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Megalomania in History and Modern Life - Delusional or Deliberate?

Does your cat suffer from delusions of grandeur?

Does your cat suffer from delusions of grandeur?


As many of you are able to guess without additional clues by examining my user name, I work for the Postal Service. During the 20 year course of my letter carrier career I have met more than my share of male and female managers that could have the word "jerk" applied to them without much argument from their underlings or even from themselves. Members of the postal managerial corps wear the word jerk proudly as a badge of honor, and openly flaunt it as a sure fire ticket to promotion. Being a jerk in the post office will get one a long way, even when other qualifications are lacking.

But one manager in particular I had the pleasure to be associated with took the jerk moniker to new extremes, and was well aware of it. This man openly boasted about being a megalomaniac, a word he probably pulled out of one of the impressive managerial tomes he decorated his office with, and he went to great lengths to try to prove it. Two or three times a week he would use his employees as a forced audience for his long-winded, long-running stand up talk speeches, in which he would rant about character, integrity, family, and whatever random subject he had seen on TV the night before, whether or not it pertained to our postal duties or not. If we returned from the street late because we had been detained in the office by his lengthy diatribes he would then write us up. In fact, he would discipline or attempt to fire people for any petty deviation from the rules, or even for having the audacity to disagree with him. The union was kept quite busy fighting to get people's jobs back. Later when he was promoted to area manager he would sit around the lunch table with his minions and play telephone games with the supervisors in his offices, giving them impossible assignments he invented in his wicked imagination and then laughing hysterically with his co-conspirators as these underlings stressed themselves to the limits of sanity trying to comply with his arbitrary whims.

For a long time I simply took this man at his word that he was what he said he was, a megalomaniac. It sounds like a wicked enough sounding noun, after all, and I suppose I just thought that anybody who was that insufferably power hungry must have some kind of multisyllabic mental disorder associated with him. But sometimes people purposely use impressive sounding words as a cover for what is simply bad behavior. Saying that you have ADHD is a lot better than saying you are a hyperactive, loudmouth fool who can't sit still and can't keep his mouth shut. And calling oneself a megalomaniac certainly sounds better than admitting to being a first class jerk. It actually sounds like a legitimate; albeit frightening disorder, and its ominous overtones make it seem that the person supposedly afflicted with it is entirely at its mercy.

What is Megalomania?

But are these power hungry men and women like my boss truly megalomaniacs, or are they simply calculating individuals who put their own advancement over everything else, including the needs of the company, organization, or even the country they have been selected to lead?

According to the clinical definition of the term, megalomania is defined by delusional fantasies that one is all powerful or even omnipotent. Being delusional does not mean merely believing a false idea because of incomplete or untrue information, but persisting in a belief in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

True delusions are symptomatic of mental illness. They are especially relevant to discussions of schizophrenia, manic bipolar episodes, and psychotic depression. Therefore, my manager who boasted in such a cavalier fashion about being a megalomaniac should have been institutionalized immediately for his own safety, or at least taken aside and politely urged to stop using megalomania as an excuse for his coldly rational bid to oppress others by flaunting his own authority. His behavior most certainly could be classified as uncouth and perhaps borderline neurotic, but it was probably not indicative of megalomania.

Megalomaniacs in History

Okay, but since my boss man was just a loudmouth jerk and not really a megalomaniac, just who are some of the recognizable figures throughout history who have sometimes been classified as megalomaniacs, and were they really?

Even the statues seem to display Caligula's cruel, arbitrary, capricious nature.

Even the statues seem to display Caligula's cruel, arbitrary, capricious nature.


Caligula (Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), who ruled Rome as Emperor from AD 37-41, is probably the most notorious of the Roman rulers in terms of his depravity and perversion. Caligula was noted for killing on a whim, and once at a publicly staged games had his guards throw an entire section of the crowd to the animals because there were no prisoners available to slaughter and he was bored.

In spite of his nonsensical and capricious outbursts of violence, Caligula has been the benefactor of a historical image reconstruction. it seems that many historians have been trying to prove that Caligula's monstrosities were actually calculated attempts to increase Imperial power.

Recent excavations made in Rome have lambasted this theory by demonstrating that Caligula actually had an entire street blocked off so that thru traffic would have no choice but to stop and worship at his temple, which he had constructed after declaring himself God. Caligula also had a magnificent palace built for his favorite horse, whom he proclaimed to be Consul; which was basically the head of the Roman government. Neither of these acts seem to be shrewd political machinations, but more like the delusional outbursts of a raving madman. When a person starts to actually believe that they are God, it might be a sign that they are a little bit off their rocker. This is probably why Caligula's guards assassinated him before he could subject the office of Emperor to further embarrassment. Caligula most assuredly qualifies for megalomaniac.

The power, charisma, and vision of this ancient Emperor are clearly portrayed in this bust of Alexander the Great.

The power, charisma, and vision of this ancient Emperor are clearly portrayed in this bust of Alexander the Great.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great was the unrivaled conqueror of antiquity who defeated the mighty Egyptian and Persian armies and spread Greek rule and culture up to the gates of India between the years 332-323 BCE. Although he certainly lusted for power and fame, none of his actions seem to display anything other than a firm, though ruthless grip on reality..

Alexander's association with megalomania comes about because of his practice of proskynesis, or the genuflection a person of lesser rank performs before a supposedly superior individual. Since the Greeks led by Alexander only prostrated themselves before their Gods, the Persian practice of proskynesis was thought to be a godlike veneration of the Emperor. Alexander attempted to implement the practice of proskynesis to make an impression on the Middle Eastern peoples he conquered, but when it did not have an enthusiastic reception among his own freedom-loving Greek followers he declined to force feed it down their throats. In other words Alexander made a calculated, non-delusional decision to recognize where he went wrong and to correct his mistakes in order to maintain his hold upon power.

All the same Alexander was often venerated and rumored to be made of godlike stuff. This was not the result of delusional fantasies, however, but probably the consequence of legends surrounding him that were probably proliferated on purpose as propaganda. One of the most noteworthy myths surrounded his mother, who allegedly had a dream in which her womb was struck by a thunderbolt, indicating conception by the god Zeus. Most certainly Alexander exploited these legends of divine conception to his advantage, as a calculated means to further justify and solidify his rule.

So Alexander might have pretended to be a god from time to time, but he was most likely only pretending and didn't actually believe it. My boss might want you to believe in his godlike status as well, but as yet has not been able to institute the practice of proskynesis in the post office.

Stalin vs. Hitler:  A case of coldly calculating killer vs delusional, raving lunatic?

Stalin vs. Hitler: A case of coldly calculating killer vs delusional, raving lunatic?

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Stalin vs. Hitler

If we accept that megalomania is a psychopathological condition characterized by a delusional obsession with power, then some of history's greatest megalomaniacs are going to have to be thrown out and reclassified as something else. Maybe "creeps" would be a better word. Just saying.

Joseph Stalin, the undisputed, unchallenged ruler of the Soviet Union between 1924 to 1953, is one of those notorious figureheads of history that everyone assumes to be a megalomaniac, probably because he murdered millions of people and had millions of others shipped off to labor camps.

But although the diminutive Stalin, whom American President Harry Truman referred to as a "little squirt," may have suffered from an inferiority complex resulting from "short-man's syndrome," and most certainly was a cruel, remorseless sociopath, is there any real evidence to indicate that he met the "delusional" criteria required for megalomania? His rise to the top of the Soviet power structure was devious, underhanded, and unscrupulous, but it was also brilliantly calculated . Neither was his leadership of the victorious Soviet forces in World War II against the greatest war machine of its time the work of a delusional madman. Just because someone is a very evil dude, as Stalin most certainly was, does not mean they meet the qualifications necessary to wear the word "megalomaniac" on their name tag at the International Brotherhood of Jerks convention.

In contrast, the equally notorious brute across the WWII front lines from Stalin may indeed have been a delusional megalomaniac. Whereas Stalin took pragmatism to the extreme, carrying out mass exterminations of people that opposed his objectives, Adolf Hitler clung obsessively to fairy tales and myths that he attempted to carry into reality. They myth of the subhuman status of the Jewish people, for instance, resulted in the deportation and death of six million people, even though the Jewish people had never really opposed him anywhere except within the confines of his twisted imagination. Hitler also had a delusional, irrational belief in the invincibility of the German soldier, a false conviction that he embraced to the point that he destroyed his own forces by neglecting to supply them with proper winter clothing and other cold-weather provisions during the first year of the Russian invasion. Hitler clung stubbornly to the fanciful pipe dream that the Russians would be defeated quickly, a delusion that ultimately cost him the war. So on the issue of megalomania I vote "no" for Stalin, "yes" for Hitler.

Does megalomania turn a man into a laughable caricature of himself?

Does megalomania turn a man into a laughable caricature of himself?

Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein, etc.

Megalomania has not decreased in popularity as humanity has moved forward and made incredible advances in technology, medicine, and science. Megalomania is still alive and well in every corner of the globe and doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. People have desired to dominate other people since about the time we were still dragging our knuckles in the dirt, and while it might be true that gadgetry has made us more sophisticated brutes, we're still brutes.

Real world examples of megalomaniacs still living or recently deceased are legion. Kim Jong Il, the former dictator of North Korea, believed that his mood swings changed the weather. He also claimed to have invented the hamburger, around the same time that Al Gore was inventing the Internet. Saddam Hussein, deposed as dictator of Iraq in 2003 and executed in 2006, believed that he was descended from the prophet Mohammed. Strangely enough, in his own mind he was also the resurrection of the ancient Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. To glorify his association with the Babylonian ruler of antiquity, Saddam built a palace in the form of a Babylonia Ziggurat, a megalomania-related action that echos the bygone days of Caligula.

The Tokugawa Shoguns of Japan believed that they were helpless victims of their own "karma," much like my boss believed that he was the helpless victim of his "megalomania."

The Tokugawa Shoguns of Japan believed that they were helpless victims of their own "karma," much like my boss believed that he was the helpless victim of his "megalomania."


The point I'm trying to make is that the megalomaniacs are certainly out there, but megalomania cannot always be used as an excuse for bad behavior. The Japanese ruler Toranaga is quoted in the James Clavell novel Shogun as saying "I did not choose to be what I am. It is my karma." Perhaps this rather fatalistic surrendering of one's moral code is the method by which the great dictators justify their dark deeds, just like my Postal boss justified his own bad behavior by using the convenient excuse of megalomania. But whether you're the oppressive dictator of a large chunk of the map, or just the abusive boss of a few dozen letter carriers, saying "I can't help it, I'm a megalomaniac," doesn't always fly.

Will the real megalomaniac please stand up?