Anthony Mayer ;  alternative history ;  Jonathan Edelstein's Spinoza in Turkey - Part 10
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1. Preface

2. Spinoza's World, 1664

3. The Sabbateans

4. The Disputation

5. The Holy Land

6. Marriage

7. Common Prayer

8. America

9. Gottfried and Sophia

10. The Sublime Porte

11. Spinoza's World, 1691

12. Mustafa and the Janissaries

13. Naomi

14. Regime Change

15. Tulips

16. Twilight

17. Spinoza's World, 1712

18. Epilogue


Spinoza in Turkey
"Surely thy Lord knows very well who has gone astray from His way, and He knows very well those who are rightly guided."
-- Sura 68:7

Part 10 - The Sublime Porte

November 1687 to October 1690

The revolt of 1687 tore through Constantinople with brutal force. Those unable to flee the city or barricade themselves in their homes were massacred by the vengeful Janissaries; neither Christian, Muslim nor Jew was spared. No accurate account has ever been made of the number of people killed during the overthrow of Mehmet IV, but it is likely that they numbered in the thousands.

The Janissaries' fury spent itself quickly, though, and it was not directed at any single group of people. Although some Rational Jews, the court physician among them, lost their lives and the Rational Synagogue was damaged in the rioting, the Janissaries made no attempt to root out or exterminate the Rationalists. Their rage was focused on one person and one person only - the sultan who had presided over two of the greatest defeats in the history of the Ottoman realm.

Thus it was that, as they unbarred their doors and returned from their places of refuge, the Rational Jews found things much the same as before. The new Sultan, Suleiman II [FN1], was a nonentity who had spent the past thirty-odd years confined in a harem, and the first months of his reign had little direction beyond gaining control of the capital and regrouping the army. The Sultan had the presence of mind to crack down on the unpaid troops who were looting the city and regularize the collection of taxes, but his years of dissipation had left him with neither the knowledge nor the will to attempt major reforms. Although some Janissaries grumbled against the Rationalists, their millet status was left undisturbed, and they were granted permission to rebuild their synagogues and meeting halls.

All the same, the Rational leaders realized that they had powerful enemies at the new Sultan's court, and moved quickly to establish themselves in his favor. Rabbi Jacob ben Israel Benvenisti had died two years since, but Haham Saltiel had ably taken over his role as the Rational movement's chief political spokesman. Although Spinoza was technically the governor of the Rational millet, Saltiel had been its effective administrator for years, and he was wise in the ways of the court. Within a month after Suleiman II's accession, Saltiel took up a collection among the leading Rational families and presented it as a gift to the Ottoman army. Through his friends at court - both those long established and those newly won with judicious bribes - he made clear that additional concrete expressions of gratitude would be forthcoming if the Rational Jews were permitted to live as before. Had anyone compared Saltiel to the court Jews of Germany, he would doubtless have been insulted, but his method of buying favor was the same as theirs, and worked at least as well - it won time for his community while the great men of the Ottoman Empire debated the future.

The defeat at Mohacs brought an unprecedented degree of self- examination within the hitherto complacent Turkish court. The empire, which had previously known only momentary setbacks, had suffered two of the greatest defeats of its long history. The battles of Vienna and Mohacs had already cost the Sultan his throne and the Grand Vizier his head, but many wondered if something more than that was necessary - wondered, in fact, whether there was something rotten at the empire's core.

As 1688 progressed, the court resolved itself into two parties. On the one hand, there were the reactionaries, many of them Janissaries or radical preachers, who believed that dar al-Islam had been corrupted by sin and that it was necessary to return to the fundamentals of the faith. On the other were the liberals, who believed that the empire's salvation lay in emulating the spirit of inquiry and learning that was sweeping the west. Among them were the members of the Rational Society - which, scarcely six years after its founding, suddenly found itself with an ear at court.

In the summer of 1688, the Rational Society numbered at most in the hundreds, but its membership was disproportionately drawn from the wealthy and educated. And throughout that year, it grew in size as its leaders and scholars were called to consult with the great men of the court. To be sure, its enemies also became more numerous and more powerful, and there were attacks and even assassinations, but the balance of power was nearly equal and these enemies were unable to strike a decisive blow.

Both the Society's detractors and its members were already beginning to call it the Neo-Mu'tazilite School, but this was something of a misnomer. The Rational Society accepted the central Mu'tazilite premise that God was knowable through reason and that His essence could be divined outside the context of revelation, and it also accepted the Mu'tazilite cosmology and the theory of atoms. On the other hand, it was far more forgiving toward those in a state of sin, whom it regarded as part of the Muslim faith despite their flaws, and it did not - yet - challenge the authority of the sharia.

Nor, although the members of the Rational Society counted Spinoza's works among their inspirations, did they follow Spinoza's teachings blindly. They had learned the philosopher's lesson well, and believed that nothing was immune from challenge, including the works of their teacher. The Society's founder, Ismet Celer, had already fired several broadsides at Spinoza on the matter of predestination, and his defense of free will against the Jewish philosopher's arguments had been widely circulated in the Ottoman realm and Europe. [FN2] For all that, however, Celer and Spinoza respected each other, and their disagreements were the jousting of colleagues rather than the clashes of enemies.

And both their stars would ascend together, for on October 25, 1689, Fazil Mustafa Pasha, a reformer and a member of the Kprl family, was appointed Grand Vizier. The interregnum had ended, and for the time being, the liberals had won. So it was that when the new Vizier set about the task of reforming the army and the state, two of the men he consulted were Ismet Celer and Baruch Spinoza.

Fazil Pasha's program was far-reaching. He purged the officer corps, reformed military training and shifted responsibility for supplies from private contractors to a government department. He made an aggressive effort, if not an entirely successful one, to root out corruption in the civil service. He increased the autonomy of the Christian and Jewish millets, whose international connections were useful for the empire's trade. And, most critically for Spinoza and the Rational Society, he determined that the imperial court should promote learning and the useful arts. [FN3]

It was during one of their consultations that Spinoza mentioned an admirable innovation that was practiced in the American provinces of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania - common schools, where all boys could learn their letters. He pointed out, as well, that this would not be the first time that public schools had existed within what was now the Ottoman realm; after all, Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach had decreed more than seventeen hundred years before that all male children be taught to read, and had established primary schools for that purpose. Finally, he urged that Constantinople have a university like the great schools of Europe, where the sciences and the useful arts could flourish. [FN4]

The Grand Vizier's response was to appoint Spinoza and Celer as joint ministers of education, and charge them with the task of establishing a university and a system of common schools in the capital. Although Spinoza had always shunned political office, he readily accepted this task as a labor of love. The first schools - simple, one-room affairs in formerly abandoned houses - opened by the spring of 1690, and, with Saltiel watching over his shoulder, Spinoza was careful to provide patronage to all the influential parties rather than hiring teachers exclusively from the Rational communities. [FN5] The university was somewhat harder - natural philosophers were in relatively short supply in the Ottoman realm, and many European scholars had no wish to serve the Sultan - but some needed to put distance between themselves and angry lords, and others could be had for a price. Celer, for his part, taught some of the medical classes himself and sent men throughout the empire to recruit scholars of medicine, theology and law. Slowly, the university took shape; it was small at first, hardly worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Oxford or Heidelberg, but it would grow.

On October 25, 1690, the Ottoman army retook Belgrade. Far more important to Spinoza, however, was the fact that the university of Constantinople opened for classes on the same day.

[FN1] Some accounts give his title as Suleiman III, and refer to Suleiman the Magnificent as Suleiman II.

[FN2] In this, the Rational Society is following the Mu'tazilite philosophy rather than Spinoza's.

[FN3] IMO this program is in character for Fazil Pasha, who was an aggressive reformer in OTL. He actually did, or attempted to do, all the things listed above with the exception of promoting education, and IMO he could be convinced to do that in an environment where Constantinople is a center of philosophy. He'll have to avoid going too far, though, and the taxes necessary to fund schools in the capital won't sit well with the peasants in the hinterlands, both of which are likely to cause trouble ahead.

[FN4] In OTL, there were no universities in the Ottoman Empire until 1900.

[FN5] Actually, it's likely that Saltiel took care of hiring the teachers and never told Spinoza where he was getting them.

Last modified: Fri Dec 6 12:29:03 GMT 2002