It’s not true to say that Sir Walter Raleigh – privateer, nobleman, favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, soldier, sailor, explorer and unsuccessful quester for the fabled city of El Dorado – killed more men than cancer.
However, as the man generally credited with the introduction of tobacco products to England – where they became popular at court, thus guaranteeing their spread throughout the rest of the nation and rival European courts (fashion is a harsh mistress) – he should at least be thought of as one of cancer’s most able accessories before the fact.
It would be nice to say that he died of lung cancer, but actually, he was beheaded in what many believe to have been a political maneuver aimed at placating the Spanish (whom Raleigh had fought during the Armada incident and the related war), and something of a miscarriage of justice (since King James, Elizabeth’s successor, did not have much love for her former favourites).
Best known as the writer of “Leviathan”, Thomas Hobbes was one of the fundamental philosophers in the Western tradition. His understanding of humans as obeying the same physical laws as other matter and motion, remains influential; and his account of human nature as self-interested cooperation, and of political communities as being based upon a “social contract” (a term he created) is one of the basic concepts of modern political philosophy.
Hobbes lived to be 91, and also wrote numerous works of history and science in addition to his better known work as a philosopher.
Although he is best known to history as the man who said “I think, therefore I am” – René Descartes was not merely a philosopher but also a mathematician. If you’ve ever used an X-Y coordinate system, you’ve used one of his most famous inventions, the Cartesian plane.
A Frenchman who spent most of his adult life in Holland, Descartes’ major contributions to philosophy were in the field of metaphysics – the mind-body problem. Descartes’ answer to the problem was dualism – that mind and body are separate. In mathematics, the Cartesian coordinate system married algebra and geometry, and created the theoretical basis upon which Leibniz and Newton each independently built calculus.
Widely seen as the first modern novel, Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” (in full, “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha”) remains a classic even today. It is a deconstruction and an affectionate parody of the chivalric romances that had dominated fiction in Europe for several centuries prior to its publication. The plot of the book concerns a deluded man named Alonso Quijano, whose head has been addled by reading too many chivalric romances. Adopting the name Don Quixote, he sets out to perform what he considers appropriately knightly endeavours.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t go along with his delusions, and this conflict is the origin of most of the book’s famous comedy. Famously, Quixote attempts to battle windmills, believing them to be giants – from whence the phrase ’tilting at windmills’ originates. He is also the origin of the word quixotic. To say that Quixote – the character and the book – cast a long, long shadow over Western literature is to understate the case: this one book is more influential than all but the most important and well-known of Shakespeare’s plays, for example.
In the last few years of his life, Shakespeare wrote only in collaboration with John Fletcher – his last play written alone was The Tempest in 1611. Shakespeare moved back to Stratford in 1613, although he still travelled to London from time to time.
He was 52 years old at the time of his death, and his controversial will left most of his things to his elder daughter Susanna – and his second-best bed to his wife, Anne Hathaway. His other daughter, Judith, was also a beneficiary.
Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. A monument placed by his family adorns the wall nearest his grave, featureing a bust that depicts Shakespeare posed in the act of writing. Each year on his claimed birthday, a new quill pen is placed in the writing hand of the bust.
Tisquantum – better known to history as Squanto – was an Indian of the Patuxet tribe who learned to speak English after being abducted into slavery in 1614. Eventually winning his freedom and making his way back to the region of what is now New England where his people lived, he discovered that the Patuxet were almost extinct. They had succumbed to a plague (likely smallpox caught from European settlers) in his absence, as had many of the neighbouring tribes.
Squanto settled at one of the Pilgrim encampments on March 16, 1621, where he became very popular amongst his new neighbours when he taught them how to farm maize after the harsh winter of 1620-21, an act which many people believe may have made the difference between the success or failure of the colony.
Generally acknowledged as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum built in honour of Mumtaz Mahal, the third wife of Shah Jahan, by her husband. He was an Emperor of the Mughals, and the Taj is built in the distinctive Mughal architectural style, harmoniously combining influences from Persia, India and Ottoman Turkey.
It was built in several stages over more than two decades, and the total cost of the construction was about 32 million rupees – at that time, not adjusted for three and half centuries of inflation. Over twenty thousand workers toiled to build the complex, guided by a small committee of architects.
When he died, the Shah Jahan was buried in the Taj Mahal also, next to his beloved wife.
One of the greatest of the Baroque composers, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach (in the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, now a part of Germany). Even in a family as musical as the Bachs, Johann was a standout – in addition to composing, he was also an accomplished player of the violin, viola, harpsichord and organ (although it was the latter he was most in demand for during his lifetime).
Bach’s compositions include the Brandenburg Concertos, the Mass in B minor, the The Well-Tempered Clavier and over 300 cantatas. He lived to be 65, and was a great influence on the composers who followed him, including Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Mendelssohn.
Nojpetén (also known as Tayasal) was the capital city of the Itza Maya kingdom, located in what is now Guatemala. It was the last Mayan capital city to fall to the Spanish in their conquest of the Petén region. After the conquest, the Spanish recorded that it had 21 temples, including a step pyramid of similar size and design to the one in Chichen Itza. These were almost all destroyed, and the Mayan culture was largely eradicated by the conquerors.
The Spanish committed a form of cultural genocide – although we know that the Maya were a highly literate culture, only three books survived the fires made of them by missionaries who believed it was their holy mission to save these primitive heathens. The Maya also had a highly developed system of timekeeping, with a calendar that had been calculated as far in advance as 2012 – leading many to assume, wrongly, that the Maya believed history would end then, rather than that date simply being where the work had ended.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, David Hume was one of the greatest of British philosophers. Best known for his empiricism and skepticism, his most famous claim is that – in direct opposition to Rene Descartes – reason is not the greatest driver of humanity, but rather, than desire is. (Obviously, economists were too busy misunderstanding Adam Smith to catch up with this idea for several centuries.) His attitudes to religion were notably ambiguous, although he was critical of the argument from design.
Broadly a member of the utilitarian school of philosophy, Hume was a very influential figure in the history of philosophy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, William James, Joseph Butler and Adam Smith were all influenced by his ideas – Kant and Smith in particular credited him with inspiring their own works. Hume was also a pioneer of the essay as a literary form.
Immanuel Kant is one of the most important figures in modern philosophy. His best known work, the “Critique of Pure Reason”, was a landmark in the development of philosophy, proposing as it did that the features of the external world must logically conform to how our brains are structured to perceive them (I think I got that right).
Kant was born in Königsberg, the capital of Prussia (the city today called Kaliningrad), and lived to be 79. Aside from the Critique, he also wrote widely, contributing to such fields as ethics, aesthetics, teleology, moral philosophy and many more besides. His influence was so profound that he was regarded as the father of German Idealism in philosophy, a loose movement including such thinkers as Hegel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Schelling.
Hardly anyone at all knows it, but this ode of Thomas Gray’s is the origin of one of the English language’s most often quoted aphorisms: “ignorance is bliss”. One rather wonders if Thomas Gray himself would still agree, at least insofar as ignorance covered his works or his self. To be fair, Gray was not praising ignorance, but rather, the innocence of childhood.
Gray was an academic and a poet. He studied and worked at Cambridge most of his adult life, and was regarded as one of the greatest poets of his age during his lifetime, even though his total works amount to less than a thousand lines of poetry – whatever else can be said of him, Gray clearly favoured quality over quantity. His wordsmithing was not limited to the occasional aphorism: Gray is the originator of several phrases that are now horribly time-worn cliches, including “far from the madding crowd”, “kindred spirit” and “the paths of glory”.
One of the best known and most loved composers of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach was 85 years old at the time of his death. In those years, he created such works as the Brandenburg Concertos, the Goldberg Variations, The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Mass in B minor, The Art of Fugue, and the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Although he did not create any new forms, his works broadened and deepened the scope of existing forms.
After his death, several of his sons carried on his legacy as composers in their own right, notably Johann Christian Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. The Bach, it seems, did not stop here.