Monday, May 21, 2007

Plato and Polybius, Saint Francis of Assisi, Richard the Lionheart, Emperor Frederick and "Eurabian" history

"Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance. Where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor vexation. Where there is poverty and joy, there is neither greed nor avarice. Where there is peace and meditation, there is neither anxiety nor doubt."
The Counsels of the Holy Father St. Francis, Admonition 27

Political The
ory Today, and a Century Ago

In the days since the man HL Mencken referred to as the "Archangel Woodrow," re-elected on  his promises to "keep us out of the war," took it upon himself to impose an end to  senseless and stupid European family feuds, giving self-determination to those ethnicities who lost the war, but not to those whose governments who won the war, or perhaps more accurately had lost that bloodbath less badly, the Western understanding of the ideal form of government has radically changed.

Plato, a Greek philosopher known for his works on politics and laws, identified six different forms of regimes. He concluded that the ideal form of government was the rule of philosopher-kings, but that, human nature being what it is, humanity's lot is to go through cycles in which the weaknesses inherent in every form of government lead to its replacement by a different new form of government. (The inherent weaknesses were such that Plato concluded that the inevitable cycle was an ouroboros of political scientists.) Polybius went him one better, and suggested the idea of a "mixed regime" in which regimes try to counterbalance the different forms of governments in such a way that the various strengths of the different forms augment each other. Until 1917-18, the Western world was a lot closer to the rule by anointed philosopher kings than it is today. Europe had five empires (British, German, Habsburg, Ottoman, Russian,) sundry monarchies of various flavors, and a few republics, preeminent among them the French Republic.

France had oscillated between the most monarchical and most republican governments with an amazing frequency; consider Louis XIV roi soleil (absolute monarch), Louis XVI (guillotined liberalizing king), Robespierre (guillotined republican), Napoleon (exiled emperor), Charles X (exiled king), Louis-Philippe (deposed liberal king), Napoleon III (exiled emperor), the Third Republic (overthrown republic), the undemocratic Vichy Regime (overthrown authoritarian state), the fourth Republic (overthrown republic), de Gaulle (democracy led by a strong man), the Fifth Republic (democracy).  Canada was part of the British Empire, as were various islands such as Bermuda, Jamaica, and more.  England had gone through a republican phase, whose legacy lived on resentments in Ireland and Republicans in Massachusetts and the rest of the United States. In short, had you journeyed from San Francisco to Vladivostok the long way in 1912, the only unabashed republics whose soil you would have crossed would have been the United States and France.  Had you in 1914 been of the opinion that democracy was the only tolerable form of government, the most charitable response you would have elicited was that that the inevitable eccentrics who help define and enrich the human condition, like the amateur political scientists who in the 1990s concluded that the United States' annexation of Texas was legally invalid, and reestablished the Republic of Texas, elicit.

America's Mixed Regime

While the text books that American political scientists must consult during their periods of indoctrination unanimously and emphatically declaim that the United States is a constitutional republic, a closer look at American realities reveals that the American polity does have elements of a mixed regime. One of the most obvious was the fair city of Chicago under Mayor Daley the Elder, where rumor has it that the city elders extended the right to vote not only to the indigent and ignorant but also to the deceased, and even more graciously, to those who had already exercised their right to vote. "Vote early and vote often" they said. Things being as they were, His Honor was consistently reelected; today his son has the honor. This isn't to criticize the arrangement; part of the implicit bargain offered the electorate was that there never was even a whiff of corruption surrounding Mayor Daley personally, nor was there any doubt that Daley père was faithful to his wife. While some bewailed the somewhat undemocratic character of the Daley years, there is no doubt that Mayor Daley was correct in asserting that "We shall reach greater and greater platitudes of achievement:" today Chicago prospers while Detroit, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, which enjoyed more democratic forms of government, don't.

The Change in our Understanding of Regimes

Only after the rank folly that was the First World War, and the orgies of sadism that were Bolshevism and and National Socialism, did the consensus come to be that democracy was the best, or perhaps least unattractive, form of government. I rue not the end of those regimes that sent their men to die by the millions, in the name of "God and Country." The first obligation of any government is to the well-being of its people; any regime willing to sacrifice its youth for the careers and egos of its elders is illegitimate. One of the problems inherent in empires and monarchies is that if the emperor or king is a senile or demented and slaughters or abuses his subjects, there is not that much subjects can do to stop them. In France, on the other hand, after more than a million of France's twenty million men had fallen in the field, more than fifty divisions mutinied. More than 20,000 men were tried in courts martial; pictured is a ceremony pour encourager les autres. Nivelle, the French commander was replaced by a new commander unwilling to let the British and Americans fight the Germans to the last Frenchman, and the French army didn't involve itself in offensive operations for the next year. The same commander was retrieved from retirement and put into high office a second time in 1940, after the Maginot Line had fallen, and the French army been soundly beaten.

The only emperor, in fact the only political leader, who consistently sought to end the carnage that was World War One was Blessed Charles of Austria, who also happened to be the only statesman to regularly visit the soldiers fighting at the front.  He also was the only political leader in that war to forbid his armies to use poison gas. After the German army had made it clear it would not accept any peace proposal, he sought to reach a separate peace with the Allied Powers, alas without success. One of my heroes. Even noted socialists, not generally known for praising monarchs, have been known to publicly and unequivocally declare that Charles, Emperor of Austria, and King of Hungary (pictured above) was the only decent person to serve as head of state during those years of slaughter.

Divide et Impera! or How to Get and Stay Elected

One of the less pleasant aspects of a democracy is that it is generally easier to rally voters around shared hatreds that are often all too clear than around shared dreams, which by their very nature are also frequently somewhat vague. Witness the raw racism all too prevalent in the old Confederacy after its voters were deprived of their right to vote, and only the previously disenfranchised and carpet-baggers could vote. Witness the odious race-baiting that helped bring the National-Socialists to power; remember Bush père's Willie Horton advertisement with its racial overtones, etc, etc. This isn't to say that undemocratic forms of governments don't have their flaws - they certainly do - but that theirs are different; in some ways better, in some ways worse. For an ambitious and immoral politician the ideal bogeyman to wave in front of the electorate is one that inspires fear and loathing, and either doesn't exist, or can't fight back. Attacking adversaries who can't defend themselves is an old trick, but it is bogeymen who don't exist that are a demagogue's dream, for the simple reason that in politics solving any real problem requires compromises that entail expending political capital. Inventing, and then solving, non-existent problems allows demagogues to craft solutions that cost them no political capital but redound to their friends' benefit and usually their enrichment, while at the same time winning them the acclaim and gratitude of the dolts in the electorate, even though the remedy doesn't serve said dolts, and indeed usually is to their detriment.

There are many resentments that demagogues use in their attempts to forge coalitions; those of the left generally tend to incite hatred of the rich, the talented and the authorities, those of the right generally foster the hatred of the poor, slothful, untalented, and unfortunate. Another old standby, of which both the right and left have availed themselves, are racial animosities, spoken and unspoken, sometimes even disingenuously denied. It seems to me that some present day politicians have fallen to this temptation to campaign not against an enemy but rather an ethnicity or culture; the point of this long, perhaps somewhat ponderous, introduction is to write of leaders in earlier times who interacted with their Muslim enemies at a time when the "West," whatever that exactly is, was at war with the "infidel" or Muslim world.  Ideally I would supply my reader with copious footnotes, references, and further suggestions for reading; I can, alas, only offer but a bare outline of what I think is a fascinating topic.

Francis of Assisi and the Crusades

I trust that the basic outlines of Francis of Assisi's life are known to my
readers; the abandonment of a life of luxury for that of a mendicant friar, the founding of an order, and more.

Fewer people are aware that Francis of Assisi thought that the Fifth Crusade was an unjust war, and that the only way to end the fighting was to convert the Muslim Sultan (commander) Al Kamil to Christianity by nonviolent means. To do so, he traveled to Egypt, and obtained very reluctant permission from Pelagius, the hapless Cardinal the Pope had charged with leading the crusade, for him to cross behind enemy lines and preach the Gospel, which Pelagius was sure would cost Francis his head. Francis went forth nonetheless, and soon found himself talking face to face with Al-Kamil, pleading for peace and explaining his faith. In Shari'a law proselytizing is a capital offense, and soon the Muslim theologians to whom Francis had explained his beliefs wanted to see him lose his head. Al Kamil, impressed by Francis's character and life of poverty, refused, telling Francis that it would be an injustice to punish him for what he clearly believed to be an act of charity performed at great risk to himself.

Nevertheless, Francis found himself unable to convert any Muslims and equally unable to end the war to which he was opposed. In fact, he would have liked to convert some of the crusaders, of whose attitudes he heartily disapproved, to Christianity. Pelagius unwisely turned down the offer of a cease-fire, and Francis decided it was time to travel on. Declining expensive farewell gifts from his friend Al-Kamil, which only further impressed Al-Kamil, he left for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Richard Lionheart tries to Betroth his Sister to Saladin

Richard I, King of England, (1157-1199) was also known as Richard Cœur de Lion or Richard the Lionheart, was the son of Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine, one of the most memorable women of the Late Middle Ages, who had previously been married to Louis, King of France, until they were mercifully granted an annulment. Richard inherited extensive holdings in France including Aquitaine and Normandy, Maine and Anjou. He spoke fluent French and Occitan, (a language spoken in southern France) and made a name for himself with his contributions to Occitan poetry. As King of England, he spent but a few months on English soil, preferring to take part in the Third Crusade and defend his French realms.

Richard invaded Sicily to settle a dispute within the family, occupied Cyprus, which was to serve as a base for the Crusaders, and then advanced to Jaffa, where he realized that he didn't have the men and weapons necessary to conquer Jerusalem. As this realization sunk in, he sought a diplomatic solution to attain his goals. He parlayed with Saladin, the Kurd who was the Muslim leader, and Al Kamil's uncle. One proposal was that Saladin's brother marry Richard's sister, but Richard's sister would marry no Muslim and Saladin's brother no Christian. It is an irony of history, into which a few undoubtedly read too much, that Saladin and Saddam Hussein shared the same hometown.  In any event, never again has a King of England offered to betroth his sister to a son of Tikrit.  Richard and Saladin agreed that Jerusalem would remain in Muslim hands, but that Christian pilgrims would be free to enter it to visit their holy places, and King Richard began his long (and tortuous) journey home. Richard the Lionheart is not forgotten in the Arab world; because he had several thousand Arab prisoners slain to this day misbehaving Arab children are urged to mend their ways, lest King Richard come looking for them. In England, where Richard spent but a few months of his reign, but let the efficient administration his father had set in place run its course, taxing England to the bleeding point to fund his adventures in the Middle East, his personal bravery is not forgotten. He is remembered as "a bad son, a bad husband and a bad king, but a gallant and splendid soldier."

Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Rome, Conqueror of Jerusalem

Another truly interesting historical figures from those days was Frederick II (1194-1250). Among other titles, he was the King of Italy, Germany, Burgundy, Rome and Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick was the scion of a German royal family, that of the Hohenstaufen, his maternal grandfather though, was a Norman.

A man of great learning, he was said to speak nine languages, among them Italian, French, German, Arabic, Latin and Greek, and understand another seven; he corresponded with Leonardo of Pisa, aka Fibonacci, one of the greatest mathematicians of his day, founded the University of Naples in 1224 (Thomas Aquinas and Giambattista Vico were alumni), sponsored some of the earliest Italian poetry (in the Sicilian dialect) at his court in Palermo, regulated medical practitioners working in his realms and more. Frederick was known for wearing Arab garb at his court in Sicily, and refusing to expel the Saracens (Arabs) from his domains. In fact, like Francisco Franco, whose bodyguards were Moors, Frederick employed Saracens as his bodyguards; among other advantages, being excommunicated by the pope or the threat thereof worried them not one iota.

Frederick had his problems with the papacy, which at the time was as much a political as a religious institution.  Being the Pope's neighbor all but guaranteed difficulties; one Vicar of the Prince of Peace went so far as to try to have him assasinated. Frederick was excommunicated for delaying his involvement in the crusades, and then embarked on one without the Pope's blessing, which got him excommunicated a second time. After time on Cyprus, Frederick proceeded to the Holy Land, where, rather than fight, - his army was too small anyway - he found himself negotiating with Al-Kamil, who was keen to fight other enemies who he deemed greater dangers. A compromise was reached, Jerusalem but for the Muslim and Jewish holy places was turned over to the Crusaders, as were Bethlehem, Nazareth, and more. It was the first crusade since the First Crusade to be successful, and the first not to end in a bloodbath.

Similarities, and differences, with some contemporary political leaders and their antics may be apparent.

Books: I greatly enjoyed, and highly recommend, Donald Spoto's Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi

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Anonymous said...

A good article. But remember, the Saracens really were trying to conquer the West, and they really were (and are) infidels. If you read William Thomas Walsh's "Characters of the Inquisition," you will see that Frederick II was a rather evil man, particularly in his heterodox religious views.

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