Saturday, April 15, 2006

Finding Your Inner Napoleon

Emerson's lecture Napoleon; Or, the Man of the World is quite curious. Emerson lauds Napoleon for being a representative of the working class come to power through talent--democracy in action. But then faults him for, among other things which I will get to later, having the vices of the working class. I guess somewhere along the way to Emperor, Napoleon should have gone to charm school. Again with this lecture, Emerson begins by classification. This time we have the conservative class made up of the rich and powerful, the "idle capitalists" who are "timid, selfish, illiberal, [and] hating innovation." The other class is the democratic class made up of those who work and seek to possess what the conservative class has. The democratic class is "selfish also, encroaching, bold, self-relying" and they always out number the conservative class. To Emerson, Napoleon is the exemplar of the democratic class, he was "the idol of common men, because he had in transcendent degree the qualities and powers of common men." Those "qualities and powers" include common sense, "delight in the use of means," directness and thoroughness in work, prudence, and vigor. Because of Napoleon's humble beginnings, he knew what it was like to be part of the masses and was, therefore, able to adapt "to the minds of the masses around him" and become "not merely representative, but actually a monopolizer and usurper of other minds." Emerson reveals himself to be on the nature side of the Nature v. Nurture debate. He believes that "Nature must have far the greatest share in every success, and so in his [Napoleon's]. Such a man was wanted, and such a man was born." But that's not all. Emerson takes Swedenborg's idea of homogeneous particles--lungs are made up of tiny lungs, livers of tiny livers, etc--and applies it to Napoleon: "following this analogy, if any man is found to carry with him the power and affection of vast numbers, if Napoleon is France, if Napoleon is Europe, it is because the people whom he sways are little Napoleons." I wonder, since Emerson considers Napoleon representative, does that mean Emerson has an inner Napoleon? I think what Emerson finds most fascinating about Napoleon is revealed when he writes, "whatever appeals to the imagination, by transcending the ordinary limits of human ability, wonderfully encourages and liberates us." Napoleon represents the possible. For Emerson, he is a rags to riches story, an example of what can happen when skill, talent, ambition, and luck combine in one person. But, as I mentioned earlier, Napoleon had faults, the vices of the masses being the least of them. To Emerson, Napoleon's biggest fault is that he was "singularly destitute of generous sentiments." From his lack of sentiment stems his other faults: his lack of "common truth and honesty," his egoism, his injustice to his generals, his unscrupulousness. And to top that off, he was a gossip, had coarse manners, and cheated at cards. One could very well argue it was Napoleon's lack of generous sentiments along with his other faults that gained him the position of Emperor (okay, maybe not the cheating at cards but I wouldn't put it past him to have made some wild bets). Napoleon's achievements were not accomplished for the public gain but for his own personal, selfish, material desires. For this alone, Emerson asserts, Napoleon ultimately failed:

As long as our civilization is essentially one of property, of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions. Our riches will leave us sick; there will be bitterness in our laughter; and our wine will burn our mouth. Only that good profits, which we can taste with all doors open, and which serves all men.
I like that "our wine will burn our mouth." This lecture was disappointing on the new and unusual words front. There is only one:
  • malversation. Noun. Corrupt behavior in a position of trust, especially in public office. Emerson: "For, in the prevalence of sense and spirit over stupidity and malversation, all reasonable men have an interest."
It may be only one word this time, but, oh, what a good and useful word it is! Next week is Emerson's final lecture in Representative Men: "Goethe; Or, the Writer"