Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Research: Emerson at Philae, Part 1

During research on Ralph Waldo Emerson and his voyage down the Nile in 1872, I spent this weekend reading his essay: "Napoleon, or, Man of the World." Yes, that Napoleon, Napoleon Bonaparte of the Egyptian Campaign, 1798-1801. Emerson's essay focused on this conqueror's character and will. For the sake of cultivating his personal philosophy and ethics, Emerson studied rigorously the character traits great men and women had in common--their nature-- and this is the focus of his essay. According to Emerson's study, Napoleon's strength seeps most from his ability to act, "the execution of ideas," never on impulse but on calculation. Emerson portrays Napoleon's unparalleled ability to gain power over men while gaining their respect; they saw in him a role model that a common man can conquer the aristocracy. Emerson, Calvinist and American and Transcendentalist, admired Napoleon's organic rise to power through his wits.

But from the beginning of Emerson's essay, a shadow lurks. Emerson deliberately shows how Bonaparte subordinated all of his great powers and vision toward the material. They hit the mark…and ended there. He set aside "sentiments" such as beloved wife and children. According to Emerson, Bonapart invested his powers into the world, "never weak and literary," he acted. (In an essay on Plato, Emerson states the philosopher's fault was that he was "literary;" Plato's greatness was diminished because he didn't invest in the world.) In his journal during his Egyptian Campaign he wrote: "I have conducted the campaign without consulting anyone…my actions were as prompt as my thoughts." The savants and artists he took aboard, though heralded for advancing culture, brought material ends as their catalog and works became propaganda machines immortalizing his name. Napoleon says of his own character: "My ambition was great, but was of a cold nature."

Napoleon's grasping turned on him at the end. France and Europe tired of his egotism and reviled him. I think of the derogatory cliche that remains, a "Napoleon Complex." Emerson says, "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…Only that good profits which we can taste with all doors open, and which serves all men." (Paintings: Top, "The Egyptian Expedition under the orders of Bonaparte" by Leon Cogniet; center, "Bonaparte Before the Sphinx" by Jean-Leon Gerome both from Wikipedia, "French Campaign in Egypt.")

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