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Counsel against thirst for power

Posted in Greek, Medieval, Reading by Alex L. on March 12, 2009

In the Republic, Plato warns us that the pursuit of power and prestige leads to suffering, injustice, and perhaps even death. Living – as some of us are – in comfortable homes and safe neighborhoods, one easily forgets that Plato’s advice is very pertinent to real life. One need only to look at history at some of the most famous cases of worldly ambition to see that striving for power often meets the grizzliest of ends. One such example is that of Beyazit I, an early Ottoman sultan who was also called Yilderim (“Thunderbolt”) because of his notorious spurts of anger. He set out to do what no former Muslim ruler could up to that point – capture the jewel of the eastern Roman world: the city of Constantinople. He came fairly close. The Byzantine empire was fragmented and weak. Beyazit had just crushed at the battle of Nicopolis (1396) an alliance of western European armies sent to thwart the Ottoman advance. Constantinople was for the Thunderbolt’s taking. Beyazit himself was to fulfill a prophecy of Muhammad that a blessed Muslim ruler and army would capture the ancient capital, ensuring his place in history as a hero of Islam. But then, Beyazit’s prize was snatched from his hands and he himself would meet a bitter end. The armies of Tamerlane, one of history’s most famous conquerors, swept in from Central Asia and invaded the territory of the Ottomans. At the battle of Ankara on July 28, 1402, Beyazit’s armies were defeated and he was captured by Tamerlane. Here is how Stephen O’Shea describes Beyazit’s fate in Sea of Faith:

“The Thunderbolt was not as lucky – taken prisoner, he was carted around in a litter, which later legend made into a cage, as Timur sacked the cities of northwestern Turkey that the sultan’s ancestors, Osman and Orhan, had conquered. Apparently, during this campaign Beyazit’s lovely Serbian bride, Olivera [by whom “he was, by many accounts, deeply smitten” when he was getting to know her], was relieved of her clothes and forced to serve, stark naked, at the table of the great Mongol. Beyazit, dejected and humiliated, died the following year” (252, 245).

Hearing about Beyazit’s life, Plato’s advice rings truer. He would have us be like his Odysseus in the Myth of Er at the end of the Republic. For Odysseus – who is in Hades having to choose a new life for himself – “the recollection of former tolls had disenchanted him of ambition, and he went about for a considerable time in search of the life of a private man who had no cares; he had some difficulty in finding this, which was lying about and had been neglected by everybody else; and when he saw it, he said that he would have done the [same] had his lot been first instead of last, and that he was delighted to have it.”

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3 Responses

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  1. Katie said, on May 13, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    “which later legend made into a cage” –see if you’re not nice, stories come back (er… go forward…) to haunt you and make you look even worse. Legend villains don’t get much in the way of extenuating-circumstances backstory. 🙂

  2. historyjournalblog said, on May 21, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    So true! Great men who seek to be remembered for all time are at the mercy of the historians of future generations.

  3. […] Though Kissinger will most likely die a free, wealthy, and respected man (unlike the Ottoman sultan Beyazit, whose ambitions led to a degrading demise), if he was guilty, he still serves a sentence no […]


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