Samuel Johnson – “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (ctd.)

The next episode in Johnson’s series of rants is that against the men who want to gain fame through winning wars. Even though successful military leaders are celebrated, their victories come at a significant human and financial cost, and at the end everything they get is wreaths on their tombstones. He writes about Charles XII of Sweden, and his brilliant military career which ended with a humiliating exile in Constantinople and then death at “a petty fortress [caused by] a dubious hand”. (Charles XII died during a relatively unimportant siege, and the rumours attributed his death to his own aide-de-camp.) The next example of a king brought down low is Xerxes, who ordered to lash the sea and had to run away in a single boat after being vanquished by the Greeks. Finally he writes about “the bold Bavarian”, the Elector Charles Albert, who started the War of the Austrian Succession, but was beaten by the armies of the Austrian empire sent by “the queen, the beauty” i.e. the Empress Maria Theresa. I think he might be overrating Maria Theresa’s beauty, but then, it’s not like he could see her on TV. I guess he simply cast Maria Theresa in his imagination as this beautiful, Fairy Queen-like figure, similarly to how Hollywood always casts beautiful people in biopics, even those of people who in real life were not particularly recognized for their beauty. Anyway, the vanquished Charles Albert “steals to death from anguish and from shame.” (The real Charles Albert died of gout.)


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