Blog memes can be annoying, so this is no attempt to start one. It is merely an interesting exercise that yields interesting information about both the subjects and the person doing the choosing.
The idea is to choose ten people who you would most like to meet in all of history, five men and five women. To make it more challenging, let’s exclude family and primary religious figures such as JMJ, etc., and exclude elected politicians and bureaucrats just because their profession is such an obviously shoddy means toward achieving immortality.
The idea isn’t to meet them to pester them with some question, like asking Socrates precisely what he was teaching the youth, or Shakespeare whether he really is Shakespeare. Nor is it about some time-travel thing that allows you to ask Kennedy who he thinks shot him.
No, the idea is to meet these people as you might meet anyone today in a casual setting in which you have a few minutes to visit, just to see what impression he or she makes. The goal is to discover what it is like to be in their presence, to hear their voices, to look in their eyes, observe how they manage the space, to engage in polite introductions and small talk and, perhaps, to convey to them what their lives and work have meant to you.
Here are my choices.
Gustav Mahler (1860—1911). In this conductor and composer we have a mind and an imagination that surpasses human understanding, and yet at the same time his art reveals a grinding human struggle. His nine symphonies contain enough depth and meaning to captivate a person for an entire lifetime, since it’s my view that it takes ten years to come close to fully grasping even one of them. You sense that if you did succeed in fully grasping all nine, you would know all that it is possible to know about life, death, love, joy, sadness, and the entire range of human emotion and experience. A non-practicing Catholic Jew in Vienna, he drew from all the cultural sources within himself to cultivate the capacity for truly universal expression — it came but only with intense work and deep pain. He was known more as a conductor in his time than a composer, which is an astounding fact. By the way, I just heard Mahler’s reorchestration of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Presumptuous, yes, but somehow with Mahler, it seems right. There are many photographs of him available: dashing, deeply intelligent, far seeing.
Ludwig von Mises (1881—1973). Murray Rothbard puzzled many times how it is that the 20th century gave us this man who seemed destined to resist all the evil of his times, and stand on principle despite every pressure to compromise. He paid a huge price. He was educated in security and spent his early career accumulating a European-wide reputation for pioneering contributions to economic science. He refuted socialism. He integrated money into macroeconomics. He put the whole social sciences on a new epistemological basis. Then the tables turned. Positivism advanced, and the liberals began to cave and support the state. The Nazis advanced. He was run out of his native country, run out again of his sanctuary in Geneva, and ignored by academia in the US. He had every reason to give in, give up, or otherwise regret his fate. But he never did. It’s as if his internal constitution would never permit him to relent. This is why he was so hated, feared by some, and also respected. God bless people like this. All accounts report that he had old-world manners, inner cheer, and surprising warmth. Can you imagine meeting him?
Thomas Jefferson (1743—1826). Yes, I know this seems to violate the rule against including elected officials, but two considerations: his presidency is the least important thing about him, and he only agreed to it because the Hamiltonians were in the process of completely shredding what was left of founding ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence, and they had to be stopped. He didn’t mention his presidency in his chosen tombstone inscription! All that aside, has American history given a greater gift to humanity than the mind and thought of Jefferson? He was best as a radical libertarian in every sense: secessionist, revolutionary, decentralist. His faith in the capacity of people to organize their own affairs remains the driving force behind political revolutions the world over. His stature seems to grow larger as time goes on. He was a polymath and yet he strikes me as a humble man — not at all the person whom public-school kids study. His letters reveal a very careful writer with no pretensions but an explosively creative intellect who wanted to somehow make a difference in human history on behalf of liberty. He seems so much larger than life itself. To meet him would somehow prove that he really did exist.
Oscar Wilde (1854—1900). The least important thing to know about Oscar is what everyone knows, and how tragic that is. Here is what really captivates me. He wrote plays and books in the late 19th century that were snappy and edgy and funny and triply ironic — and the same plays and books sound just as contemporary and snappy and ironic in 2005. Few writers have ever made humor timeless but he did. His works are for the ages. And they are all "adult" in the right sort of way: you have to be a certain age to comprehend all the meanings and implications. To read him is to be on the in-crowd, part of a private crowd that knows what’s what. He flatters you that way. Also, he had a huge range. The Picture of Dorian Grey is as serious a story of the corruption of the soul as has ever been written. His poetry is wonderful. It is said that he had not an ounce of malice in him. I believe that. His teeth were slightly yellowed, and this embarrassed him so he tended to speak with his hands across his mouth. You might think that would be an impediment to communication but no: all reports are that no one in London for generations could so completely captivate a roomful of people. People just adored this amazing man. Star quality doesn’t quite describe it. He had god-like ability to enthrall and charm. This was a good man and a great talent. Legend has it that his last words were: “Either these curtains or I have to go.” Funny, but not true. His last words were the Act of Faith. May the special-interests leave him alone and may he one day be appreciated for the artist he was.
Juan de Mariana (1536—1624). Ah, the Spanish Jesuit priest-theologian-economist who famously advocated the right of an individual to kill the tyrant-king or any despot. His argument was that when a ruler steals, loots, and kills in a way contrary to the natural law, it is in accord with justice to do what is necessary to unseat him. Natural law supersedes state law. Don’t feel bad for the despot: power corrupts and with that corruption comes risks. As for the worry that good kings would be killed unjustly under this idea, Mariana offered up all history that showed that is not the pattern: good rulers are not killed and far too many despots rule. After his book appeared, two French tyrants were slain: Henry III and Henry IV. A mild hysteria against him followed, the Jesuits repudiated the book, and his book was burned by order of the Parliament of Paris in 1610. But this wasn’t his most egregious act. The book that really did him in was the one that condemned inflation as theft (he was a great monetary economist). At the age of 75, he was condemned to prison for life. All reports indicate a man of amazing personal fortitude, as unrelenting as he was brilliant.
Mother Cabrini (1850—1917). Shorter than 5 feet and always dressed in her habit, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was one of the great entrepreneurs of the 19th century, the Bill Gates of charitable work of her time. From her earliest days she had wild ambitions to be a missionary to the world’s poor, starting in China. Instead, the pope sent her to the United States. She founded the Missionary Sisters of the Poor, but this was resisted on grounds that women can’t be missionaries. She wrote to Rome: "If the mission of announcing the Lord’s resurrection to his apostles had been entrusted to Mary Magdalene, it would seem a very good thing to confide to other women an evangelizing mission." Well, what could Rome do but agree? And so it seemed throughout her life. She overcame resistance everywhere she went and eventually created a vast network of hundreds of orphanages, schools, and hospitals in the North East, the South, and even the far West. She was both worldly and holy, an amazing businesswoman and pious saint. Her business sense was particularly shrewd: she was once donated some gold mines in Colorado but rather than sell them she sent some sisters there to run them properly.
Clara Schumann (1819—1896). I picture her as a graceful yet powerful personality, with beauty that flows from the inside. Certainly everyone who knew her adored her. Her musical brilliance first struck me when I read a letter to her from Brahms in which he bemoaned the fact that he was doomed to make a living as a piano teacher whereas she could grow rich from performing the piano. She had far more invitations than she could accept. Imagine how many virtuosic pianists there were in her time, and yet she dominated the field with masterful performances that drove the likes of Brahms to unemployment! She made innovative contributions to piano pedagogy as well, in her position at two German conservatories of music. She was of course married to Robert, and inspired his grandest compositions but she is also the reason for the melody behind many pieces of music from her time. Aside from that, she bore and raised seven children and wrote many creative works for piano. What a mysterious power she must have had, the kind of person who walks in a room and fills the entire space but is not entirely aware of it.
St. Cecilia (3rd Century). She was a Roman aristocrat who became a Christian and found herself in an arranged marriage to a pagan and refused to consummate it. Her piety converted him, and so an angel appeared and they were crowned with roses and lilies. Later he was killed for his faith and his brother too. Roman prefect Turcius Almachius had her condemned to death, first by suffocation, from which she escaped, and then by decapitation, which did not work after even three attempts. The executioner freaked out, and ran away. She lived three days and served the poor. The only problem is that none of this is likely to be true. Yet here is what we do know. She lived and was martyred, and her intervention has been credited with supporting the arts and music since her death. There is usually some basis for this, either supernatural or biographical. I would not be surprised to find that there was something about her that called her to some massive role in history long past her death. What it is I would like to know.
Rose Wilder Lane (1886—1968). Now here is a wonderful writer, and a true American! The daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder Lane, some people believe that she had more to do with the Little House series than is generally acknowledged. He writing career began in 1910 and lasted until her last years. She wrote biographies, stories for dozens of papers, and lived a varied and exciting life. Her book The Discovery of Freedom is a classic of libertarian apologetics. I’ve yet to read her novels (the ones she took credit for) but I would like to. I like this quotation: "Give me time and I will tell you why individualism, laissez faire and the slightly restrained anarchy of capitalism offer the best opportunities for the development of the human spirit. Also I will tell you why the relative freedom of human spirit is better — and more productive, even in material ways — than the communist, Fascist, or any other rigidity organized for material ends." How dashing she must have been. I’ve heard reports, though, that she was rather shy.
Bette Davis (1908—1989). If she had never made a movie, one senses that she would have made her mark on history somehow. This was a remarkable woman with the greatest range in her personality. No one so fully dominates the screen as does. One almost feels sorry for her co-actors; they seem to shrivel and dry by comparison. Her voice, her eyes, her walk, her presence and stamina, they all combine into a very powerful on-screen personality. She most famously played ruthless women but this was just a matter of the division of labor because she was just as great in other roles. She is obviously very smart, and must have had an explosive personality. I once met Gary Merrill to whom she married. Actually I was sort of forced to spend several days with him because of circumstances of time and place, and I certainly had the impression that he never really recovered from whatever he went through with her. In any case, how unforgettable it would be just to be in the same room with her.
So that’s my list, subject to change, even as soon as tomorrow.