If you could have dinner with any person in history, whether famous, infamous or obscure, who would it be? What would you ask them? What personal insights into famous events could they offer?
I was prompted to reflect on such a scenario recently while I was completing a marketing survey from an airline. Under the guise of wanting to learn more about me in order to better serve me, the survey asked what famous person I would like to meet for dinner. Not being a person much interested in contemporary celebrities (to say I find them vacuous would be polite), my mind immediately leapt to a list historical figures, all long dead.
If you could invite anyone from history to dinner, who would you invite? Perhaps you might want to meet King Henry VIII of England, and ask him why he really needed to divorce or execute all his wives? (perhaps they complained about his snoring in bed?). Or meet Thomas Farriner (or Farynor), in whose bakery that the Great Fire of London began in the early hours of 2 September 1666. You might like to ask him whether he left a night-light burning.
For me, a number of people stand out for me.
A gathering of famous conquerors such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan and Napoleon Bonaparte might spark some lively debate about the nature of leadership. And they might offer some useful tips on how to achieve world domination (always useful). But I wonder about such strong personalities. Domineering personalities tend to crowd out less expansive personalities. Get a group of such personalities together and the effects can be explosive. Either that, or they will attempt to outdo each other in games (and tales) of one-upmanship.
Hmm. Not so good.
More seriously. I would like to speak to someone who was present when a famous speech was delivered. For example, spiritually uplifting speeches such as Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’ (1863) and Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ (1963) are amazing speeches to read. But were they amazing and inspiring to actual hear? Was the crowd electrified by the words and the delivery? Similarly, Winston Churchill, with Britain facing immediate defeat by Nazi Germany in 1940, delivered a series of speeches in the British House of Commons between June and August 1940 – ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’, ‘we shall fight them in the beaches’ and others. How were the speeches received by those present? How were they received by the British people, listening by radio to broadcasts of the speeches, enduring rationing and war-time bombings and the threat of imminent enemy invasion?
And then there are the speeches that occurred long before electronic recording devices were made, and survive in fragments or hearsay writings by other writers. Perhaps I could learn something from politicians who didn’t have to work within modern news cycles and deliver newsworthy quotes on a daily basis. Amongst such notable politicians was Cato the Elder (234BC-149BC), an ancient Roman politician who knew all about ‘staying on message’. For him, the message was ‘Carthago delenda est’ – ‘Carthage must be destroyed’, ‘Carthage must be destroyed’, ‘Carthage must be destroyed’ was the message that was repeated in any speech, regardless of topic. You have to respect someone who didn’t let anything, such as the actual subject of the speech, get in the way of communicating a message.