Anthony Mayer ;  alternative history ;  Jonathan Edelstein's Spinoza in Turkey - Part 13
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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
"I think I have now shown sufficiently clearly the basis of a democracy: I have especially desired to do so, for I believe it to be of all forms of government the most natural, and the most consonant with individual liberty."
-- Spinoza, Theological and Political Treatise, 16:62

Part 13 - Naomi

July 1696 to March 1699

In 1696, the merchants of London appealed to Parliament to rid them of their Jewish competitors in the transatlantic trade. A bill introduced that year proposed to amend the Navigation Act to restrict trade with the colonies to native-born Englishmen or colonists. Although the language of the bill was not specifically aimed at Jews, it would have eliminated all but a very few Jewish merchants from the lucrative colonial trade - and both its supporters and opponents in Parliament knew exactly who its intended target was.

Unlike many similar efforts in continental Europe, the bill failed. The Church of England clergy, unlike the Lutherans of Germany or the Calvinists of Holland, had no particular malice against Jews, and the landed squires who controlled Parliament didn't care who brought the goods across the ocean as long as they were cheap. Indeed, the praise given to Jewish industry and sobriety by the opponents of the bill showed how different the climate was in England than in the Holy Roman Empire or the Italian states. [FN1] Nevertheless, the fact that the bill had been introduced at all demonstrated that the Jewish community of England had grown wealthy and numerous enough to excite opposition, even though it still numbered fewer than a thousand souls.

Spinoza's arrival did nothing to dispel this opposition. His name had been mentioned by members of Parliament on both sides of the Navigation Act debate, with opponents of the bill arguing that any community that included such an eminent philosopher could only enhance His Majesty's dominions. In the eyes of many, this argument was prophetic. The contentions of the bill's supporters, however, proved equally prescient. Many of them had warned that Spinoza's presence in England would bring an influx of other Jewish exiles - and as 1696 drew to a close, events were proving them right. By the end of the year, more than five hundred Rational Jews from the Ottoman Empire had arrived in London; a year later, there would be twelve hundred, and not everyone was pleased to see them.

To some, of course, the arrival of a thousand-odd Jewish refugees was no cause for complaint. Unlike the Dutch immigrants who had founded the local Jewish community forty years before, the Ottoman Jews were tradesmen and doctors as well as merchants. In England, where there were no laws restricting how Jews could earn a living, they took up their former trades, dispersing themselves through the economy and reducing the impact on any one sector. Both as skilled laborers and as physicians, they were in demand; in fact, Sarah de Spinoza, as the only female doctor then practicing in England, attracted a clientele of aristocratic women who wished to preserve their modesty. She was also visited late at night by neighborhood toughs; unlike male doctors, she had learned to sew at the age of four, and she had acquired a reputation as a wizard at stitching up tavern brawling injuries.

The exiles also brought with them news of home. The fortunes of the Rational community in Turkey had changed for the worse, but not as badly as some had feared. The authorities had forbidden the community to rebuild the Rational Synagogue, but they had not closed the meeting halls; they had installed a compliant merchant as governor, but they had not revoked the Rationalists' millet status. The colony in Palestine had generally been left alone; a few of the prominent Rationalists in Safed had been harassed, but the farmers in the Galilee were ignored. The community no longer had the privileges it had been awarded under Suleiman II, but neither did the other Christian and Jewish millets. For the majority of Rational Jews, conditions in Turkey were bearable.

For the neo-Mu'tazilites, they were less so. In Constantinople, the Rational Society's schools and houses of worship had been closed, and some of its leading members had been imprisoned. Many neo-Mu'tazilites had fled to Cairo, where the Society still functioned under the protection of a sympathetic governor. Others, less convinced that they could remain secure in the Ottoman realm, settled quietly in England alongside Spinoza and Ismet Celer. The neo-Mu'tazilites' leading philosopher, who had arrived six months before Spinoza, had been well received in England, earning a living with his medical practice and lecturing by invitation at the Royal Society. In his spare time, he translated the Arab classics into Latin and published an English edition of the works of Omar Khayy m, which would inspire popular tavern songs for years to come.

Spinoza, too, became a familiar figure in English philosophical circles, enjoying the vibrant intellectual atmosphere of London. Among the thinkers on whom he made an impression was a young Scottish doctor named John Arbuthnot, who had recently published a treatise on probability. Although Arbuthnot's acquaintance with Spinoza was relatively brief, it would affect his career profoundly; he would become a brilliant physician and satirist, but his Spinoza- inspired enthusiasm for democracy would one day cost him a position at court.

Spinoza's greatest pleasure during this time, though, was the renewal of his acquaintance with Isaac Newton. The two were frequent guests at each other's homes, talking through the night about a myriad of scientific and philosophical topics. It was during these conversations that Spinoza perfected the idea, first given to him by Leibniz in Hanover, of using the methods of calculus to measure the progress of scientific knowledge. In turn, Spinoza's attempts to reconcile empiricism and rationalism inspired Newton to take up metaphysical as well as natural philosophy.

In time, the student would surpass his master. In his search for a perfect synthesis of reason and science, Newton would ultimately conclude that Spinoza's ideas were backward; in fact, when he published his seminal Dialogue on the Purity of Reason some thirty years later, he would cast Spinoza as his opponent. To the end of his life, however, he would credit Spinoza with inspiring the work that would occupy his later years.

In the meantime, other matters arose to occupy Spinoza's attention. In May 1697, he became a grandfather with the birth of Naomi's daughter Mara. The name was both a recognition of the family's exile and a play on Naomi's own name - "call me not Naomi, call me Mara, for the Lord hath dealt very bitterly with me..." [FN2] For all the irony of Mara's name, however, Naomi was not overly inclined to be bitter about her, and neither was Spinoza himself; during the latter months of 1697, he took as much pleasure in playing with his infant granddaughter as in completing the final draft of The State.

Spinoza's seminal work on government was published in January 1698. It had been almost two decades in the making, and was divided into two parts. The first of these treated the properties of the ideal state, and the second concerned the merits of various forms of government.

It was necessary, wrote Spinoza, to consider the virtues of the perfect state before one could even begin determining the ideal political system. As he had stated with respect to statutes in The Measurement of Laws, the efficacy of different forms of government could be measured by the degree to which societies living under such governments approached the ideal state. Thus, it was necessary to determine what this ideal was before any political system could be measured against it.

After discussing various proclamations of virtues that appeared in the Bible or in classical texts, Spinoza identified a long list of attributes that an ideal nation would possess. Prominent among these were defense against foreign invasion, domestic peace, impartial administration of justice, promotion of trade and aid in the event of catastrophe. It was also necessary, to the greatest extent consistent with these attributes, that a government protect the freedom and dignity of the individual, his right to possess life, liberty and property, and his right to be free of arbitrary rule.

Spinoza then examined the forms of government and constitutional systems that had existed throughout history and determined, to the extent possible, the degree to which they achieved his ideals. Not surprisingly, he concluded that democracy was at once the most moral and the most effective form of government, although he warned that the substance of government was more important than the form; a monarchy could be democratic, while an ostensibly popular government might mask a charismatic dictatorship. However, even democracy had its flaws. As a Jew, Spinoza was well aware that a people could tyrannize a despised minority - and as a student of history, he knew that a people could also tyrannize itself. If checks were not placed on the power of popular government, democracy could easily turn to mob rule. [FN3]

To prevent this, he devised several methods of limiting the power of the government. Among these, as he had once suggested to Locke, was the concept of a supra-legal charter of rights against which laws would be judged, and which could be changed only through long deliberation and the support of a commanding majority. It is likely that this idea, which had been part of Spinoza's political thought from very early on, was inspired by the many instances in which Jewish communities had been granted rights by one ruler only to see them arbitrarily taken away by the next. In order to protect dissenters from the vagaries of history, it was necessary that basic rights be deeply entrenched.

It was also necessary that such rights be enforceable. To this end, Spinoza argued that judgments concerning the constitutionality of laws should be made by a court of men learned in both the civil and natural law, and that this court should also have the power to nullify any arbitrary or unjust government act on the appeal of an aggrieved person. Spinoza also contended that the law should be frequently renewed and re- examined, both by requiring a deliberative process and statement of purpose before a law was enacted and by requiring all laws to be re-enacted every five years. Finally, if requested by a significant number of citizens, any law, or the continued tenure of any public official, could be put to a referendum. [FN4]

The State would prove an enormously influential work, and would have great impact on the political thinkers of the later Enlightenment. Although Spinoza's later works on empiricism and reason were arguably more significant in a purely philosophical sense, it was The State that would have the greatest effect on human society. And its influence would begin much sooner, and much closer to home, than Spinoza would ever have dreamed.

For, by the spring of 1698, Naomi had become convinced that the Rationalists' expulsion from the Ottoman Empire required a response entirely different from settling in London and waiting for a change of government. Where there were arbitrary rulers, there could be no home for Jews; history had shown time and again that even communities centuries in the making could be destroyed in a moment by the whim of a tyrant. It was no use to live at others' sufferance, or to dream of next year in Jerusalem; what was necessary was for Jews to have a place of their own, no matter where and no matter how small.

As a hymnist and poet, Naomi was already a respected voice in the Rational community despite her age. She assembled a society of like- minded Rationalists, and conceived a scheme to plant a Rational colony in the New World, in the western counties of Pennsylvania. William Penn was in England at the time, and in severe financial straits; the cost of his legal defense against treason charges had drained his coffers, and an obstreperous colonial assembly was withholding revenue. Naomi offered to ease his monetary problems by purchasing the unsettled western counties as a proprietary colony, promising that the constitution of the province would be liberal and that Penn's treaties with the natives would be respected. After some persuasion, during which Naomi and her compatriots enlisted the support of Isaac Newton, Penn agreed to the sale. [FN5]

Even with this agreement, however, two obstacles remained. The first - raising the purchase money - was solved by the opportune intervention of Herz Behrens. Naomi had written to him in Hanover informing him of the plan, and - being both a Rationalist and a romantic - he had been instantly inspired by it. As the son of a court Jew and a substantial merchant in his own right, he had access to nearly unlimited funds; he agreed not only to contribute a share of the purchase money but to recruit colonists from among German Jews. A number of the neo-Mu'tazilites in London also learned of the colonial scheme, and pooled their resources to join it; by the autumn of 1698, Ismet Celer himself had departed for Philadelphia to arrange the purchase and warehousing of supplies. Although he did not join the colony, he would never return to England; instead, he opened a medical practice in Philadelphia and became the founder of the great Muslim community of that city.

The second obstacle, and the more difficult one, was to obtain a charter from the King. Even with the help of Newton and other sympathetic members of the Royal Society, this was not an easy task; William and many of his courtiers were highly dubious about the idea of chartering a colony to an odd collection of Jews. Still, religious dissenters - even those who were subject to persecution in England itself - had been granted colonies before; if the Catholics could have Maryland and the Quakers Pennsylvania, then why not the Jews? What finally tipped the balance, though, was not these precedents but the simmering opposition of the London merchants to their Jewish competitors. The King recognized that the failure of the 1696 bill had not removed the underlying discontent, and decided that the continued presence of so many Rationalists in England was not conducive to the peace of the realm. Jews were useful subjects, certainly, but in this instance they might be more useful elsewhere in the King's dominions.

The charter of the Allegheny Commonwealth was duly promulgated on November 25, 1698, and it was a constitution to gladden Spinoza's heart. The governor of the colony would be appointed by the King, but most powers of government would be in the hands of a Meeting of thirty-six members elected by all taxpaying inhabitants. Once a year, an actual meeting of all the freemen of the province would assemble to ratify or disapprove the laws passed by the legislature, and to take up any issues of concern to the people. A charter of rights guaranteed not only freedom of conscience but free speech, and was enforceable by a court composed of nine members elected for life. A majority of six sevenths of the Meeting, or of the popular assembly, could amend the charter or overrule a decision of the supreme court.

To many of the Rationalist exiles, this seemed a reasonable - indeed, a rational - way to end their wanderings. Spinoza, however, learned that just as reason had not been proof against love for a woman or desire for a child, it was also no match for the loss of a daughter. For days, he begged Naomi and her husband to stay in England - but she was Sarah's daughter as well as his, and Sarah herself sided with her daughter rather than her husband. She would not stand in the way of a better life for her child, even if that life would be lived across the ocean. Thus it was that on a vile March day in 1699, Spinoza stood on the docks at Plymouth and watched Naomi and six hundred other colonists set sail for America.

He never saw her again.

[FN1] A similar bill was introduced in OTL, with the same result.

[FN2] Sephardic Jews do not observe the Ashkenazic custom against naming children after living relatives, especially in such an oblique manner.

[FN3] As I mentioned in an earlier episode, Spinoza in OTL believed that democratic government was self-limiting. In the ATL, however, he's had much more experience with practical politics, and his growing empiricism has influenced him to take a hard look at the way government really works rather than simply imagining an ideal state. ATL Spinoza is very much aware that a democracy can be tyrannical.

[FN4] As mentioned in previous episodes, he had suggested several of these ideas in correspondence with Newton and Locke. The State presents these ideas in final form.

[FN5] William Penn's financial problems during the 1690s and 1700s were severe, at one point so much so that he spent time in debtor's prison after being swindled by his steward. In the ATL, the sale of western Pennsylvania to the Rationalists will spare him from that. IMO it's possible that he would seized upon an offer to buy the largely unsettled western counties as a way out of his financial difficulties, especially if the purchasers (as here) promised to respect his principles of government; after all, Pennsylvania itself had originally been an unsettled part of New Jersey before Penn bought it.

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