Quote of the Day

Always alone among men, I come home to dream by myself and to give myself over to all the forces of my melancholy. My thoughts dwell on death…What fury drives me to wish for my own destruction? No doubt because I see no place for myself in this world.

–Napoleon Bonaparte

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

18 thoughts on “Quote of the Day”

  1. I think Sarah Palin echoed these sentiments exactly, except for substituting “free clothes” and “appearance fees” for “death.”

  2. It might — MIGHT — be useful to quote Napoleon for one reason: that would be in support of the pressing need for us to stop taking megalomaniacs at their own estimation of themselves. I cannot think of any other reason.

    1. Without passing moral judgment, Napoleon’s estimation of himself was obviously fairly accurate. He became an emperor and conquered two-thirds of Europe and cowed most of the rest. He came close to defeating two of the most powerful empires in history (the British and Russians).

      Certainly he was no liberal but, in many ways, he reformed and institutionalized some of the great reforms of the revolution such as equality before the law and the “career open to talents”; and many of his reforms such as the founding of the lycées still benefit the French people today. Napoleon made a number of fatal mistakes but overestimation of himself wasn’t really one of them.

      1. The things you cite were not done by Napoleon, but by people around him, who did not see themselves as working for him, but for France. (A poor enough motivation even so, but we should at least try to be accurate.)

        Napoleon, like some other megalomaniacs, had shiny-object syndrome, which allowed a few bright people to slip through for a while. Each of them was eventually cast aside; Napoleon gets no credit for letting them stay as long as they did. No other detail of his life suggests the slightest intelligence or ethical compass. If it were not for our eternal and pernicious tendency to place megalomaniacs in positions of power instead of in padded cells, Napoleon might not have missed his calling shredding excelsior in a warehouse.

        1. The soldiers fought for the Corsican ogre but the teachers taught for France?

        2. I don’t know, Frank.
          Every time I look into that period of history, I feel that we (at least my culture, the US/Anglo world) are missing something substantial in our view of Napoleon.
          I think we get the 20th century megalomaniacs, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and so on. We understand how they thought and how they achieved what they did.

          But with Napoleon I always feel like I’m holding water in my hand, trying to understand the whole thing. On the one hand you have the more or less idiotic behavior, simple parroting what has gone before — crowning himself emperor, naming his kid king of rome, and setting up the rest of the family as royalty of one sort or another; on the other hand you have the new legal and school system (which for all their conservatism were radical compared to the ancien regime). Does it really all boil down to
          – extreme charisma PLUS
          – megalomania PLUS
          – a political situation which allows for such change?
          To take one example, Napoleon, for all his willingness to kill people in battle, was not, as far as I know, much into killing people as individuals — not much secret police, torture, assassination inside and outside the empire. Does this tell us he was that much more beloved than his 20th C counterparts? Or that secret police couldn’t yet function aggressively in the early 1800s (but cf the Spanish Inquisition)? Or that he imagined he had no-one who didn’t love him in France? Or that he was, in this respect at least, a decent man who despised torture and the degradation that it imposes of both the victims and the practitioners?

          [Like the ancients, I feel the same way also about Julius Caesar and Alexander — again I always feel I can’t quite grasp who they are, whereas Augustus feels like a more familiar figure, a Bill Clinton say, 2000 years earlier.]

      2. Having read extensively about Napoleon’s military career, I am of the same mind as Mr. Guthman. His reign was less despotic and corrupt than is commonly believed, and has been characterized as “rule by referendum.” Facts being stubborn things, we should remember that he twice abdicated when the Legislature demanded it. His personality became abrasive the longer he remained in power, but he never lost his grip on the affections of his soldiers. Even two of his greatest strategic mistakes (Egypt and Spain) saw sincere attempts to bring political and social liberalization to those countries — which, predictably, backfired. He understood most aspects of warfare better than any general of his era and admitted, sometime around 1807-1810 (if I remember correctly) that commanding at his level was so difficult and exhausting that he himself wouldn’t be very good at it for too many more years. Unfortunately for us the British were the ultimate winners, and it is their picture of Bonaparte that has come down to us.

        1. According to Rick Atkinson’s “An Army at Dawn”, Eisenhower attributed Buonaparte’s success to the fact that he was mostly fighting against coalitions. So Eisenhower’s central insight was that in leading the Allies — a coalition — he would need to focus on establishing unity of command and sufficient mutual respect among the allies to ensure that Hitler was denied the same advantage that Buonaparte had exploited.

    1. I wonder how many good therapists it will take before we stop making war. First, we need to make it a goal. Maybe that’s why this is a good day for the quote.

      1. There are goals and then there are goals. Some are realistic and some are aspirational. One should be able to recognize the superior merits of universal peace while still understanding that more therapy does not necessarily make peace any more likely. If there are groups who band together, then there will always be conflicts between them that can’t be resolved by diplomacy or therapy. What would have been an appropriate goal for the non-German and Italian peoples of Europe in September of 1939?

  3. Aha. I thought it came from one end of his life or the other, and so it was: he was 18-19 when he wrote that. And a Corsican in a French military academy.

    [‘Angst of youth it is.’]

    1. When Napoleon wrote this, he was a teenager with an odd name and a funny accent in a military academy in a foreign country that had conquered his homeland. He was surrounded by pompous mediocrities from good families and had no prospects for advancement beyond mid-level artillery officer in a garrison town. The Revolution changed everything for him. In May 1789, when he was only 19 years old, he wrote: “As the nation was perishing I was born.”

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