A table for twelve

A table for twelve - image for article by Greg Alder

The doorbell rings. Right on time. I make my way to the door with excitement. I have been looking forward to this night for a long time. I have invited twelve guests. All strangers. Now, the first of them has arrived. As I reach to unlock the door, I wonder which one of them is on the other side.

It’s Albert Einstein. He has a mischievous grin. His eyes twinkle. He hands me a bottle of Austrian wine.

I am about to shut the door when I see a second guest approach. It’s Plato. I introduce him to Einstein. They haven’t met, but Einstein tells Plato how he knows and admires his work.

Over the next twenty minutes, the other ten guests arrive. When all are here, we move to the dining table.

So, this is my fantasy dinner. I have invited 12 people I’d like to spend time with. People I feel I could learn from. People I wish I could have met.

Who have I invited to my fantasy dinner? And why?

Albert Einstein

Yes, for his scientific mind. But in truth, I’m not scientifically inclined. I’d invite him because he seems to have been someone with an impish sense of humour and an indefatigable curiosity.

He’s also proof that genius isn’t always obvious at a young age. He couldn’t speak until he was four and his parents were told he wouldn’t amount to much. So, Albert is here for all the late bloomers.


Because for almost any memorable and profound statement made throughout history, Plato seems to have said it first.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

“Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something.”

“Necessity … the mother of invention.”

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

“The measure of a man is what he does with power.”

“Ignorance, the root and stem of all evil.”

He just didn’t happen to live at a time of mass media. He’s the antidote to the 21st century, when a person can reach billions, but have nothing valuable to say.

(I’d previously invited Socrates, but he had a prior engagement. If Plato hadn’t been available, I would have asked Aristotle.)

Mahatma Gandhi

Because in a world where violence seems to be the first response, I’d want to understand how he could change history passively and peacefully.

Jesus Christ

For those who doubt, there’d be nothing more persuasive than the physical presence of JC. (Which is why it was disappointing that Friedrich Nietzshce, below, couldn’t make it.)

I’d invite Jesus to learn how his faith attracted such a passionate following, and to learn how to forgive. On a purely practical level, if I’d under-catered, he could rustle up a few extra loaves, fishes or red wine.

(If Jesus couldn’t attend, I’d invite Pope Francis – the first pope in my memory who seems to share the same compassion for the poor.)


Because I am certain that Jesus and Muhammad would find they had a lot in common – and both would despair the extremism executed today in the name of their faiths.

(If Muhammad had been unavailable, I’d have invited Caliph Harun al-Rashid. He established Bayt al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom on Baghdad – the greatest centre of knowledge of its time, with the largest library.)

William Shakespeare

Because there has never been a more quotable person.

Without Shakespeare, there’d be no Lawrence Olivier, no Kenneth Branagh. The merchants of Venice would have just been shopkeepers, Romeo & Juliet a couple of love-struck Italian teens and we wouldn’t have a Danish prince’s speech to the skull of an exhumed court jester.

Elizabeth 1

For proving that a woman was equally capable of fulfilling a role previously only considered the birthright of a man.

“I would rather be a beggar and single than a queen and married.”

“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.”

“Do not tell secrets to those whose faith and silence you have not already tested.”

“All my possessions for a moment of time.”


I’d seat this Egyptian pharaoh next to Elizabeth. Not only did she reign over a period of great cultural development, but she clearly liked to dress up. She had herself depicted in king’s garb, and with a male body and fake beard. It wasn’t that she wanted to be a man, but it helped her assert her authority.

Leonardo da Vinci

A risk inviting Leo. He might spend less time in conversation and more time doodling on the tablecloth.

However, I’d love to see what he’d make of the modern inventions with links back to his drawings – airplanes, helicopters, barrel organs, robotic suit, scuba gear, armoured car, clock, revolving bridge, parachute.

As an example of the power of creativity, few come close.


My first invitation didn’t reach him, because I addressed it to his real name, François-Marie Arouet.

Famous for his advocacy of freedom of religion and freedom of speech, he was also famous for his sharp wit – and I have always been a sucker for wit.

“Judge of a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

“I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.”

“If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him.”

Sitting Bull

I’d seat Sitting Bull next to Mahatma Gandhi. I’d listen closely to their conversation as they compared notes. Both sought to resist oppression. Gandhi succeeded. Sitting Bull didn’t. As Friedrich Nietzsche (a late cancellation) wrote, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

(If Nietzsche had been able to attend, I’d have put him between Jesus and Muhammad. These two could discuss Friedrich’s claim that “God is dead”.)

Geoffrey Chaucer

For writing in English, the language of the street, at a time when all writing was in Latin or French, the languages of church and court.

Also, for his repeated acknowledgement of the occurrence of farts.

“This Nicholas anon leet fle a fart,
As greet as it had been a thunder-dent”

Besides, he clearly tells a great tale, and every dinner party needs a storyteller. (If Chaucer hadn’t been available, I’d have invited Dorothy Parker – for her acerbic wit, not her farting.)

Photo Credit: Palo Peronese, wedding feast at Cana

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