by Malik Mufti
The Vizier sat in the front row of worshippers, along with the other dignitaries, as the High Hierophant droned toward the end of his sermon on fidelity: fidelity to the Twin Goddesses who poured their beneficence down to all in equal measure, to their representative the Emperor, to the officials high and low who enforce his laws, to the collective good of his subjects.
Eyes half closed, the Vizier had tuned out most of the service, stroking groomed whiskers as his mind flitted from one vexation to another. First, that cur Suf-An four seats to the right with his endless scheming at the imperial court. Then, the ongoing decline in revenues despite his latest tax levies, and the mediocre performance of the expeditionary force he had sent to crush the fanatics in the outlands. Finally, above all, his private passion, the manuscript that had stymied him for so long – his exposition on the conundrum of the One and the Many propounded by the ancient philosopher Hak-El. Now, however, alerted belatedly by a familiar and hitherto reliable instinct, the Vizier’s attention dove back down into the temple.
The High Hierophant, who was no fool, had been treading a fine line between acknowledging the congregation’s concerns – about official corruption for example – and affirming the Emperor’s Goddesses-given mandate to rule. But there was no mistaking the increasingly desultory, even resentful, tone of the responses to his benedictions from the rabble crowded row upon row to the Vizier’s rear. Was it the crushing taxes? The arbitrary conscription? He turned to the aide behind him.
No, they were complaining about the government’s failure to do something about a supposed monster that had been terrorizing the capital in recent days. It was said to emerge from the great river Idigna which divided the city in two, seizing solitary pedestrians who were never heard from again. The Vizier recognized the panic that slithered and surged like a sinister current through the assembled mass. This was not good.
Deaf to the urban clamor around him, blind to the captivating reflections of the two holy moons in the Idigna’s waters, the Vizier contemplated the urgency of his situation as he walked across the Bridge of Triumphs, the most magnificent of the river’s many crossings, and made his way up to the affluent part of town where he lived. It was his habit to dispense with carriage and attendants when needing to plot his major moves.
Just days after the disquieting temple service, he had been summoned to an imperial audience. Entering the Grand Hall, he had noted at once the uncharacteristic absence of music and raucous laughter, and how the young Emperor’s boon companions – Suf-An of course at their head – mimicked his grim visage. The Vizier had come prepared to account for the recent financial and military setbacks, but instead the Emperor demanded to know why nothing had been done to allay the populace’s panic about the river monster. He had ten days to deal with it.
The Vizier had been unable to resist glancing at Suf-An. There it was: the hint of a smile, the embryo of a sneer. But also something else, softer and more elusive, as if Suf-An saw a secret he himself could not. He had forced himself to focus on the trap that now lay before him. His failure to capture the nonexistent monster would provide the pretext for his ouster. He would be accused of negligence and corruption, put to torture until he revealed the various hiding places of the fortune he had accumulated, and then cast out as a scapegoat for the envy and rage of the mob.
But now, scaling the Idigna’s eastern embankment under the crepuscular moonslight, the repellent sights, sounds, and smells of the capital’s teeming western half receding behind him, the Vizier was no longer concerned. That very morning he had received the latest dispatch from the governor of Kharba, the southern port where the Idigna flowed into the great sea. Kharba had been the pinnacle of the technological efflorescence overseen by the previous emperor – a fully submersible city built right on the shoreline in defiance of the land-swallowing tides generated by the twin moons. Most of the dispatch was routine – riots suppressed, imposts levied – but, in an attempt to inject a diverting note, the governor also recounted how after a particularly massive ebb tide, the remains of a large sea creature had been found on the beach. It appeared to be a giant specimen of the sort of squid fishermen occasionally capture in their nets, but putrefaction and bloating had rendered it unrecognizable. The Vizier wrote back at once, ordering the carcass to be shipped up the Idigna in strict secrecy.
On, then, to the reason he had chosen to walk alone. He had made a breakthrough in understanding how Hak-El resolved the dilemma of participation, which lay at the core of his theory of being: how the world’s diverse multiplicity could nevertheless be generated by one eternally unchanging, entirely separate truth. It was right there, more or less, in his second and fifth hypotheses. Positing a relationship between the One and the Many, which allowed participation to take place without compromising the integrity of the former hinged on the realization that Hak-El’s definition of the One was equivocal. This insight would be his claim to true greatness as a philosopher. This would show his mentor, who back at the academy had tried to steer him toward more mundane problems better suited, she apparently thought, to his limited abilities.
The Vizier reached his mansion and hurried up the stairs past the laughter emanating from the family quarters. He would wash up and change into finer garments before heading for his private study on the top floor, eager to begin outlining the final revisions to his manuscript.
It was some days past the Emperor’s deadline when the Vizier headed for the temple downtown, once again forgoing his carriage despite the now full-dark. He had dealt with his various distractions. The Kharba squid’s disfigured cadaver had been paraded through streets to popular acclaim, pacifying the rabble, solidifying his position at court, and redirecting the Emperor’s expropriatory attention to his rival. Once the imperial torturers were done with him, Suf-An would be released, stripped of his fortune and – lest he be tempted to join the growing rebel ranks – of his eyes as well.
As he crossed the Bridge of Triumphs onto the pathway which hugged the western bank of the river for a while before veering into city center, therefore, the Vizier concentrated on his real problem: his resolution of the Hak-El dilemma had proven illusory. There was no getting around it – the missing term of the decisive syllogism in the fifth hypothesis was untenable. How had he overlooked that? Could it really be that Hak-El’s entire treatise on the One and the Many was an obscure and elaborate joke? What did it mean?
Just then, however, the ripples and splashes behind him that had for some seconds registered only on his subconscious reached a volume that brought him crashing down to earth. He spun around, eyes wide open. There was nothing there. It must have been a fish leaping for some prey. Smiling at his own folly, the Vizier resumed his descent into the seething heart of the city.
Malik Mufti is a professor of political science at Tufts University near Boston, Massachusetts, USA. His writings focus on Near Eastern politics and political philosophy.
This story is inspired by an anecdote the medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun recounts in his Kitab al-Ibar about an ostensible river monster that terrorized the people of Baghdad one year. It provides the framework for an exploration of the ancient philosophical question of unity and multiplicity, and of the vital importance of participation between the one and the many.