Friday, July 26, 2013

Bessarion to Bessarion: The Cardinal's Disillusionment with the West

Imagine you thought you'd spent your entire life in the service of others trying to save your country from the threat of annihilation and slavery. Believing cooperation with an enemy you share religion with was preferable to the one you don't, you had labored to unite your coreligionists in the West to work together and crusade against your enemies before it was too late. However, all your efforts were for naught when the capital of your country and your adopted home was seized and enslaved by your enemies without hardly any of your coreligionists you've been cooperating with blinking an eye. Because of the strategic importance of your country's capital, the enemy can now spread quicker and quicker with fewer impediments. Like dominoes, successive kingdoms fall to your enemy and your attempts to warn your coreligionists in the West of the dangers have been mocked and ridiculed. Even though you once were a candidate for Pope, people call you crazy for your attempts to mobilize an army against your enemy and stem their spread. Now years later, in spite of your efforts your most prominent ally has suffered a major setback at the hands of the enemy in Greece leaving the door wide open for him to invade Italy. And yet few people seem to care.

This is the story of the cardinal Bessarion, a Greek scholar from Trebizond, who spent his life trying to save the decaying Byzantine Empire from the onslaught of the burgeoning Ottoman state. He was a key scholar and patron at the beginning of the Renaissance, who taught Greek to Westerners when that language was still seldom known in Western Europe, and assembled one of the world's largest collections of Greek manuscripts. The debt that Western society owes him intellectually is great because without his efforts and inspiration, a great number of the Greek works Western society loves and cherishes might otherwise have perished.

This letter that follows is a unique piece of Bessarion's correspondence with his friend Bessarion. Unlike much of the published Greek correspondence we have from the time, this is a relatively unpolished Latin piece detailing Bessarion's disillusionment with the Western world he came to live in to facilitate Greek and Western cooperation. In fact, Bessarion's Latin ghostwriter would not only improve the style and organization of the letter but also deleted its more questionable content before the letter was included in a collection meant to convince Westerners to join a Crusade against the Turks. The letter was published in John Monfasani, “Bessarion Latinus” Rinascimento 2.21 (1981) 196-201. Republished as item II in Byzantine Scholars in Renaissance Italy: Cardinal Bessarion and Other Emigrés (Aldershot: Variorum Reprints, 1995).

Stylistically, I have tried to render idiomatic English above all. Because this letter was sent to a friend, I have also tried for a more familiar style. And now the letter!

The cardinal Bessarion sends his greetings to the venerable father, the master Bessarion of the Benedictine order, the company of Saint Justina, and abbot of San Severino in Naples.

1. I was in the middle of lamenting the misfortune of Christianity and the cruel rout at Negropont , when your letter was delivered. Reading what his Royal Majesty says about his favorable disposition toward maintaining the Christian faith, as you write, I breathed a sigh of relief for a little bit. I sincerely hope he does what he says. However, I’m afraid that if we are left to our own vices, we will suffer even worse and crueler things by delaying, waiting on each other, and casting the blame on other until we face the final onslaught. Wretched Christians! Blind Italians! Come on, Bessarion, let’s get out of this time,[1] God willing, or let’s fly away from this area to another. Let’s not just wait for the Turk to invade Italy. He has it in sight, believe me. He’s doing it. He’s striving after it. He desires it. How I wish I was a false prophet! But, as painful as it is, he will take Italy unless the Italians get their act together >sometime soon, unless they join together and bravely resist him with all their forces under one banner and put aside all their fictions and excuses that they claim are just along with all the inane banter, to be honest, and attack the enemies of the Cross with their forces.

2. Some time ago, Byzantium stood upon the edge of a knife.[2] None of the Italians sent aid.[3] They thought it was somebody else’s problem. They wrongly believed that it did not pose any danger to themselves. But there were those who realized after suffering so many misfortunes because Christian dominions were reduced to Turkish domination, such as the people of Trebizond, Sinope, Mitylene, the Peloponnese, Mysia, lower Pannonia, Epirus, and the best part of Illyria. And now even the dominion of Euboea[4] and the Karamanids. Why? Because they didn’t want to help Constantinople out with fifty thousand gold pieces and keep it safe. Because it was lost, all of these places have been lost, which are worth one hundred million of them, though the real number is infinite.

3. What do we care about the Greeks? What do we care about the Mysians, the Illyrians, or the Pannonians? Let them die, they say. What do they have to do with us? It’s fine with us if other people die. Thus, good man, can your liberty be saved. But don’t you see, I say, how when your forces are exhausted (all Christians are your forces) the more feeble and weaker you are, the stronger your enemy will be? And when you finally at some point fight them, it will be a poor person versus the richest, a weak person versus the strongest, an incapacitated person versus the most robust, so that you succumb to them and suffer disgusting slavery.

4. Chalcis in Euboea was besieged, and was taken by force, thrown into upheaval, and wasted by the sword and fire. A massive Turkish fleet wanders the whole Hellespont[5] freely. A Venetian naval force was defeated. It is fleeing, hiding, and giving way. The Turks are ravaging all of the islands there in a frenzy over their victory. They are plundering everything. They are wasting it. They are devastating it. What do they have to do with us? That’s the Venetians’ problem. That’s good what happened to them. It’d be advantageous if they have even worse things happen to them. The rest of us ought to live more peacefully and securely. If anybody is upset over these misfortunes, it’s a Venetian. If anybody favor’s the Venetians, he isn’t anywhere to be heard. Nobody cares at all about it. What disgusting human ignorance! What stupid enmities, which are eating away at their innards, although they seem to be doing that to someone else.

5. Come on, Bessarion, let’s both run away. You are closest to the danger and I am closest. In just a bit, the Turkish navy will be at Brindisi close to Naples and close to Rome. With the Venetians defeated, any land whatsoever can be dominated by sea. They can transport over into Apulia many thousands of soldiers, which they have lots of. They will make incursions into the Neapolitan and Roman countryside. Let’s get out of here, I say, before they seize you and me both. They hate my name and yours because of me, even though I have been responsible for no injury to them (not that I don’t want to, but I haven’t had been able to). I’ve said a lot against them. I’ve explained the danger they pose to us. I’ve foretold it, I’ve begged them, I’ve predicted it, but my words have fallen on deaf ears. It’s not like they lacked the desire to, since they are very much their enemies. They ought to make good on it. Come on, let’s go somewhere else.

6. Wow. Bessarion’s delirious. He’s going crazy. He’s a frigid, cowardly old man. Of course, Bessarion’s not going crazy, Bessarion. You are my witness. You were there with me at Bologna during Easter when that most unlucky messenger brought word of the fall of Byzantium. Everything that followed subsequently I predicted not because of any great intelligence of mine or art of divination, but because it all was obvious to anyone free from private cares and concerns. However, they thought I was crazy and given to flights of fancy. I was the butt of a good number of jokes at that point, as you know. But nevertheless, as painful as it was, everything I predicted happened. Let the people who hear these words beware so the same thing doesn’t happen in the future.

7. But Bessarion is not as cowardly, as some people would like to think. In spite of his lack of weapons, status as monk, and age, he could still exhibit and show greater sprit than some people would believe. Christian princes just have to want to do what they can, what they ought to. Bessarion himself would take the field without arms along with soldiers and well armed fighters for the Cross to seek out hostile forces, and he would take you along with him, Bessarion. But why are they all asleep and fighting among themselves, each wishing for the other’s destruction, laboring for it, and meditating it? Should one Bessarion with another, both physically infirm old men whose strength is broken, resist the Turk, whose power and fury are great, and who hungers for Christian blood?[6] That would be pointless, stupid, and useless.

8. Come on, let’s go somewhere else. Let’s let the princes of Italy take care of it. They have both abandoned us and don’t listen to us at all, even though it’s as if we’re screaming, predicting, and reporting the dangers in front of our eyes from a lookout post. Let’s let the Pope take care of his affairs and the defense of temporal affairs (The faith is after all something Christ, as its founder and propagator, promised he would preserve, which would not be lacking until the end of times). Let’s let the most serene king of Sicily care for and defend his realm. Their affair will be with a nearby, most powerful enemy. Let the people of Tuscany, Liguria, Milan, and Venice see how they are taken care of. There is no love between sheep and wolves. There is no law of friendship between wicked men and Christians. This is not an enemy who can be pacified with gifts, presents, or treaties. He desires to dominate, rule, and command. He desires to subjugate everyone to himself. The enemy will overrun every kingdom. He will easily come to Rome. Blast Italy, blast all you Christians, blast you blind men!

9. Come on, Bessarion, let’s seek out solitude and deserted places. We’ve seen enough of this world. You and I have little time left to live as I’m the older one and you’re the more handicapped. If there way any way whatsoever we could still be of service to the Christian commonwealth, we should obviously stay and keep working for it. But as for me, I have done no good in spite of all the years I’ve spent trying the best I could and my position as cardinal. Although you profit from the sanctity of the regulated life[7], you would profit more from the contemplative life with me in some deserted place, if Christians persist in their fighting. Come on, let’s only live for God and ourselves. He who satisfies the winged creatures of the sky and the beasts of the countryside with his clemency will feed us. It wouldn’t be hard or difficult for divine liberality to satisfy two men for the short time that we have left.

10. Godspeed and pray for the salvation of Christians and myself. Rome, August 5, 1470.

11. The Cardinal Bessarion, bishop of Nicaea with his own hand.[8]

[1] The point isn’t clear in this version of the letter, but in his revised official version this phrase was clarified to say “Accelerandum est, Bessario, ut vel ex hoc saeculo Deo volente migremus in aevum illud sempiternum… [Bessarion, let’s hurry up and either get out of this time, God willing, to that eternal time…]
[2] The Byzantine capital in Constantinople was seized in May 1453 as one of the initial conquests of the Turkish sultan Mehmed II.
[3] This is actually not true. The Venetians were sending aid, but the city fell before the aid could arrive.
[4] Euboea was the island Negropont was located on before it was seized by the Turks from the Venetians as described in section 1 as well as section 4.
[5] The straight between Europe and Asia near Gallipolli and what is believed to be the ancient site of Troy.
[6] The Latin has sanguinem Christianorum anhelanti, lit. ‘panting for Christian blood.’ The metaphor I believe is recalling how a dog pants for food.
[7] That is, living in a monastery and following the rule of the monastery.
[8] Bessarion signs signifying he wrote this himself and didn’t have some transcribe his words.