The Circle of Equity

I want to introduce the central concept of Ottoman political theory I first found reading Norman Itzowitz’s book Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition. The Circle of Equity elegantly captures many insights:

  1. There can be no royal authority without the military.
  2. There can be no military without wealth.
  3. The reaya produce the wealth.
  4. The sultan keeps the reaya by making justice reign.
  5. Justice requires harmony in the world.
  6. The world is a garden, its walls are the state.
  7. The state’s prop is the religious law.
  8. There is no support for the religious law without royal authority.

These statements were usually written around the circumference of a circle, as the last statement leads to the first, the numbering is arbitrary. A government unable to contain or initiate violence is well on its way to governing a failed or subjugated state. Suppressing organized crime, quelling a revolt and repelling a foreign army are much the same activity just on different scales. Royal authority is sovereignty. In the historic context of the Empire we see echoes here of the steppe traditions of Central Asia where sovereignty was the prerogative of a single family chosen by God, a family possession rather than elective leadership.

A military is needed then; the ability to inflict organized and controlled violence on a large scale. Gangs are essentially small tribes of men who have to be disciplined, yet retain Asabiyyah, that is a bond to each other, lest risk ineffectiveness. The values and traits Ottoman authors attribute to this class rises from the culture of the Ghazi’s raiders that flourished from the 13th century onwards, pushing out Byzantine and even rival Islamic influence out of a chaotic Anatolia. Besides the social technology to organize the military, one needs significant material resources.

The reaya is the class of subjects that pay taxes providing these resources. In the empire the reaya where peasants, urban dwellers and nomads. Originally Muslim and non-Muslim, they were mostly non-Muslim after the peak of Suleiman’s reign. Limited in important ways, such as being barred from joining the military or their dress being regulated, they are the flock sheared for the rent needed to support the ruling and military class of the askeri, that form the backbone of the king’s authority.

The distinction between the rulers and the ruled made clear, this was further reinforced by Muslim theoreticians who in the 13th century had already developed a view of society that postulated the existence of four social classes and equated each with a natural element. This burying and containment of early Islamic equalitarianism, is striking in its similarity to the evolution of Christianity in Late Antiquity.

Justice, that is law and order, the reliable expectation of a stable future is required for both the prosperity and docility of the reaya. Places that primarily rely on police forces for security are usually very unsafe places. The bulk of order emerges from the communities of people policing each other through local punishment for norm violations. The norms themselves are hopefully not dysfunctional. Organized violence is used to disrupt and suppress those who would invade such gardens.

Gardening requires pulling weeds as well, the task of an official belief system. In the long run such a system can not hope to stand without the support of the sovereign. It will be continuously assaulted by more adaptive mostly malign ideologies and associated cults spontaneous generated by the people or worse defecting clergy. Religion provides innumerable social services, when tamed it is a strong pro-civilizational force, providing much needed social technology that alleviates many problems. For example it can lower time preferences in a population by promising an afterlife of punishment or rewards. When there is formally an absence of an official belief system the wild retakes the garden. Religion becomes worthless as a possible repository of values, as Methodists don’t go to heaven. Worse as heresy flourishes, being allowed to grow and mutate without restrictions by those with good incentives, it can create dangerous beasts such as Millenarianism.

The Ottoman State under Sultan Mehmed IV gives an example of the containment of the latter. The Sultan politely insisted that if Sabbatai Zevi was the Messiah this is an extremely important matter, and he suggested the claims should be empirically tested as soon as possible. With arrows. Zevi suddenly realizing the state religion was correct, proceeded to help disarm the beliefs of his cult. Jim’s Algorithm for containing holier-than-thou spirals works. Mehmed is also interesting for his encounter with an English carrier of destabilizing heresy, the Quaker Mary Fisher. The latter’s account is interesting but hard to trust, what did the Sultan really make of her? An armed escort can mean many things.

This synthesis of steppe traditions, high Islamic theories of late Persia and the wild frontier Ghazi ideal, rises as a coherent model possessing much embedded wisdom, meshing well with our own discoveries on the subject. I for now leave it as an exercise the reader to draw out the Circle of Equity as a graph and then consider what the external factors that impact each node are. What are the signs one node is failing or growing stronger?

If you look carefully you can see it playing out as a virtuous circle or vicious cycle in the modern world. In my next piece I will elaborate on how it relates to and I think even explains anarcho-tyranny, a concept with good predictive power we often use, but that unfortunately remains under-explored.

This piece was reposted from our previous blog.

Our friend Karl F. Boetel made this:
The Circle of Equity