The Gagged President – John Quincy Adams

Awhile back, I took a break from my goal of reading all the presidents’ biographies because I was getting burned out with white men politics and I knew you guys were yearning for more variety. It’s been a few months since my last presidential post and with this season of Independence upon us, I decided to return to my mission.  The next president on my list was John Quincy Adams and I picked up his biography by Harlow Giles Unger. I was excited to read about the son of John Adams because I enjoyed learning about the elder statesmen and his family through David McCullough. John Quincy Adams was born on July 11, 1767, in Braintree, Massachusetts. He accompanied his father to France in 1778 and from there went to Russia as a secretary assistant to the ambassador – he was only 14 years old. John Quincy was a precocious student steeped in classical education and was more worldly in his 20s than elder ambassadors at the time.

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Excelling at diplomacy and statesmanship, his career accomplishments are staggering: American minister to six European countries; negotiated the end of the War of 1812; freed African prisoners on the slave ship Amistad; served 16 years in the House of Representatives; restored free speech in Congress; led the anti-slavery movement, and was the 6th president of the United States. John Quincy Adams’s actual time in the presidential office was not very successful because he appeared too aristocratic; his past-times included reading Tacitus and writing poetry – the opposite interests of Andrew Jackson who usurped him after one term. I want to focus however on Adam’s post-presidency accomplishments – accomplishments which changed the course of American history.

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John Quincy’s later life is a lesson on how to respond to hardship. After losing reelection in 1828 and burying his son who committed suicide, he felt dejected and considered leaving political life forever. A flame of hope flickered for him when his local district in Massachusetts approached him to run for the House of Representatives. He became the first ex-president to sit in Congress and became a man on fire in the new role. For the past 30 years, slavery was a topic seldom discussed in government. It was such a hot-button issue that politicians didn’t even speak a word of it on the floor of the House or Senate. This changed however with the addition of the slave state Missouri and the ever-expanding Western boundary of the nation. New states were trying to come into the Union – with each addition, the balance of power between the south and north shifted.

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John Quincy had always been an abolitionist, but it wasn’t until his time as a Representative that he pushed this mission into politics. He stood on the floor and spoke the unmentionable words – Southern politicians denounced him and his “traitorous” rhetoric. He wrote in his journal during this time…

“It is among the evils of slavery that it taints the very sources of moral principle. It establishes false estimates of virtue and vice: for what can be more false and heartless than this doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin?”

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He would bring up the issue of slavery so often that the Southern politicians created a “gag rule” which would table any mention of the subject. The “gag rule” prevented any debate or discussion and whenever John Quincy tried to talk he was screamed at by Southerners until he was forced to sit down. After countless petitions and arguments, John Quincy was able to argue for his case – at one point he held the floor for two straight weeks. All of his excessive arguing against censorship and slavery led to him being a national hero and beloved member of Congress for those in the north. His driving force would lead to laws that reversed the “gag rule.” His later debates on abolition would influence a young representative from Illinois – Abraham Lincoln. John Quincy was the political matchstick which ignited the fuse leading to the Civil War. The sixth president died in 1848 two days after collapsing in the House of Representatives. His life was filled with education, service, failure, and accomplishments. More than anything, John Quincy Adams, bounced back after defeat and led the country as one of the most preeminent moral leaders. Failure is never the end – it is just the catalyst for a better beginning.

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.

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.

Heil Hitler: The Nazi’s Drug Addiction

Today, I saw the WWII movie Dunkirk directed by Christopher Nolan. It’s an exceptional movie, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about one of the most important events in the war. What made this film exciting for me was the knowledge that hard-core drugs made Dunkirk a possibility. Did you know that Hitler was a hardcore drug addict? Did you know the blitzkrieg was only possible because of meth? Did you know Nazis were given speed balls before kamikaze submarine missions? All of these questions are explained in the international bestseller Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler. I highly recommend this book because it completely changed my perspective on Nazi Germany. Up until this book, I saw the Nazis as superhuman- zealot nationalists who performed their tasks through the spirit of their beliefs; now I understand that their relentless drive came from drugs which kept them motivated, alert, and addicted to the war machine.

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In 1938, the German pharmaceutical company Temmler introduced Pervitin to the market. Pervitin was marketed as a magic medicine that provided energy, happiness, and the work ethic needed to expand the Third Reich. The magic of Pervitin lied in its main ingredient – methamphetamine aka Crystal Meth. This meth was available to all Germans and was given to soldiers in healthy doses during the blitzkrieg invasion of France. The blitzkrieg was only possible with Pervitin because the soldiers were able to go three days without sleep – the French soldiers couldn’t comprehend the artificial stamina of their opponents. The German tanks kept rolling because of the drugged soldier’s synthetic feelings of invincibility, and they ended up surrounding the Allies like a boa constrictor. The only escape route available for over 300,000 Allies was the coastal city of Dunkirk, France.

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Hitler, early on in his power, suffered from a host of stomach ailments which were probably due to stress and his diet. He searched for a doctor to help him, but no expert could help his infirmities; there was one doctor however that tried a different approach – his name was Theodor Morell. Morell gave Hitler vitamin injections which helped Hitler’s stomach issues – these injections quickly secured him as the Fuhrer’s personal physician. At the time of Dunkirk, Hitler was being lifted up by these daily vitamin injections which propelled his ego and narcissism – he halted the blitzkrieg because he didn’t want the military acting without his orders – in the end allowing all the allies to escape. By 1941, Hitler was in need of stronger drugs; Morell began a regimen of vitamins, animal hormones (Hitler was a strict vegetarian), and Eukodal. Eukodal is better known today as oxycodone – the fraternal twin to heroin.

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It didn’t take long before Hitler was addicted to these injections and by 1943 he was receiving even more drugs several times a day – high-grade cocaine, morphine, testosterone, and meth. Most of the high ranking Nazi staff were receiving similar injections from Morell while statewide propaganda ironically decried the drugs as “Jewish” poison not fit for the Aryan race. By the time of Hitler’s suicide in 1945, Morell had injected the “role model of Nazi health” over 800 times with 74 different substances. In the last years of his life, Hitler was receiving so many injections that he had track marks running up and down his veins. It was said that when Hitler received his injections, a cracking noise could be heard from his damaged vasculature and his blood oozed like gelatin because of its continuous exposure to animal hormones.

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The German army as a whole continued to receive state sanctioned meth throughout the war. The Third Reich would eventually experiment with cocaine and heroine – soldiers were given combinations of these three drugs to keep them fighting even when faced with utter defeat. Drugs were a tool for the Nazis and helped them accomplish superhuman tasks like the blitzkrieg, but in the end, both leaders and soldiers became burned out by their fleeting effects. Hitler was fueled by drugs, but drugs did not lead to the events of the Holocaust. Hitler’s hatred of the Jews began long before his first injection – as a healthy young man he dreamed of their extermination. The drugs hurt the Nazis more than anything. If Hitler weren’t addicted to drugs, he would have made less poor military decisions and prolonged the war – allowing greater time to kill victims in the concentration camps. Drugs in the Third Reich provided the energy for terror at the beginning of the fight but not the stamina needed for marathon fighting – oddly enough,  Morell was the Allies best weapon. 

“Hitler would go as white as a sheet and tightly clench his jaws, while his eyes would dilate. Everyone in his entourage would get panicky because these fits were always followed by an order to dismiss or to execute somebody.”
-Theodor Morell

MY FIRST BOOK!

6 months ago I started a project to read 12 books on the French Revolution. From the beginning, I wanted to write a book from this experience, but I didn’t know what it would look like. After a lot of help from friends and family, I decided to take the top 5 books on the French Revolution and write a nonfiction narrative which was approachable and informative to a broad audience. I wrote it with my natural love for humor, biography, and modern-day relevancy. The end result was my first ever book: Tackle the Library – The French Revolution. It’s about 80 mini-pages and the perfect amount of French Revolution for people who love to learn but don’t have the time or full interest to read a behemoth text. Today is Bastille Day, the equivalent of the 4th of July in France. The French Revolution brought us Marie Antoinette, Napoleon, Maximilien Robespierre, modern warfare, nationalism, classic works of literature, and the general shape of our world today. Do you want to go your whole life not knowing about this crucial time period? How has the knowledge of the past shaped your present? Would you sacrifice your knowledge of WWII or the Civil Rights Movement? I don’t think so. Not exploring the French Revolution is like buying a house and not exploring the kitchen. In honor of Bastille Day, please read my book and join me in advancing this knowledge to friends and loved ones. 

Thank you, everyone, for supporting me in this journey, and I couldn’t have done it without my regular readers – the pursuit of wisdom is not a solitary endeavor. My goal, with your support, is to write 50 more “Tackle the Library” books. The next book in the series will cover Plato. Below is the link to find my author page and my works on Amazon. Again, this would not be possible without your regular visits to the blog and your virtual pats on the back 🙂

America’s Jello War

Have you ever made Jello? The process is pretty simple: mix jello packet with water, place in molds, let set. The setting process is critical – if you jump for the treat too soon it will lack any firmness and wiggle; you’ll basically bite into thick fruit punch. Jello is an excellent metaphor for America during the first years of its nationhood. After the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, America was far from the firm consistency of Jello; there were many forces which wanted to prevent the setting process.

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Domestic and international threats were constantly trying to undermine the Constitution and the office of the presidency. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, was a famous advocate for a hybrid-monarchy and wanted America to mirror components of British government. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson was constantly paranoid that a King would take over the states or that the New England colonies would secede to the Brits. We look back at those years with 20/20 hindsight but people were freaking out about the state of their “Jello-Nation.” So when did the Jello finally set?

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The United States really didn’t become a unified nation until the War of 1812 – America’s Jello War; the War of 1812 is always skimmed over in History Class but it was the war that gave America its familiar consistency. To learn more about this important-congealing period, I read 1812: The War That Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman.

In the years that led up to 1812, America was in a constant struggle with Britain over their policy of “Impressment.” Impressment was the policy of British ships stopping vessels at sea in order to search them for British citizens – the captured Brits would be forced into military service. America didn’t like being pushed around on the seas and especially didn’t like when American citizens were unjustly impressed to serve the Royal Navy – more than 10,000 by 1812. Added to these grievances, the British restricted international trade as a way to counter Napoleonic France – this was ruinous for American exports.

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The seas were foaming with anger between the two countries but the problems also extended to the terra firma. America was trying to expand westward but the British were slow to exit forts which were lost during the American Revolution and were quick to help Native Americans fight for contested territory. These territory disputes were constant and many westerners were salivating for more land – Canada looked like a low hanging fruit. Everything came to a head in 1812 after impressment searches led to American vessels being militarily attacked – James Madison reluctantly declared war on Great Britain.

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The war was fought on land and sea. Battles took place along Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Saint Lawrence River, the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and the western frontier. Many battles were small skirmishes that pitted a weak American militia against a veteran British regiment; Native Americans many times joined the British or fought on their own. By the end of the war America had 35,000 troops compared to nearly 50,000 British troops with casualties of 2,200 and 1,100 respectively.  At the beginning of the war, many thought it would be simple to annex Canada, but after several failed attempts the American forces realized it would be much more difficult. The Americans and British kept swapping victories and the war seemed to be at a permanent stand still – the Americans were unorganized and the British were under resourced due to concurrent wars in Europe.

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James Madison had in theory the power of a united nation but in reality was a bystander to a conglomerate of individual states. Men were hard to recruit and funds were no where to be found – hence, the fighting kept puttering along with each nation only putting a toe into the cold water of  war. It all came to a head with the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 which saw for the first time support for the War by the New England states. This victory ended any thought of the British increasing their fleets in the Atlantic and became a rallying cry for the entire nation – Francis Scott Key would write the Star-Spangled Banner during the battle.

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A peace treaty was soon signed and America was reborn in the eyes of the world as a “real” nation that could hold its own. The War of 1812 birthed the national careers of two future presidents: William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson. It stopped any talk of New England succession, led the way for the Monroe Doctrine, expedited westward expansion, increased federal power, and was the catalyst for the future sale of Alaska from Russia. After the War of 1812, the Jello Nation was set and molded. Or in the words of the then Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, to Thomas Jefferson…

“The people now have more general objects of attachment with which their pride and political opinions are connected. They are more American; they feel and act more as a nation and I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby secured.”

 

War and Peace

Growing up the biggest book in the house was always the Holy Bible. The Bible stood above all other books in its shear mass – the thinness of the pages, the small font, and the endless footnotes made it formidable. Of course the Bible is in a class of its own but my third classic, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, gives it some competition in the size department: 1,400 pages of 19th-century Russian Literature. I always viewed War and Peace as the ultimate ego-trip – imagine some hipster guy walking down the street holding a copy while curling his mustache and listening to a Walkman. In all honesty, this book almost destroyed my sight; halfway through I bought a magnifying glass from Amazon that had in the description, “GREAT FOR GRANDMA AND GRANDPA.” It took me over three weeks to finish and I felt like a man waiting for his wife to give birth when the doctor says it will take all night – initial excitement, tears at the vending machine at 3:00 AM, and finally exhausted delirium at sunrise. Instead of a crying baby I was rewarded with a new found perspective of what art in the form of writing truly represents. War and Peace is not a novel but rather a philosophical treatise that has the added benefit of a great story. The general plot takes place in Russia from 1805 to 1820 and follows the family life of  a few Russians during the Napoleonic Wars. So what makes this book so great? The complexity of the characters mix with the backdrop of war to form a multilayered cake of delicious metaphor, behavior, and historical understanding.

As the title suggests, War and Peace, is all about contrast. The characters juggle life’s myriad curve balls: young love transforms into mature friendship, an engagement fails after an unexpected affair, happy families suffer with untimely deaths, once bountiful fortunes turn to meager incomes. The backdrop to these life events is a war that sweeps up the individual characters and the nation as whole. War that once seemed so glorious becomes surreal as the years progress. The war symbolizes both destruction and birth: taking the lives of some while bringing together people who may have never met. The philosophical theme throughout the book aims to better understand the meaning of life and man’s ability to express free will. The purpose of life, which is best expressed by the characters who suffered the most, is simply to “live” – every expression is a manifestation and glorification of God. This conclusion is simple on the surface but hard to practice: people seek money, respect, power, and control as their purpose, while “just” living seems inadequate. This purpose is mirrored by man’s desire to express free will while simultaneously being drawn by others into actions that are counter to life – war. Tolstoy makes the point that free will is not an absolute, just as inevitability (no choice at all) is also not an absolute. Thus, Napoleon – with his genius – did not impact his soldiers and the battle’s outcomes as much as he or everyone else thought. The same is true of the individual soldier’s free will – time, space, history, and infinite circumstances swinging the pendulum of choice. History, is not decided by the powerful few but is decided by a irreducible power which is wielded by innumerable individuals – always susceptible to the curve ball of life.

“If everyone fought for their own convictions there would be no war.”
-Leo Tolstoy War and Peace

Vikings Changed the World

At some point in the 9th century, a Viking was accused of being a “child-lover” because he didn’t want to impale babies with his spear. Vikings are known as gruesome-raiders which struck fear into the heart of villagers throughout medieval Europe. They were pagans who worshiped Odin and Thor – believing that an eternal feast awaited them in Valhalla. Today, Viking culture inundates our everyday life. Early morning TV has commercials for Viking River Cruises. “Bluetooth,” which connects electronics, is named after a Vtumblr_npgzguhvtp1un9i1ko1_1280iking king. Four days out of each week are named after Norse Gods: Tuesday (Tyr), Wednesday (Wodan which was Anglo-Saxon for Odin), Thursday (Thor), and Friday (Frigg). Dublin, York, and Kiev were a few major cities founded by Vikings for trade. The Normandy region of France was named after Viking inhabitants. The modern states of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine were first centralized by Vikings. Iceland, Greenland, and North America were first discovered by Vikings. The nautical terms of starboard, port, and keel were created by the Vikings. Most importantly, the Mad Max series was inspired by the Vikings. I was able to learn more about Vikings in this month’s edition of National Geographic and the book – The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings by Lars Brownworth.

The Vikings homeba3c6b3f59deb9c86cf5d8950c8c38d06dse was in Scandinavia between 800 and 1100 AD. There were the Norse (modern day Norway) to the west, the Swedes (modern day Sweden to the east), and the Danes (modern day Denmark) to the south. The actual word “viking” is believed to derive from the Vic region near the Oslo Fjord where iron was plentiful for sword production – eventually all raiders were referred to as “Vic-ings.” There were two types of Vikings: homesteaders and raiders. The Vikings had permanent communities which tried to live off the land and coast. There were also men who sought out fame and fortune on the sea – these were the “sea wolves” that changed the world. These Sea Wolves mastered the construction of the longboat and were able to sail quickly to any location. These men were motivated by treasure, women, and power. The more a raiding party could collect, the more respected they were on their return to Scandinavia. The first raids occurred at monasteries in Ireland, England, and France. Monasteries at the time stored many valuable relics, manuscripts, and currency. osebergskipet1A raid would usually consist of a few longboats (picture to right) quickly docking with 10-50 Vikings, subsequent killing of inhabitants, collection of plunder, and a quick getaway. Vikings were fierce warriors and their strengths were stealth, quickness, and cunning. Eventually, the raids started to dry up and the Vikings were forced to travel further from their homes; they would eventually reach as far as Italy.

Some of the greatest Vikings wanted more than just plunder, they wanted land. Forces
would eventually conquer Irish, French, English, and Eastern European armies to control huge swathes of territory. They controlled key ports and became handsomely wealthy through trade, extortion, and sheer intimidation. To find more land, many Vikings traveled west and eventually founded Iceland and Greenland – getting as far as North America; they were never able to permanently settle the Western Hemisphere because of limited colonists. To the a3e4c310d1c9ca0d11ac277a991d9b40east they settled into modern day Ukraine and traded with the Byzantine Empire. Vikings in the east were called “Rus,” (picture to left) which is the origin of the word “Rus-sian.” Eventually, the Vikings in these land-grab areas would lose much of their raiding culture and eventually became established monarchies. Many Viking kings decided to adopt Christianity to unite their strongholds which many times consisted of several types of ethnic groups and cultures; Scandinavia also shifted to a monarch structure to have better relations with European kings. In the end, the Viking culture fizzled out with the creation of Christian domains which promoted domestic virtues over sea-faring vices. Overall, the Vikings altered the political and social landscape wherever they went and are in large part responsible for the unification of Scotland, France, Britain, The Holy Roman Empire, and the kingdom of Sicily. They were pagans, who more than any other medieval power, spread Christianity throughout the world. Their enduring reputation truly held up to the Viking belief that all men are mortal – only the noble name can live forever.

I Think Therefore I Am Not

“I think therefore I am” was the famous phrase coined by French Philosopher René Descartes. Essentially, Descartes  was saying that no one can deceive him that he does not exist because any conscious thought of his own accord proves his existence. But what if he consciously thought that he didn’t exist? Would he still technically exist? Confused yet? This tidbit of philosophy is a great introduction into the world of the “self.” What makes you-you? Is it conscious thought, narrative experiences, memories, or just the ability to experience things in the first-person? Thanks to my friend Megan, who bought me The Man Who Wasn’t There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self by Anil Ananthaswamy I have a better understanding of what makes us-us. 

We all have an inclination of what our “self” represents. On the surface, our “self” is the culmination of our thoughts and experiences in the past, present, and future. We also have a physical “self” that comprises our body and a model of how the physical world should function (when I hear a noise outside I know that is not self-produced but coming from some other source). This basic thinking of the self stems from philosophers who connected the self with conscious thought and shaped western ideology of the mind-body connection. Unfortunately, the “self” is not that simple especially when disorders of the brain give us very different pictures of reality.

Would you pay someone 20,000 dollars to have your healthy leg-amputated? You may think this is a crazy question but there is a disorder known as Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) where people feel that certain parts on their bodies are not their own. Individuals with BIID, from an early age, can pinpoint the exact place on their body that feels alien and many go to extremes to remove what doesn’t seem their own-there are several reports of people laying out on train tracks or paying foreign doctors to excise healthy legs or arms. Does BIID bring into question the “self” as defined by the body we inhabit? What about people with Cortad’s Syndrome who believe they are dead. Individuals with Cotard’s have no desire to eat, drink, or do anything (including committing suicide) because they believe that they no longer exist. So would this scenario disprove Descartes-“I think therefore I am not.” Going along with questioning Descartes, do individuals with Alzheimer’s disease have a “self” if they are incapable of conscious thought? What about Schizophrenics who have multiple “selfs”? Even weirder, people who have out-of-body experiences where they can view themselves through the third-person, or communicate with their own doppelgänger. Is their self fixed, split, or dynamic in the conscious mind and physical world?

All of these maladies of the self can be explained by dysfunctions of certain areas of the brain and help explain all the dimensions that make up the self: “our narrative, our sense of being agents of our actions and initiators of our thoughts, our sense of ownership of body parts, our sense that we are our emotions, our sense of being located in a volume of space that is our body… all of these can be argued as comprising the self-as-object.” Beyond the self-as-object is still the self-as-subject. In all the aforementioned maladies there is still an “I” which is experiencing and this is always present regardless of consciousness. Who am I? What is the most reducible version of the “self.” It isn’t our physical body or our ability to think but rather something irreducible and essentially undefinable. The self is always present but intangible to objective measurements. I think the poem, “Nirvana Shaktam” by Indian Philosopher Adi Shankara best explains the “self.”

I am not the mind, nor the intellect, nor any entity that
identifies self with ears, tongue, nose or the eyes;
Not even perceived by space, earth, light or the wind.

So is there a self or is there not a self? I believe there is a self and it’s greatest reduced component is the soul. Of course, the soul is not scientific but science cannot explain the self entirely through states of consciousnesses or physical dimensions. Buddhists and many philosophers do not believe in the self-rather they believe the self is a made up manifestation to help explain our personal subjectivity of the world. So why does this philosophical question matter at all? It matters because understanding the self can help us understand the way we interact with the world. Are we just a body walking around with a library of thoughts? Are individuals who have maladies of the self negatively disordered or just neutrally different. Simply put, what you define as “self” will dictate  what you deem important in life and your interactions with people on a daily basis.