Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Goethe on Napoleon

While driving about in Old Historic Bethlehem yesterday we found a The New Street Book Shop on New Street, with its collection of used and out of print books. Susie and I each found a few gems. One of mine was a slim volume by Anselm, an 11th century monk, and the second The Napoleonic Revolution by Robert B. Holtman.

Napoleon has been the subject of over 300,000 books which have analyzed the man and his life from a multitude of angles. What caught me here was the quote by Goethe in the introduction. "To make an epoch in the world two conditions are notoriously essential--a good head and a great inheritance. Napoleon inherited the French Revolution."

To some extent it is a variation on the opening line of U.S. Grant's autobiographical memoirs, "Man proposes, but God disposes." Our life situations are not always our own and we must play the hands we're dealt. Goethe notes here that Napoleon's achievements came to pass in part because the circumstances favored his rise. Or as the historian Hudson put it, "His powers were his own, but circumstances rendered them effective."

I mentioned yesterday how Goethe was a contemporary of Napoleon. As truly great men it should not be surprising that they met at some point in the course of their lives. And of Napoleon, the man of action, Goethe, the man of contemplation wrote, ”His life was a stride of the demigod. He was in a state of continual enlightenment. His destiny was more brilliant than any the world had seen before him or would see after him. The story of Napoleon produces on me an impression like that of the Revelations of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.”*

Fascinating comparison, actually.

Equally fascinating are Goethe's own notes and summary of his meeting Napoleon at Erfurt after the sack of Weimar. For a fascinating read check out Goethe and Napoleon in the Governor's Palace. And if your interest has been peaked by these notes, you might also enjoy reading a brief summation of why I myself have found Napoleon inspirational.

The ball is in your court. Make a difference.

* Napoleon in Russian Poetry of the 19th Century, by Alexander Mikaberidze

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