Socrates and the Duke of Earl

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 08-30-2020
It’s a "well-known fact" that much of what we have of the great Greek and Roman philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, historians and playwrights came to us via the Islamic civilization.
Except it wasn’t really that easy. 
While some of these great works and great thoughts were translated into modern languages inside the courts of the Sultans, many simply languished in those courts. Much of what we have today of the great Greek thinkers, as well as much of what we have from Plato (and thus Socrates) comes to us from perhaps several scores of scholars who journeyed to Constantinople in the late 1300s and throughout the 1400s - many after it had already fallen to the Ottomans (1453) - and purchased the right to “dive” through the ancient library and uncover scrolls and manuscripts that hadn’t been touched in years; centuries in some cases. They copied them and then returned to Renaissance Italy and translated them.
And who paid for all this? Princes with big egos and big dreams. Men like Giangaleazzo Visconti, of Pavia, first Duke of Milan (no more of royal birth than Gene Chandler, the title was conferred on him by the Holy Roman Emperor because Milan had become the richest city in Italy under his rule). For nearly 200 years the leading figures of Italy, and later to a lesser extent France, Spain and Germany, tried to outdo each other by sponsoring scholars, artists and architects to build, paint, sculpt, translate and write, in the hope that they, the princes, would achieve some sort of immortality through these efforts. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, Petrarch, et al, flourished because these princes funded them, often out of shear vanity. But fund them they did.
Still, it took centuries for much of what was learned or uncovered in the Renaissance to “take root” even in Italy, never mind the rest of Europe. Simply put, making change, making progress, creating modern thought, was difficult and routinely bumped up against the plans of others. Sometimes, they needed to fight, other times they needed to compromise. 
The city-states of Italy moved in and out of alliances with each other, with the Pope, with France, with Spain. The ones who knew when to compromise, when to stand firm, when to send out a noble and pay a hefty ransom, when to make a deal with another city-state and a prince they loathed, they survived. Others were less flexible, and they often didn’t fare as well.
If those who were trying to make things better weren’t willing or able to compromise, as often happened with the princes of this or that city in Italy, progress of a century might be lost in a matter of a few days, as a city was conquered, castles were looted, libraries were burned, scholars were killed - and ideas died. 
So, compromise is as essential in survival as knowing when to fight, both politically and physically. Consider what might have happened in 1776 if the 13 colonies had not held together. And again in1787 in the drafting of the Constitution. There were a hundred ways the Colonies might have come apart. They didn’t because the leading figures of the day kept making compromises, they kept bending a little, giving a little here, taking a little there. 
Alternate histories have infinite uncertainties, but in this case it’s fairly obvious that without those compromises there would have been no independence, at least not in the 1700s or early 1800s. What that would have meant over the next 100 years is impossible to tell. But there would have been changes. And there would have been missing that political climate that fostered what became truly unprecedented industrial, economic and scientific growth. All we need do is look at what took place in the other British Crown colonies to recognize that there was something taking place in America that was different from the rest of the world. That political Renaissance (and economic and scientific Renaissance) would have been lost. And with it much of what we now know as freedom might well have been lost as well.
What might have been gained? Who knows? It’s quite probable that emancipation of the slaves in what is now the United States would have taken place sooner. Great Britain abolished slavery in most of its territories in 1833 (parts of India under the East India Company retained slavery until 1843). 
Would there have been a war over such an action? If the slave states had fought as violently against the British in the 1830s or 1840s as they did against the Union, they might have won, as England in 1833 was still financially strapped after a generation of war (1793 - 1815) with France and might not have had the wherewithal for another bloody war, particular as they were trying to gain control of India and much of Africa. And thus, perhaps there would have been no emancipation in the 1800s. 
Certainly, the northern colonies would have had a different level of commitment to the war than they did in 1861.
In the real world, the real political battles between Webster, Clay and Calhoun throughout the middle of the 1800s perhaps aren’t good material for a rap song, but they kept this country together, kept the political renaissance moving forward, despite all the forces that might have destroyed it. 
Do we wish there was another answer? Certainly. It would have been wonderful to end slavery without a war that killed 700,000 people and economically devastated the nation. But at least the war ended with the nation intact. That was not a given.
Only a few people seem to remember Clay, Webster, or Calhoun these days. In a few more generations they’ll be as forgotten as the Duke of Milan. But the lesson we can learn from them, the one that many in Congress, beginning with the Speaker, and to include most of the media, fail to recognize, is that compromise is a necessary part of any state and any political system. And the drive by the Speaker and her party, and her allies in the media and academia, to make this nation a one party state, one unwilling to compromise on their pet ideas, is destructive of our political system.