Anthony Mayer ;  alternative history ;  Jonathan Edelstein's Spinoza in Turkey - Part 12
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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
"How hurtful to religion and the state is the concession to ministers of religion of any power of issuing decrees or transacting the business of government."
-- Spinoza, Theological and Political Treatise, 18:40

Part 12 - Mustafa and the Janissaries

June 1692 to April 1696

Baruch Spinoza's Defense of Common Schools was published in June 1692. Common Schools was one of a number of pamphlets on practical government and religion written by Spinoza between 1692 and 1694, informed by his experience as governor of the Rational millet and minister of education to the Sublime Porte. Although Spinoza had often discussed practical politics in correspondence with other philosophers, these were his first attempts at political commentary outside the context of the Jewish question.

The great majority of these pamphlets are regarded today as minor, even pedestrian works, mere rehearsals for The State. Whatever his other talents, Spinoza was not a good practical politician, and these works betray a lack of understanding of the behavior of human beings in organizations. Although Spinoza's political treatises of the mid-1690s show a remarkable degree of idealism for someone who had spent a decade navigating the tricky waters of the Ottoman court, they added little to the political knowledge of the day.

The exceptions, as may be expected, are the two pamphlets that concern education, a field in which Spinoza's practical talents were considerably greater than in other areas of government. Of these, the most often recalled today is The University, published in early 1693. This treatise originated as a long letter addressed to Gottfried von Leibniz, refuting some of his arguments against academic specialization. Among the great polymath's peculiarities was a dislike of universities and the compartmentalization of knowledge that came with them. Spinoza's response was a gentle reminder that the sum of human knowledge was rapidly growing beyond the capacity of a single mind, and that scholars could often advance learning better as masters of a single field than jacks of them all. Moreover, at a university, great minds could be concentrated so that it would be possible for them to exchange ideas through conversation rather than correspondence, and benefit more easily from advances made by others.

In the published volume, an edited version of this letter was accompanied by an essay on the structure of the ideal institute of higher learning. This essay was noteworthy for its advocacy of academic freedom, arguing that universities should be completely secular institutions and that the research and writing of professors should be restricted by neither church nor state. He was also one of the first to articulate the concept of the research university, stating that the ideal university would set aside modest facilities for natural philosophers to experiment, build machines and advance the useful arts. During Spinoza's tenure as rector of the University of Constantinople, he lacked the resources to do so in any but a minor way, but the concept would influence the programs of the great European universities in the centuries after his death.

Common Schools was also an advanced work for its time. It is little quoted today, both because more comprehensive arguments for public education were made by later educators and because it became a victim of its own success; it is unnecessary to make the case for public schools when nobody argues against them. Nevertheless, at the time of its publication, Common Schoolswas among the most forceful works that had yet been written in support of free public education. Common schools, according to Spinoza, made students more capable of participating in affairs of government and religion, and strengthened their faith by bringing its principles within their understanding. They would also instill in the youth the values of the state, make students more useful in their craft, and render them less vulnerable to the wiles of "Frauds, Quacks, Sophists and Demagogues."

Possibly the most unique aspect of Common Schools was its relation of public education to the position of the Jewish people, both in its historical background and its arguments. In support of his contentions about the benefits of common schools, Spinoza traced the history of public education, mentioning not only the public schools of the Carolingian Bishop Theodulf of Orleans and contemporary New England but also the primary schools of Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach in Hasmonean Judea and the boys' academies that existed in nearly every contemporary Jewish quarter. [FN1] It was these schools, he argued, that accounted for the fact that Jews were tolerated and even courted in lands that despised them. "The Jew has no natural advantage over the Christian or the Muslim in mental faculty or the capacity to invent," he wrote. "It is his learning that has won him a place at the courts of sultans and kings."

If Christians and Muslims established public schools, Spinoza argued, many more of their children would become famous doctors and philosophers. Although court Jews would no longer be needed in this event, the result would nevertheless be beneficial for the Jewish community, because education would "eliminate the unnatural Prejudices that men hold against their Neighbors." Although the hypothesis that public education would destroy prejudice against Jews would ultimately prove, at best, half- true, it had the effect of turning Jews into the strongest advocates of free public education for all. This tendency, which marked Jewish communities for the next two centuries, would display itself as early as the New York Common Schools Controversy a decade later, in which several of the pro-education candidates were elected by Jewish votes.

For the time being, though, the public schools of Constantinople were fostering prejudice against one particular Jew: Spinoza himself. Although Spinoza and Saltiel endeavored to operate the schools as cheaply as possible, the expense still resulted in an increased tax burden for the Ottoman subjects. Many provincial citizens were, quite naturally, displeased at paying additional taxes for a program that only benefitted the residents of the capital and might never come to them.

This discontent was only fueled by the general malaise that seemed to overcome the empire. The cultural flowering in Constantinople could not hide the fact that, during the last two years of Ahmed II's reign, the Ottoman realm went from disaster to disaster. The fortunes of war, both against the Austrians and the Venetians, took a turn for the worse, and the Turkish armies were again driven from Hungary and a number of Greek islands. Pestilence swept through several major cities. And disaster struck even in the capital, in the form of the fires of 1693.

There were two of these, and they struck one after the other, the second raging just as the city began to clear the damage from the first. In all, five thousand homes were destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed. The Rational Jewish community was not spared; hundreds perished, and at the height of the second fire, the Rational Synagogue went up in flames.

Much of the remainder of 1693 and 1694 was spent in rebuilding. The site of the Rational Synagogue was cleared, but the house of worship was not rebuilt; in a rare exercise of his power over millet funds, Spinoza decreed that the synagogue would not be restored until pensions had been paid to the widows and orphans and housing had been found for all the families made homeless by the fire. In a community whose funds were already depleted by war taxes and the decline of trade, this took many months.

The sense of impending disaster was, however, broken by a few bright spots. One of these was the marriage of Naomi in January 1695 to Yonatan ben Mordecai Adi. [FN2] Her wedding was remarkable not only as an excuse for celebration in the midst of crisis but for the unusual marriage contract signed by the newlyweds. Not only did the ketubah contain the standard monogamy clause [FN3], but it forbade the husband from interfering with his wife's education or pursuit of employment. It was clear that Sarah had played a part in drafting the contract, although there was some speculation about whether Adi had agreed willingly or whether he had simply been too scared of Sarah to object.

But all the dancing and celebration at the wedding could not stave off catastrophe much longer. As 1694 turned to 1695, the grumbling of the Janissaries grew louder, and reactionary imams increasingly preached against the public schools and the influence of modernity and rationalism. Matters came to a head soon after the death of Ahmed II in February 1695. The immediate catalyst was a rumor that the Grand Vizier was plotting to take advantage of the new Sultan's inexperience by concluding a humiliating peace with the Venetians and Austrians. The rumor was untrue - the new monarch, Mustafa II, had done nothing more than order the vizier to open negotiations - but it spread like wildfire through the capital and the Janissary regiments.

Had Ahmed II still been on the throne, he might have been able to quash the sedition, but the new Sultan was still untried and not yet able to command the loyalty of the troops. Within two months of his accession, rioting broke out in Constantinople, and many of the troops sent out to suppress the rioters went over to their side. On the first of May - the fourth day of the riots - a coalition of Janissary generals and radical preachers took power in a bloody palace coup. Mustafa was allowed to remain on the throne, but the Grand Vizier was beheaded, and many senior counselors also lost their lives.

Fortunately, Spinoza was not one of them. Like many other Rational leaders, he had taken the onset of rioting as a signal to flee the city. By the time the Grand Vizier's head was displayed atop the gate of the Topkapi Palace, he was well away from Constantinople. By the end of the month, he had arrived at Smyrna, but he would not stay there long. With their goal accomplished, the new powers at the Sublime Porte had no desire to spread the bloodshed outside the palace precincts, but they could not tolerate such a powerful and articulate Rationalist in the empire. On the fifteenth of June, a message reached Spinoza informing him that he and his family, along with thirty other prominent Rational Jews and neo-Mu'tazilites, were banished from the Ottoman realm.

Spinoza's journey into exile was a year-long processional through Europe. Taking ship from Smyrna, he sailed to Livorno, a city whose Jewish merchant families had long-standing commercial ties to the Ottoman Empire. There, he stayed at the home of a wealthy member of the local Rational community, lecturing in private homes as he had done during his first years in Constantinople.

Spinoza gave some thought to remaining in Livorno. The city had a thriving community of five thousand Jews, several hundred of them Rationalists, and they lived as Jews did nowhere else in Italy. In Rome, Florence and even Venice, the Jewish communities were confined in ghettos and made to wear badges, but the Jews of Livorno retained the rights given to them by Grand Duke Cosimo I in 1591. Not only were they allowed to live anywhere in the city and dress like ordinary citizens, but they could own land, bear arms and obtain academic degrees. Livorno seemed a pleasant enough place to wait for the winds of Ottoman politics to change, but the mystical currents were stronger there than the Rational ones, and the rabbis began to agitate against him. Spinoza had no wish to be expelled yet again, so by early September, he was once more on the move.

He landed at Marseilles as summer turned to fall. Theoretically, no Jews were permitted in France outside the duchies of Metz and Lorraine, but the anti-Jewish laws were rarely enforced any more; wealthy Jewish merchants from Germany and even Turkey visited Paris on business, and the court of Louis XIV included marrano advisors whose real religion was an open secret. Although Spinoza's presence in the kingdom was technically illegal, nobody barred his way, and he was even invited to speak at the salons of educated Parisians during his visit.

Nor did anyone bar his entry into Amsterdam. Here, too, he was still under a decree of expulsion from both the religious and civil authorities, but few were interested in enforcing it after thirty- five years. For the first time in more than three decades, Spinoza visited his father's house, and had an emotional reunion with the love of his childhood, Clara Marie van den Enden. She was now sixty and married to a prominent physician, but Spinoza marveled at how like Sarah she was, and how he might once have been satisfied with a life at her side. Not for the first time, he wondered what sort of life he might have made if he had been allowed to stay in the Netherlands, and whether it would have turned out for the better or the worse. With such bittersweet memories at his back, he made his way to Hanover.

As Spinoza later wrote to Locke, it was the land journey to Hanover that brought home to him how far his people still had to go. In most cities of the Holy Roman Empire, Jews were confined in ghettos or forbidden entirely from entering. Spinoza's party was permitted to enter certain towns only after paying a body tax for each person equivalent to the toll charged for an ox. [FN4] In many of these same cities, the Hofjuden lived in virtual palaces and ignored the restrictions that bound their brethren, but it was still the Middle Ages for the great mass of German Jews - and Spinoza was just another Jew to most of the people he encountered.

He arrived in Hanover in December. "It was uncanny," he wrote, "the way my welcome changed." Duke Ernst August - now an Elector, thanks in no small part to the influence and money of Leffmann Behrens - invited him to court, and granted him a patent exempting his family from the laws regarding Jews. He spent long hours in conversation with Leibniz, the Elector and the Electress Sophia, the last of whom also welcomed Sarah and Naomi warmly. He taught at the Rational school, stayed awake long nights scribbling notes for The State and his theories on the social calculus, and felt like never before as if he were among kindred spirits.

But the weight of the Middle Ages bore too heavily upon him; although it did not affect him directly, its ghost was present in the air around him. In April 1696, he received separate letters from Ismet Celer and Isaac Newton, both inviting him to stay in London. His parting was not without regret, but it was a decision easily made; he bade leave of Hanover and set out for England's free soil.

[FN1] In the few political works written by Spinoza in OTL, he was quite willing to test and prove his theories by citing historical examples from biblical Israel and contemporary Europe. This tendency is especially apparent in chapters 16 through 20 of the Theological and Political Treatise. This is one of the traits that, IMO, makes it plausible that a longer-lived Spinoza might have been influenced by empiricism as he has been in the ATL.

[FN2] Adi = jewel = Edelstein. It's important to make sure that any character named Naomi makes the right match.

[FN3] Unlike Ashkenazic Jews (who had been forbidden to engage in polygamous marriages by Rabbenu Gershon in the tenth century), Sephardic Jews at this time were permitted to have more than one wife. However, by the 17th century, it was common for Ottoman and Italian ketubot (marriage contracts) to contain a clause forbidding the husband from contracting a second marriage.

[FN4] Moses Mendelssohn described a similar humiliation in OTL.

Last modified: Fri Dec 6 12:29:24 GMT 2002