Boundless and Bare The Lone and Level Sands Stretch Far Away
Our old friend Napoleon is back! Apparently, he’s been spending much of his time at the courts of Europe and his ambition has been so thoroughly tickled by all the fawning and adulation there that he has decided, contra Vizzini, to start a land war in Asia. He believes he can conquer Moscou, la villa sainte just like he’s conquered everywhere else in Europe. Who could possibly stop him? Perhaps, though, instead of striding east in search of war with what must be something equal to the thunderous and soaring heroism of the Symphony in E-flat major’s Allegro con brio beating a march in his heart, he should, as I’m sure we all do when making big decisions, revisit the ancient Greeks first.
Those ancient Greeks had plenty to say about the dangers of hubris and unchecked arrogance. Sophocles warned that “arrogance (hubris) makes a tyrant grow.” Aristotle believed hubris is a more serious offense than theft. Plutarch said it will sink even a good man. Napoleon could learn a lot from the stories of Oedipus too. The two have some things in common. Both he and old Oedipus, after all, are the sources of psychological complexes.
Napoleon doesn’t listen to those Greeks though. He’s got a different Greek in mind today. As he stands on the bank of the river Niemen looking east and thinking of Moscow he sees himself as Alexander conquering Scythia and, contrary to all strategic and diplomatic considerations, he orders that a vanquishing march be made.
There’s nothing and no one to stop him. The cheers of his troops amplify his arrogance. “For him,” Tolstoy writes, “it was no new conviction that his presence in any part of the world, from Africa to the steppes of Muscovy alike, was enough to dumbfound people and impel them to insane self-oblivion.” Such is his search for eternal fame and glory.
Today what remains of his lifeless body, defeated first by armies and then by time, lies in a tomb at Les Invalides.
He who has little regard for the poor flesh that envelops him surely will not trouble himself over clothing and dwelling and fame and other such externals and show.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations