January 21: Odd conjunction of history with Louis XVI and Vladimir I. Lenin

January 21, 2014

This is mostly an encore post.

The Dallas Morning News and the Associated Press inform us that France’s King Louis XVI died on January 21, 1793.  In 1924, Russian revolutionary Vladimir I. Lenin died on January 21.

Portrait of Louis XVI

France’s King Louis XVI died on January 21, 1793.  He is seen here in his most famous portrait, in happier times. Image via Wikipedia

Both died of strokes, but of different kinds of strokes.  Lenin’s was a cerebral stroke; Louis’s was the stroke of the blade of a guillotine.

Painting of Lenin in front of the Smolny Institute, circa 1925,  by Isaak Brodsky - Wikipedia

Lenin died on January 21, 1924.  Painting of Lenin in front of the Smolny Institute, circa 1925, by Isaak Brodsky

Ruminations on the date, and the men:  How much of current history can be understood by studying those two events, and those two men?  How much if we add in George Washington, and Napoleon, other men affected by revolution?

A few years ago I had a sophomore student spell out the importance of people in history.  Israel Pena observed that  Americans got rid of their king through revolution, and ended up with George Washington as leader, and then president.  Washington’s modeling of his life after the Roman patriot Cincinattus led Washington to resign as commander of the Continental Army when the warring was done, instead of declaring himself king, and then later to step down from the presidency after two terms, to promote peaceful retirement of presidents.

The French got rid of their king through revolution in 1789, but in the chaos that followed, they got Napoleon who took over the government after battlefield victories against France’s enemies.  Then Napoleon declared himself emperor, and took off on a reign of conquest and war across Europe.

France’s revolution produced Napoleon; America’s revolution produced Washington, and that has made most of the difference.

Mr. Pena’s commentary compared only those two nations.  What if we add in a third nation and revolution:  Russia?  Russia got rid of its king (czar) through revolution in 1917.  In the chaos that followed it got a government led by Lenin, and upon Lenin’s early death, taken over by Joseph Stalin.

George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart - Wikipedia

George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart – Wikipedia

Is the future of a nation written by the character of the men who run the government?  One might make a good case that the deaths of these men paint most of the picture we really need to have. Louis XVI died at the age of 39, on the guillotine; Vladimir I. Lenin, died at the age of 53, of stroke.  Both still worked to cling to the strings of power; Compare the deaths of Washington and Napoleon. George Washington. died in 1799 at the age of 67, of complications from a strep throat, but in retirement and in his bed at Mount Vernon, Virginia; while Napoleon Bonaparte died at 52, probably from stomach cancer, while he suffered in humiliating exile on the far distant South Atlantic isle of St. Helena, in 1821.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812 - Wikipedia

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812 – Wikipedia

Revolution marked these men. Three of them led revolutions, and the fourth was put out of power by one.  Whose life would you have preferred to follow?  Which of these lives is most meritorious of modeling?

Which one lived the life that put his nation on the more secure footing so that its citizens might live good lives, and die of old age in their beds, rather than at war?

Can one person really push the history of a nation so much?  Or are these four lives simply emblematic of the nations they ruled?

Something to ponder on a January 21.


Odd conjunction of history: January 21, Louis XVI and Vladimir I. Lenin

January 21, 2012

The Dallas Morning News and the Associated Press inform us that France’s King Louis XVI died on January 21, 1793.  In 1924, Russian revolutionary Vladimir I. Lenin died on January 21.

Portrait of Louis XVI

France's King Louis XVI died on January 21, 1793. He is seen here in his most famous portrait, in happier times. Image via Wikipedia

Both died of strokes, but of different kinds of strokes.  Lenin’s was a cerebral stroke; Louis’s was the stroke of the blade of a guillotine.

Painting of Lenin in front of the Smolny Institute, circa 1925,  by Isaak Brodsky - Wikipedia

Lenin died on January 21, 1924. Painting of Lenin in front of the Smolny Institute, circa 1925, by Isaak Brodsky

Ruminations on the date, and the men:  How much of current history can be understood by studying those two events, and those two men?  How much if we add in George Washington, and Napoleon, other men affected by revolution?

A few years ago I had a sophomore student spell out the importance of people in history.  Israel Pena observed that  Americans got rid of their king through revolution, and ended up with George Washington as leader, and then president.  Washington’s modeling of his life after the Roman patriot Cincinattus led Washington to resign as commander of the Continental Army when the warring was done, instead of declaring himself king, and then later to step down from the presidency after two terms, to promote peaceful retirement of presidents.  The French got rid of their king through revolution in 1789, but in the chaos that followed, got Napoleon who took over the government after battlefield victories against France’s enemies.  Then Napoleon declared himself emperor, and took off on a reign of conquest and war across Europe.

Mr. Pena’s commentary compared only those two nations.  What if we add in a third, Russia?  Russia got rid of its king (czar) through revolution in 1917.  In the chaos that followed it got a government led by Lenin, and upon Lenin’s early death, taken over by Joseph Stalin.

George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart - Wikipedia

George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart - Wikipedia

Is the future written by the character of the men who run the government?  One might make a good case of that in the deaths paint most of the picture we really need to have, that of Louis XVI, at the age of 39, on the guillotine; of Vladimir I. Lenin, at the age of 53, of stroke, both still working to cling to the strings of power; and compare the death in 1799 of George Washington, at the age of 67, of complications from a strep throat, in retirement and in his bed at Mount Vernon, Virginia; and of Napoleon Bonaparte, 52, probably from stomach cancer, while he suffered in humiliating exile on the far distant South Atlantic isle of St. Helena, in 1821.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812 - Wikipedia

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812 - Wikipedia

Revolution marked these men, three of whom led them, and the fourth of whom was put out of power by one.  Whose life would you have preferred to follow?  Which of these lives is most meritorious of modeling?


The debt the U.S. owes to Haiti: The Louisiana Purchase

January 24, 2010

Every Texas school kid learns that the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 created one of the great turning points in American history.  Parts or all of 15 different states came out of the land acquired from Napoleon in that deal.  Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery spent more than two years mapping the newly-acquired territory, and didn’t really scratch the surface of the riches to be found.

Why was Napoleon so willing to deal Louisiana, so cheaply?

What else happened in 1803?  Haiti’s slaves rose up and cast off French rule. Haiti had been the jewel of France’s overseas colonies.   Napoleon became convinced that holding and ruling North American territories could be more pain and trouble than it was worth

So, along came John Jay to secure navigation rights in the territory . . .

CBS Sunday Morning featured a good story on the event, and on Haiti, on January 17.  You can read the transcript here.


Thoughts on Waterloo

August 6, 2009

Republicans and Sen. Jim Demint look forward to meeting Obama at Waterloo.

Obama Wellington at Waterloo, by Robert Alexander Hillingford

Obama Wellington at Waterloo, by Robert Alexander Hillingford

Napoleon looked forward to meeting Wellington at Waterloo, too.

It’s important to remember that at history’s great turning points, there are generally at least two sides.  The British don’t celebrate the Fourth of July, either.

Be careful what you hope for, Republicans.


No one believes it. Is it so?

August 9, 2008

One of the great mysteries of history is how an entire nation of people can follow a leader into tragedy — a stupid war, economic morass, cultural suicide, genocide, or other tragedy — without appearing to notice they were going against their national values, against reason, against morality.

I wonder if part of the answer can be found by studying the way our brains perceive things, in particular, the way our brains force us to see things that are not so.

Some things are just so unbelievable, our brains tell us we’re seeing something different, something more believable. Here are two examples, the Charlie Chaplin mask illusion, and the Einstein mask illusion.

Chaplin — you know it’s concave, but the nose sticks out every time:

Einstein — is Big Brother really watching you? What do your eyes say?

Here’s a nasty little kicker: Even when most people know that it’s an illusion, they can’t perceive the illusion-in-action; as Paul Simon wrote, “Still a man sees what he wants to see and he disregards the rest.” See Stephen Fry’s discussion about the illusion from BBC2:

Historical applications

  • CIA chief William Colby was involved in Operation Phoenix during the Vietnam War. When investigations revealed that the operation involved torture, many people refused to believe the U.S. would be involved in torture (good!). And even after he admitted to Congressional committees that he had personally authorized the torture, people had difficulty believing it. David Wise wrote an article about Operation Phoenix for the New York Times Magazine, July 1, 1973: “Not one of Colby’s friends or neighbors, or even his critics on the Hill, would, in their wildest imagination, conceive of Bill Colby attaching electric wires to a man’s genitals and personally turning the crank. “Not Bill Colby… He’s a Princeton man.'”
  • “[T]he Russians are finished. They have nothing left to throw against us,” a confident Adolf Hitler told Gen. Franz Halder in July 1941. Russia mired down the German army, making the phrase “the Eastern Front” a dreaded death sentence in German commands. In the end, it was the Soviet Army that first got to Berlin, and captured Hitler’s command bunker where der Führer had committed suicide a short time before. Adding to the historic irony, twice over: First, Stalin refused to believe his intelligence service reports that the Nazis were massing on the border of Russia, just two years after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which pledged neither nation would invade the other. Second, Hitler’s generals had studied Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, working to avoid all the mistakes Napoleon made. So sure were the Nazis of their superiority to Napoleon in every way, they invaded Russia on the anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion, June 22, 1941. Great shades of Santayana’s Ghost!
  • Bush administration historians will wonder why Bush was able to do what he did, in the Iraq war and other situations foreign and domestic, with even members of his own party who saw him close up believing he’d do something different. See this story by Ron Susskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George Bush,” New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.
  • The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, based on an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin near Vietnam.  (See also documents from the National Security Agency archives.)
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.

Richard Feynman discussed at length how scientists know their experimental results are accurate, and how to keep science honest. He pointed out that most of the time, errors creep in at the start, and some people just refuse to believe they exist. It is easiest to fool ourselves, Feynman said — and so a good scientist understands that, and protects against self-deception. If only other disciplines could adopt that philosophy, strategy and tactics!

Faith can get us through troubled times, but often gets us into troubled times in the first place.

Do you have other examples of self-delusion by illusionary means?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Vous Pensez.


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