Let’s Imagine You Have a Dinner Date — with History
For our weekend rumination, we are going to draw upon two what-if games that I have enjoyed over the years.
The first of these was a TV show created by the great Steve Allen (a true genius and talent). The show was Meeting of the Minds. The scenario was that Allen had the ability to reach back in time. He could invite any historical figure he chose to sit with other notables Allen had invited. Attendees would share their vision and goals, correct history, reminisce, etc.
The show ran for about 2-3 years, as I recall. It was terrific. Even as a kid, I loved it. You can see the first show still, thanks to YouTube. It features Teddy Roosevelt, Cleopatra, Thomas Paine, Saint Thomas Aquinas. You may find it at:
In more recent times the New Yorker magazine followed a similar gambit in print. In this case, they often focused more on living people. The setting was a dinner party rather than a conversational gathering. Given that setting, there was more attention to the mix of guests and how they might interact. It, too, was fun to play.
So, in honor of those two predecessors, let’s take a run at it, shall we? Let’s suppose you and your Significant Other will host a dinner for eight. You can invite any six people in history you choose to join you. Language will be magically finessed. The more rambunctious guests will be disarmed. The only criteria are that you must choose guests likely to be well known by others.
I have played this game with myself mentally many times. It is not only fun to make that list, but you also learn a bit about yourself in the process. Why did you choose that person? Why did you elect not to invite someone after considering it for a bit? What patterns do your choices reveal?
With more time to articulate the choices, you could think about what questions you might pose to the group or to individual invitees. My wife once asked me what meal I was planning to serve such a group. I, of course, had not a clue, as I had given that no thought. But this could be fun as well. What would you feed such an eclectic group? What would appeal to both Emperor Nero and Jane Austin?
I would love to hear of your choices; I hope you will share them. A complete list or a few names, and few lines, if you wish, about why they made your list. I will get us started. Any comments on my list are welcome. Here is my list for this round, in no particular order:
Alexander the Great: The man was not so named for no reason. Few accomplished so much, so quickly, in so many fields. By the age of 30 he had conquered and administered one of the largest empires in history. He was undefeated militarily. He was a military genius, but much more as well.
He learned the art of ruling from his father, how to think from Aristotle, and the lessons of military campaigning from friend and foe alike. Twenty cities bore his name. He spread the Hellenic culture farther than anyone could have imagined. That he died so young is history’s loss.
Empress Maria Theresa of the Habsburg Empire: I honestly did not know much about this woman until my first trip to Austria. I got a clue that I had missed one of history’s larger than life figures. She was the only woman to rule this empire. Over a 40-year reign, she secured the empire and largely kept the peace. She rose diplomacy by strategic marriages to an art. She improved about everything she touched.
She instituted wide ranging reforms in the military, education, agriculture, and commerce. She understood the importance of public perception by both commoners and royalty. Oh, and in her spare time bore 16 (!) children, 10 of which survived into adulthood. Half of them went on become ruling royalty themselves.
Aristotle: Teaching Alexander was but one of the marks in history made by this great thinker. In my view he was the greatest philosopher of all time. Mentored as a youth by Plato, he quickly expanded his thinking into an unimaginable number of fields, including science, mathematics, and the arts. But it is for philosophy that we are most in his debt. His study and elucidation of guides for a good life are as relevant today as ever. Most other philosophies and religions pale in comparison. In fact, most major religions, including Christianity, borrowed heavily from his work. His work has been misappropriated and twisted at times by others but it stands as a supreme guide for our species.
Ann Richards: The then governor of Texas burst on the national scene as the keynote speaker at the 1988 Democratic convention. At that convention, she uttered one of the most enduring put-downs in political history. In describing George H.W. Bush, she said “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” That phrasing told you a lot about her down to earth, no holds barred approach to life and politics.
By the way, a lesser known quote from that speech was a keeper as well: “I am delighted to be here with you this evening, because after listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like.”As governor, she broke new ground, bringing reform and diversity throughout government. While in office, she celebrated her 60th birthday by getting her motorcycle license. She was a funny, practical, skilled politician, feminist, and leader. Still, the Bush family got the last measure. George the Younger defeated her in her reelection bid in the 1994 Republican sweep. Your loss, Texas.
Carl Sagan: Something of a sentimental choice, Sagan has always been a hero to me. This is not a term I use often. No one that I know of did more to foster understanding of science and technology. He raised our understanding, made us deal with hard questions, and celebrated reason and intellect. He did all this while maintaining his humor, a sense of wonder, and the patience to deal with those who did not see what he saw.
That patience included dealing with those who failed to understand the power of science. It also included those in the scientific community who looked down on him for dealing with lay persons so diligently. Shame on them all. He was in so many ways, the best of us. Again, a great mind taken from us much too soon. I frequently think about all he offered, especially on his birthday. Others have picked up his mantle (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Michio Kaku, and others). Carl is still the master we all follow.
Georgia O’Keeffe: Surely one of the most unique artists ever to illustrate the American landscape. You could never look at flowers or a desert the same after viewing an O’Keeffe painting. She saw a world invisible to the rest of us, until she shared it. Her personalization of art was dramatic, clear, and bracing. I probably stare at O’Keeffe paintings longer than anyone else’s. It is a new world she provides.
It would be fascinating to talk to her about her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, one of this country’s first great photographer and an early supporter of O’Keeffe before their personal relationship and marriage came about. How did these two singular artists, with their unique visions, affect each other’s work? She often denied her flowers were anything more than flowers, but wouldn’t it be great to have that discussion, too?
Well, that is my list for this round. We will do this again. Who is on your list and why? Does your list include anyone you don’t like but would like to talk to about something?
My experience in life is that most of my very best conversations and human interactions happen when we break bread together, especially if we share a bit of wine while we are at it. Wouldn’t it be great to do that without our chosen guest list? Bon Appetit!
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