Saturday, December 6, 2014

Neguin Yavari's "Advice for the Sultan"

Neguin Yavari studied Medieval History at Columbia University. She is Assistant Professor of History and Humanities, Eugene Lang College, The New School, New York.

Yavari applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Advice for the Sultan: Prophetic Voices and Secular Politics in Medieval Islam, and reported the following:
Advice for the Sultan is a study in comparative political thought. This is the central question with which it is concerned: Is the study of political thought in a non–European and non-modern context possible? Or, should a comparative focus in intellectual history be premised upon difference—an illiberal Islamic tradition pitted against a liberal Western one –as suggested by the many advocates of comparative thought? And, does intellectual history become global only after some point in the nineteenth century, when “global” itself is born?

The lens is fixed on mirrors for princes, treatises on rules for governance and exhortations to proper conduct written by counselors and political thinkers of all stripes, using a motley of sources. Hybrid origins and speaking truth to power are salient features of mirrors for princes. Universally, they praise the prince and his wisdom, and proceed to tell him what to do and how to rule. Mirrors guard the secret to good rule, and the formula for a perfect prince. Without good advice, the wise, prescient, strong and vigilant prince will perish, no matter his virtues. What is to be made of a “perfect prince” who cannot rule without good advice? That the paradigm of a perfect prince is upheld and upended at the heart of every mirror poses a devilish challenge, to the prince, as well as to the audience.

Page 99 of Advice for the Sultan: Prophetic Voices and Secular Politics in Medieval Islam looks at advice from Aristotle to Alexander, as collected in a (allegedly) Sasanid text, The Letter of Tansar. The text at hand is a thirteenth-century Persian translation of an eighth-century Arabic translation of a Pahlavi original. The alleged original author, Tansar, was a high priest in the court of Ardashir I (r. 224-40), and the translator an Iranian convert, ‘Abdallah b. al-Muqaffa‘, an influential political thinker of the early ‘Abbasid (749-1258) period. Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ was charged with heresy and executed in 759.
Tansar’s letter is addressed to Gushnasp; a local Iranian prince who had refused to submit to Ardashir’s newly established polity. Gushnasp had presumably spelt out his reasons for defying Ardashir in a separate letter. In his response, Tansar cites Alexander’s history as an exemplum. After defeating Darius and conquering Iran, Alexander wrote to Aristotle to seek his advice on how best to rule Iran. His own instinct, Alexander wrote, was to execute the entire nobility, so as to prevent future mischief. Aristotle responded, “Truly the people of each of the world’s climes are distinguished by some excellence, some talent and some dignity which those of other climes do not possess. The people of Pars are pre-eminent for courage and boldness and skill on the day of battle, qualities which form one of the mightiest tools of empire and instruments of power. If you destroy them, you will have overthrown one of the greatest pillars of excellence in the world...Beware! [T]hat the rule (shari‘a) and religion (din) of fair fame be not erased for the sake of tranquility of mind during this brief span of life, which is unsure and lacks both truth and certainty. Man is but a tale told after him: be then a sweet tale for him remembering it.” Aristotle’s advice to Alexander was to put a number of native princes in charge of the realm. “There will appear among them so much disunity and variance and presumption and haughtiness, so much opposition and rivalry about power, so much bragging and vaunting about wealth, so much contention over degree, and so much ruffling and wrangling over retainers, that they will have no leisure to seek vengeance upon you, and being occupied with one another will not be free to think upon the past.” Alexander returned after fourteen years to conquer Babylonia, never having to face an Iranian challenge. Babylonia succumbed to Alexander, and he to death. They had hardly buried him before civil war broke out among his generals. Then Ardashir, from the house of Sasan, took advantage of the warring generals and united the Iranian lands, killing ninety of them. Gushnasp was spared, ostensibly because of his loyalty to Iranian customs and resistance to Alexander’s successors. The Letter of Tansar evokes the figures of Alexander and Aristotle to augment its own authority, and to promote the agenda of advice. Without Aristotle’s advice, Alexander would have failed to subordinate Iran. He listened to advice, and subordinated Iran, only to succumb to death.

In the vastly popular medieval European mirror, Secretum secretorum, itself based on a ninth-century Arabic original, the story is repeated almost verbatim. The book opens with praise for Aristotle, introduced as a prophet and Alexander’s teacher. An example of Aristotle’s sound advice is his instruction to Alexander after his conquest of Persia. “If you are bent upon killing all of them, and are able to do so by reason of your power over them, you cannot change their climate and their country. Therefore conquer them by kindness and benevolence, and so obtain their love.” The lavish praise heaped on the people of Iran in the Letter of Tansar is missing and the narrative is shortened, but the basic outline of the story is preserved.

The grammar of advice rests on the almost total separation between its purveyor and the symbolic audience. The Greeks purportedly collected old Egyptian wisdom, and the Muslims studied the wisdom of their vanquished predecessors, on whose authority they chose to construct the philosophical edifice of their civilization. In a similar manner, authors of medieval mirrors erected degrees of separation between teachers and those taught. Distance, separation, alterity, hybrid origins and veiled strategies, as well as the pairing of contraries, comprise the commonplace in premodern political thought. How may all that be translated into conceptual idiom? [footnotes omitted]
Learn more about Advice for the Sultan at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue