Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 27th, 2011

Let us now forget famous men

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“More books have been written about [Lincoln] than any figure in human history, with the possible exception of Jesus Christ.”

The photo above was taken three years ago by my then girlfriend, now wife, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. I didn’t get to go, alas—I was living in New York at the time—but the museum, as I was endlessly informed over the next few days, is tons of fun, with elaborate dioramas of the White House, Ford’s Theater, and other family-friendly attractions, including life-size figures of the entire Lincoln clan. When I saw the text of the plaque above, though, I was outraged, for reasons that might seem hard to understand at first. Here’s my verbatim response, at least as well as I can remember: “What about Napoleon?” I demanded. “What about Napoleon?”

You see, I like Napoleon. I like him a lot. Twenty or so books about Napoleon line my shelves, and I’m always on the lookout for more, the older and more adulatory, the better. Why? Emerson’s essay from Representative Men provides a decent starting point, but the short answer is that Napoleon is the most fascinating person I know in world history—”among the most perceptive, penetrating, retentive, and logical minds ever seen in one who was predominantly a man of action,” as Will Durant nicely puts it. He’s the foremost figure of Western history, a man who, for all his flaws, embodies more than any other individual the limits of human energy, intelligence, and ambition. And I was pretty sure that more books had been written about him than anyone else, including Lincoln.

And yet here’s the thing. Napoleon came from almost nothing, and became emperor of Europe. At his coronation, he took the crown out of the Pope’s hands and placed it on his own head. He was, by almost any measure, the most purely productive human being who ever lived. But these days, all that most people could say about Napoleon, if they recognized the name at all, was that he was a short little guy with a funny hat. (Not that short, by the way: he was 5 feet, 7 inches, or roughly the height of Tom Cruise.) That’s what time does: it reduces even the most monumental figures into caricatures of themselves. Two centuries is all it took to turn the leading light of Western civilization to Ian Holm in Time Bandits. It will happen to Lincoln, too, if it hasn’t already happened.

Napoleon, of course, isn’t alone. I was recently reminded of this whole kerfuffle while reading Dean Simonton’s Origins of Genius, inspired by the Malcolm Gladwell article I mentioned last week. Simonton mentions the work of the psychologist James McKeen Cattell, who, back in 1903, made one of the first systematic attempts to rank the thousand most eminent men in history—there were hardly any women on his list—by toting up mentions in major biographical dictionaries and tabulating the results. Here’s his top hundred:

Napoleon, Shakespeare, Mohammed, Voltaire, Bacon, Aristotle, Goethe, Julius Caesar, Luther, Plato, Napoleon III, Burke, Homer, Newton, Cicero, Milton, Alexander the Great, Pitt, Washington, Augustus, Wellington, Raphael, Descartes, Columbus, Confucius, Penn, Scott, Michelangelo, Socrates, Byron, Cromwell, Gautama, Kant, Leibnitz, Locke, Demosthenes, Mary Stuart [the only woman on the list], Calvin, Moliere, Lincoln, Louis Philippe, Dante, Rousseau, Nero, Franklin, Galileo, Johnson, Robespierre, Frederick the Great, Aurelius, Hegel, Petrarch, Horace, Charles V (Germany), Mirabeau, Erasmus, Virgil, Hume, Guizot, Gibbon, Pascal, Bossuet, Hobbes, Swift, Thiers, Louis XIV, Wordsworth, Louis XVI, Nelson, Henry VIII, Addison, Thucydides, Fox, Racine, Schiller, Henry IV (France), W. Herschel, Tasso, Jefferson, Ptolemy, Claudius, Augustine, Pope, Machiavelli, Swedenborg, Philip II, Leonardo da Vinci, George III, Julian, Pythagoras, Macaulay, Rubens, Burns, Mozart, Humboldt, Comte, Cousin, Cuvier, Justinian, Euripides, Camoens.

Now, much of this list remains unimpeachable. The top ten, in particular, would presumably be very similar today, though Bacon would probably give place to Newton, and we’d need to find room for Einstein and, yes, Lincoln. (Also, hopefully, for some women. The only other women, besides Mary Queen of Scots, to make Cattell’s top two hundred were Elizabeth and Joan of Arc, although, at this rate, it’s only a matter of time before we see Sarah Palin.) But with all due respect to my French readers, when I see names like Guizot, Bossuet, Thiers, Comte, and Cousin, among others, my only response is a blank stare. And this is coming from someone who loves Napoleon.

All in all, though, Cattell’s list reminds us how quickly even major reputations can fade. (For an even more sobering reminder, look no further than the bottom of his top thousand. Fauriel, Enfantin, Babeuf, anyone?) And I have no doubt that a contemporary list of the top hundred figures in history, like this one, will look equally strange to a reader a century from now. Just because you made the list once, it seems, doesn’t mean you’ll stay there.

Quote of the Day

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Wolfgang Köhler

We often talk about the three B’s, the Bus, the Bath, and the Bed. That is where the great discoveries are made in our science.

—An unnamed physicist, to Wolfgang Köhler

Written by nevalalee

May 27, 2011 at 8:40 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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