As we live in our modern, technologically sophisticated world, it is important to remember the great men who came before us, who paved the way for our civilization, Western civilization, and who had the courage, the balls, to explore places on this earth that had up until relatively recently never been explored. Richard Burton (1821-1890) was on of those men. He is truly a fascinating figure, a representative of the more unknown sides of mid nineteenth century Victorian England, the period at which the British Empire was at its zenith, an Empire which was destined to vanish into the annals of history, as all other empires do.
His great fame is as the man who, with John Hanning Speke, searched for and discovered the source of the Nile River, something which had been a complete but alluring mystery for all generations of scholars and explorers up until that time.
Burton may be considered perhaps the last Renaissance man. To quote Wikepedia, he was a “geographer, explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, Egyptologist and diplomat.” Truly he was the combination of action and intellect, ambition and courage, idealism and deep learning. Not only did he explore different and dangerous parts of the world, in Asia, Africa and the Americas, but he also explored the various, forbidden parts of nineteenth century sexuality. One of his accomplishments was to translate the Kama Sutra, the Indian text of sexuality, an act which won him much reprobation from the morally upright classes of British society.
He knew at 29 languages, excluding his knowledge of various dialects of those same languages. He famously translated the 1001 Arabian Nights from the Arabic. He explored Islamic culture, disguising himself as a pious pilgrim so he could participate in the religious ceremonies at Mecca.
His accomplishments, included the physical wounds he suffered in his many travels, not only from hostile natives but also from various diseases, are too immense to really expound upon in a blog post. What I can emphasize here, on a blog such as this, is Burton’s interest in human sexuality. As mentioned above, he translated the Kama Sutra. He also translated The Perfumed Garden, an Arabic erotic text of the twelfth century which deals with different aspects of sexuality. His interest in sexuality and erotic literature was scandalous for his time. In his travel books he often writes about the sexual practices of the indigenous peoples he encountered, and it is widely speculated that he achieved such knowledge from his own experiences. .
Burton often faced death in many of his adventures. On one of his early explorations of Africa, he and his crew were attacked by the local natives who killed many of his men, and Burton himself was impaled in the face by a javelin, which entered his left cheek and exited the right. He had a lifelong scars from this. On another trip to Africa he suffered from calves so swollen his only recourse to save his life was to cut his legs in order to let the blood out, something which he did himself, without any aid. Later in life, as a diplomat in Syria, after he had antagonized the Muslim governor of Syria, he was set upon by hundreds of armed horsemen and camel riders trying to kill him. He escaped and later wrote, “I have never been so flattered in my life than to think it would take three hundred men to kill me.”
He also enjoyed simply shocking the staid society of his time. Once, to a priest who was inquiring on whether the more scandalous rumors about him were true, he replied, “Sir, I’m proud to say I have committed every sin in the Decalogue.”
Burton is a good example of how in our own world where masculinity, often under siege from the nefarious, feminist driven world of PC madness as well as grey societal conformity, is little more than a caricature. There is a profound difference between the type of man Burton was and represented and most of the men of today’s world. He was learned. He was cultured. In today’s world, unfortunately, masculinity is too often associated merely with popular sports, such as football, and the idea of learning or culture is considered some type of weakness. Yet our football worshiping Bubbas clad in their sleeveless, Wal-Mart manufactured shirts are mere imposters of masculinity when compared to men like Burton.
The world that produced men like Burton is different from our own. It is worth remembering that were was a time, and that time was not long ago, when being educated, being cultured and civilized was all part of the being a man. Great men of men of the past, such as Julius Caesar, were often both men of action and men of letters. Burton wrote many works, and he wrote and appreciated poetry. I have written posts here on such men who loved poetry, such as General George Patton. And yet what chest thumping, hyper-ventilating, steroid saturated man of today’s world ever reads or even knows anything about poetry. He may spend his time following sports, playing video games, or watching the latest wars on television, but he is basically a creature of a world and society that devalues the ancient traditions and pursuits that men once mastered. (And given the hideous state of modern art, fiction and poetry, with all its ugliness and obscurity, I don’t blame anyone for not being interested.)
Now it is true that men like Burton are and were rare, even in his own time. He was the ultimate example of something that few could achieve. But he did represent a type of man, a type that now seems to have vanished. Many men were like Burton, if not fully, at least in degrees. Thee great men of the past did love art, learning, poetry and many other intellectual, civilized pursuits. They were also men of action. Such synthesis of different human potentials was expected of the great leaders. In the early days of the twenty first century we have lost such a culture and such expectations at our peril.