Lessons from Saladin on Civility in Times of War
Remembering Thomas Aquinas on his death date, an invitation to discuss empathy and curiosity, and a giveaway!
Gracious reader, this week, we’ll explore:
Lessons on humanness from Saladin
Remembering Thomas Aquinas on his death date
An invitation to discuss empathy and curiosity
A CURIOUS giveaway
Lessons on humanness from Saladin
For much of my life, war has seemed like an abstract concept. It has been the stuff of history books, not something I ever expected to live through. This is why the tumult of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been so shocking—of course, not only to me, but to the rest of the world. My heart and prayers go out to innocent victims of war.
With the topic of war dominating headlines, it’s worth reflecting on what we owe our fellow human beings in times of war.
Is civility—the basic respect we owe to one another by virtue of our shared dignity and worth as human beings—even possible in times of war even?
I’m of the mind that it is, as I explain in my forthcoming book in civil discourse.
But the life of one of the most extraordinary individuals in history, Saladin, suggests that it is, too.
Lessons from Saladin on Civility in Times of War
Saladin is worth remembering for many reasons today, most importantly because his life offers important lessons for us on how to show grace, mercy and humanity across divides—a lesson that is especially important in our era fraught with enmity.
Saladin was a Sunni Muslim Kurd who was born in 1137, and died on March 4th 1193.
He was the formidable leader of the Muslim forces against the Christian Crusaders, and became the first sultan of both Egypt and Syria.
Though he was a brilliant military leader and strategist, he consistently advocated for peace between the Christian crusaders and the Muslims. As a short recap, the Crusades were a series of wars in the Middle Ages (between 1095 and 1291) initiated by the Catholic church in order to re-claim the Holy Land of Israel and its surroundings from Islamic rule.
Saladin led the Muslims during the Crusades for nearly twenty years, and was admired by supporters and by adversaries alike. He was a highly curious lifelong learner. Intellectually omnivores, he loved to read and write poetry, discuss questions related to the existence and nature of God, and discover the mysteries of math, science, and the natural world. He was a soldier, yet he valued wisdom and the pursuit of learning, and sought to model and instill that value for those he led.
He was profoundly devout in his muslim faith, and also deeply curious. He was educated in the classical tradition, which very well may have contributed to his uniquely gracious and remarkably humane approach to warfare and life in general.
When the King of Jerusalem fell ill, Saladin offered the assistance of his personal physician to help him;
Saladin would offer prisoners of war comfortable cushions to sit on as well as ice water to quench their desert-induced thirst;
In the wake of one famous battle with Richard the Lionheart, the son of Eleanor of Aquitaine who we met several months ago, he not only offered Richard the care of his personal doctor, but also a new horse;
He was a man of his word. While Saladin did not break promises or treaties once he made them, Crusaders who were forced to break alliances with him because of top-down orders wrote letters to him in apology;
Unlike many of his Crusading counterparts, Saladin did not make a practice of slaughtering the women and children of the cities he captured. Instead, he would give them food and money, as well as promise them safe passage, to get home;
Saladin valued human life, Muslim and Christian alike. While ambitious and interested in conquest, he always had an eye to preserving life in all its forms, and took pains to prevent unnecessary death of both his men and those of his enemies.
Saladin reminds us that being civil toward our enemies doesn’t mean weakness. At times, he reminded the Crusaders of his strength when they sought to take advantage of his mercy. While negation and reasonable dialogue was always his preferred first move, he was not afraid to use force and violence when he felt the situation called for it. For instance, he personally killed Raynald of Châtillon, a Crusader who had slaughtered innocent Muslims, gone back on alliances, and foiled many of Saladin’s attempts at peace for years.
Saladin is a fascinating figure in human history, and there are many ways in which we can learn from his example as we reflect on the atrocities of war occurring currently in the Ukraine. But we can also learn lessons from Saladin’s model that apply to our own life, too.
Throughout history, some people have found it difficult to praise people who were different than them—even if they were praiseworthy. During the Middle Ages, for example, some spread rumors that Saladin was secretly a Christian was more civil, gracious and humane than many of the Christians he fought.
Consider this: Saladin’s exceptional legacy is preserved in the 2005 adventure film, Kingdom of Heaven, starring Orlando Bloom. By all accounts, despite Hollywood’s reputation for embellishing history, I feel this film presents both Saladin and the crusaders with unique historical veracity. Interestingly enough, the film did not do as well at the box office as many expected because it did not simplistically paint Saladin and the Muslims as the “bad guys” and the Christians as the “good guys.” It was far more ambiguous, as history, and life, often is.
Today, we should not be afraid to recognize that which is praiseworthy in those we disagree with, or those who are different from us. Identifying traits of good character in others help us form good character ourselves, too.
We can choose to be different.
Roman historian Plutarch wrote a book called Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, often just called “Parallel Lives.” In this work, he compares the biographies of eminent men from ancient Greece, and puts their life stories in dialogue with figures from Ancient Rome. His aim was simple: he scoured the life stories of these great men, who tend to learn lessons for living well, for morality, and virtue, and then to share those lessons with his readers.
Wherever there was virtue in the lives of his subjects, he praised it.
Wherever there was vice, he condemned it.
This why we must study history. It contains powerful stories and also moral instruction. It lets us learn by mistakes and successes of others so that we might lead better lives, too.
We’ve often heard that if we don’t study history, we’re bound to repeat it. While I do think studying history is essential, I tend to agree with Mark Twain: history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And we can benefit greatly from studying the wisdom in the lives of those who come before us. This is exactly what the Civic Renaissance project is about.
We can reflect, for example, on Saladin’s remarkable life to help us think more clearly about how we treat those we disagree with. Saladin often treated people who wanted to kill him with grace and courtesy. If he could do that, can we also strive to treat those we disagree with, or those who are unkind to us, with common decency and benevolence?
Can we also try to keep the basic humanity, dignity, and moral worth of others in mind as we engage with them, even if they hold beliefs that we find offensive, problematic or just wrong?
I hope so. Saladin inspires me to strive to do so every more. I hope it inspires you, too.
Write to me with your thoughts on how we can learn from Saladin’s legacy at firstname.lastname@example.org
Remembering Thomas Aquinas on his Death Date
On March 7th, 1274—748 years ago today—Thomas Aquinas died. He remains one of the most influential thinkers in Christian and philosophical history.
He is most famous for harmonizing Aristotle’s thought with the Christian faith, and for his Summa Theologiae, or Summa Theologica—a “summary” of the Christian faith which, funnily enough, runs a cool 1.8 million words—or about 6,000 pages of text.
He was curious and passionate about the life of the mind, and was known for losing track of where he was and getting lost in his own thoughts.
One time, while Thomas Aquinas was invited for dinner by the King of France, he became completely absorbed in his thoughts. He had been reflecting on a complex theological problem related to Manichaeism, a Christian heresy that breaks the world into “good” vs “evil.”
While everyone was dining and enjoying a good time, Aquinas all of the sudden slammed his hands on the table and shouted, “And that settles the Manichaees!”
He had, at long last, proven the Manichaeans wrong!
Only then did he begin to notice that the conversation at the dinner party around him had stopped, and that everyone was looking at him. He apologized and said that he had forgotten where he was, explaining that he thought he was in his chamber reflecting on theology.
He was known for not being the most socially tactful, with many people coming to refer to him as “The Dumb Ox” for being the strong silent type! Not a very kind moniker, but so consumed with his love of ideas, it’s unlikely it bothered him much.
May we all have the passion for learning—and perhaps even the grace that comes with being a bit absent-minded—that Thomas Aquinas did!
There is SO much more I could say about this influential thinker, but I’ll leave it here and hope that this piqued your interest enough to explore more about him on your own!
Coming up - March 10th at 12 noon ET —An invitation to discuss empathy and curiosity
Many argue that social media, and our digitally mediated interactions, have only made our divisions worse.
What promise might curiosity and empathy hold for remedying the ills of our divided and digital age?
Join this conversation with two experts on curiosity and empathy: Mónica Guzmán of Braver Angels, the largest grassroots organization dedicated to depolarization in America, and Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a leading voice about the promise and perils of modern digital communication.
A CURIOUS giveaway
My friend Mónica Guzmán’s new book on curiosity is being released TOMORROW!
I’m thrilled for her, and as someone working on a book myself, I know what considerable undertaking writing a book is! I’m happy to give away 5 copies to CR subscribers.
To win a copy on this book about how curiosity can heal our divides, send me a note at email@example.com
Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance Community!