“What three people, living or dead, would you invite to a dinner party?”

So goes a popular conversation starter. Sometimes the number varies, usually between having dinner with just one person or up to five or seven, but three seems like a good number. It’s an interesting question, and there are many ways to approach creating such a guest list.

You could go thematically and invite three people from the same field of human achievement. Perhaps have Saint Paul, Martin Luther, and Billy Graham for a chat on Christianity, or Marcus Aurelius, Alfred the Great of England, and Thomas Jefferson for a discussion of combining philosophy and statecraft.

You could think in terms of which three people you would most want to meet in person because of their charisma or their influence on you, or invite giants of different fields (Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Einstein, perhaps?)

But if you really want to dive into the question, the most interesting way to answer it is to take the personalities of the guests into account and try to imagine how an evening’s conversation would go between the three (and yourself, of course!)

So you probably don’t want any self-obsessed bores that would dominate the conversation, and while a good diversity of opinion will lead to interesting discussions, you might steer clear of inviting diametrically opposed individuals such as reformation theologian John Calvin and atheist Richard Dawkins to the same meal.

Another sort of diversity would be diversity of era and place. Eleanor Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, and Robert Oppenheimer would be a fascinating evening, but limiting yourself to three 20th century Americans leaves much of the human experience untapped.

With that in mind, here are the three I would invite. I settled on picking people that would fit three particular categories: statecraft, scholarship, and writing. You may feel I have cheated slightly in inviting a philosopher-king as my statesman and a philosopher-politician as my scholar, and perhaps I have. Nevertheless, here are my three invitees for the dinner party of a lifetime.

The Statesman: Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD)

Selecting a Roman emperor over an American president or Winston Churchill may seem like an unusual choice. But Marcus Aurelius was an unusual emperor. The last of the “Five Good Emperors” of the golden age of the Roman Empire, Aurelius was a much different man from his predecessors like the indecisive Claudius, the debauched Nero, or even the founder of the empire Julius Caesar.

A philosopher by nature and early training, Aurelius showed early promise and the emperor Hadrian arranged for him to be placed in line for the throne. The available history shows he resisted somewhat, preferring the life of a scholar. But the Stoic philosophy he practiced demanded obedience to duty, and so he accepted the crown. The record shows he ruled fairly and justly by the standards of the time.

His personal journal, the Meditations, is possibly the most widely read journal of all time (only the Diary of Anne Frank has a similarly broad audience). In it we see a man dedicated to living out a good life as he understood it against tremendous pressures. That combination of theory and practice is what has made his thoughts remain relevant for over 1800 years. Aurelius transcended the environment of ancient Roman rule and continues to influence people today.

What would an emperor have to say at dinner? What would he think of a world where the dominant political structure was of democratically elected, term-limited leaders chosen by all citizens male and female? How would he regard the reliance on media to communicate?

And I think he would be fascinated to hear from my second guest how the Jewish sect known as Christians became the dominant religion in Europe, and that the backwater island of Britannia became one of the most powerful nations in the world.

The Scholar: Sir Thomas More (1478-1535)

Technically More can also be considered a statesman, having served as a member of the English Parliament and Lord Chancellor (chief assistant to the king) under Henry VIII. However, he was a scholar and student of religion first. He once considered joining a monastic order, but instead remained a layman in the Catholic Church. A pivotal figure in the Renaissance, he was an early advocate for educating women as well as men, and his daughters were some of the most learned women of the time.

His writing included both polemics against Luther and the Protestant Reformation and Utopia, a description of a fictional island with a “perfect” form of government. More’s reasons for writing Utopia still elude scholars today, especially as some of the aspects of the utopian system contradict Catholic teaching.

More’s loyalty to his Church ahead of his King would lead to his demise, as he refused to acknowledge Anne Boleyn as the rightful queen of England after Henry VIII divorced his first wife Catherine of Aragon. He also refused to acknowledge Henry VIII as the head of the English Church, holding that the Church was supreme over earthly governments and rulers.

He was beheaded on July 6, 1535 for treason against the King. Even though I am a Protestant myself, I admire More’s defense of his views and his refusal to countenance the whims of Henry VIII (who would just a few years later have Anne Boleyn herself beheaded while he married yet another wife in his quest to sire a male heir). So respected is More than not only is he canonized as a Catholic saint, he is also considered a martyr of the English Reformation by the Church of England (which founding he would have undoubtedly opposed had he been alive to see it)!

What a man. Robert Whittington, a contemporary of More, described him thus: “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”

Not only would we have the chance to discuss More’s true intent in writing Utopia, it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on monarchy vs. democracy and the separation of church and state, two concepts that might be foreign to him given he died almost two and a half centuries before the American Revolution. What would he say about the English speaking world today? Would he be pleased with the progress we’ve made from the bloody days of the Reformation?

The Writer: Agatha Christie (1890-1976)

Christie, you say? The murder mystery novelist? Why not Faulkner, or Mary Shelley, or, you know, Shakespeare?

Dame Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time. Only the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare have sold more copies than her literary output. She created multiple iconic characters including the retired Belgian policeman Hercule Poirot and the elderly English villager Jane Marple, and invented some of the most clever plots in the mystery genre. She spent a lifetime putting herself in the shoes of both murderers and detectives. Mystery novels have a moral compass of their own: a need to bring order out of disorder, uncover hidden secrets and expose lies, and dole out justice. No one understood this better than Christie.

Consider this line from her novel Peril at End House. Hercule Poirot is discussing whether a woman who seems to be targeted by a mysterious enemy should be left to her fate, and he declares to his friend: “I will not sit back and say ‘le bon Dieu [the good God] has arranged everything, I will not interfere.’ Because I am convinced that le bon Dieu created Hercule Poirot for the express purpose of interfering. It is my métier [talent].”

Or in The Patriotic Murders, Poirot discovers that the killer is a very powerful and respected man, someone we might consider indispensable. Poirot refuses to overlook the murders, despite agreeing that the killer was an important figure that had benefited society.

Christie could more than hold her own with Aurelius and More on questions of ethics. And I think she might surprise both with her own brand of understated insight. Also, she had a brilliant and clever mind (it takes one to make the narrator the killer, see The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). It’s fun to imagine where a conversation between her, Chancellor More, and Emperor Aurelius might lead.

So, there you have it. My suggestions for a dinner party of a lifetime. Now, what would they like to eat…

Three for dinner