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Friday
Jan092015

Napoleonic Era Trivia of the Day: Friedrich Hegel and Napoleon

In the course of the French invastion of Prussia in 1806, philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel spotted Napoleon riding through the streets of Jena. At the time he was finishing up the last pages of The Phenomenology of Spirit.

As quoted in Andrew Roberts' Napoleon: A Life, Hegel told a friend that he had seen "the Emperor, this Welseele [world-soul] ride out of town...Truly it is a remarkable sensation to see suh an individual on horseback, raising his arm over the world and ruling it." 

Wikipedia has the quote a little different, but the same gist: 

"I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it . . . this extraordinary man, whom it is impossible not to admire."

Roberts goes on to note that Napoleon rather well exemplified the Hegelian idea of a 'beautiful soul', a force that acts autonomously in disregard of convention and others' interests" 

Having not read Hegel, I'll take his word on the definition of beautiful soul, and note that it doesn't seem very beautiful to me. He's probably using it in some fancy philosopher way. It is a good description of Napoleon's character, which I wouldn't call beautiful either, but which is certainly compelling. Also, unlike Hegel, I think it's entirely possible to not admire Napoleon, although to be fair some (not all) of his bigger errors and crimes lie in Hegel's future when he wrote that.