Sultans, Red Weddings, and Stern Measures

Hard men are sometimes called upon to do distasteful things that the soft and foolish reprehend as treacherous and cruel. Tywin Lannister encouraged Walder Frey to murder guests he’d taken under his own roof and with whom he’d broken bread. Within his own circle, he was unapologetic:

Explain to me why it’s nobler for ten thousand men to die in battle than for a dozen to be killed at dinner.

He’d committed an outrage against all the laws of gods and men, something abominable and unforgivable, but in so doing he’d taken a few lives to save many. In fairness, he was not so disingenuous as to claim he’d been moved by tenderness. He went ahead with an atrocity to end a war and strike down foes that were a grave threat to his family. He didn’t care about the fate of foot-soldiers, either his or the Starks. He did care about the survival of his house and his heirs. His daughter and grandson may gloat but he remained grim, understanding that odium will always attach itself to such treachery but still willing to bear that odium.

There is a dour altruism in paying an awful price to buy life and peace, but that altruism is merely folly if the price doesn’t yield the projected return. The blood is spilled and the price is paid irrevocably and finally; the blessings, however, are all to follow. Will they follow?

The object was to teach his enemies a lesson. Let the Northerners remember what happens when they march against the South. Their failure is assured and the penalties will be dreadful. The induction should be simple and obvious, but different minds may trace the same premises to very different conclusions. In reviewing their disasters and defeats, even the downtrodden will find some excuse, some extenuation, and they are sure that one small correction will lead to victory and the retrieval of their fortunes.

If the vanquished owe their defeat to being outwitted or betrayed, if they can ascribe their failures to bad luck, they will easily convince themselves that this time they’ve learned, this time they won’t make the same mistakes, this time they will win. Only the most daunting and inarguable arithmetic can surely and perpetually dismay a defeated yet still formidable foe that further resistance is futile. Only if they see that they must pit hundreds against thousands, knives against guns, boys against men, will they submit.

Tywin seeks to inflict suffering and loss so bitter that his foes will never dare to face him or his again. Yet men and women feel fairness and unfairness more keenly than good or ill. A solitary animal will want a warm, dry den and a full belly but a social animal will compare his lot with his fellows. Men and women are social animals not solitary ones, and while they want comfort, pleasure, and nourishment, they want to have their due share of these even more. If they have food and shelter, they will still be dissatisfied if others have more for no good reason. They will readily lose some if their rivals lose more.

No true utilitarian can ever be envious but human beings are envious. In our depths, we are more envious than we are covetous. We want more, but we also want our neighbors to have less. If we harbor such rancor for our neighbors what may we be willing to suffer to harm our enemies? We will plunge down into perdition if we can drag those we hate down with us. The winds in Europe blow from west to east, but in the First World War it was the Germans who first unleashed poison gas. Stymied and furious, and giving no thought what they were bringing down on themselves, they broke open the pestilential vials and the cloud of poison crawled over to the French lines. The Allies had hesitated to use so noxious a weapon, but the barrier had fallen, the seal was broken, and from then on, the winds wafted their own deadly clouds into the strongholds of the Germans and held the enemy poison off.

To a rational mind it is the numbers that tell. Poets and boys may want to festoon war with nonsense like honor, but that’s like frilling iron with lace. Shrewd men, hard men, know that it’s resources and money that win wars. Yet to go to war is in itself irrational. Whether it’s because they’re deluded, foolish, or just spiteful, men will hurl themselves to destruction against all odds and all reason. We are too mad and too unpredictable to be so easily cowed or predicted.

It was customary among the Ottoman Turks for the Sultan who’d just taken the throne upon the death of his predecessor to execute every other claimant. These murders were lamentable but they were preferable to the civil wars that would have resulted from the contention of several aspiring Sultans. This custom sacrificed fewer than a dozen to save thousands.

This purge followed every accession and so it came to be anticipated. Mustapha, the presumed successor to Suleiman, the greatest of all the Sultans that had come before and who came after, had been borne by his favored concubine Gulbehar. Yet despite her proven fertility and long-standing affection, she was ultimately replaced in the Sultan’s heart by a newcomer named Roxelana. Roxelana had two sons of her own with Suleiman and she knew that when he died and Mustapha took the crown, they both were doomed. If they were to live, Mustapha must die. Sharing Suleiman’s bed and his counsels, she had many opportunities to bring the father to fear the son as a usurper.

Old and infirm, Suleiman had remained behind in the capital while Mustapha led the armies. As they lay together, Roxelana murmured to him of Mustapha’s great ability and popularity with the troops. Suleiman’s Vizier, a man Roxelana had raised to power, seconded her warnings and reported that the soldiers were more than ready to cast off a Sultan who could barely mount a horse and kept to his seraglio with one much younger, stronger, and already with them in the field. Suleiman became fearful and wondered why Mustapha would squander the most promising seasons of his reign waiting for his aged father to die on his own when his rule might begin at once.

Roused to action, Suleiman gathered a host and set forth. He made camp at Eregli and summoned his son and heir. Mustapha’s friends and followers begged him not to go but he answered that if he were to lose his life he can do no better than give it back to him from whom he’d received it. He obediently went to his father’s pavilion where he was met instead by three mutes with bowstrings and strangled.

Since it had become plain that the question of the succession was to be decided while the Sultan yet lived, Roxelana’s two sons were soon battling. They fought and the cruel and debauched Selim triumphed over the amiable and capable Bayezid. The decision of battle had awarded the throne to Selim and for the peace of the Empire, Bayezid had to die. The fugitive had taken refuge in the court of the Shah of Persia, and after extended negotiations, Suleiman was obliged to pay his arch-enemy an enormous sum for the privilege of executing his own son.


Crito, one of Socrates’ Athenian friends, comes to visit him just before he is to be executed. The purpose of the visit is to make one last attempt to persuade Socrates to run away and leave Athens before the sentence is carried out. An escape can be arranged with little trouble and expense. Socrates friends may be blamed for abetting his flight and may be punished but they are more than willing to accept any penalties. Crito goes further, insisting that he cares little for any such legal penalties but that he fears he’ll be widely censured for allowing his friend to die and caring more for money than his friend’s life.

This introduction grounds the dialogue in time and place, and Crito has mentioned that he fears the bad opinion of most of his fellow citizens. By bringing in the ‘many’ Crito has guided the dialogue into one of Plato’s favorite themes. In the next exchange Socrates establishes that we should hearken only to good opinions and not worthless ones. By the terms themselves, this is tautological and understandably conceded with no objection.

And in the next step, it’s proposed that the good opinions are held by the wise, and worthless by the foolish. He doesn’t say merely that good opinions are wise opinions, and that worthless opinions are foolish opinions, which would be synonymous and again tautological, but slips in the assumption that one set of men hold wise opinions and another set hold foolish opinions. From this, he falls back on another of his favorite devices, and asks if a man who is in training consults all men or a single expert. Crito quickly avers to both these assertions, either because he doesn’t detect that new premises are being put forth without being proven, or because he agrees with them.

It may be thought that some men are wiser than others by proportion. Some men may be wise and correct in half of what they believe and wrong in the other half. Some men may be considered foolish, holding a few wise opinions but most of what they believe is foolish, while others may be wise, correct in most of what they think but still often mistaken. Men are wise and foolish by degree and most fall somewhere in the middle.

Plato’s Socrates will have none of this. He holds that most men are foolish and wrong about nearly everything while only a very few are wise and know the truth. Firm in this conviction, he therefore holds the many in contempt. How then can Socrates love and revere Athens when he despises nearly all of her citizens? Plato answers this difficult question in a curious manner:

Suppose the laws and the commonwealth were to come and appear to me as I was preparing to run away (if that is the right phrase to describe my escape) and were to ask, “Tell us Socrates, what have you in mind to do? What do you mean by trying to escape but to destroy us, the laws and the whole state, so far as you are able? Do you think a state can exist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law are of no force, and are disregarded and undermined by private individuals?”

Socrates says that the commonwealth appears to him, and so he doesn’t merely hear a voice as did Samuel, but he actually sees the commonwealth, and since it speaks to him, we can only conclude that while it is discarnate, it is yet in human form. Readers are prone to imagine a figure towering and majestic like Phidias’ great statue of Athena.

As vivid as this image is, the notion that Athens is something above and apart from her many citizens is a category mistake. Gilbert Ryle described a visitor touring a university, walking by the dormitories, stepping into classrooms, and peeking into offices, who complains that he’s seen the dormitories, classrooms, and offices but has not been shown the university. Similarly the laws and the commonwealth of Athens are nothing more than the many granting powers to the few, all binding themselves by the law, and punishing the one who transgresses that law. The university is a body of people dividing themselves into teachers, students, administrators and staff, each taking on one role in that body and all working in concert. The commonwealth is likewise a body of citizens dividing themselves into legislators, magistrates, leaders, functionaries, taxpayers, and law-abiding private citizens, those in government working within the bounds of the constitution and those in a private station living within the constraints of the laws.

This figure goes so far as to insist on the rights of a parent and a master, claiming that through them his father took his mother and brought him into the world. As to this strangely derived parenthood, men sometimes will bed women even when not legally obligated to do so. As to mastery, Socrates has lived his whole life within the borders of Athens, choosing to obey her laws and abide by her customs when he may have gone away to live in any other state either Greek or barbarian. Socrates may not have been barred from leaving, but as millions of refugees throughout history may testify, every emigrant is by necessity an immigrant as well, and those who flee their homeland may find every border and every shore barred to them. Denied any refuge, they are left to wander the earth or perish.

The flight of talent and capital does serve as a salutary check on misgovernment and despotism, but it should not be the only means of redress. The figure of Athens condemns Socrates’ contemplated flight as the base actions of a slave, trying to run away and breaking the contracts and agreements he made. Yet slaves are held in durance not by will, and it is free citizens who make contracts and agreements, and these are binding on both the rulers and the ruled. If Socrates had been set upon and lynched by a mob he would have been the victim of the injustice of men, but he was tried in a court and sentenced to death, and so he is the victim of the injustice of the laws.

It’s commendable to resist unjust laws, and it’s allowable to flee their penalties, but the object is not to flout these laws but to overturn them. If it is Phye and not Athena who has appeared to Socrates, he has a duty not merely to disobey her but also to expose her. It is better to suffer injustice than to perpetrate it, but it is also better to end injustice than to resign oneself to it and condemn others to follow and suffer the same fate.

Beethoven, Pluratch, and the Status of the Artis

There are some significant passages at the beginning of Plutarch’s Life of Pericles.

`Nay, many times, on the very contrary, when we are pleased with the work, we slight and set little on the workman or artist himself, as for instance, in perfumes and purple dyes, we are taken with the things themselves well enough, but do not think dyers and perfumers otherwise than low and sordid people.

And a little further on:

Nor did any generous and ingenuous young man, at the sight of the statue of Jupiter at Pisa, ever desire to be a Phidias, or on seeing that of Juno at Argos, long to be a Polyclitus, or feel induced by his pleasure in the poems to wish to be an Anacreon or Philetas or Antilochus.

For Plutarch and his age, the creator of the beautiful was a mechanic, fellow to Snug the joiner, Quince the carpenter, and Bottom the weaver. However lovely his handiwork, he was simply a drudge, albeit a skillful drudge. The highest and the only truly worthy object of human reason was a political and military career. The noblest spirits were those that advanced their state in preeminence and power. The hero exerted himself for his own tribe, city, or country. Everything he accomplishes was in spite of other tribes, cities, or countries and he could only succeed by the defeat of these competitors. The aim was for the enrichment and the security of the state. He can win victories in the field, bring back spoils from other lands, foil enemies foreign and domestic, and safeguard public virtue. An advancement of all humanity together was never imagined. Hesiod’s fives ages of mankind ran from good to bad. Every change was a fall into something worse and the ideal constitution was one that was immutable. Lycurgus made a constitution for Sparta and having drawn from the citizens a vow never to change it until his return, he went off and starved himself to death. Wholesale change could end only in broils and disorders.

For our own age, Brasidas, Lysander, and Demetrius the Besieger are not considered particularly admirable yet we do concede their martial and organizational abilities. Pericles is esteemed not because he made war on Sparta but because he made Athens beautiful. It is the Parthenon not the Peloponnesian War that is his legacy. If the Age of Pericles was Ancient Greece at its height, Phidias was its pinnacle.

Beethoven may have been the idol of Romanticism but he was ever a child of the Enlightenment. For the Greeks and Romans, genius was a tutelary and personifying spirit, an effulgence of a man’s talents and destiny. However bright, it was still his own, his representation, a shadow of light not of darkness. The Romantics made it not a personification of an extraordinary individual’s capacity, but that capacity itself. And it was no longer simply his, but something beyond merely human, something preternatural in its origins and its reach. It was a channel to the very Godhead. If Plutarch denigrated the artist in a manner that sounds crass and boorish to our ears, Romantic adulators like Bettina Brentano lifted them up above our mortal sphere. Fraulein Brentano’s two greatest idols were Beethoven and Goethe and she imparted to posterity an intriguing anecdote about her two demigods.


As they were walking together, Beethoven and Goethe crossed paths with the empress, the dukes and their cortege. So Beethoven said to Goethe: Keep walking as you did until now, holding my arm, they must make way for us, not the other way around. Goethe thought differently; he drew his hand, took off his hat and stepped aside, while Beethoven, hands in pockets, went right through the dukes and their cortege, barely miming a saluting gesture. They drew aside to make way for him, saluting him friendlily. Waiting for Goethe who had let the dukes pass, Beethoven told him: I have waited for you because I respect you and I admire your work, but you have shown too great an esteem to those people.

This story is most likely apocryphal, but in its etymology apocryphal means revealing. And this little incident, fictitious or factual, is revealing. While Beethoven may not have in fact spoken these words, he almost certainly would have agreed with them. He set a great store by himself and his gifts, but this regard also imposed tremendous demands upon him. His talent was a solace and a joy, but never an entitlement, and it was equally a burden and a duty. As a child of the Enlightenment he believed that progress was possible. He believed in its possibility and he looked for its realization. In the French Revolution, he felt that he was witness to the fulfillment of these hopes. The Revolution plunged into slaughter and horror and it seemed that Plutarch was vindicated. In Napoleon, Beethoven and his fellow horrified yet still hopeful dreamers believed that they’d witnessed the end of the Revolution and the beginning of something new and better. The Revolution had been an ending, a tearing down, and that sad chapter was now closed. A new chapter is now opened and a new order is now established upon the earth. Napoleon takes power, there is peace in the streets, bread in the shops, a better code of laws in the books, and reforms that had baffled generations pushed through in the blink of an eye.

In another probably apocryphal anecdote, Beethoven had named his Third Symphony the Bonaparte Symphony, but when Napoleon had himself crowned emperor, he struck off the title and renamed it the Eroica. He renounced the constant for the variable. Political office isn’t needed to advance the cause of humanity and in Metternich’s Vienna it seems rather an opportunity as well as an injunction to arrest it. It is the creator not the ruler who will lead. He still believed in progress and he was convinced that his music and Goethe’s and Schiller’s poetry could light the way for everyone. From nearly the beginning of his career he’d dreamed of doing something grand with Schiller’s Ode to Joy and in his Ninth Symphony, he realized that ambition. Goethe, Schiller, and he were the explorers, plunging ahead into the promised land. The scouts will return and recount the wonders they have seen and they will guide kings, prime ministers, princes, dukes, farmers, midwives, fishermen, children, and even emperors across the Jordan.

Federalist Seven

In the last paper, Hamilton had argued that republics will not be above attacking other republics, as they often have in the past, and that a United States broken up into smaller pieces will be afflicted with frequent wars between those States. From the general he passes into the specific, and enumerates the causes of these quarrels: territorial, commercial, financial, and legal.

Down through every age of history except our own, nearly everybody kept themselves alive by farming. Only a very few followed any profession besides agriculture. Despite the great numbers working the land, the rude and inefficient methods used to till the land yielded very little food. Hunger was the norm and famines came often and regularly. As there weren’t going to be any great improvements in livestock or the soil itself, nearly every strong back was already in the fields, and the science of agrinomics hadn’t advanced a step in centuries, the only means to get more food was to win more land to be sown. But farmland isn’t the only kind of territory coveted and fought over. Some land contains minerals like copper, tin, iron, and coal. The Philistine’s kept iron out of the hands of their foes and man’s lust for gold is legendary. If the land is useless and barren, it may still be desirable as a buffer any invader must cross.

The States strung out along the Atlantic seaboard knew there were vast territories to the west. Although these were barely explored and were already inhabited, they hadn’t gone unclaimed. In projecting their boundaries the States did so in lines not line segments, their borders stretched into infinity, and the reaches enclosed within these latitudes became a prize to be squabbled over by surveyors and legislatures. Until Lewis and Clark the colonists never suspected how huge these lands were, and how utterly alien they were from the east in climate and terrain. The narrow belt they’d traversed had been green woodland crossed north to south by manageable mountain ranges worn down to hillocks by the scouring of hundreds of millions of years. They had no notion of the dry, jagged lands that lay to the west of this pleasant fertile ribbon. Should they succeed in stretching to the Pacific, even New York and Pennsylvania will have to take in an area many times their own size, and these oceans of grass and expanses of towering mountain and searing desert are completely unsuitable to their way of life. They little imagined how much the territory for which they were clamoring exceeded their appetite and how little it might suit their taste, but they knew what lay over the next ridge, more green forest where trees can be felled for timber and lands cleared for farms and settlements, and they wanted it for themselves. The Crown and then Congress had formerly adjudicated these endless disputes, but in the absence of an overreaching authority the states will have to resolve these land disputes among themselves, and this must lead to violence.

As children born into the age of the airplane, railroad, and combustion engine, when gargantuan metroplexes and megalopolises sprawl over thousands of square miles of landlocked prairie connected to the wider world by skeins of interstates and intercontinental airports so huge they’d have been mighty cities in an earlier century, we can scarcely imagine how profligately geography favored the maritime states and how heartlessly it robbed their inland rivals. The greatest of the Atlantic ports, the richest and most privileged of all these heiresses was Hamilton’s own New York. Airports are the work of man, but the deep-water ocean ports upon which earlier generations depended, were entirely the whim of nature. New York owned the greatest of these deep-water ports and this harbor flowed into a mighty river plunging into the heart of the continent. There’s a joke that whether you’re going to heaven or to hell, you still have to change planes in Atlanta. Yet with enough work and money, an airport just as huge can be built anywhere, and airports nearly as large can be found in Dallas and Chicago. Yet no amount of labor or expenditure can bring New York Harbor or the Hudson River to Kentucky. This enormous and insuperable advantage was not lost on the merchants of Manhattan or the farmers of the interior. Hamilton knew his beloved New York was different from the rest of the nation and that greed on one side and envy on the other would inevitable put it into violent collision with the rest of the country.

In relation to commercial advantages, he adverts to New York by name:

The opportunities, which some States would have of rendering others tributary to them, by commercial regulations, would be impatiently submitted to by the tributary States. The relative situation of New-York, Conneticut, and New-Jersey, would afford an example of this kind. New-York, from the necessities of revenue, must lay duties on her importations. A great part of these duties must be paid by the inhabitants of these other two States in the capacity of consumers of what we import. New-York would neither be willing or able to forego this advantage. Here citizens would not consent that a duty paid by them should be remitted in favour of the citizens of her neighbours; nor would it be practicable, if there were not this impediment in the way, to distinguish the customers of our own markets. Would Conneticut and New-Jersey long consent to be taxed by New-York for her exclusive benefit?

Everything useful or fashionable that Americans can’t make for themselves, and at this stage there is very little that Americans can make for themselves, must come in from Europe. And to come in, it must come in through New York, and there tariffs, duties, imposts will be added to the price, and that price must be borne by those who buy these goods when they finally reach the markets of those places not blessed by one of the greatest natural harbors on the planet. New York cannot be duplicated and can only be seized. Such a robbery is not unthinkable. When Russia consisted only of Moscow and the wintry forests surrounding it, the tsars wanted an ocean port above all else, and this drive to the sea involved one irruption after another to the west and to the south, one war after another with Sweden and Turkey.

The disadvantaged farmers and laborers of the west and the south have one means to revenge themselves on Manhattan, the colossal national debt. Wars are expensive, especially for puny, fledgling republics and the national debt presently borne by all the states in common, is enormous. Many states shall happily repudiate this debt. This will ruin the national credit and all Americans will be considered liars and defaulters. American perfidy will be the despair of the great banks of London. The farmers of North Carolina, Georgia, and New Jersey who grow nearly everything they eat and make nearly everything they use, who bring their excess crop into town but barter as often as sell, little care what the magnates of London think of them. If defaulting on the loans taken out by all the states together ruins the merchant princes of Manhattan, all the better. These merchant princes will be naturally averse to ruin, and they will plead for the timely repayment of these obligations, trumpeting duty and honor when they are really urging their own interest. Both sides will be selfish and both sides will be partly rigth but this debt will be the source of bitter contention and these quarrels may ultimately be decided on the battlefield.

Since Appamattox, the states have more and more become administrative prefectures but when Hamilton was writing they were more like sovereign nations, proud, touchy, and bigoted sovereign nations. The inhabitants of one State frequently detested the inhabitants of the next, and the legislators of each State were made up of these same inhabitants and not always the best of them. They were not above willfully, and even gleefully, passing laws aimed at vexing, annoying, even beggaring the natives of another State. The fortunes and interests of people in what was so recently one single nation are so closely connected and intertwined that the livelihood and well-being of nearly any citizen can be blighted by malicious measures originating in a city that was formerly a town just over the state line but has now become a foreign capital. Without an overarching judiciary to strike down such mean-spirited laws in the name of constitutionality, equity, or just plain decency, there is no redress for those persecuted by the edicts of the next State over. Grievances that can’t be sorted out peaceably and sensibly usually result in wars.