Category Archives: history

Churchill, the Darkest Hour, and All that

The film “The Darkest Hour” has brought up once again, the decisive moment during the great second war when Churchill rallied Britain to fight on alone against Nazism. And it raises the question, once again, what is there to learn from this history? Andrew Rawnsley ponders that question in an interesting piece for The Guardian.

I agree with Andrew that it is wise to ask what is there to learn from Churchill the man. Before we answer, however, we should admit that Churchill came from a different era.It is dangerous, therefore, to apply our standards to his reality.

Born in 1874, the son of one of the great aristocratic families , Churchill inherited values that we see as archaic. These include a love of war, empire, and the class system that put him on top. But we tend to forgive his hawkish support of empire and enthusiasm for the 1914 war, his fight against giving women the right to vote, his out of step support of Edward VIII’s assertion of  the king’s prerogatives, his fierce opposition to Indian independence, and so forth. We would say that they reflect his inherited rather than deeply thought through values.  His attachment to unfortunate positions was “romantic” rather than “intellectual”.  And there is no doubt that there was a deeply romantic aspect to Churchill’s character.

We are more interested in Churchill’s love of history, his commitment to mobilizing language to lead, his integrity, vision, humanity, and his great courage in the face of adversity. Andrew makes this interesting comment

We are reminded that the superman was, just as his wife said, a man. He was a genius not because he was without faults but because he transcended his flaws.

These qualities stand out even now, more than half a century after they were so badly needed as the war raged. And rightfully so, we ask who among our current leaders exhibits anything remotely close to these values?

The answer, of course, is no one. Andrew writes

Do we have a yearning for leadership that combines principle, vision and humanity with the capacity to mobilise and unify people behind a collective and heroic endeavour? I rather suspect we do.

But we might also recall that Churchill’s commitment to the values we love about him also did not come out of nowhere. He took on these values — and his determination to transcend his weaknesses, which included a speech impediment — because he believed it was expected of him, coming from his class and background. After all, he was descended from the great Marlborough! He believed that he was born to lead, and he craved the opportunity that the crisis of war gave him to do so. That belief made his downfall from the Gallipoli disaster during the First World War all the more personally devastating.  It made his slow recovery from that personal disaster possible. Conviction, after all, is the fountain of resilience. Who among us believes he or she has this sort of birth right and the responsibilities that it imposes?  What schools teach our children that they have this sort of life mission?

In other words, we rather more believe that we are free to choose whether to take responsibility for the positions our societies find themselves in. One might even argue with a straight face that there is no blame in our turning our backs on where we come from and where our communities may be headed, if where we come from and where others are headed do not advance our personal interests.  We are born less to lead, than to be free not to do so.

That sort of freedom, as we are learning, has its costs.

A quick follow up – It occurred to me after writing the above, that Churchill was acutely aware of his personal interests in advancing his career. He was extremely ambitious on a personal level, so much so, that some of his contemporaries were repulsed by his self-absorption. It would have been impossible to ascend the political power ladder the way he did before the First World War and not have that self-absorbed quality. One could not credibly argue, therefore, that his leadership was unselfish.

At the same time, Churchill fused his personal interests with his commitment to the historic moment. He believed there was no difference between the two, or at least that the difference should be minimized.  So, for example, he made money by writing — but not just any writing. He wrote about things that he thought would help him and that should matter to society. That meant history (including but not limited to his family history), comments on current events, and speculations about the future.  He noted “the annihilation of Oscar Wilde” and showed respect for Wilde’s use of language, but did not comment on the more frivolous content of Wilde’s plays.

Yet Churchill may have been influenced by Wilde’s aesthetic that life is an artificial construction rather than a reflection of deeper “truths”. Thus, the Churchill we love in 1940 was created by Churchill as a work of art for history. He did what he thought was the right thing to do because it was right, and because he wanted to make history. doing it That is selfish, and it is different than the type of selfish freedom that facilitates escape from history.

This borrows from Disraeli, who also believed in the power of constructing and participating in a great historical narrative. It stands in contrast to Gladstone, who insisted that his political conclusions were morally inevitable, which justified his taking a leadership role. But both Disraeli and Gladstone stand in contrast to leaders of today, in my view, by thinking in broad historical terms rather than just partisan terms.


Phony Spartans and Human Nature

The legend of the warrior society, Sparta, has been handed down to us from thousands of years ago. Most recently, we were treated to it in the film “The 300”, where incredible and semi-nude Spartan soldiers hold off masses of very weird Persians at Thermopylae until they were tragically betrayed and then fought to the last man.

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We even see solemn teachers telling us to learn from Spartan values.

And it is all based on myth. Don’t believe me? Check out the video below. In fact, the real Spartans were not at all like the Spartans in that movie or in all of the other depictions of them. It was all PR that the Spartans themselves promoted for their own benefit.

In fact, they were a wealthy society that lived off the hard work of their slaves, and were constantly fearful of slave revolts. That is why they rarely sent out their army to fight others. Nor was that army the professional force that we are told it was. The professionalism was concentrated in its leadership and battlefield tactics — not in the individual fighting prowess of its soldiers. So call for help to Sparta and you would likely get a military advisor or two, and perhaps in a pinch, a small detachment of men.

And the brave Spartan 300 at Thermopylae?  They were actually a minority of the Greek forces fighting there. And there is no evidence that the Spartan soldiers were any more heroic than the Greek soldiers from other city states. Nor did they plan on fighting to the death. Nor was Thermopylae the key to defeating the Persian invasion. But the Spartan deaths at Thermopylae made for a great story! The clever Spartans (and being clever is perhaps how we should remember them) realized this and took advantage of it. They were early masters of spin. And before we overly celebrate Spartan loyalty to the Greek cause, we might also recall that later on, they allied with the Persians against their rivals, the Athenians. Oops!

This Tomfoolery touches a deep chord in our human legacy. The fact is that we are suckers for this type of con game. We love to believe that once, there was a group of heroes who were greater than we are now. We are the lesser sons and daughters of greater sires. And we love to believe that maybe, if we work hard enough at it, we could emulate them. And the fact is that some of us are shameless in taking advantage of this human frailty.

Errr …. “let’s make America great again?” On the bright side, at least the Donald does not attempt to emulate Spartan battle “undress”. That would be gross!

And the word “Tomfoolery”? Ever wonder where that came from?

“A tom-fool was more emphatically foolish than an unadorned fool. Tomfoolery was similarly worse than foolery, the state of acting foolishly, which had been in English since the sixteenth century. Perhaps oddly, it took until about 1800 for tomfoolery to appear. It had been preceded by the verb to tom-fool, to play the fool.”


Themistocles Saved Athens. So they Banished Him

A long time ago, the Athenians were riding high. They had kicked Persian butt, and they thumbed their noses at the vast Persian empire. They didn’t even send a gift when Xerxes took over the throne. Xerxes noticed.

This is how Xerxes was depicted in the movies recently

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Xerxes decided to kick Greek butt and he assembled a huge army and navy to do it. And only one guy  — an Athenian dude by the name of Themistocles — had a clue how to stop him.  Here he is

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Themistocles realized that the only way to achieve this was at sea. If the Athenians could destroy the Persian fleet, Xerxes would not be able to support his army in Greece. So Themistocles got the Athenians to invest big money to build a fleet. Not just any fleet, but a fleet composed of highly maneuverable ships that were better than what the Persians were using.

Themistocles also realized that his fleet would have no chance against the much larger Persian fleet unless he lured them into a narrow strait, where the Persians would be bottled up.

This is pretty amazing stuff. It is even more amazing that Themistocles actually pulled it off. He wiped out the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis. Xerxes watched from land. One would guess that he was not a happy camper. Soon the invasion was over. Themistocles had saved the day. Xerxes headed back home with his kingly tail between his legs.

You might think that Themistocles would have been made a hero. Errr … due to weird Athenian politics and this silly thing called democracy, the Athenians ended up banishing Themistocles. Ironically, he lived out the rest of his days under Persian protection.

Oh. And Xerxes? He got over it. But around 15 years later he was done in by one of his generals. Who said that life at the top was easy?

A Debauched King Who Loved Art: Charles II

We might blame it all on Cromwell and the puritans. They avoided having fun, and imposed that odd way of living on everyone else.  So when Cromwell  finally died in 1658, it is not a huge surprise that some people went overboard  on the pleasures of the flesh.

The restored king, Charles II was one of them.  Debauched? yes. But not demonic. Just debauched. He was the “merry monarch”. Charles loved women. Not just physically, though that was one of his main pursuits. He loved them in the ideal sense too.It is odd, therefore, that he left no legitimate heirs.13 illegitimate kids. But no heirs.

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Too bad there because he was followed by his brother, the dreadful James I:I., who would be deposed.

BTW, a fun fact – remember Princess Diana? She was descended form 2 of Charles II’s illegitimate children.

And Charles II also restored Christmas to Britain (it had been banned by Cromwell).

And Charles loved to collect art.

In fact, one of the great stories from that era is the effort he made to re-start the royal art collection (that Cromwell had sold off). Indeed, the current royal collection starts from the works that Charles bought.

Charles had a good eye. Jonathon Jones offers more insights in his review of paintings from the royal collection now on exhibition in the Queen’s Gallery.

It is a fun read! Go for it!

Charles II reigned for 25 years, a long time. One would not claim that his rule was a great success in terms of policy. Indeed, he seems to have “sold out” to Louis XIV. And by the time of his death, at the age of 54, it was understood that he had no interest in matters of state. Indeed, just before he passed on, he engaged in an orgy with all 3 of his mistresses. Worse still, it was rumored that on his deathbed he converted to the Catholic faith. That may have been why he got no grand state funeral. There was an effigy made wearing royal garments of the day.

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These still exist, and you can buy photos of them, including the undergarments.  Somehow that seems appropriate.

But the point again, here was a man who was corrupted by power but not in a mean way. Unlike Henry VIII, for example, he seemed just happy to follow his bliss.

Pic of the Day: Prato della Valle … and More!

Padua is often overlooked by visitors to Italy, but it does have its charms. One is the Prato della Valle

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You get the main idea from this

Prato della Valle is one of Padua’s landmarks, a 90,000-square-meter elliptical square, the biggest in Italy and one of the largest in Europe. Located at the southern edge of the historical center, it’s a favorite gathering spot for the locals, who call it ‘il Prato’.

The space is ringed by a canal, with statues of 78 famous Padovani. And one of them should be this man

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The great Galileo, father of modern scientific method.Galileo spent his happiest years in Padua, teaching in the university.

And, btw, the Palazzo del Monte di Pietà has an exhibition that is dedicated to all things Galileo, even including his sketches.

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Was Hunting and Gathering All that Bad?

As far as I know, humans have spent most of our existence on this planet as hunters and gatherers. And when I say “most”, I mean “most”. We have existed as a species for at least 200,000 years and only started farming around 10,000 years ago. So we were primarily hunters and gatherers for around 95’% of our time .

We tend to think of this shift as a massive improvement. But of course, none of us were actually there, and so our belief is based on conjecture. So was farming really all that much better? James Scott thinks not. He argues that to the contrary, humans gave up a lot when they stated settling dow.n

One of his points got my attention. Apparently, hunters and gatherers only spent around 50% of their time working. Moreover, they had far more time to connect with nature. We tend to be more skill specific and tied to jobs that require repetitive tasks.

Of course, things did start to get much better around 200 yeas ago. And in the 21st century, we have the chance to take this improvement much further. Could we be evolving backwards — to reclaim what we lost when we started to settle down?

Stay tuned on that one. First step – not destroying the planet.

Where did the word “Teetotalers” Come from?

It is an odd word “teetotaler”. Where did it come from? One possibility is

Teetotaler … originated … with a man named Turner, a member of the Preston Temperance Society, who, having an impediment of speech, in addressing a meeting remarked, that partial abstinence from intoxicating liquors would not do; they must insist upon tee-tee-(stammering) tee total abstinence. Hence total abstainers have been called teetotalers.

Do you believe it?  I am not sure sure.