Biography

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World – Jack Weatherford

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World – by Jack Weatherford
Date read: 2/15/19. Recommendation: 8/10.

An intriguing look into the life of Genghis Khan and the far-reaching impact of the Mongol Empire that continues to be felt in the modern world. Genghis Khan’s life and character were shaped by the rugged terrain of the Mongolian steppe. He faced a bitter fight for survival from the moment he entered the world. He would take the harsh lessons he learned from an early age to unite warring tribes on the steppe and inspire a deep loyalty in his people. In 25 years under Genghis Khan, the Mongol army conquered more lands and people than the Romans conquered in 400 years. But his most significant contribution was that he set the foundation for the modern world with free commerce, open communication, shared knowledge, secular politics, religious coexistence, international law, and diplomatic immunity.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

Beginnings
Genghis Khan was born in 1162, unified all tribes on steppe and founded the Mongol nation in 1206. His life and character were shaped by rugged landscape on the Mongolian steppe.

Genghis Khan was self-made. Grew up in a world of violence (murder, kidnapping, enslavement), encountered no more than a few hundred people on the Mongolian steppe in his childhood, received no formal education. He showed remarkable instinct for survival and self-preservation.

Military Genius
Brilliant use of speed and surprise on battlefield. Perfected siege warfare, negating benefits of walled cities. Goal of every invasion was to frighten the enemy into surrendering before the battle began.

Turned massive populations against the places they invaded by terrifying peasants at the foothills and sending swarms of refugees into the cities which could not support them. 

Traveling lightly, quickly: Traveled without a supply train (waited until cold months so horses could graze, better for hunting) or siege engines and equipment. Instead, brought along a faster-moving engineering corps to build whatever they dreamed up or the situation required. Mobility boost from all cavalry (no marching infantry). 

“Victory did not come to the one who played by the rules; it came to the one who made the rules and imposed them on his enemy. Triumph could not be partial. It was complete, total, and undeniable – or it was nothing.” JW

In 25 years under Genghis Khan, the Mongol army conquered more lands and people than the Romans conquered in 400 years. 

Leveraged his own naiveté as a tool - did not grow up in cities of have access to antiquated tactics. Had to create his own, such as diverting a channel of the Yellow River to flood the fortified Tangut capital. 

Would often lure enemy away from battlefield in false retreat, drew enemy further away (in overconfidence) and exhausted them. Once enemies became disorganized and tired, Mongols would turn and shoot them down. (See example of Duke Henry II of Silesia and army of 30,000 knights, page 152). 

Benefits of Multiculturalism
“Genghis Khan’s army combined the traditional fierceness and speed of the steppe warrior with the highest technological sophistication of Chinese civilization.” JW

Each step of the way, combined new ideas and strategies he learned or discovered from different challenges or cultures. Always learning, experimenting, adapting, and revising. Never fought the same war twice. 

Genghis Khan sought talented men as his closest advisors, no matter their origin.

“Whether in their policy of religious tolerance, devising a universal alphabet, maintaining relay stations, playing games, or printing almanacs, money, or astronomy charts, the rulers of the Mongol Empire displayed a persistent universalism. Because they had no system of their own to impose upon their subjects, they were willing to adopt and combine systems from everywhere. Without deep cultural preferences in these areas, the Mongols implemented pragmatics rather than ideological solutions.” JW

Arbitrary Authority
Distrust of arbitrary authority – Championed individual merit, loyalty, achievement and smashed feudal system of aristocratic privilege and birth.

Killed all aristocratic leaders (rich and powerful) in each conquered land to decapitate social system of enemy and eliminate future resistance.

Loyalty
Inspired deep loyalty in his people by taking conquered people into his tribe (sans aristocrats) as equal members in good standing who could share fairly in future prosperity. This helped unite his future empire.

Second-order thinking: When looting, ordered a soldier’s share for each widow and orphan of anyone killed in the raid. Main benefit was to avoid temptation to rush looting without complete victory. Also, inspired soldiers who knew he would take care of their families.

In six decades, none of his generals deserted him. He also never harmed or punished a single one of them. Unrivaled fidelity among all great kings throughout history. 

Organized warriors across different tribes and kin into units of ten (arban) who were to fight and live together as loyally as blood. Helped unite tribes and people across the empire.

Sought to remove all animosity/dissension within the ranks of his followers: Forbade the enslavement of any Mongol, declared all children legitimate, forbade selling of women into marriage, outlawed adultery, punished theft of animals, forbade hunting of animals during breeding times (March-October), decreed complete and total religious freedom. 

Legacy
First to connect China and Europe with diplomatic and commercial contacts–opened the world to new commerce in goods, ideas, knowledge. Unrivaled carriers of culture. 

Literacy and the number of books increased drastically during the Mongol dynasty.

First in history to decree compete religious freedom for everyone in the empire. Recognized the disruptive potential of competing religions.

After initial destruction and shock of conquest in each country the Mongols set foot in, unprecedented rise in cultural communication, expanded trade, improved civilization. Mongol influence, in many ways, led Europe to the Renaissance.

“Without the vision of a goal, a man cannot manage his own life, much less the lives of others.” GK

Fostered exchange of medical knowledge by establishing hospitals and training centers, bringing together the best doctors of the time from India and the Middle East with Chinese healers.

Set foundation for modern world with free commerce, open communication, shared knowledge, secular politics, religious coexistence, international law, and diplomatic immunity. 

Khubilai Khan
Lacked military skills of Genghis, but also recognized he couldn’t conquer China by mere force. Combined brilliant ideas with great implementation with allowed him to manage his territory and its expansion south. 

Commissioned Chinese-style imperial capital which grew into modern capital of Beijing. 

Previous dynasties had tried to unite Chinese states, but Khubilai was the first one to pull it off. Accomplished this by empowering Peasants by giving them responsibility in local community (acting as local governments), public schools, education, literacy. “The greatest legacy of the Mongol Empire bequeathed to the Chinese is the Chinese nation itself.” Hidehiro Okada

Downfall of the Mongol Empire
The plague cut off each part of the Mongol Empire (Persia, Russia, China) from the other and interlocking system collapsed. Depended on quick, constant movement of people and information. During the plague, various parts of empire were either decimated or isolated themselves for survival. 

1492, more than a century after the last khan ruled over China, Christopher Columbus set off to revive lost contact with Mongol court. Reached United States thinking it must be southern neighbors of Mongols in India (hints naming, “Indians”).

The Tigress of Forlì – Elizabeth Lev

The Tigress of Forlì – by Elizabeth Lev
Date read: 2/7/19. Recommendation: 8/10.

The story of Renaissance Italy’s most courageous countess, Caterina Sforza. Her tale is one of clever strategy, boldness, and determination. Sforza’s life reads like a storybook as she fights off her husband’s assassins, the French Army, and Cesare Borgia. Throughout her life, powerful men viewed her as a pawn on the chessboard of Italian politics. They doubted her ability to rule and never took her seriously. She would prove this to be foolish, time and time again. Fascinating, inspiring biography.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici

Legacy: Ingenuity, boldness, cunning, astute strategies, and iron determination. Fended off her husband’s assassins, the French Army, and Cesare Borgia.

Warrior: Grew up learning to bear and wield arms in the tradition of her warrior family. Her family emphasized training of female children along males the use of weapons, riding and hunting. Gave her an unusual advantage and first-class education in the fundamentals of military leadership. 

Influences:
Galeazzo Maria Sforza
 (father, Duke of Milan): Admired his boldness, warrior nature that he blended with his love for the arts. He turned Milan into an intellectual rival to Florence. He defined Caterina’s ideal of bravery and elegance.

Bona of Savoy (Galeazzo’s second wife, not Caterina’s biological mother): After Galeazzo was murdered, she transformed from a quiet, patient mother and wife, into a competent head of state, dealing with threats and taking on all responsibility. Safely transported Caterina to join her husband (Girolamo Riario) in Rome after her father’s death.

Defying Expectations:
Throughout her life, powerful men viewed her as a pawn on the chessboard of Italian politics, to be used and sacrificed at will. They doubted her ability to rule and never took her seriously. She would prove this to be foolish, time and time again. 

Brutally realistic expectations set by early marriage (at age 10) to a foolish, self-indulgent husband (Girolamo) and the murder of her father forced her to build deep well of fortitude and resilience.

She was held in high-esteem, her intelligence, manners, and sense of fashion were widely admired. While Girolamo was holed up, wary of strangers, she would take to the streets to walk among her subjects and actively engage the citizens. Even when the bubonic plague hit, she would visit the poorest quarters, tend to the ill and bring food/medicine.

Girolamo’s missteps:
Caterina was constantly helping to negotiate her husbands errant moves, whether failed assassination plots, greedy exploitations, his fear of combat, or his antagonization of powerful families in northern Italy. Girolamo lacked substance and intelligence. She never complained, but she took a more active role after the first couple years. She didn’t want to sit idly by as her husband squandered the family name and the children’s inheritance. 

Boldness:
Upon Pope Sixtus’s death:
 mobs raced to the Riarios’ house in Rome and tore it down in pent up rage towards Girolamo. Caterina and Girolamo were safe in Forlì, but instead of hiding behind her husband’s forces, she jumped on a horse (seven months pregnant at the time) and rode to Rome. She seized the papal fort of Castle Sant’Angelo and turned the cannons towards all access roads around the Vatican to cut off the cardinals. She single-handedly held the College of Cardinals at bay for eleven days and negotiated that her family retain the lands of Immola and Forlì.

Dimensional thinking - there’s a time for patience and there’s a time for boldness. Caterina knew how the balance the two.

Girolamo’s Death: murdered in his palace, Caterina immediately jumped into action, barricading the the room that she and the children were in to buy herself time. She immediately issued instructions for a messenger to send for her allies (and her brother, the duke of Milan). Once captured, she was brought to her castle, Ravaldino, to negotiate its surrender. She devised elaborate schemes to buy time, negotiating the castle’s surrender, plotting with Tommaso Feo (the guardian of the castle and who she was supposed to be negotiating with). After one negotiation session, he claimed to take her captive and locked out her kidnappers (the Orsis). The kidnappers brought her children out front and threatened their lives in front of Caterina. She was able to think strategically, as she knew her children, being the nephews of the duke of Milan, could not be killed without retaliation. She also knew that surrendering would give her no advantage–her family would likely be poisoned or imprisoned–so she held her position and strode to the edge of the ramparts with daggers drawn. She held the castle for 13 days until reinforcements arrived. Preserving Forlì and her family.

Cesare Borgia’s Invasion of Ravaldino:
December 19, 1499, Borgia began his siege. Caterina embarrassed and befuddled him. Frustrated by her resistance, raised the bounty of her head to ten-thousand ducats, but no one inside the fortress was willing to betray her. She commanded a deep loyalty. People flocked to Forlì to witness her defense and fearlessness against the most cruel man in Italy. The longer Borgia was stalled by a woman, the weaker he seemed in the eyes of his adversaries. On January 12, he threw everything he had at the fortress and broke in. Caterina fought on the front ranks for two hours, side by side with her men against Borgia’s soldiers. She was the equal of any man on the battlefield. She was eventually captured, but did not go quietly.

Benjamin Franklin – Walter Isaacson

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life – by Walter Isaacson
Date read: 8/1/18. Recommendation: 9/10.

Brilliant look at the multi-disciplinary life of Benjamin Franklin. As a scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, business strategist, and political thinker, it's fascinating how many pivotal moments of early American history he was involved in. In each aspect of his life, he prided himself in practical solutions that served the common good. As Isaacson suggests, Franklin was the first great American exemplar of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason–as defined by an emphasis on reason, education, and a distrust of arbitrary authority. He was unapologetically self-taught and self-made. Isaacson doesn't shy away from Franklin's complexities and does a great job explaining how his legacy has shifted over time, reflecting the values of different eras. There's a reason he's held in such high-esteem by some of the most brilliant minds of our time.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews. 

 

My Notes:

Multidisciplinary life: scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, business strategist, practical political thinker

But the most interesting thing that Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself.

Franklin's most important vision: an American identity based on the virtues and values of its middle class.
-How does one live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral and spiritually meaningful?
-Questions are just as vital for a self-satisfied age as they were for a revolutionary one.

Early American settlers were pursuing both religious freedom AND economic opportunity.

"Industry and frugality are the means of procuring wealth and thereby securing virtue." -BF

Maxims from his almanacs:
"Fish and visitors stink in three days."
"Little strokes fell great oaks."
"Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead."
"Diligence is the mother of good luck."
"Love your enemies, for they will tell you your faults."

Franklin excelled in writing, but failed math. Still became one of the most ingenious scientists of his era, but did not transcend into a profound theorist (i.e. Newton). 

"From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books." -BF
*Books most important formative influence in his life. He would sneak books from apprentices who worked for booksellers as long as he returned them clean. Was a vegetarian early in life so he could save more money for books.

His writing lacked poetic flourish, but was powerful in its directness.

His most notable trait was a personal magnetism; he attracted people who wanted to help him.

American individualists sometimes boast of not worrying about what others think of them. Frankin, more typically nurtured his reputation, as a matter of both pride and utility. 
*An apostle of being, and appearing, studious. 

Lesson he learned early: people are more likely to admire your work if you're able to keep them from feeling jealous of you. Indulge their vanity (give them opportunities to demonstrate their abilities), they will praise you in turn.

Franklin easily made friends and intellectual companions, but was less good at nurturing lasting bonds that involved deep personal commitments or emotional relationships, even within his own family. 

On deciding whether or not to take a customer's money and run a defamatory article that violated his principles:
-Paused to make the decision, went home and slept on it.
-Practiced voluntary hardship, slept on the floor, ate plainly.
-Determined that he could live this way, was not worth corrupting his values for a more comfortable subsistence. 

Writing to discover: Franklin began to clarify his religious beliefs through a series of essays and letters.

Moral Perfection Project:
-Made a list of 13 virtues he aspired to master
-Focused on improving one virtue each week (related it to weeding a garden, not all at once, but one bed at a time)

First great American exemplar of the Enlightenment and its Age of Reason. Born in Europe in the late 17th century, defined by an emphasis on reason and observable experience, a distrust of religious orthodoxy and traditional authority, and an optimism about education and progress.

"The general foible of mankind is in the pursuit of wealth to no end." BF

Franklin's subscription library (The Library Company of Philadelphia), first of its type in America. Subscribers pay dues to borrow books. Improved the intelligence of common tradesmen and farmers, as local subscription libraries caught on.

His work focused on lightning and electricity led to his first becoming a popular hero.
-Believed science should be pursued initially for pure fascination and curiosity, then practical uses would eventually flow.

Self-made: Thirst for knowledge made him the best self-taught writer and scientist of his times.

Pride for practical solutions:
Crossing the Atlantic in the summer of 1757, nearly wrecked on the Scilly Isles. "Were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint. But as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a lighthouse." BF

Traveling: Franklin's summer travels were the source of great joy
-Deborah didn't share his love for travel and curiosity for the world.
-She was as independent in her own way as he was in his.
-Spent 15 of the last 17 years of their marriage an ocean away.
-Throughout his life, had few emotional bonds tying him to any one place, glided through the world the way he glided through relationships.

Modern election campaigns are often criticized for being negative, and today's press is slammed for being scurrilous. But the most brutal of modern attack ads pale in comparison to the barrage of pamphlets in the 1764 Assembly election. 

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin:
-His goal was to describe how he rose from obscurity to prominence and to provide some useful hints about how he succeeded, for others to imitate.
-If he found himself writing with too much pride about an event, he would revise it by adding a self-deprecating comment.
-Autobiographies existed, but this was the first masterpiece by a self-made man.

Second continental congress:
-Franklin, nearing 70, was by far the oldest of the 62 participants
-Many of the younger, hotter-tempered delegates had never witnessed Franklin's artifice of silence, his trick of seeming sage by saying nothing (oratory did not come naturally to him).
-No one had a clue where he stood on the question of independence. He was biding his time to convert key figures close to him to the rebel cause.

Distaste for established elites, arbitrary authority, nepotism:
-Chafed at authority, why he ran away from his brother's print shop in Boston.
-Was not awed by established elites – Mathers, Penns, peers in the house of lords.
-Opposed unfair tax policies by Penns, even though they would have served his personal advantage.
-Stressed is all his letters that America should not replicate rigid ruling hierarchies of Old World based on birth rather than merit, virtue, and hard work. 
-Groundless and absurd to honor a worthy person's descendants (should instead honor the person's parents since they had some role in it, like Chinese do).
-Rose up social ladder, but did so in a way that resisted taking on elitist pretensions (fur-capped persona). 

At 70, he was continuing to embark on missions for Congress:
-Cambridge, MA to help Washington with disciplining the militia that would form the nucleus of a true continental army.
-Quebec to support American forces focused on preventing Britain from splitting colonies via Hudson River.
-Showed his eagerness to be involved in practical details, rather than detached theorizing.
-He was also, both as a teen and as an old man, revitalized by travel.

Declaration of Independence:
-Jefferson asked Franklin to help edit. Most important change was to Jefferson's phrase, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to "We hold these truths to be self-evident."
-Changed this phrase from an assertion of religion to an assertion of rationality.

Fate of the Revolution placed into Franklin's hands, just as much as those of Washington and others. He needed to secure support of France–its aid, its recognition, its navy. Displayed dexterity that would make him one of the greatest American diplomats.
-He was instrumental in shaping the three great documents of the war: the Declaration of Independence, the alliance with France, and the treaty with England.

"Moderate your desire of victory over your adversary, and be pleased with the one over yourself." BF

The Constitutional Convention of 1787:
-He was by far the most traveled of all the delegates, and knew not only the nations of Europe but the thirteens states (franchised printing operations, time as postmaster, etc.). More receptive to needs of each state and open to diversity of opinions.

Sensibility, willingness to change mind, and humility to be open to different opinions:
-On crafting the constitution, Franklin realized that they had succeeded not because they were self-assured, but because they were willing to concede that they might be fallible.
-"We are making experiments in politics. We must not expect that a new government may be formed as a game of chess may be played, by a skillful hand, without a fault." BF
-"For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise." BF

Legacy:
-During the three centuries since his birth, the changing assessments of Franklin have tended to reveal less about him than about the values of the people judging him. Reflect, or refract, the attitudes of each succeeding era.
-His reputation was elevated by the emergence of distinctly American philosophy known as pragmatism - holds that truth of any proposition (whether scientific, moral, theological, or social) is based on how well it correlates with experimental results and produces a practical outcome.
-Unfairly attacked over the years by romantics whose real targets were capitalism and middle-class morality. 

In most of the endeavors of his soul and mind, his greatness sprang more from his practicality than from profundity or poetry.

His guiding principle was a "dislike of everything that tended to debase the spirit of the common people."