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Hegel and Hero Worship

While teaching at Jena in 1806, the nineteenth century's influential German philosopher, Friedrich Hegel, had seen Napoleon riding through the city to review his troops. Hegel had read a lot of the ancient Greek and Roman classics and writers such as Montesquieu and Eduard Gibbon. He was a devout Christian who welcomed social progress and he thought Napoleon embodied that progress. To a friend he wrote of Napoleon as embodying the "world-soul" in which he, Hegel, believed. "It is indeed a wonderful feeling, he wrote, "to see such an individual who, here concentrated into a single point, reaches out over the world and dominates it."

Napoleon's decline in 1814 disturbed Hegel. It upset his vision of power and progress. "There is nothing more tragic in Greek literature," he wrote. "The entire mass of mediocrity...has succeeded in bringing down the highest to the same level as itself." Hegel granted glory to a man who had made his way to the top by cleverness on the field of battle, however lacking the man was in other regards. The world was peppered with individuals with a capacity for genius – accidents of birth in the hundreds every year. Some of them ended as paupers. Some were successful farmers who treated their family and others with respect and care. Some contributed to ideas in science and technology. But it was to men who won battles that many, including Hegel, gave special devotion, no matter how psychopathic they were.

And so it was with people in France who welcomed Napoleon back from Elba in March, 1815.

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