Imagination Rules the World

Napoleon Bonaparte? Blaise Pascal? Emmanuel Comte de Las Cases? Hugh Henry Brackenridge? Irving Babbitt? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The French military and political leader Napoléon Bonaparte has received credit for a statement about vision. Here are two versions in English:

  • Imagination rules the world.
  • Imagination governs the world.

Is this attribution genuine? Would you please help me to find a citation in French?

Quote Investigator: Napoléon Bonaparte surrendered to the British and was exiled to the island of Saint Helena in 1815 where he died in 1821. Emmanuel, comte de Las Cases met regularly with the ex-emperor, and he took notes of conversations. The popular work “Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena” was released and translated into English in 1823.

Within a section dated January 1816 Las Cases described meetings with sailors who expressed the highest admiration and good wishes for Napoléon. The statesman observed that the sailors did not really know him, and their intense feelings were based on imagination. Below is an excerpt in French 1 followed by a rendering into English. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2

Voilà des gens qui ne me connaissaient point, qui ne m’avaient jamais vu, seulement ils avaient entendu parler de moi; et que ne sentent-ils pas, que ne feraient-ils pas en ma faveur! Et la même bizarrerie se renouvelle dans tous les pays, dans tous les âges, dans tous les sexes! Voilà le fanatisme! Oui, l’imagination gouverne le monde!”

He then said, “See the effect of imagination? How powerful is its influence! Here are people who do not know me–who have never seen me; they have only heard me spoken of; and what do they not feel! what would they not do to serve me! And the same caprice is to be found in all countries, in all ages, and in both sexes! This is fanaticism! Yes, imagination rules the world!”

Below are additional selected citations.

Interestingly, the saying was circulating in English in 1815 before Napoleon employed it in French in 1816. The 1815 book “Modern Chivalry: Containing the Adventures of a Captain, and Teague O’Regan, His Servant” by Hugh Henry Brackenridge contained the following: 3

It will impress her with the same idea; and imagination governs the world.

In 1823 Emmanuel, comte de Las Cases ascribed the saying to Napoléon Bonaparte based on a conversation from 1816. The phrase appeared in French and English in separate editions of the book by Las Cases as mentioned previously.

In 1870 a passage containing the saying appeared in “The Table Talk and Opinions of Napoleon Buonaparte”. The title used an alternative spelling for “Bonaparte”. The passage omitted the phrase “This is fanaticism!”: 4

“And the same caprice is found in all countries, in all ages, and in both sexes. Yes, imagination rules the world.”

In 1922 the journal “Modern Language Notes” published article by Professor Irving Babbitt of Harvard University that attributed an instance with “governs” instead of “rules” to Napoleon: 5

Now I admit that I have at least this much in common with the romanticists that I assign a supremely important rôle to the imagination, that I grant the truth of the Napoleonic dictum that “imagination governs the world.”

In 1927 “The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations” originally compiled by Tryon Edwards included the saying: 6

Imagination rules the world.—Napoleon.

In 1980 “Dictionary of Foreign Quotations” compiled by Robert and Mary Collison printed French and English versions of a thematically related statement attributed to Blaise Pascal who died in 1662. A collection of Pascal’s written fragments was published posthumously as “Pensées”: 7

L’imagination dispose de tout; elle fait la beauté, la justice, et le bonheur, qui est le tout du monde.
Blaise Pascal:
Pensées (French)

Imagination governs everything; it creates beauty, justice, and happiness — everything that matters in the world.

Oddly, the instances above differed from older versions of the statement credited to Pascal. For example, a 1785 edition of “Pensées” contained the word “L’opinion” instead of “L’imagination”: 8

L’opinion dispose de tout. Elle fait la beauté, la justice, et le bonheur, qui est le tout du monde.

An 1885 translation of Pascal’s words diverged significantly from the 1980 rendering. Thus, the match to the statement under investigation was not strong: 9

Imagination is the disposer of all things, it creates beauty, justice and happiness, and these are the world’s all.

In conclusion, in 1823 Emmanuel, comte de Las Cases popularized the saying “l’imagination gouverne le monde” which he credited to Napoléon Bonaparte based on a conversation held in 1816. Interestingly, Hugh Henry Brackenridge penned “imagination governs the world” in 1815.

Blaise Pascal wrote “L’opinion dispose de tout”. Over time this phrase evolved to “L’imagination dispose de tout”, and in 1980 the statement was translated as “Imagination governs everything”.

Image Notes: Painting of Bonaparte Before the Sphinx by Jean-Léon Gérôme circa 1886. Image has been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to Nathan Atristain whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1823, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal de la Vie Privée et des Conversations de l’Empereur Napoléon, à Sainte Hélène par Le Comte de Las Cases, Tome 1 (Volume 1), Seconde Partif (Part 2), Date: January 1816, Quote Page 110, Chez Henri Colburn et Co., Londres. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1823, Memorial de Sainte Helene: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena by The Count De las Cases, Volume 1 and 2, Date: January 1816, Section: Life at Longwood, Start Page 249, Quote Page 255, Printed by Thomas Smith, Lexington, K. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1815, Modern Chivalry: Containing the Adventures of a Captain, and Teague O’Regan, His Servant by H. H. Brackenridge (Hugh Henry Brackenridge), Volume 1, Quote Page 69 and 70, Johnson & Warner, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1870, The Table Talk and Opinions of Napoleon Buonaparte, Third Edition, Section: 1816, Quote Page 76, Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1922 May, Modern Language Notes, Editor in Chief: James Wilson Bright, Volume 37, Number 5, Schiller and Romanticism by Irving Babbitt (Harvard University), Start Page 257, Quote Page 261, The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, Maryland. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1927, The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations, Originally compiled by Tryon Edwards, Revised and Enlarged, Topic: Imagination, Quote Page 276, Britkin Publishing Company, Charlotte, North Carolina. (Verified with scans) link
  7. 1980, Dictionary of Foreign Quotations, Compiled by Robert and Mary Collison, Topic: Imagination, Quote Page 169, Column 2, Facts on File, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1785, Pensées et Réflexions extraites de Pascal sur la Religion et la Morale, Volume 1, Editor: G. M. Ducreux (Gabriel Marin Ducreux), Author: Blaise Pascal, Quote Page 37, Publisher: Royez, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1885, The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal, Translated from the Text of M. Auguste Molinier by C. Kegan Paul, Of the Deceptive Powers of the Imagination, Quote Page 53, Kegan Paul, Trench & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link