January 20, 1977 — The end of the Ford administration temporarily returns Henry Kissinger to obscurity

Henry Kissinger once received the Nobel Peace Prize for failing to negotiate a peace treaty. Which tells you close to everything you need to know about the man: he is lauded out of all proportion to his actual achievements. Realistically, his single greatest achievement is avoiding prosecution in the downfall of the Nixon administration.

I’ll back up. Kissinger was Nixon’s Secretary of State and later his National Security Advisor. As such, he was a major architect of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War (and thus, of America’s defeat in the Vietnam War). A proponent of Realpolitik (which is basically the doctrine that morality comes second to winning in politics), Kissinger was not a bloodthirsty man, but a callous and indifferent one. If other people had to die for him to get what he wanted, so be it.

He remained in office throughout the Ford administration, while he largely disappeared during the Carter years, Reagan relied on him for advice, as have almost all his successors in the Oval Office. Kissinger is still seen as an authority on US foreign relations even today – in 2016, Clinton boasted that he was one of her advisors (and Sanders boasted that Kissinger was not, and would never be, one of his advisors).

1943 — Sergei Rachmaninoff dies

Born in 1873, Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the greatest Russian composers of the Twentieth Century, and one of the last Russians to compose in the Romantic style. In addition, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest pianists in history. Ironically, his greatest fame came after he moved to the West in the wake of the 1917 Russian revolution. His works – which include four concertos, three symphonies and 24 preludes – tended to emphasize the piano, the instrument he knew and loved best. As a writer for piano, he explored a wider range of its capabilities than almost any other composer.

Rachmaninoff was diagnosed with melanoma in late 1942, although only his family was told of the diagnosis – he himself was not. He died a few months later, only four days short of his seventieth birthday, and was buried in a cemetery in New York. His will had called for him to be buried on his property in Switzerland, the Villa Senar, but World War Two made that impossible.

Referenced in:

Decomposing Composers — Monty Python

1881 — Modest Mussorgsky dies

Modest Mussorgsky was a member of the Russian Romantic composer’s group known as ‘The Five’ – the other four being Mily Balakirev (the leader), César Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin. They set out to produce music that was specifically Russian. Mussorgsky in particular drew inspiration from Russian folk tales, notably in his best known work, the tone poem ‘Night on Bald Mountain’.

After 1874, Mussorgsky’s career was clearly past its prime. The composer drifted out of touch with old friends, or fell out with them entirely – both largely the result of years of alcohol consumption catching up with him. In early 1881, he was hospitalised after suffering a number of seizures. He died a week short of his 42nd birthday, and was buried in St Petersburg, where he had lived for thirty years.

Referenced in:

Decomposing Composers — Monty Python

1788 — Arthur Schopenhauer is born

Arthur Schopenhauer was born in Danzig, in what is now Poland. The child of a wealthy patrician family, Arthur went to university in 1809, and published his seminal book of philosophical thought (“The World as Will and Representation”) in 1819. However, he struggled to attract students as a lecturer (possibly because he was competing with Hegel), and soon left academia.

Nonetheless, over his 72 years, he continued his philosophical enquiries and published a number of other books, cementing his place in the history of his discipline. But his popularity as a philosopher peaked in the early part of the Twentieth Century (when he was a major influence on the Modernist movement), and has never again attained the same degree of prominence, although there has been a recent upswing of interest in his works.

Referenced in:

Bruces’ Philosophers Song — Monty Python

1883 — Richard Wagner dies

One of the greatest of the German composers, Wagner is best known for his Ring Cycle, or Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) in full. His earlier Tristan and Isolde is seen by some as marking the start of modern music (by which, of course, they do not mean pop music).

Wagner was 69 when he died, and he left behind a towering legacy. He influenced almost all later composers, although in some cases (such as Debussy and Tchaikovsky) this influence was seen in their efforts to avoid his shadow. A friend of Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher’s first major work was a glorification of Wagner’s compositions (although the prickly Nietzsche later found fault with his one time idol). Finally, Wagner’s popularity also popularised his views – which included large elements of racism and anti-semitism – views which would continue to dominate German culture until at least 1945, when his greatest German fan committed suicide.

Referenced in:

Decomposing Composers — Monty Python

469 BCE — Socrates is born

Socrates is one of the most influential, and also most enigmatic, figures in Western Philosophy. An Athenian who lived at the dawn of both writing and philosophy, if he wrote anything himself it has not survived, and today he is known only for the works of others that mention him. Foremost among these are the works of his student, Plato, similarly influential in philosophy, but also prone to idealize his master.

Socrates was particularly noted for his contributions to the field of ethics, and for his creation of the Socratic Method, a philosophical tool no less useful today than it was 25 centuries ago. He was also, if the writings about him are to be believed, a great fan of irony. He was, of course, executed for heresy, although his trial and death appear to have been the result of political infighting, and thus the charge may not accurately reflect the true reasons for his downfall.

Referenced in:

Bruces’ Philosophers Song — Monty Python

1654 – The Treaty of Westminster officially ends the first Anglo-Dutch War

The first Anglo-Dutch War was largely a result of the formation of the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell after the execution of King Charles I. It began in 1652 with English attacks on Dutch merchant shipping, but quickly escalated into a full-scale naval conflict on both sides, which despite being more or less numerically equal was decisively won by the British – although there would be three more Anglo-Dutch Wars over the next 130 years, as the two preeminent naval powers of Europe contested for trade and colonies (Holland would win the second and third wars, but the English would ultimately win the fourth and decisive war).

The Treaty was signed after a lengthy negotiation process, and was notable in several respects. It was the first international treaty in which both nations agreed to be bound by the decisions of a third party arbitrator (in this case, Switzerland), as well as an article specifying an early version of what would today be called ‘mutual most-favoured nation status’, and is thus the foundation of the modern concept of international diplomacy. It was remarkably lenient to the Dutch, considering their defeat – a fact widely attributed to the Dutch negotiators simply being better than their English counterparts. By containing a secret clause obliging the Dutch to enact the Act of Seclusion (forbidding Prince William III of Orange from ever being Stadtholder) which had dramatic effects on Dutch internal politics over the years that followed. Finally, it established England as a serious power in Europe, which had been inclined to dismiss this non-monarchy as no threat prior to that.

Referenced in:
Oliver Cromwell – Monty Python

1772 — Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel is born

Schlegel and his brother August were two of the leading members of the Jena Romantics, a group of artists and patrons between roughly 1798 and 1804 who were the earliest influential Romantic movement in Germany. Schlegel would pass through atheism and a firm commitment to individualism in his twenties before converting to Catholicism in 1808.

His contributions to philosophy mostly consist of his promotion of and work to develop the Romantic school in Germany, especially as a critical position from which to analyze art.

Referenced in:

Bruces’ Philosophers Song — Monty Python

1649 — King Charles I of England is executed

The decisive exclamation mark that ends the English Civil War. Never before had an English monarch been deposed, tried and convicted of high treason, and then executed. (To date, no other English monarch has suffered the same fate, either.) The decapitation of Charles the First made plain to the people of England and the courts of Europe that the winds of change were blowing in England.

Charles’ son, Charles II, would eventually be restored to the throne that was his by right of primogeniture, and in the interregnum that followed, England would be variously led by Parliament, by Lord-Protector Oliver Cromwell, and briefly, by Lord-Protector Richard Cromwell (Oliver’s less talented and determined son). The restored king was a damned sight more careful of Parliament, and the gradual decline of the power of the monarchy would only continue from this time onwards.

Referenced in:
Oliver Cromwell — Monty Python

1901 — Guiseppe Verdi dies

Alongside Richard Wagner, Verdi was the preeminent composer of operas in his era, with works such as “Aida”, “Il Trovatore” and “La Traviata” to his credit. He was also famed for the “Messa da Requiem”, an oratorio he wrote in tribute to his friend Alessandro Manzoni. Verdi loved the works of Shakespeare, and several of his operas were adaptations of the Bard’s plays.

Verdi is known to have been active in the cause of Italian unification, although he was horrified by the assassination of King Umberto I in 1900. The composer suffered a stroke on January 21, 1901, and clung to life for another six days before dying. His funeral remains the single largest public event in Italian history, and his friend Arturo Toscanini conducted the massed orchestra of musicians from throughout Europe who came to pay tribute to Verdi at it.

Referenced in:

Decomposing Composers — Monty Python

1724 — Immanuel Kant is born

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.

Referenced in:

Bruces’ Philosophers Song — Monty Python

Where Are They Now? — Monty Python’s Life of Brian

They’re all dead, of course. C’mon, it was nearly 2000 years ago. (Well, maybe not that Jesus guy. Some people reckon he’s still alive. And his mum.)

Oh, alright. Here’s what the rest of their lives were like:
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1653 — Oliver Cromwell becomes Lord Protector of England

The final resolution of the power vacuum that existed in England after King Charles I was deposed was somewhat inevitable: Oliver Cromwell was always going to wind up at the top of the heap. Lambert’s creation of the Instrument of Government, following the dissolution of the Rump Parliament, and then that of the Barebones Parliament, provided for Oliver Cromwell to be appointed Lord Protector of England for life.

This was kingship in almost every respect: Cromwell would rule until his death, the position would be hereditary, and Cromwell would even wind up dissolving Parliament yet again to put a stop to reforms they wanted that he saw as overly democratic. By the time it ended, with Cromwell’s death in 1658, he was easily as unpopular as Charles had been before him. Some of the smarter Englishmen even realised that the problem with their political system might lie with autocracy in any form rather than monarchy itself.

Referenced in:
Oliver Cromwell — Monty Python