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.”
There are events in the past – a few days, hours, or minutes even – which determine the course of history for centuries to come. This statement is banal without adding to it an appreciation for just how arbitrary those fateful moments are at times. On the whim of a general or the passing mood of an army or the momentum of herd mentality, the course of a country’s future can be decided. One such event occurred at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 AD. For five-hundred years prior to the battle, Muslims had shared the Iberian peninsula with Christians in a relationship that ranged from tolerant to brutally violent. At the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, the Muslim armies were delivered a death blow by the Christian Spaniards united thanks to the saber rattling of Pope Innocent III. Christianity would become the dominant religion in Spain to this day as a result of the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. But for a few desperate moments on Monday, July 16, 1212, the path of Spanish history hung in the balance. Stephen O’Shea in Sea of Faith writes:
“The day seemed to be going for the caliph. Battle standards wavered in the dust and shouting, as the Christians desperately tried to hold their ground but seemed poised to desert en masse. From his vantage point atop the Mesa del Rey, King Alfonso is supposed to have turned away from the disheartening spectacle and said to Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, ‘Archbishop, let us die here, you and I'” (226).
The outcome of the battle turned out quite differently. A group of Christian knights from the rear guard thundered into the battle and, almost inexplicably, broke through and routed the whole Muslim army. And the confessional geography of Spain would never be the same again.