Peace, Reciprocity, and the Discourse of Reform in Late Eighteenth Century Ottoman Didactic Literature
Menchinger, Ethan L.
University of Toronto Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Ottoman reform literature written during and immediately after the 1768-1774 Russo-Turkish war can be viewed as a transition point in a "discourse of reform" which took place within the empire. An examination of the writings of two statesmen, Ahmed Resmi Efendi and Ahmed Vasıf Efendi, reveals the extent to which some contemporaries felt the traditional Ottoman worldview had become obsolete.
Peace, Reciprocity, and the Discourse of Reform in Late Eighteenth Century Ottoman Didactic Literature. Menchinger, Ethan L. . Lethbridge Undergraduate Research Journal. Volume 2 Number 2. 2007.
For an event generally considered a catalyst of Ottoman reform, the 1768-1774 Russo-Turkish war has itself been curiously neglected as a topic of inquiry. Apart from its use as a “delineator” of decline, a staging point for discussion of the “Eastern Question,” and limited work on Ottoman adoption of European military technology, few studies using Turkish sources, none comprehensive, exist. 1 Defeat, it seems, is inglorious; the importance of the war's legacy in the thought and writings of contemporary Ottoman statesmen has therefore yet to be fully explored. What can be ascertained, however, is that personal experience of this crisis caused in some a repositioning of the nature of governmental reform, best exemplified in the didactic works of Ahmed Resmi Efendi and Ahmed Vâsıf Efendi. Drawing on their involvement in the failed war effort, Resmi and Vâsıf broached novel conceptions of peace and diplomacy tantamount to a challenge of the traditional Ottoman worldview of the “Sublime State” (devlet-i aliye) and “Ever Expanding Frontier.” In this way both men can be seen as marking a transition point in internal governmental criticism – a new stage in the discourse of reform within the empire, which would fully emerge in the last decade of the eighteenth century.
Ottoman statesmen in the eighteenth century – Resmi Efendi and Vâsıf Efendi included – were products of a centuries old system of education and bureaucracy that found singular expression in the term osmanlı. To be “osmanlı” connoted many things simultaneously: allegiance to the dynasty, membership in an elite group schooled in a synthesis of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish learning, and devotion to the perpetuation of Islam and the state (din-ü-devlet). 2 Classically, this followed upon a conceptual political bifurcation between producers (reaya) and a military ruling cadre (askeri). The latter served as guardians of the former, thus maintaining prosperity, revenues, and establishing a theoretical raison d'etat based upon the defence of Islam through upholding Holy Law (şariat) and perpetual war on non-Muslim states (cihad). 3
During the eighteenth century the osmanlı no longer comprised a single identity, however. Several elite groupings solidified, the military, men of religion (ulema), and chancery officials. Moreover, the highest positions in the empire came increasingly to be occupied by scribal functionaries like Resmi and Vâsıf, at the expense of military men. 4 These cleavages demarcated career and often ideological differences; as certain sectors of the elite became disenfranchised, losing authority to the central bureaucracy, they grew more vocal in defence of traditional prerogatives and mores. For this reason, some scholars perceive a dichotomization between “conservative” ulema and military men on one hand, and those from the scribal class more amenable change on the other. 5
The notion of “acceptable criticism” was of long standing in the Ottoman bureaucracy, yet until the 1768-1774 war largely adhered to the traditional state ethos. The problem of early advice literature's historicity notwithstanding, tracts such as those of Koçu Bey and Kâtib Çelebi attempted to ascribe maladies within the Ottoman body politic to divergence from the ethical and social foundations of the empire. 6 While encounters with superior European technologies and military tactics led some early eighteenth century authors to counsel learning from the west, and indeed assimilation of such ideas, their language still couched reform in terms which presupposed the continued efficacy and superiority of the old system. Of these, İbrahim Müteferrika may justly be credited with issuing the most original work. A diplomat, in 1731 he published an essay explicitly prescribing imitation of successful Christian armies, maintaining that, of all causes, tactical ill-preparedness was the primary reason for Ottoman defeat in warfare. 7 Müteferrika's contributions to reform literature demonstrate a worldliness unseen previously. Still, his logic – martial reform to re-establish martial predominance – is in certain continuity with older treatises, especially in that he does not question the twin theoretical supports of din-ü-devlet, şariat and perpetual cihad. 8
Didactic literature, as stated, represented but one aspect of a struggle to reconcile the Ottoman worldview to changed international circumstances. At the opposite pole, a substantial cross-section of society militated against change or innovation. Whether in reaction to what they perceived as a threat to their status or from sincere piety, these individuals often expressed themselves in less literary modes, most especially through uprisings in İstanbul that became a leitmotiv of the eighteenth century. Disturbances in 1730 and 1740, for example, unfolded similarly – in response to internal and external stresses, alliances of ulema, lower ranking military servitors, and students formed to oppose the “subversion of Ottoman society by Europe” they believed imitation engendered. Usually these conservatives favoured an aggressive foreign policy. 9 Yet it must be emphasized that the tension surrounding greater exposure to Europe was in no way “uni-oppositional” nor even fixed along religious lines. As Robert Olson has demonstrated, these revolts consisted of layered alignments, proving fluid and related to complex sets of interests more than has heretofore been granted. 10 Likewise, it would be erroneous to presume ulema response was necessarily oriented a priori against reform. European techniques and technologies affronted the sensibilities of many, however during the period men of religion faced the difficult task of weighing political exigency against şariat. Their dilemma came to be articulated in the phrase “al-darurat tubih al-mahzurat” – necessity permits what is prohibited. 11
The experiences of Resmi Efendi and Vâsıf Efendi during and after the 1768-1774 war bound them directly to this reform dialectic, and thus their own writings represent an extension (one could perhaps even argue an intensification) of the process. There is little need to reassess the underlying causes of hostilities, yet it is certain that a vocal element of the military, populace, and ulema assumed a belligerent attitude and even openly demonstrated in favour of a declaration of war. 12 Despite recurrent defeats and provisioning difficulties, the government's approach to peace was dictated by pressure they exerted. Initial attempts at negotiation in 1771 and 1772 unravelled specifically over Russian demands that the Crimean Khanate be made independent, a contravention of canonical law and humiliating prospect. 13 After the final treaty, signed at Küçük Kaynarca, affairs in İstanbul furthermore continued to be dominated by factions supporting peace and war respectively. The Ottoman government wavered between seeking to revise and implement the terms of Kaynarca; policy shifts were determined by contestation between reformers and conservatives abetted by a large, disorderly contingent of Crimean expatriates. 14 Vâsıf himself relates that upon the formal loss of Crimea in 1783, intransigence was so strong that only lengthy debate could dissuade many officials from embarking on another costly war. 15
In such a volatile milieu it is worthy to record the parallels in Resmi and Vâsıf's careers. Trained chancery scribes both, they served in positions on the front lines between 1771 and 1774, witnessing some of the conflict's major battles and events. 16 Resmi Efendi, for example, the Grand Vezir's secretary, negotiated and signed the Treaty of Kaynarca as First Plenipotentiary in 1774. 17 It is thought he fell out of favour subsequently due to this role in authorizing what many considered a shameful treaty. 18 Ahmed Vâsıf, meanwhile, had also been instrumental in gaining an end to hostilities, helping secure an armistice in 1772, renewing it again later that year, and serving as Secretary to Negotiations at the peace conference in the city of Bucharest. 19 Like Resmi, it is believed that he too lived in post-bellum ignominy. 20
Virginia Aksan's study of Ahmed Resmi Efendi has established the importance of the 1768-1774 war in eroding the traditional Ottoman ideology. 21 It is in Resmi's didactic didactic tracts, two in particular, that one first finds a break with precedent as well as reasoned critique of the old worldview. The first, a layiha (proposal) composed during early peace negotiations in 1772, concerns the nature of state power. Resmi contends that although men are by nature aggressive, war is not always advisable. Lest they be led into misadventures and destroy their prosperity, rulers ought to be content with their territories. 22 His basic assertion, augmented with historical examples, resides in the idea of over-extension. A state venturing outside of its natural boundaries becomes burdened with expenses and suffers declines in productivity, therefore making it vulnerable. 23 The layiha carries immediate and theoretical significance. Firstly, its imputation that the Ottoman state's entry into war was misguided and that peace would have been preferable is obvious. Even more, its total divergence from earlier advice literature is striking. The link between prosperity and continual expansion is entirely absent. In its stead, Resmi substitutes a vision of state power based on restraint and maximal boundaries, a formulation which could be interpreted as an early understanding of the notion of “balance of powers” and which “attacks the two fundamental tenets of the Ottoman system: military prowess and the limitless borders of the Dar-al-Islam [World of Islam]” 24
Resmi Efendi's second pertinent work is a critical excursus on the war and its surrounding events, likely produced between 1775 and 1781, entitled Hulâsat ül-İtibar (Summary of Admonitions). With the stated intent of writing “so that those who come into this astonishing world after us can profit and take heed from examples of the past,” Resmi produced in Hulâsat an interpretation of Ottoman failures and Russian successes 25 which fashions a commentary on the Ottoman ethos at large. The work's discussion of peace is an elaboration of his earlier ideas. Resmi claims that the situation in 1774 demanded surrender, but advances his argument to repeatedly inculcate the desirability of peace over war in all circumstances. 26 In short, lasting peace should be an aim of the state. Sage men will choose security and peace to war even with victory in hand, 27 an assertion supported with many an example from Muslim, Classical, and recent history. In addition, Resmi notes that Christian states and statesmen as a basic principal shun warfare whenever peace is possible, and his use of the Russian Field Marshal Peter Rumiantsev as an example of this 28 must have been particularly jarring to contemporary readers. Taken together, Resmi's topoi of peace and finite territorial boundaries are much closer to the conception of the European state system than to the “Ever Expanding Frontier” of Ottoman lore. Didactically, then, his works, especially Hulâsat, are not only concerned with confronting strictly military obsolescence, but with confronting a greater ideological obsolescence.
Although not technically advice literature, Ahmed Vâsıf Efendi's Mehâsinü'l–Asâr ve Hakaikü'l–Ahbâr should be viewed in the tradition of edificatory Ottoman history writing. 29 The portion of his history covering the war years was begun during his second term as vakanüvis (court historian) between 1789-1791, at the behest of the reforming Sultan Selim III. 30 Unlike typical court history compositions, Mehâsin was not written contemporaneously but instead Selim III charged his author to compile and rewrite the accounts of previous vakanüvises “with clear formulation, un-hypocritically, and without sycophancy.” 31 The sultan paid a handsome emolument, and is said to have enjoyed the work so much he recommended it as instructive reading to his Grand Vezir. 32
For his own part, Vâsıf is regarded as one of the first “critical” Ottoman historians. 33 He freely evaluated the material of his earlier historians, sought causation, and regarded historiography as much a science of instruction as a branch of literature. 34 It must be recognized, however, that Vâsıf's adoption of this methodology rather than the chronicle-style approach used by many of his predecessors permitted him a larger “voice” in the effort, in selecting material, assigning causes for events, and having the benefit of hindsight. Although it is perhaps a more “critical” work, Mehâsin is therefore in no way a dispassionate composition. Given his own role in negotiations, fall from favour, and opportunity to, in effect, rewrite history, it is perhaps not surprising that in the 1768-1774 portion of the text Vâsıf's logical thrust centres upon peace-making. Furthermore, while more nuanced than Hulâsat (which he likely used as a source), 35 one finds in the narrative markedly similar notions of peace and interstate relations which resonate all the more in that they were commissioned by a reigning sultan and therefore represent official state narrative.
Like Hulâsat, warfare in Mehâsin is not a political imperative. Vâsıf's philosophic outlook maintains that mankind is by nature prone to aggression, but though “wars which occur amidst the states from time to time are to be considered an act of God...they are not constant in God's plan.” 36 War is transitory and peace, by extension, is a natural state. Absent also is the idea that conquest through cihad and gaza enhance the state's prosperity. Vâsıf adheres to form, praising Muslim soldiers' heroics, deriding the “hellish infidel,” but with an inclusion of human suffering which makes it feel largely perfunctory. Warfare bred needless pain and destruction, in his opinion; peace, therefore, should be desired over war, and lasting peace should be a goal of the state even when victory is possible. As if to emphasize this point, at one juncture Vâsıf digresses into a debate between the head Russian and Ottoman negotiatiors. When the men wrangle over details, the latter points out that, earlier in the century, on the cusp of obtaining a great victory over Tsar Peter I, the Ottoman Grand Vezir instead offered a treaty, summarizing: “The means to triumph were in his reach, but he didn't lose victory: he chose peace.” 37 In Mehâsin such judiciousness is a mark of wisdom. Indeed, Vâsıf compares acting otherwise to the abstruse mystical teachings of the dervish lodge. 38
The necessity of peace is without doubt Vâsıf's underlying theme, and is meticulously rationalized. Ottoman officials, he contends, were compelled to begin negotiations because the state was beset with bankruptcy and sedition in the army, and had lain heavy impositions on the reaya. Though Russian demands were harsh, circumstances required foreign affairs so inclined. 39 Vâsıf thus takes umbrage with Ottoman vacillation, characterizing as irrational those opposed to peace and, by contrast, the Russian statesmen as “men of sobriety and wisdom.” 40 One Ottoman plenipotentiary, Osman Efendi, is specifically maligned for rejecting Crimean independence, called argumentative, a sophist, and memorably depicted shouting down any opposition. 41 On multiple occasions one additionally finds the claim that peace regardless of terms would have proven “a blessing” or “universally advantageous” to the state, while continued war devastated the land and populace. 42 Peace was, hence, in the best interest, and Ottoman unwillingness to submit initially led to the yet more onerous terms of Kaynarca. 43
In terms of interstate relations, reciprocity and multilateralism – “the comity of nations in exchange and conduct” 44 – emerge as a necessary corollary to the view of peace and peacemaking cultivated by Resmi and Vâsıf. J.C. Hurewitz has noted the gradual integration of the Ottoman Empire into the European diplomatic system was a major event, attributable to reform efforts emanating from İstanbul. In his periodization, the 1768-1774 war falls into a stage of “unilateralism of a contracting empire” whereby Ottoman diplomats were obliged to negotiate, generally from a position of weakness, and had not established continuous diplomatic contact with outside states. 45 Examination of Mehâsin validates this, with some qualification. The text attests to bilateral and multilateral engagement which suggests a clear awareness of the benefits of reciprocity. During early talks Ottoman statesmen readily agree to Prussian and Austrian mediation in order to arbitrate peace terms and gain an equitable settlement. 46 When this is refused, representatives of the two outside states continue to act as go-betweens while Russian and Ottoman delegates fall to direct bilateral negotiations. 47 Vâsıf's narrative of these sessions emphasizes above all else cooperation, the give and take needed to obtain peace, weighing of immediate and long-term state interest, and willingness to make sacrifices, 48 assuming a tone of, as Aksan terms it, “peace amongst equals.” 49
One certain indication of a growing sense of reciprocity can be found in Vâsıf's appreciation for the utility of the “balance of powers” concept. Commenting on Austria's seizure of Ottoman territory in 1774, he laments the failure of European nations to act in concert and contain the aggression and territorial ambitions of neighbours, as such a thing is in the common interest of peace. 50 While it would seem probable this notions is of a later date, particularly the 1790s, when Sultan Selim III instituted fully reciprocal diplomacy and permanent European embassies, 51 from an historiographical standpoint the idea strongly reinforces Vâsıf's overall argument for permanent peace: the annexation occurred because the empire had been weakened by warfare, brought on themselves, and could not resist other states' depredations. 52
Resmi Efendi and Vâsıf Efendi's contributions to the ongoing discourse of reform in the Ottoman Empire are not easily identifiable, nor is the precise development of their thoughts. Experience in unsuccessful war and as agents of peace played a formative role in their lives and prompted them to challenge the traditional Ottoman ethos, yet there is an unmistakable quality of self-justification in both men's writings. The near decade they spent in ignominy cannot be overlooked, and perhaps accounts, in part, for the intensified timbre of their criticism. Still, it remains clear that these views gained adherents. In the early 1780s Hulâsat began to circulate; judging by the large number of extant copies, moreover, it found a fairly large readership. 53 By 1789, then, nearly fifteen years after the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, Vâsıf's commission under Selim III suggests these basic ideals – diplomatic reciprocity and peace as a permanent modus operandi of government – held sufficient currency in the highest spheres of empire to be voiced in the dynastic history. A new Ottoman worldview began to supersede the old, and if the words of a vakanüvis are any indication, reformers in the last decade of the eighteenth century preferred stable “peace amongst equals” to the “Ever Expanding Frontier.”
About the Author
The author is a final year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, majoring in History and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. He has special interest in Turkish language, history, and literature.
1. Virginia H. Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman in War and Peace, Ahmed Resmi Efendi, 1700-1783 (New York: E.J. Brill, 1995), 100. This despite the rich archival sources available in Ottoman Turkish.
2. Redhouse Türkçe/Osmanlıca - İngilizce Sözlüğü (İstanbul: Sev Matbaacılık ve Yayıncılık A.ş., 2000), 903. Redhouse's definition lacks dimension. See Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman, xi-xii.
3. A very concise summation of this theory of class and society may be found in Halil İnalcik, The Ottoman Empire: the Classical Age, 1300-1600 (London: Phoenix Press, 2000), 65-69.
4. Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman, xiv-xv.
5. See Robert Olson, "The Esnaf and the Patrona Halil Rebellion of 1730: A Realignment in Ottoman Politics?" in Imperial Meanderings and Republıcan By-Ways: Essays on Eighteenth Century and Twentieth Century Turkish History (Istanbul: The Isis Press, 1996), 1-4; Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman, xv-xvi.
6. The seminal survey of these works remains Bernard Lewis' "Ottoman Observers of Ottoman Decline," Islamic Studies 1 (1962): 71-87.
7. Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman, 186-188; Sarı Mehmed Pasha, writing in the first decades of the 1700s, allowed for consideration of European ways but advised that degradation of the Circle of Equity accounted for defeat. See Ottoman Statecraft: The Book of Counsel for Vezirs and Governors, trans. Walter Livingston Wright, Jr. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1935), 118-121, 128-129.
8. Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman, 188.
9. Quotation taken from Olson, "The Esnaf and the Patrona Halil Rebellion," 4; see furthermore Olson, "Jews, Janissaries, Esnaf, and the Revolt of 1740 in Istanbul: Social Upheaval and Political Realignment in the Ottoman Empire," in Imperial Meanderings and Republıcan By-Ways (Istanbul: The Isis Press, 1996) 13-3; Olson, "The Ottoman Empire in the Middle of the Eighteenth Century and the Fragmentation of Traditions: Relations of the Nationalities (Millets), Guilds (Esnaf) and the Sultan," in Imperial Meanderings and Republıcan By-Way (Istanbul: The Isis Press, 1996) 55-59. For summaries of attendant political conditions see Stanford Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 1: 239-240, 244-245.
10. Olson, "Eighteenth Century Historiography," in Imperial Meanderings and Republıcan By-Way (Istanbul: The Isis Press, 1996) , 62-63; see also Olson, "Jews, Janissaries, Esnaf," 25-26. Olson makes an argument for "characteristics of multiple confrontation. He sees the similarities present in 1730 and 1740 revolts compelling enough to generalize his findings.
11. Uriel Heyd, "The Ottoman Ulema and Westernization in the Time of Selim III and Mahmud II," Scripta Hierosolymitana 9 (1961): 63-70, 88-89.
12. Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman, 117-123.
13. Ahmed Vâsıf, Mehâsinü'l-Asâr ve Hakaikü'l-Ahbâr, (İstanbul: Daruttıbaailâmire, 1804), II: 223-225, 241-247. [Cited hereafter as Mehâsin.]
14. Alan Fisher, The Russian Annexation of the Crimea, 1772-1783 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 62-63. 153-154.
15. Ahmed Vâsıf, Mehâsinü'l-Asâr ve Hakaikü'l-Ahbâr, yayınlaryan Mücteba İlgürel (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi, 1994) 32-34. [Cited henceforth as Ilgürel].
16. Ilgürel, xix-xxiv; especially Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman, 102-115.
17. Mehâsin, II: 237-247, 305-307
18. Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman, 108-109.
19. Mehâsin, II: 196, 228-232. Bucharest negotiations are related in 237-247; also consult Catherine Woodhead, "Wasif," in The Encylcopaedia of Islam, ed. H.A.R. Gibb et al (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1960) 11:162-163.
20. He is not known to have held any official posting from 1775 through 1783. See Ilgürel, xxv-xxvi.
21. See Chapter IV, "Ahmed Resmi's Post-War Career and Contribution to Ottoman Political Discourse," in Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman, 170-205.
22. As cited in Ibid, 195-196..
23. As cited in Ibid, 198.
24. As cited in Ibid, 198.
25. Aksan summarizes the text and gives a table of contents in An Ottoman Statesman, 109-110.
26. Ahmed Resmi, Hulâsat ül-İtibar (İstanbul: Mühendisyan Matba'ası ), 2-3. Resmi states "Possessors of reason and experience who have learned the precept of being dependent on accord and amitous peace with enemies, as circumstances require, it being the strength and prosperity of world dominion, act by this logical rule. By knowing to reject battle in every instance and always prefer peace to war, those statesmen have come to spare the state...tranquility and security."
27. Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman, 199; Hulâsat, 43-44, 60-64
28. Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman, 199; Hulâsat, 63-64.
29. Criticism of percieved ethical or moral violations by the state formed an integral part of Islamic and Ottoman historiography. The great Naima himself had written: "Historians ought first to inform themselves of what was the divinely ordained condition of any age in history; of how, in a given century, the affairs of men were going forward and in what direction…what were the causes and the weaknesses which were then bringing triumph or entailing destruction." Quoted in Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman, 185.
30. Ilgürel, xliii.
31. Mehâsin, II: 3-4; Translated from Ilgürel, xlv.
32. Ilgürel, xliii, xlv. Vasıf received 5,000 kuruş, an immense amount of money at the time.
33. Woodhead, "Wasif," 163.
34. Ilgürel, xli, xlvi.
35. Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman, 158, n. 221.
36. Mehâsin, II: 196; Vâsıf discusses this at the beginning of the second volume as well, II: 4.
37. Ibid, II: 248.
38. Success and victory are especially fancied to rest in war, and yet there is no doubt tranquility and public security are found in peace. To prefer to imagine certainties and ignore the known - they say this is elaborated in books taken from the practices of those sages who were superiors in the great nakşbendi houses. Ibid, II: 307.
39. Ibid, II: 203-204.
40. Ibid, II: 224-225.
41. Ibid, II: 225, 244.
42. This is asserted during recounting of the collapse of negotiations at Foksani in 1772, again during efforts to re-establish truce, during negotiations at Bucharest in 1772/1773, and finally preceding the Treaty of Kaynarca in 1774. Ibid, II: 225, 231, 243, 305.
43. Ibid, II: 246.
44. mukabele ve mu'amele beyulcamele izhar. Ibid, II: 204.
45. J.C. Hurewitz, "The Europeanization of Ottoman Diplomacy: The Conversion from Unilateralism to Reciprocity in the Nineteenth Century," Belleten 25 (1961): 460-461.
46. Mehâsin, II: 203.
47. Austrian and Prussian ambassadors assisted in setting up a truce renewal in 1772. Ibid, II: 227.
48. See for instance the negotiations at Bucharest, where Russian and Ottoman men revised certain terms, adjourned, and returned with new, more feasible proposals. Ibid, II: 241-245.
49. Aksan, "Ottoman Political Writing, 1768-1808," 44.
50. Mehâsin, II: 307-308.
51. Hurewitz, "The Europeanization of Ottoman Diplomacy," 461.
52. Mehâsin, II: 308.
53. Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman, 109. Nearly 30 manuscripts survive over a geographically large area.
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