My Newest Book is Here! – Chapter 1

I am happy to announce that the second installation of the Tackle the Library series is finally here! This book took me five months to write and I am thrilled to have the project completed. Plato is a tough dude to study and I read over 4,000 pages of text to write this tiny book. Do not fret, I guarantee that you will be able to understand Plato’s philosophy in this easy-to-read narrative. Below is the description.

Plato’s philosophy, political theory, and scholasticism shaped our modern day world. His ideas and writings are both important and honestly confusing. Have you ever wanted to learn about this crucial man but felt overwhelmed by the number of books on the subject? Have you tried to read dry Wikipedia articles on the “Forms” or the “Philosopher King” which soon made your eyeballs glaze over? Do you simply not care that much about Plato to commit a lot of time in dissecting his complicated beliefs? 

The Tackle the Library series takes the top 5 books on a subject and turns them into a cohesive story that is not only interesting to read but highly informative. Plato is one of the greatest philosophers of all time and is worth learning about because he attempted to understand topics which impact our everyday life: ethics, desire, virtue, wisdom, love, politics, and purpose to name a few. This book makes nonfiction a painless process – no other text naturally explains the background, the evolution, the application, the history, and the paradoxes of Plato’s philosophy in a way that keeps the pages turning. Stop staring at that dusty shelf of nonfiction texts in the library and crack open a book that you’ll actually want to read.

If your curiosity is piqued, please give this book a try. It will take you a couple hours to finish and you will gain an entirely new understanding of the world. Just like my last book, We’re all Chihuahuas, I am having a special weekend sale where you can download it for free. Please click this link or any link you see on this page to download. For the next three days, I will post the first three chapters as a thank you to my readers. I hope you enjoy and gain something from the experience.

Without further adieu…

Chapter 1 – The Cave

“The beginning is the most important
part of the work.” – Plato

The path seems to meander in the distance and turn hazy in spots from shimmers of light-reflected heat. You’re on a hiking trail and slowly ascending a steep hillside during the peak days of summer – magnificent in beauty but sweltering in humidity. A quick glance off trail reveals a shaded spot and a possible resting place before the final push upwards. Sitting under the shade, you set your bag down and notice a small opening. It is a hole that emits cold air – what appears to be the entry to a natural cave. After an arduous dig, the gap widens to a large opening that teases the curiosity. Slowly you descend until your eyes adjust and all of the surroundings become discernible; this is no ordinary cave but rather one with a group of mystified inhabitants staring at a particular wall. These inhabitants were born in the cave and were forced, since birth, to watch the shapes and figures on the stone – created by the tiny holes of light behind them. They believe these shadows are actual objects and there is no more to the world than what is observed on that slimy edifice. You tap a few on the shoulder and break the spell of their imprisonment. You turn them towards the light source and show how the images are created; they are stunned and cannot believe that their reality was just a mirage.

Exalted in your good deeds, you try to lead them further out of the cave. Surprisingly though, you see the inhabitants turn back to their familiar wall and continue in their most comfortable state – ignorance. The truth is too much for them, and they prefer to look at the shadows instead of understanding their outer and inner worlds. Frustrated, you grab a few by the arm and you force them out into the summer day. The cave dwellers’ eyes sear from the brightness and they are unable to see. You slowly get them use to their new reality, and eventually, they grow in their belief and reason of what the world entails. They go back to the cave and try to get more people – only a few more decide to step out – most remain steadfast to the wall. Having done your job, you continue on with your hike and immediately tap your phone and post about your experience. You get to the top of the hill and check the news, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and various other media outlets; looking up for a second you see the horizon and have a weird thought pop into your head – “Am I also looking at the wall of a cave?”

The idea of “The Cave” is one of Plato’s most relevant and endearing metaphors. In today’s world, we no doubt would have an easy time finding “cave dwellers” who propagate stupidity and selfishness – just imagine Plato reading the comment sections of an internet post. Plato was not pretentious in his view of humanity but hopeful that man could turn from ignorance and reach a better life through active reasoning; Plato wrote, “Apply yourself both now and in the next life. Without effort, you cannot be prosperous. Though the land be good, you cannot have an abundant crop without cultivation.” This cultivation begins with the belief that wisdom is something worth pursuing and that we can climb above our “sense perception” to a greater realm of understanding. Plato’s highest goal in life was not understanding the physical realities of the world – which our cave eyes could quickly ascertain – but rather the light source itself. The sun in the Cave metaphor is the source of all things good in this life: virtue, happiness, love, justice, courage, beauty, and loyalty are a few examples of the “goodness.” Plato wanted to understand a universal standard for the “Good” and a level of knowledge which would allow us to fully grasp our inner self – ultimately leading to a greater appreciation of life.

Plato made it clear that most people will never leave the wall in the cave and few will cross over the threshold of understanding the highest truths. The journey out of the cave is a lifelong process and I wanted to give the ascent my best shot. Like Bilbo Baggins exiting the Shire, I soon realized that my path towards truth was not an easy road and not a solitary pursuit. To understand Plato, I enlisted the help of others and decided to read the top five books on the subject: Plato: Complete Works – edited by John M. Cooper, Plato’s Ethics by Terence Irwin, Preface to Plato by Eric Havelock, Plato: The Man and His Work by A.E. Taylor, and The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman. These books were challenging and entailed 4,000 pages of cave-exiting illumination. My eyes are now turned from the wall and it is my job to help you understand how beliefs morph into knowledge and how knowledge morphs into wisdom. We will climb through the mountains of Plato’s philosophy and cover subjects which have perplexed humanity since the beginning of time: the soul, desire, virtue, wisdom, love, politics, and purpose. Plato lived over 2,400 years ago, but his teachings seem more relevant today than any other time in history – our world sinking further into a “virtual” reality. Ultimately, we study Plato to open up our perspective of our inner self and our humanity so that we can live a better existence and help others to cross over the bridge of ignorance. So let’s turn our heads from the wall and take a step towards the light – let’s TACKLE THE LIBRARY.

Mormons – Murders – Multiple Wives

In 1984, two fundamentalist Mormons – commanded by God – slit the throats of their sister-in-law and baby niece. Brenda and Erica Lafferty were victims in a long chain of Mormon-related violence stretching back from the 19th century. Today, mainstream Mormonism is a peaceful religion with almost 15 million followers – equal to the world population of Jews. I once knew a Mormon and toured their facilities in Salt Lake City, Utah – quite a sight if you ever get a chance to visit. Mormon history is very peculiar, and I wanted to learn more about it through Jon Krakauer’s book – Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Krakauer highlights how fundamentalism can lead to violence and subjugation in his compelling tale of present-day murder and the Mormon church’s growth from obscure to mainstream. 

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Let’s start from the beginning. Joseph Smith – the founder of Mormonism – was visited by an angel named Moroni while praying one evening in 1823. This angel revealed the location of golden plates that contained lost religious writings. After several failed attempts, Joseph was able to acquire the golden plates at the Hill Cumorah in Manchester, New York. The plates contained sacred records in an unknown language called reformed Egyptian. Joseph was the only one able to translate these tablets using special glasses. These plates would lead to the publishing of the Book of Mormon in 1830 and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1838. Several followers joined Smith’s church which claimed that a lost tribe of Isreal came to America and that Jesus visited them after his crucifixion. Early followers joined Joseph’s church because he proclaimed that God could be reached through personal revelations and that there were no barriers in communicating with God. This was at a time when American religion was experiencing a Second Great Awakening. Unfortunately, membership was not boosted by the sight of the golden tablets because they had to be given back to the Angel Moroni.

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Joesph moved his church from New York to Ohio where Smith was charged with financial fraud – forcing him to take his flock west to Missouri. While in Missouri, the Mormons fought with their “gentile” neighbors and after a bloody fighting, they were forced to relocate to the state of Illinois. The Mormons, being a tight-knit group who disliked outsiders, did not get along with their Illinois statesman – violence and murder were common. Things began to fall apart for Joseph when he received a revelation from God that he should take multiple wives. The church split from Joseph’s philandering, and the prophet was arrested for suppressing the local press. While in custody, Joseph Smith was killed by an angry “gentile” mob who saw him as a religious fanatic. The Mormon church was in chaos after their founder’s death but one of their leaders – Brigham Young – led them westward to safety. By 1847 more than 2000 Mormons had left American soil and entered the Mexican territory of what is now Utah. 

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Joseph’s polygamy revelation was not taken well by most of the Mormon leaders. Joseph’s wife actually declared that God had revealed to her that she should have multiple husbands – this did not sit well with the prophet. After the prophet’s death, the church split into polygamous and non-polygamous sects – the polygamous group headed to Utah and the non-polygamous group faded into obscurity. Brigham Young supported polygamy and believed it was the best way for men to live virtuous lives since they wouldn’t be tempted by extramarital sex. The United States government banned plural marriage and fought the Mormons on this front until the late 19th century when they passed laws to seize all Mormon church holdings. The Mormon church finally bowed to the law and changed their policy of polygamy in 1904. Since the prophet proclaimed polygamy to be a God-given right, many Mormons broke from the main church to establish their own “fundamentalist” branches.

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Today about 40,000 Mormons are fundamentalists and still practice polygamy. A famous example is Warren Jeffs, who was purported to have 70 wives, many of which were 14 years old at the time of marriage. These fundamentalists are responsible for most Mormon-related violence and kidnappings – the most famous being Elizabeth Smart in 2002. Of course, there is a lot to say about this subject, but the point I want everyone to take from this post is that fundamentalism – in any religion or secular viewpoint – is never a good thing. To be a fundamentalist is to believe that there is nothing more to learn from the world – many times an outlook that leads to dehumanization. Remember that we must be open to both truth and empathy – when those two things are absent the result is the murder of a mother and her child.

What are your views on Mormonism, Fundamentalism, and/or Polygamy? I love to read your comments.

10 Things I Learned About Ancient Rome

I just got back from a vacation to Rome! I don’t have any pictures or souvenirs because this vacation was more imaginary than real. Thanks to my student loans, I was only able to explore the great city and the history of the Roman Empire through my most recent book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. I won’t bore you with the details of the Roman Empire because I think my last few posts have been a little dry. I do have a funny anecdote and a short list that may pique your interest in Roman history. First the anecdote. I was reading this book at 8:30 in the morning outside the Secretary of State. The doors were locked until 9:00 am but the gracious staff members had allowed people to queue just outside the main seating area. This small vestibule was packed full of people and the well-structured line that had originally formed soon morphed into a large blob. This DMV-amoeba was made up of young and old who were anxious for the doors to open – so they could get on with their day. I had my book and was trying to read when a large woman answered her phone. This phone conversation was not meant for the waiting vestibule of the Secretary of State – most people began to shuffle their feet when her voice began to rise.

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I tried to focus on my book but I thought of something right at that moment that really brought ancient Rome to life. I was reading a book about a city in which there was probably a similar scenario over 2000 years ago. It made me think about Romans and their own frustrating moments – allowing me to see the humanity of a long lost society. Eventually, the doors opened and we shuffled in as if entering the Colosseum itself. This is a simple antidote but it is important to remember that when we read about the past we forget that people lived fairly routine lives that are often times looked over. I guess my point is that we can’t look over the details of the Secretary of State waiting room – those details sometimes teach us more than a book. Below find nine interesting thoughts about Ancient Rome.

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  1. The letters SPQR stand for “The Senate and the Roman people” – the war cry of the expanding empire.
  2. The founders of Rome were Romulus and Remus who were abandoned as infants and survived by sucking on the milk of a wolf – another name for a wolf in early Latin was a prostitute.
  3. Roman public baths were a regular source of infectious diseases and many Roman dignitaries died from infection after visiting them.
  4. Rome itself was ridden with malaria because of its location next to the water and the humid climate – disease killed more Romans than any invading barbarian horde.
  5. The Roman law laid out best practices for killing infants who were not desired.
  6. Rome was the first city in the world to reach a population of 1,000,000 people.
  7. Rome was founded in the 8th century BC – a simple town for many years before it began to control rival towns on the Italian Penisula.
  8. The city of Rome’s population in the first century BC was estimated to be 40% slaves – all different races and ethnicities.
  9. Emperor Caligula was supposed to have made his horse a consul and priest.
  10. Emperor Tiberius was supposed to have trained small boys to swim underneath him while in a pool and nibble on his genitals.

I hope these facts piqued your interest and help you appreciate a future vacation to the city of Rome or maybe just give you something to think about while waiting at the Secretary of State.

US Grant – America’s Unlikely Hero – Part 2

I want to give a shout out to one particular reader for sticking with me through all these Presidential posts. Thank you, Allie Nye, for your loyal following and steadfast interest in a subject I find extremely relevant. Last week I posted about Ulysses S. Grant and for some reason, not many people wanted to read about one of America’s most popular presidents. For those who did read part one – I’m sure you had a sleepless night anticipating the release of Part 2. To all my readers who are sick of dead white men, I assure you this is the last post for quite some time concerning the subject. Let’s get back to where we last left Grant – a downtrodden man with a smeared reputation trying to bake bread for the Union Army.

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Before Grant could put his first loaf of bread in the oven, he was given a new lease on life from a longtime friend – Congressman Elihu B. Washburne of Illinois. Thanks to Washburne – who was a close acquaintance to Lincoln – Grant moved up the military ladder from simple aid to Brigadier General of volunteers. This meteoric rise was partially due to Grant’s talent in organizing men and his tenacious leadership. The now military leader would go on to win the Union’s first major victory at Fort Donaldson and the bloodiest battle in American history up until that point – Shiloh.  Grant became a national figure after these two events and was admired by Lincoln as an “offensive” general not scared of his Confederate counterparts. This executive admiration was contrasted by cries from the press that Grant was a “Butcher” and a reckless campaigner. To worsen Grant’s image, there were reports of him getting drunk on regular occasions – these being half-truths and whole exaggerations.

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By the end of the war, Grant would have decisive victories in Vicksburg and Petersburg; all the while devastating the south through his command of Sheridan’s cavalry and Sherman’s March to the Sea. He was promoted to Lieutenant General – which was the highest rank in America only held once before by George Washington. His military power reached its zenith at Appomattox Courthouse where he forced the magnanimous surrender of Robert E. Lee – pardoning all Confederate soldiers and allowing them to go back home without further prosecution. Grant by far was the most responsible person for winning the Civil War: free of vanity, generous to friends,  and patriotic to the core.

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Grant’s accomplishments in the Civil War catapulted him into the national psyche – on a level equal to Abraham Lincoln. He immediately enforced Reconstruction and ordered troops into the south to protect the rights of the newly freed slaves. For the first time in history, blacks were able to vote and Grant was elected as President in a landslide victory at the young age of 46. He championed the enforcement of the 13th amendment and helped pass the 14th and 15th amendments which ensured equal citizenship and voting rights for former slaves. It was said that Lincoln was responsible for freeing the slaves but Grant was responsible for fostering their humanity. He formed the Justice Department to prosecute the newly formed and powerful terrorist organization – the Ku Klux Klan.  Grant promoted a record number of blacks to public office and freely welcomed black activists like Frederick Douglas into the White House. He helped found the first National Park at Yellowstone and pushed for public education like no other president before. His popularity was so great that he was elected to a second presidency and the famous feminist Susan B. Anthony campaigned in his name.  Grant won his second term and was the first two-term president since Andrew Jackson.

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Of course, Grant was not perfect and he had several problems in his cabinet from nepotism and trying to lead the country with a military mindset. Politics were not Grant’s forte and he didn’t know when to back down from a political fight – a trait that helped him on the battlefield but hurt him in Congress. He was loyal to friends to the point of foolishness and this burned him many times when uncovering corruption schemes. By the end of his second term, Reconstruction was a dead issue and he felt helpless in his ability to defend blacks – a moral fatigue inundated the north. Upon retiring from office, he went on a two-year world tour where he met the most famous leaders of the gilded age – from Queen Victoria of England to Emperor Meiji of Japan. He was pushed towards a third term as president but due to George Washinton’s tradition of two terms, he failed to achieve the nomination.

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The end of Grant’s life is a sad tale of betrayal and suffering. Shortly after reentering civilian life, Grant trusted his financial health to a supposed friend. This swindling Wall Street man stole all of Grant’s family and friends’ money through the use of a pyramid scheme. He was left penniless and only sustained himself through donations from admirers across the country. One day, Grant experienced a sharp pain in his mouth – the annoyance was actually throat cancer. To prevent his family from complete poverty upon his death, Grant wrote a memoir that Mark Twain would go on to publish. He wrote his memoir in excruciating pain and barely finished it before dying in 1885 – his body only weighed 90 lbs from his inability to drink and eat. His memoir gained $450,000 dollars in royalties ($11,000,000 in today’s value) and his funeral in New York was attended by 1.5 million people – eulogized as a man equal to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. He was a man of character and virtue who overcame his vices of drink and stood up for society’s downtrodden – making him one of my favorite presidents. Next time you have a $50 bill, use Grant’s face to go buy Ron Chernow’s book and some baked goods in commemoration.
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US Grant – America’s Unlikely Hero – Part 1

A long time ago, my good friend Chuck asked me an interesting question. “Jon do you have a favorite author that writes like a fine wine or a three-star Michelin restaurant? I honestly had no answer to this detailed inquiry. At that time I was just starting on my journey of reading, and I couldn’t distinguish an average author from a great author. My palate was not entirely up to par, and my neural taste buds were still in an immature state. I finally have an answer for my friend after being exposed to so many different writing styles – the author Ron Chernow. Chernow writes biographies in such a detailed way that the reader feels like a fly on the wall of history. He is most famous for his book on Alexander Hamilton which became a hit Broadway play and his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on George Washington.

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His books regularly make appearances on the New York Times bestseller list even though they are on antiquated topics and extremely large in breadth. I picked up his most recent book Grant, which is 1100 pages and a fascinating tale of 19th-century history. I would argue that any person who dislikes history would love this book and find newfound interests. Think of Chernow as a gourmet chef and Ulysses S. Grant as a prized but unknown ingredient. Through excellent writing, Grant’s powerful life hits you in the mouth like Emeril Lagasse throwing spice into a hot skillet.

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US Grant was born in Ohio on April 22, 1822. His father was a tanner and he grew up as a shy boy underneath an outspoken father and overly standoffish mother. Grant was described as silent, modest, respectful of women, and courageous against neighborhood bullies. From a young age, he stood up for the underdog and spoke few words of malice towards even his most ardent detractors. He was sent off to West Point by chance since a cadet was kicked out at the same time Grant’s father requested his son’s admittance. While at West Point, Grant excelled at horsemanship but was no star pupil. He did excel at mathematics, but his career in the military did not look promising. Upon graduation, he was stationed in Missouri where Grant met his future wife Julia Dent and his future Confederate father-in-law Colonel Dent.

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During this time, America entered into war with Mexico and Grant was jettisoned into combat – an environment he excelled in. He served as a logistics specialist and honed critical military strategies during this conflict. Grant also learned something even more indispensable while in Mexico: the characteristics of the future generals of the Confederacy. Upon the completion of hostilities, Grant was stationed in the burgeoning gold rush town of San Francisco and Northern California. This was a difficult time for Grant because he missed his new wife and his family. He took to drink and was reprimanded for drinking by a persnickety leader – eventually leading to resignation and a marred reputation for the rest of his life. Grant did have a drinking problem, but it never got in the way of his leadership. If it had, he would not have achieved his remarkable feats after leaving the military in 1854.

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Civilian life was hard for Grant and he struggled to find his place in society. At one point he was so economically distraught he had to pawn his watch for Christmas presents and take a job at his Dad’s tannery store as a simple clerk. He walked around Galena, Illinois with his old military jacket and an unkempt beard – most people astonished to see his state of poverty. Compounding his problems, both his Father and Father-in-Law saw him as a failure and regularly forced their views upon him as if he were a child. He was a beaten man during this time, and his woes continued to worsen after his former California business speculations soured; these speculations were undertaken because Grant overly trusted acquaintances and people in general.

1867 Chromolithograph of Ulysses Grant by Fabronius, Gurney & Son.

He had such high integrity for himself that he couldn’t understand how other people could be cruel in their business dealings. When all seemed lost in Grant’s life, the most significant conflict in American history broke out – the Civil War. As if awakened by a jolt of electricity, Grant felt it was his chance to use his former military talents and serve the Union. The only problem was that no one wanted him because of his previous drunkenness and his paltry political connections. Not receiving any worthy commissions, Grant decided he would bake bread for the soldiers. Just before applying for this culinary position, fate opened up her doors. To be continued…Part 2 next week.

The friend in my adversity I shall always cherish most. I can better trust those who helped to relieve the gloom of my dark hours than those who are so ready to enjoy with me the sunshine of my prosperity.
– Ulysses S. Grant

Meet a President on President’s Day

It’s that time of year again – President’s Day! This is one of my favorite holidays because I get to ask random people about their most beloved President. I usually get an odd look, and some people even feel offended as if I’m probing into their political ideology. Usually, I get the following answers: Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. Almost like a game of Pokemon, I try to find people with rare favorites like James Buchannon or Andrew Jackson. My favorite President is by far Theodore Roosevelt and if you like to learn more about his extraordinary life click here, here, and here. These past few weeks have been heavy with posts on Presidents, and it is partially because of today’s holiday commemorating George Washington’s birthday. This is a special post because it marks my last Founding Father to report on – John Adams. I read John Adams by David McCullough and highly recommend it to understand this peculiar second President of the United States. Who knows, maybe after reading this, you’ll have a new favorite.

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John Adams was born in Quincy, Massachusettes on October 30, 1735, to a pious farming family. As a direct descendant of the original Puritans, Adams began his life steeped in a culture of morality and tradition. Adams did not care for his early schooling and at one point wanted to be a farmer – this was vetoed by his father, and he was sent to Harvard College in 1751. While in school, Adams excelled in his studies and eventually became a lawyer with a promising career in Boston. It was during this time that he met his future wife, Abigail Smith, and they would go on to have six children – two dying early in life. While in Boston, Adams became an active opponent of the Stamp Act and unfair taxation by the British Government. He would actually go on to represent the British Soldiers who were responsible for the Boston Massacre – believing in the justice of the court and eventually receiving massive publicity from the trial. His reputation as a sharp lawyer and proponent of liberty led to his election in the First and Second Continental Congress. He was responsible for pushing the government into a bicameral legislator and the final passing of the Declaration of Independence – Jefferson said that Adams was the “pillar of the Declaration’s support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered.”

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With his success in the Continental Congress, Adams was elected Ambassador to Britain where he negotiated the final treaty ending the Revolutionary War in 1783. He became Vice President under Washington and took the Presidency himself as a Federalist in 1797. Adams’ Presidency could be best summarized as a placeholder for Washington’s policies. Adams was pro-British and supported Atlantic trade between the two countries; he prevented war with France and balanced a tightrope of European powers trying to take advantage of the young republic. In the end, Adams’ presidency was nothing to do backflips over. His personality while in office was prickly and somewhat aloof – preferring the opinion of his wife over his cabinet members. Adam loved to argue, and he was not one to sway with public opinion. He had a strong moral foundation, but an excessive paranoia of opponents which led to the Alien and Sedition Acts – limiting the inalienable rights of the citizenry.

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He was viewed by Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans as a tyrant. Adams lost his reelection and eventually went into retirement near his birthplace in Quincy. He would stay active in political opinion and eventually mend his friendship with Jefferson in later life. John Adams did not excel in the public eye and was always best suited for the intellectual backrooms of government. Although he had difficulties appeasing the masses, he became a role model in respects to morality which surpassed most Founding Fathers. Unlike the Virginian leaders, Adams was an abolitionist from birth and never owned a single slave. He corresponded with his wife with a love that was genuine and uncompromising. Adams was a modest and shrewd businessman – living without the suffocating debt ubiquitous for southern leaders. Adams and Thomas Jefferson would end up dying on the same day – the 50th Anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Adams is one of my “honorable mention” Presidents because what he lacked for social skills he made up for in reading and writing. He had a library of over 3,000 books and believed these words full heartedly…

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“Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.”

Happy Presidents Day everyone! 

The Last Founding Father vs. Donald Trump

It seems to be another hectic week for our President – Donald Trump. A government shut down never looks good for the leader of the government. I heard this news from my Dad who was quite upset – not at Donald Trump – but at Democrats. See, my Dad is not an anomaly. Whenever our views are attacked, our elephant instincts kick in. We “react” first and “rationalize” later – usually, that rationalization is far from sensical. My Dad and I like to bump chests politically, but in the end, we always just sit on the couch and watch sports. However, our discussions about politics are not zero-sum gains. Trying to understand another person’s views takes time, patience, and empathy. My Dad and I have learned a lot from each other and our conversations keep getting more civil – our tandem elephants are becoming more docile.

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As an extension of last week’s post about James Madison, I am going to further question what it means to be “presidential.” Time will tell how Trump does over the next years but how can we truly judge his performance? We need to know how other Presidents have done in the past so we can have rationale conversations into the future. To achieve this goal, I am reading every US President’s biography and writing about them for your enjoyment – here is a list of all the previous posts: George Washington, John Adams (coming next week), Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover. This week I read about America’s fifth president – James Monroe – The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger.

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James Monroe was the last founding father to be President and was actually born shortly before the American Revolution in 1758. Monroe was raised in Virginia, but unlike Washington, Jefferson, or Madison he did not own substantial plantation property. He fought in the Revolutionary War and was actually with Washington in the Battle of Trenton when the famous crossing of the Deleware River occurred; he was wounded in the battle but eventually recovered. The military at the time had a glut of officers, so Monroe was never able to receive a position of command. Upon National Independence, he took up law to begin supporting himself and his wife, Elizabeth Monroe.

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Throughout this time, Monroe was mentored by a fellow Virginian – Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson pushed Monroe to join him in politics and Monroe initially split his time between law and the Virginian House of Delegates. He would go on to serve in the Congress of the Confederation and help ratify Virginia’s Constitution. His political career took off when he became Ambassador to France during the French Revolution, Ambassador to Britain and Minister to Spain – negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, land treaties, and peace negotiations while overseas. He would go on to be the Governor of Virgina for four terms, US Secretary of State, and US Secretary of War. While Secretary of War, he virtually ran the government because Madison was inept during that period of conflict. He would go on to be the most popular President since George Washington.

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Monroe committed over 40 years of his life to public service and served in more public posts than any American in history. While President, he pushed for Western expansion and acquired more land from the Spanish in modern-day Florida. He protected American interests at a time in history when European powers could quickly take advantage of the young country. The Monroe Doctrine was a masterpiece of diplomacy for the Western Hemisphere and allowed independence for myriad nations in Central and South America. Monroe was described by friends and foes alike as having plain and gentle manners. He was a bold and robust leader in times of war and peace and fought for the Bill of Rights and against secrecy rules in Congress – opening the halls of Government for the first time in history.

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Monroe established the first state-supported public schools and pushed the development of public roads and canals to further commerce. Monroe was secretly an excellent President who accomplished more than I had ever thought. He transformed a fragile nation into a glorious empire – by making the United States impregnable to attack and rich in natural resources. He allowed Americans to expand westward and gain a democratic vote through the ownership of land; his Presidency saw the largest redistribution of wealth in the annals of history. Monroe was so popular that there were no political parties during his presidency; he was able to bring people together and put his country first. James Monroe indeed achieved “presidential” status during his Presidency – unfortunately, Trump is nowhere close to his level at this point…but I’m hoping he will pull through.

James Madison vs. Donald Trump

How would you rate Trump in his presidency? I don’t watch the daily news, but I do hear about the significant events through the grapevine; the most recent “Shit Hole” remark is not entirely surprising and falls in line with Trump’s previous propensity to say unpresidential remarks. But what does it mean to be “presidential?” Since I am fully immersed in Plato right now, my brain is constantly scanning for the root definitions of words. According to Plato, to be “presidential” would require one to be a “statesman” – a position of power which disseminates the knowledge of the “good.” What is the knowledge of the “good?” In a sense, it is the correct understanding of human morality and virtues.

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The question, however, gets more complicated because Plato argues we can never entirely obtain knowledge of the “good;” we have to try our best to seek out knowledge throughout our lives through dialogue and personal revelation. So does Trump seem to be on a lifelong journey of wisdom? To follow Socrates example, we’ll leave that question unanswered. Another component of understanding true “statesmanship,”  is to understand past examples in history. How can people honestly know what a good President looks like if their only comparisons are those of living memory: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr, Ronald Reagan, etc. To further add to the conundrum, how many of these Presidents have been personally studied – what do you actually know about their intrinsic virtues and morals? In an attempt to get to the base of understanding “good” leadership, I am reading all the United State President’s biographies. My most recent is on James Madison – James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney. Next week I will post on James Monroe.

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James Madison was born on March 16th, 1751 to the Virginian planter class. He grew up accustomed to slavery and didn’t do much to further its abolition – less than George Washington and John Adams. Madison suffered from epilepsy at a time when epilepsy was thought to be a personal weakness, and he was a frail man in general – barely breaking the 5-foot barrier. Because of his health conditions, he took to erudition and became a prominent Virginian politician after attending modern-day Princeton. He was mentored by Thomas Jefferson and was close to leading figures of the Revolutionary War.

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Madison championed religious freedoms in the Virginian Constitution and cherished Enlightenment ideas. He was the father of the United States Constitution which was his political Magnum Opus. To push ratification of the Constitution, he partnered with opposite party member – Alexander Hamilton – to publish the famed The Federalist Papers.  Madison straddled party lines for the sake of his country and in the end, helped America form a stable central government while maintaining individual freedoms through the Bill of Rights. He would go on to serve in Congress, as Secretary of State, and as the 4th President of the United States.

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Madison was by far a not a perfect President and did not make satisfying decisions with respects to the War of 1812. His leadership skills were weak when it came to acts of force, and he had difficulties inspiring fellow cabinet members. By the end of his presidency, his successor James Monroe was practically running the government in his place. Madison’s gifts were behind the scenes, and he is most responsible for the United States withholding the Constitution we hold dear today. A Constitution which he designed to be changed according to ultimate liberties – the abolition of slavery to name one. Without Madison, the United States would never have had a Government which could defend itself from foreign attack while simultaneously preserving the rights of individual citizens.

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While in office, Madison had many opponents and is actually credited with forming the first political party with Jefferson. He was a scholar who believed in himself even though many people pushed him to the side because of his physical impediments. Was Madison “Presidential?” He is by far not the best President I have read about, but I do appreciate his quest for compromise and his pursuit of genuine liberty – a liberty that had to balance between the British Monarchy and French Jacobins. His virtues seem to be cooperation, determination, flexibility, and idealism. So how does Madison compare to Tump? I’m going to pull a Socrates again and let you ponder that question.

Working (Words) Out in the Nude

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. Confused? This actually is a grammatically correct sentence. There are three meanings of the word Buffalo…

  1. The proper noun referring to the city Buffalo, New York
  2. The verb to buffalo, which means “to bully, harass, or intimidate”
  3. The noun referring to the animal – buffalo (biologically a Bison).

This sentence translated would read: “Buffalo (the place) bison (the animal), whom other Buffalo bison bully, themselves bully Buffalo bison.” Take a deep breath and don’t give up on this post quite yet. This oddity of the English language is a great example of etymology – the study of word origins and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. The average person usually doesn’t think before they speak; it is even rarer to find someone who questions the very foundations of speech itself. Mark Forsyth is one of those people – the author of the #1 International Bestseller – The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language. The title “Etymologicon” is a real word that means a book written about etymology. Forsyth is a word master, and his work became a #1 International Bestseller. All words have a history, and those histories are fascinating. Below I am going to highlight the origin of ten words that were detailed by Forsyth in his book. These are just a few examples of what is in the book, and if your curiosity is piqued, I highly recommend you reading it for yourself.

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  1. A long time ago there was a tribe named the “Franks.” The Franks invaded the Gauls whose occupied area became known as “France” – the K replaced with a C. The Franks “disenfranchised” the Gauls and hence were themselves “enfranchised.” This oppression by the Franks allowed them to speak freely or “frankly.”
  2. A long time ago, there was a significant swath of persecuted people in Eastern Europe known as the Slavs. The Slavs were slain and subjugated by the Byzantine Empire to the south and the Holy Roman Empire to the north. Eventually, the word Slav became synonymous with forced labor – or Slave.
  3. A long time ago, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there were lords and peasants. The peasant was required to work the lords’ land and a small portion of his own which was granted to him. This mindless labor system was called Robot.giphy3
  4. A long time ago, Englishmen had trouble with persistent coughs. They could take morphine – a standard treatment at the time – but they didn’t want to become addicted. Scientists came to the rescue and invented a morphine substitute. This new medicine needed a brand name so the marketers asked the test participants how it made them feel. They all unanimously said it made them feel great and like “heroes.” Heroe was turned into the brand name Heroin.
  5. A long time ago, Hitler formed the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei); the official identification of all Hitler followers in Germany. This Party name was unfortunate because in Germany there were many jokes about Bavarian peasants who were seen as stupid and lazy. The identifier of this class of peasant was the typical male name Ignatius – or its shortened version – Nazi. Hitler’s opponents jumped at the insult and abbreviated Hitler’s party name.
  6. A long time ago, medieval doctors believed the vein on the fourth finger ran directly to the heart. This anatomical connection eventually proved false, but the tradition of encircling the heart through the vein continued on – with the ring finger and the wedding band.giphy4
  7. A long time ago, monks were a common sight in Catholic Europe – hooded men who were far from models of chastity and virtue. Many saw them as filthy sinners who were no better than animals. When explorers decided to name hairy-man-like animals, they used a similar name – Monkeys.
  8. A long time ago, America decided to test a new hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean. This weapon was more potent than previous – incidentally exposing Japanese fisherman to radiation. This event inspired the movie Godzilla and a French clothes designer who needed a name for his scandalous swimwear – which would cause an explosion of lust in all Frenchmen. This explosion would be named after the bomb test site – Bikini Atoll.
  9. A long time ago, Greek men enjoyed exercising outside in the nude. This arena of flesh was frequented by old and young alike – the older participants came primarily for sightseeing. The Greek word for naked is “gymnós” which eventually gave us Gyms and Gymnasiums. 
  10. A long time ago, people wanted to buy a house and hence needed a loan. There were two ways this loan could be fulfilled or said in another way – be put to “death”: it was paid off over a lifetime, or it was canceled after a missed payment. In many cases, it was doubtful that the person would make all these lifetime payments and so the loan would be dead to him. In either outcome, there was the likelihood of death, and hence the loan was called a death pledge – Mortgage. giphy5

So does this make you more curious about the words you use every day? I for sure look at diction differently now. Just remember that word meanings change over time and that new words are continually being invented. Don’t get too stringent with etymology and hop on the treadmill in the buff.

The Forgotten Genocide

I found myself last night eating a double-decker plate of apple pie with an unfortunate amount of whip-cream on top. While feasting, I thought about how thankful I was to be able to shove my face with food. Have you ever been without food before? Not like a diet or a 3 pm snack type of hunger; the kind of hunger where there is no escape and no relief to the pain of emptiness. I am thankful this holiday weekend that God has blessed my family with the polar opposite of that painful state. Unfortunately, there are individuals around the world who suffer from hunger on a daily basis – over 796 million people lack enough sustenance to lead a healthy lifestyle (foodaidfoundation.org). That statistic is doubly disheartening with the fact that the world wastes one-third of all food production each year – 1.3 billion tons (fao.org).

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I bring up hunger specifically because I just finished a book that details one of the worst genocides in our modern history – Not Even My Name: A True Story by Thea Halo. This genocide took place between 1913 and 1922 against the Christian ethnic groups of Turkey – Armenians, Assyrians, Pontic Greeks. In total, the Turkish government killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians, 300,000 Assyrians, and 500,000 Greeks through blatant murder and death marches. The book pointedly tells the story of Sano Halo – a Pontic Greek – who experienced these events and actually escaped with her life to America. As you’ll read, the Turkish authorities were ruthless against Halo’s family and used hunger as their principal weapon.

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The causes of this genocide are myriad, but one of the most significant catalysts was the Ottoman Empire’s fall during World War I. The Ottoman’s were prolific during the medieval ages but slowly declined by the 19th century – their central territory located in modern-day Turkey. At the turn of the 20th century, the Turkish government began changes in their state that aimed to lift up Turks and bring down historic ethnic groups located in the country. These “reforms” mixed with defeats in WWI to form a true hatred for everything “Western”; leading to the systemic extermination of millions of people to purify the decaying Turkish state and bring it back to its once glorious Ottoman apex. The government forced these “foreigners” – who historically lived in the area for thousands of years – into work camps, deportation marches, and mass graves.

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Sano Halo was 10 around the time the Turks came to her village and told her family to prepare to leave the next day. With guns pointed at their heads, they abandoned all their possessions, their livelihood, and their history. They were forced to march all day without breaks for food or water. The Turkish guards would beat them if they took a break or begged for food from local villages. Sano would end up marching 6 months straight – her younger siblings all died from hunger during that time. Eventually, even her mother died of exhaustion and Sano was forced to live with a Turkish family as a maid so she could have regular food.

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Sano was poorly treated by this family and eventually ran away. She was ultimately taken in by a family friend who arranged her marriage to an Assyrian man from America. She was able to reach Ellis Island and eventually had a happy family of 10 children. Sano was the unfortunate exception to this horrific story, and the Turkish government did their best to cover up its despicable deeds. In the aftermath of the genocide, textbook producers were paid by the Turkish government to exclude their actions and paint the country as a modernized beacon of the middle-east. This cover-up is one of the reasons Hitler felt so empowered to begin his own genocide…

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
-Adolf Hitler 1939

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Sadly, this Holocaust is still seldom recognized, and the Turkish government refuses to officially refer to it as a “genocide.” However, the genocide and death march was crystal clear for Sano, and thankfully her story was recorded so we can honor her family by spreading this knowledge. I challenge you this Thanksgiving weekend to think about how hunger can destroy and think about how blessed you are have not only food but a place to call “home.” Spread this message and help others learn this history. Not only will it help us prevent another genocide but it will help us be more thankful for the blessings we take for granted each and every day.

Further movies and books on this period in history…

Aghet: A Genocide (Documentary)

Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial, and Depiction (Documentary)

The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (Book)