In the 3rd century BCE a man of strong physique and penetrating intelligence made his way across the Sahara to Egypt. He was born in Cyrene, in modern day Libya. Having noted that the local surroundings were as dispossessed of intellect then as they are now, he left for Alexandria. One can see him in a robe of wool, linen maybe, perhaps a staff in hand, maybe on camel back. He wore sandals or went barefoot, as the dust of his path surrounded him in patterns of elegance that are so often the expected descriptors of a man of such mental magnanimity. The lines on his face revealed the scorched erosion of a hostile and unforgiving sun. His eyes were steady, sharp maybe, his mind dicing the very air he breathed.
Ptolemaic Egypt was a congenial place, at a congenial time. Chronologically ensconced between the height of Hellenism, and the pragmatic ravishing of Rome, it was a center of learned culture and political stability.
Eratosthenes of Cyrene came into influence in Alexandria. He studied there until his Ptolemaic patrons decided to give him a position in harmony with his prodigious mind. He was appointed as the chief of the Alexandrian library, the one that later mobs, in religious zest, so frightfully destroyed. He was good friends with Archimedes of Syracuse. The two men were separated by nearly a thousand sea miles, a situation revealing then, as now, that men of considerable intellect are few and far between.
Eratosthenes has many monumental achievements to his name; he was the founder of a scientific chronology, laying out the history of civilization since the Trojan war, year after languishing year of rise, fall, abandonment; he is credited with having invented the astrolabe, a model of the Ptolemaic solar system, along with it came the necessary lines of celestial longitude and latitude. He knew the earth was round; he calculated its circumference with stunning accuracy. The sun’s zenith in Syene, a city south of Alexandria, at the summer solstice was reported to be directly overhead. This was not to be unexpected, Syene lies on the tropic of cancer. What was unexpected, and only in the character of man to discern, is that Eratosthenes found something to derive from this observation. Back home in Alexandria, the sun’s position on the summer solstice is 7°12′ south of the zenith or 1/50 of the circumference of a circle. Assuming that the Earth was 360° the calculation of its circumference was a matter of simple geometry: 360°/7°12′ times the distance between Alexandria and Syene. His calculation was only hampered by the difficulty of measuring the exact distance between the two cities. Nonetheless, his calculations were only off by a mere 2%. The knowledge of the earth’s spherical dimensions was known then, and it was known in 1492.
Dwight D. Eisenhower is known by liberals as the man who warned about the “military industrial complex” and known by everyone else for everything that he did, and everything of substance. Conservatives lament his above statement, consoled by the fact that if the old boy was still around for the fall of the soviet empire, his tune would have whistled more congenially.
Eisenhower was the supreme allied commander in Europe during WW2 and oversaw the campaign all the way to the gates of Berlin. The American forces having liberated Dachau, along with medical aid, he immediately ordered that photographs and film be taken because as he stated “sometime in the future, some son of a bitch is going to say this never happened.” He was prescient and abrupt.
The man was paternal in a way that only Generals can be. He successfully negotiated the political and egoistic rivalry between a cheeky Victorian General Montgomery, and a stalwart, uncompromising Patton. Like two fighting siblings, they both threatened to tear the family apart. Only Eisenhower’s equanimity in the face of puerile infighting united the American and British forces to become the greatest military machine the world had ever seen.
The Invasion of Normandy was the greatest and largest amphibious assault undertaken by any army, at any time, and at anyplace, and still is to this day. The projected casualty count makes our current wars look like farmers skirmishing with 22 rifles. The entire might of two nations was in play, and the future of Europe and the world was at stake. This was certainly audacious, the outcome of the invasion was not clear. Clarity of success didn’t come until the first week, and it was almost a year more of fighting ahead. The night before the landing, Eisenhower penned two letters, a letter of resignation, and a letter of victory, metered praise, and hopeful determination. He sent and read the latter.
I have recounted the above almost entirely from memory, with a quick glance at a book to reacquaint myself with Eratosthenes’s method. Some may find the admission haughty. And it may be so. But it is for this reason that when I hear our current leader of the western world, Barack Obama, declare that people who are skeptical of the his ardent and undying eroticism with green energy, and are unimpressed with his unyielding attempts to thwart new drilling, “would have been members of the flat earth society in Columbus’s day,” I know that his rhetorical skill is as keen as his intellect is not. Or when I hear our bumbling vice president, whose very name induces both laughter and disdain, say that the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound was “the most audacious military operation in 500 years,” I am morally outraged at this repugnant political twerps demotion of the thousands of American, British, and Canadian soldiers and French resistance fighters that died in June of 1944. Or I am reminded of the raid on Entebbe; or the Spanish armada’s defeat; or Gettysburg, Antietam, Bull Run. The list of military campaigns exceeding that of the raid in Pakistan in both quality and scope is almost endless.
Obama is the type of demagogue that is all too comfortable both praising an unhistorical narrative—an intellectually courageous Columbus, a valiant explorer bringing Europe out of the dark ages and progressing it towards greater understanding—and at the same time lamenting its later effect, colonialism, he finds himself in a position of both utter ignorance and pernicious dubiousness. He knows one, but scant of the other. Perhaps if instead of reading Cornell West, he read Burke, Locke, Plato or Aristotle, his machinations of mendacity and intellectual pretensions would not make themselves readily apparent. We are now under the guidance of a man who knows not from where we came, dislikes what we are, and wants to lead us away from the very civilization that he is so uncompromisingly ignorant of.