confess that I didn’t know many of the facts and figures Abraham quotes, at length, in the book, and it makes for a terrifying read at times. Although he does not cover all historical periods and all empires (I suspect it would occupy many volumes, and it would be a truly harrowing reading experience), he does a good sweep from classic times to Vietnam, not forgetting Alexander, Genghis Kahn, or the Victorians.
If you want to get a more detailed sense of what the book covers, I recommend checking the ‘look inside’ feature on your favourite store, and reading the list of contents, as that contains a good description of each chapter, but it would be too long for me to include here. As an indication, these are the titles of the chapters: Prologue: Fantasy and horror, Chapter 1: Kings (the comparison with gangster is very apt), Chapter 2: Conquerors (who are characterised as serial killers), Chapter 3: Psychopaths (where he diagnoses successful conquests and the monarchy rather than only the individuals), Chapter 4: The Breeding Program (we are all descendants of the conquerors or of the compliant victims), Chapter 5: The Noble Classes (hierarchies always work to ensure their self-preservation and dominance), Chapter 6: Privilege & the Double Standard, Chapter 7: The Authoritarian Personality (where the author looks at issues of compliance and obedience in the masses), Chapter 8: The Atrocino (if the conqueror is the Atrox, now we have the big corporations and political leaders who don’t quite reach their level, but are toxic nontheless), Chapter 9: The Modern World (prosperity and modernity arrived when the old order was questioned), Chapter 10: The Ugly Truth (the true cost of civilization), Epilogue: Response (education and early intervention can help us avoid similar excesses in the future).
I am a psychiatrist, have worked in forensic psychiatry, and was trained in using the PCL-R (The Psychopathy Checklist Review, which the author mentions). Psychopathy is not a psychiatric diagnostic as such (a diagnosis of antisocial or dissocial personality disorders would cover many of the traits that score highly on the checklist, although not all, and traits of other types of personalities can also score highly), but it is used because it gives a good indication of the risk a person might pose. The highest the score, the higher the risk. Having worked and met some people with high scores, I can say I do agree with the author’s assessment in general terms, although with the caveat that the sources of information, especially for the historical figures of ancient times, are limited and biased, so we need to take it all with a pinch of salt, but Abraham makes a good case, for sure.
I have already said that I had long thought along the same lines the author expresses in the book, and the more I read, the more examples came to my mind, even if the author didn’t mention certain names many of us might think about when we read it. (I, for one, can think of many atrocinos that grace the news very often, both in my country, Spain, and at an international level as well).
I was intrigued by his comments about genetics and also about people who might fulfil the criteria for psychopathy (score highly in the checklist) but seem to have managed to control the most harmful aspects of their personalities. Evolutionary biology is not my area of expertise, but I felt that perhaps this aspect of the argument was less developed than some of the other ones, and I would have liked a bit more information, although I admit I would probably be in a minority here.
I also had some queries regarding his comments on compliance, because although I appreciate his overall argument, the validity of some of the psychological studies he mentions (Milgram still holds quite well, but Zimbardo’s not so much) has been questioned. (Last year I read and reviewed a book by Rutger Bregman called Humankind. A Hopeful History [you can check my review here], where the author manages to put a positive spin on human being behaviour, and he does a good job of criticizing many of the negative studies).
Regarding the format, I am not sure footnotes and endnotes work too well in e-book format (and the end notes and bibliography occupy 14% of the content), so people who want to dig into it and not miss anything might be advised to consider a paper copy. The book also includes illustrations (some of them are as harrowing as the descriptions of violence in the book, if not more), and the notes and the bibliography will help anybody interested in researching the topic in more depth.
I highlighted a lot of content, and I advise, as usual, that future readers check a sample of the book to see if it suits their taste, but I thought I’d share a few random quotes to give you a taster:
…Napoleón arrive in Egypt with a second army of scientists and historians. It is not surprising that innovation under his Empire produced far-reaching technical advances such as the modern ambulance, widespread inoculations, food canning, and others.
Napoleón was also a remorseless butcher.
The conqueror is a thug. Rationalizing his crimes is a variation on blaming the rape victim. If she fights back, the rapist claims he is perfectly justified in torturing and murdering her. It is a variation of the exploiter’s defense: “Now see what you’ve made me do?!”
We are always one demagogue away, we are always one angry, jaded electorate away, from letting Hitler sleep back inside the walls of civilization, assemble his brutalizers, and resume his slaughter.
One of the reviewers commented on the USA perspective of the book, and that is true. Not that the conclusions are not relevant to all countries, but some of the solutions and further advice suggested seem tailor-made for the United States, although the overall message is easy to extrapolate and adapt to other countries as well, and the individual insight provided is priceless.
This is one of those books that make us sad as we read them, because we know full well that those who need to read them the most are unlikely to do so, but Abraham holds no false illusions and is clear that the most entrenched radicals cannot be swayed by rational argument.
I don’t think one needs to be an academic to read and ‘enjoy’ (at an intellectual level at least) this book, but the amount of detail and the format might put some people off. Also, as I’ve said before, the book is not an easy read, and it might not be suited for those who shy away from violence or descriptions of extreme and cruel behaviour. Other than the minor personal queries, preferences, and warnings mentioned above, the book is a gripping, thought-provoking, and informative —although somewhat gruelling— read. I learned plenty of new information that disabused me even more about romanticized versions of the past, and some of the comments about politics in general (the importance of not confusing right and left-wing politics with conservatism and liberalism, for example) were right on target. Highly recommended, but be prepared to be challenged and shaken.
Thanks to the author, to Rosie and her whole team for their ongoing support, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to stay safe, to comment and share if you know anybody who would be interested, and to keep smiling. ♥