Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Scarcity, contingency and flaw

The unholy trinity of inescapeable conditions of human life that John Kekes frequently mentions.

I thought of them while listening by audiobook to Thomas Madden's 2012 Venice: A New History
, a really fine piece of accessible but thorough historiography. I take it inductively, as a portal through which to re-read the history of the eastern Mediterranean world. Venice, which I've had the good fortune to visit twice, turns out to have been a quite extraordinary city-state, a maritime and mercantile enclave, far more creative and consequential than I had imagined. It was the only republic in Europe for 1000 years.

But over and over, events spiral out of control --that seems to be their nature-- and disaster ensues. Since Venice started to come into existence in the 5th century, precisely to escape the dangers and turmoil of the dissolving Western Roman Empire, it had a long time to experience the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as well as the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

What sparks this post is Thessalonika, the Greek city to which St Paul wrote two of his epistles.
We are in the 15th century in the book. Shortly before the fall of Byzantium in 1453 the Emperor desperately tried to save Thessalonika from the Turks by selling it to Venice. The Venetians took over this Greek city with quite a lot of noble attitudes: they brought security, lots of food, and they respected the independence of the Orthodox Church and the institutions and civil rights of the town.

But the Greeks found the Italians too cocky and they didn't like the food. They complained bitterly and regularly to Venice, which responded with extraordinary indulgence. Nevertheless, the upshot was that when the Turks finally attacked the town, the Greeks not only refused to help defend it but betrayed it to the Muslims. For which the Sultan rewarded them by slaughtering and enslaving them. The Genoese, long rivals of Venice, helped the Muslims take down their Christian brethren. A few years later, Mehmet the Conqueror, head of The Religion of Peace, finally captured Constantinople, with the usual slaughter and rape and enslavement and destruction, and final remnant of ancient Rome was gone, a thousand years after Alaric sacked the original city on the Tiber.

Empires come and go. Such seems to be the iron law of history. And the meanest flaws in the human soul seem to flourish precisely when their opposite virtues are most needed.


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