Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category
In 1789, the Scottish parliamentarian Edmund Burke made an impassioned case against British support of the French revolution. In a pair of letters written to the French aristocrat Charles-Jean-François Depont, Burke laid out a long, logical and detailed argument—edited and collected the following year into the classic “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Burke’s arguments have never grown stale, and they are debated to this day. But one of his arguments might seem odd to modern readers: the French Revolution, he pointed out, was based on the philosophy of that Swiss nut who wrote “Les Confessions.”
Today, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is better known as the political theorist who created the concept of the “social contract,” penned the educational treatise “Emile,” and wrote a famous pair of discourses: “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” and “Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men.” But in the late eighteenth century, Rousseau was best known for two other books: the sentimental novel “Julie: or The New Heloise” and “The Confessions,” his memoir.
One of the reasons that Rousseau is no longer infamous for his memoir is that his innovations are no longer innovative. Today, autobiographies that detail an author’s life, day by day, are (too) common. But in Rousseau’s time, the only major “autobiographies” were tales of spiritual awakening like St. Augustine’s “Confessions.” Jean-Jacques was convinced that his new approach would result in a “one-of-a-kind” work. As he wrote, “I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator.” Of course, he’s had nothing but imitators, beginning with Goethe and De Quincey, and evolving — if that’s the right word — to the “works” of celebrities like Tori Spelling.
But that doesn’t explain why Burke found the work so offensive, or why Rousseau wouldn’t allow it to be published in his lifetime. What was the reason? Well, sex, of course. The great political philosopher of the Enlightenment spent a good deal of his memoir discussing his sexual proclivities: young women, masturbation, but not prostitutes. Nothing too unusual there. Memoirs would get much more interesting in the Romantic Period that Rousseau is largely responsible for spawning. (Byron was born a few years after Rousseau’s book was published.) But in Burke’s time, there was nothing quite like Rousseau’s shocking volume of revelations. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that he looked through its pages and had premonitions of The Terror to come.
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In 1739, Dick Turpin — famed highwayman, murderer and thief — was arrested, tried, and hanged. However, the crime for which he was sentenced to death was not murder. It was horse theft. In eighteenth-century England, this was a crime punishable by death. It wasn’t the only one.
From the early-fifteenth century to 1850, the English legal system was dominated by “The Bloody Code,” an extremely harsh system of punishments. A huge number of crimes were punishable by death, and the death penalty was mandatory. In addition to murder and treason — and Turpin’s crime of “horse theft” — crimes punishable by death under the “Bloody Code” included:
- stealing an item worth more than 5 shillings
- cutting down a tree
- being out at night in blackface
- stealing a sheep
- the concealing of a stillborn child by an unmarried woman
- stealing a rabbit from a warren
… and so on. Oddly, this was not a hangover from Medieval law: in the fourteenth century, only major crimes like rape and murder were punishable by death. In 1688, the number of crimes punishable by death was up to 50; by 1765, it was 160, and by 1815, 225 crimes were punishable by death. Further evidence that history can move backwards.
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“So our Heroe, Captain Teach, assumed the Cognomen of Black-beard, from that large Quantity of Hair, which, like a frightful Meteor, covered his whole Face, and frightened America more than any Comet that has appeared there a long Time. This Beard was black, which he suffered to grow of an extravagant Length; as to Breadth, it came up to his Eyes; he was accustomed to twist it with Ribbons, in small Tails, after the Manner of our Ramilies Wiggs, and turn them about his Ears” –Charles Johnson
Edward Teach or Edward Thatch (c. 1680 – November 22, 1718), better known as Blackbeard, was a notorious English pirate who operated around the West Indies and the eastern coast of the American colonies during the early 1700s. Like most pirates, little is known about his early life, but in 1716 he joined the crew of Benjamin Hornigold, a pirate who operated from the Caribbean island of New Providence. Soon the cunning, fearless Teach became captain of his own ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge (which he had stolen of course). He added cannons and reinforced the ship’s sides. His ship was swift, easy to handle, and able to carry a large crew of as many as 250 pirates.
Blackbeard’s nickname was derived from his wooly thick black beard and fearsome appearance. As Teach’s power and reputation as the most frightening of pirates grew, so did his beard and hair. Now calling himself Blackbeard, he braided his beard and tied the braids with black ribbons. He stuffed burning rope under his hat to make himself look more ferocious and menacing. Blackbeard’s flag was one of the more unusual flags flown by the pirates. His flag had a skeleton holding an hour glass in one hand to signify that your time was running out. A dagger in the other hand and the heart with three drops of blood signified that blood would be drawn if you did not surrender. Horns and cloven feet on the skeleton signified that he was in league with the devil.
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Widely referred to as “Mr. Conservative,” Barry Morris Goldwater (January 1, 1909 – May 29, 1998), was a prominent five-term United States Senator (AZ) and one time Presidential candidate. He is often credited as the catalyst for the resurgence of American conservatism in the 1960s, and was a vocal advocate of the libertarian movement. Goldwater ran for the presidency in 1964, on a platform advocating less government, a strong military and the end of federal welfare programs. He was aggressively attacked by Democrats and opponents within his own party, and was labeled a demagogue of blood-thirsty hawks, right-wing extremists and racist Southerners.
In hindsight, Goldwater’s political views were less polarized and more nuanced than he was given credited for during his failed bid for the White House. While he unequivocally loathed communists and welfare recipients with an unbridled passion, he strongly believed in the separation of church/state and was unapologetically pro-choice. He also had some quirky and unexpected interests, including a lifelong obsession with collecting Hopi Indian kachina dolls (?!?).
So what is a kachina doll anyway? But more importantly, why did Barry Goldwater enjoy playing with them so much?
Kachina dolls are wooden dolls representing “kachinas”- the carved representations of the Katsinam, the spirit messengers of the universe. These dolls served as pedagogical objects made of cottonwood that embody the characteristics of the ceremonial Kachina, and are usually given as gifts to children (especially girls). They are used as a teaching tool to help Hopi children learn about their responsibilities as members of their community. There are more than 400 different kachinas in Hopi and Pueblo culture. Thus, there may be kachinas for the sun, stars, thunderstorms, wind, corn, insects, and many other concepts. Kachinas are believed to have humanlike relationships; they may have uncles, sisters, and grandmothers, and may marry and have children. Although not worshipped, each is viewed as a powerful spiritual being that can exercise its’ powers in the service of relieving some of the burdens imposed by Mother Nature.
In 1969, Goldwater donated all 437 of his kuchina dolls to the Heard Museum, more than doubling its collection. His collection spanned over 50 years, from the oldest, carved in 1890, to dolls carved in the 1950s for the senator. He first became enamored with kuchina dolls when he was seven years old after visiting a Hopi Reservation with a family friend who collected the figurines.
In light of the foregoing, I think it’s fair to say that there is a softer side to “Mr. Conservative”. Then again, only a man supremely secure in his masculinity would have the cajones to openly admit he had a passion for dolls. One thing must be said for Goldwater: he was not a sissy.
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A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on Biographies, will be available online and in stores on May 11. (Click here to pre-order your copy.) As the release date approaches, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from that book. Today’s entry on “Benito Mussolini” draws from the “Leaders” section of the Biographies edition.
At the close of his life, a still proud Benito Mussolini made the following prediction to one of his last interviewers: “After the defeat I will be covered furiously in spit but then they will come to clean me with veneration.” Ultimately, the man once referred to as, “Il Duce” was only half right.
The Fascist Party he founded in 1921, which held sway over Italy for just over two decades, failed to permanently transform his fellow countrymen (much less the entire world). The so-called “third way” that he foisted on Italy- an inchoate mix of militarism, hyper-nationalism, anti-intellectualism, and collectivism- ultimately took toll its toll on the country and engendered fanatical hatred and resentment towards the fascist dictator amongst many Italians. In fact, one need only look to the gruesome events surrounding his execution on April 29, 1945 to get a sense of the collective rage felt by the Italian people towards their fallen authoritarian leader.
Knowing his time was up during the last days of the war in Italy, Mussolini attempted to escape the advancing Allied Army by hiding in a German convoy headed toward the Alps. However, the dictator was discovered after a stop and search and immediately arrested, and was soon joined by his mistress, Clara Petacci. The council of partisan leaders, led by the Communists, secretly decided to execute Mussolini and his fifteen most powerful political followers.
On April 28, Colonel Valerio broke into the room where Mussolini and Clara were being held and told them that he had come to rescue them. They hurried to the awaiting car and were escorted about a mile away before being stopped near gate to the Villa Belmonte. Ordered to get out of the car and stand next to the stone wall, they were both summarily executed by a firing squad armed with machine guns. A guard was placed over their bodies, while Valero rounded up the remainder of the 15 prisoners selected for execution. They were hurriedly brought out to the square and given 3 minutes for the ministrations of a priest before joining their fallen leader’s fate.
However, Mussolini’s execution had not quelled the rage of the blood thirsty mob, and Mussolini’s executioners were more than willing to oblige…His dead body was dragged into the town square (as well as that of his mistress and sixteen other Fascists), and was subjected to a gruesome parade of terribles that shocked the world with its brutality. True to their mama bear reputation, a handful of vengeful Italian mothers were responsible for starting the orgy of violence against Ill Duce’s body. One mother produced a revolver and fired five shots into Mussolini’s head to “avenge my five dead sons”; another woman tore off a strip of his shirt, set fire to it and threw it in his face.
Whipped into a frenzy, the crowd surged forward and began beating Mussolini’s body into a bloody pulp- his skull was cracked and one of his eyes fell out of its socket. One woman squatted down, raised her skirt and urinated on his face. Others covered his face in spit (thus fulfilling his prediction). One man creatively attempted to put a dead mouse in Mussolini’s mouth, while cackling, “Make a speech now, make a speech.” The corpses of the executed fascists were dragged through the streets, hung on meat hooks, and displayed to the crazed crowd. When the mob became too frenzied, the police had to use water hoses to control the situation. Finally, the Allies ordered the bodies removed for burial.
When Adolf Hitler heard how Mussolini was executed and put on public display, he vowed he would not let this happen to him. A few days later, Hitler shot his mistress and new wife, Eva Braunn, swallowed some cyanide, he shot himself in the mouth for good measure. Following Hitler’s orders, their bodies were placed in a shell hole outside of his Berlin bunker and burned. Only his teeth were later discovered.
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A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on Biographies, will be available online and in stores on May 11. (Click here to pre-order your copy.) As the release date approaches, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from that book. Today’s entry on “Joseph Stalin” draws from the “Leaders” section of the Biographies edition.
While the exact numbers may never be known with complete certainty, it is estimated that the various terror campaigns launched by Joseph Stalin claimed no fewer than 15 million Russian lives. Unsurprisingly, Stalin’s sadism knew no exceptions, even with respect to his family: His son Yakov (whom he fathered with his first wife Ekaterina Svanidze) first attempted suicide as a young man, in an attempt to escape from his father’s unrelenting scorn and cruelty. Sadly, when Stalin learned that his son had survived his self-inflicted injury, he responded with his characteristic cruelty, reportedly jeering “he can’t even shoot straight.”
Still pathetically committed to winning his father’s approval, Yakov subsequently served in the Red Army during World War II, and was eventually captured by the Germans. Stalin was offered the opportunity to exchange Yakov for Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, who was captured by the Russians after surrendering at Stalingrad. True to form, Stalin turned the offer down without a moment’s hesitation, stating “You have in your hands not only my son Yakov but millions of my sons. Either you free them all or my son will share their fate.” It is believed that Yakov was so crushed by his father’s indifference to his plight that he ran into the electric fence that encircled his prison camp, killing him immediately.
Stalin’s cruelty towards his “loved” ones did not end with his son. His second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva also was driven to suicide by the anti-Christlike cruelty of her husband. On November 9, 1932, after enduring an impressive thirteen years of marriage to evil incarnate, Nadezhda was found dead in her bedroom, a revolver by her side. Allegedly, her spirit was broken for the last time after suffering a humiliating public spat with her husband the night before, where he reportedly belittled his wife mercilessly while throwing orange peels at her. Of course, the official announcement claimed that she died of appendicitis. Two doctors who refused to sign a certificate stating false conclusions about the cause of her death were later convicted during the Trial of the Twenty-One and executed.
Some people believe that Stalin killed her himself, and that he covered up the murder by making it look like a suicide. However, this seems unlikely in light of his modus operandi, which seem to suggest that he ultimately enjoyed humiliating and terrorizing her too much to do away with her. Accounts of contemporaries and Stalin’s letters to his “friends” indicate that he was deeply disturbed by his wife’s suicide. In fact, many histories of Stalin even claimed that he retreated into all-male society after her death. However, the truth is far less flattering; soon after Nadezhda’s suicide, Stalin actually struck up a torrid affair with….. her sister!
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A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on Biographies, will be available online and in stores on May 11. (Click here to pre-order your copy.) As the release date approaches, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from that book. Today’s entry on “Ivar the Boneless” draws from the “Leaders” section of the Biographies edition.
Ivarr Ragnarsson, nicknamed Ivar the Boneless, was a Danish or Swedish Viking chieftain and by reputation also a berserker (Norse warriors who reportedly fought in a nearly uncontrollable, possibly drug induced, trance-like fury). Unsurprisingly, every Viking historian worth his or her salt has a theory about the origins of Ivar’s unusual nickname. Some have suggested “boneless” was a euphemism for impotence (doubtful) or even a snake metaphor (he had a brother named Snake-Eye). However, it seems unlikely that the famous Ivar earned his epithet from his less illustrious brother, thank you very much. Still others have opined that his moniker might have referred his impressive physical flexibility, and that his “limberness” might have given rise to the popular notion that he was “boneless.”
A few historians have enlivened this debate with their convincing theory that the signs and symptoms of Ivar’s condition, as described in the Scandinavian sagas, are consistent with the etiology of osteogenesis imperfecta (OI). More commonly known as “brittle bone disease,” osteogenesis imperfecta is a dominant congenital disorder that causes extremely fragile bones, and is most frequently caused by defect in the gene that produces type 1 collagen, an important building block of bone. Thus, people with OI are extremely susceptible to fractures.
In 1949, the Dane Knud Seedorf published “Osteogenesis imperfecta: A study of clinical features and heredity based on 55 Danish families,” where he wrote:
“Of historical personages the author knows of only one of whom we have a vague suspicion that he suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta, namely Ivar Benløs, eldest son of the Danish legendary king Regnar Lodbrog. He is reported to have had legs as soft as cartilage (‘he lacked bones’), so that he was unable to walk and had to be carried about on a shield.”
In 2003 Nabil Shaban, a disability rights advocate with osteogenesis imperfecta, made the documentary “The Strangest Viking” for British television, in which he explored the possibility that Ivar the Boneless may have had the same condition as himself. It also demonstrated that someone with the condition was quite capable of using a longbow, and so could have taken part in battle, a prerequisite for a leader in the notoriously bellicose Viking society.
As fascinating as the osteogenesis imperfecta theory is, one glaring question still remains unanswered; how did Ivar achieve such widespread fame as a warrior in Viking society if he could not even walk unassisted?
Even if he possessed a rare talent for the crossbow, the fierce Viking people valued prowess on the battlefield above all else, and it seems highly unlikely that they would allow a physically disabled person to act as chieftain. Thus, a simpler explanation for Ivar’s sobriquet seems more likely. It has been plausibly suggested that the origin of Ivar’s nickname comes from the English word “bone,” which is cognate with the German word “Bein”, meaning “leg”. The Scandinavian sagas mention that Ivar the Boneless was carried off the battlefield on a shield by his warriors, a common practice in those days. Thus, Ivar may earned the nicknamed “boneless” simply because he was frequently observed being carried off the battlefield after his many victories.
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