The Gift of Companionship: ‘Homo Amicus’ and the Work of Persian Texts

Presented by: Mana Kia

When: 8:15 – 9:15 am Section 1: Humanities Concepts and Disciplines; Panel 2, 2C

Abstract: Where did Persian texts come from?

Many of the texts we consider part of a humanistic corpus were composed, complied, and offered within forms of companionship that were ubiquitous across the premodern Persianate world. These include texts we consider literary, such as collections of poetry, narrative poems, and prose belle lettres and narratives. They also included texts we would consider as knowledge production, from chronicles and biographies, to various compendia, treatises, or commentaries. This paper proposes to reframe such texts as gifts, as enactments that registered gratitude (in the form of praise, exhortation, or pedagogy) within particular relationships. These relationship practices undergirded Persianate societies across Central, South, and West Asia and were the basis out which political bonds grew. These student-teacher, patron-client, ruler-servant, master-disciple relationships were articulated in the language of love and friendship and their practices enacted in modes of companionship/conversation (suhbat). These practices constituted a well-defined and widely understood set of obligations and privileges within which texts came into being. 

I propose to take this socio-political and meaning-making context seriously, in both material and imaginary terms, as a way to understand how texts are produced, how to approach meaning within them, and how to understand the normative subject that they address. Texts must be understood as gifts, fulfilling obligations and privileges within relationships that Persians saw as fundamental to pursuing humankind’s purpose in the world, as part of morally situated aesthetic and ethical order. As such, they require different reading practices that does not treat them as dead artefacts. If the text enacts the bond between people, the means by which they work towards moral perfection, this gives us a different view of their substance and meaning and of their implied addressee, whom they acknowledge and actualize. The human subject here, in Persianate terms, is homo amicus, rather than homo economicus, the presumed modern Euro-American subject writ large as universal.

Specifically, I look at the (aesthetic and ethical) form (adab) of companionship between men of power and men of learning as empire unraveled from the end of the seventeenth century in Timurid South Asia, a site of transregional traffic from Central and West Asia. Men of learning wrote to express gratitude for patronage and protection. This was a necessary patronage; men of power could not wield power legitimately without such patronage. Texts, as gifts of homage to this relationship, were conceived of and composed within a cosmology that figured worldly rule as necessary but dangerous. The authority of both types of men was conceived as stemming from the same realm, from the Unseen where God as Truth resided. Symbiotic with men of power, men of knowledge provided a necessary counter balance. Their labors were necessary to create a just realm, characterized by moral structure and guidance, enabling the harmonious social interactions of varieties of people, and also of polities – a mandate of universal rule. For this discussion, I draw on commemorations of such relationships to establish their terms.

As empire faltered, and then fell apart, men of learning invoked adab to laud dispute, or propose adab (or proper form) across a range of topics, from proper poetic, social, and political form. I will use two specific instances of dispute, one ostensibly poetic, one political. What seems just a poetic dispute requires thinking about aesthetics also as social and political. In fact, the political grew out of the social and depended on its forms, creating a distinct realm, but one in aporetic relation through shared forms. Similarly, in sites of political and religious power, ethics was about moral aesthetics, and in fact the realization of justice required these sorts of articulation. For this discussion,  I look at reasons in a range of texts for their composition, as well as two separate moments of poetic-political dispute.

Overall, considering texts as gifts of companionship may require us to think anew what texts mean, and the ethical and aesthetic demands according to which one must read them. Such an analysis questions analytic divisions marking some things poetics, and others politics or society. It also brings into view a universalism with a vision of justice, addressing the needs of difference, and practices that preserve a harmonious plurality.