Tag Archives: Napoleon Bonaparte

An Army Marches On Its Stomach

Napoleon Bonaparte? Frederick the Great? Thomas Carlyle? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Proper logistics are crucial to any successful military campaign. The importance of food supply is highlighted in a well-known aphorism. Here are four versions:

  • An army marches on its stomach.
  • An army marches on its belly.
  • An army travels on its stomach.
  • An army goes upon its belly.

This saying has been ascribed to the famous leaders Napoleon Bonaparte and Frederick the Great. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the 1858 work “History of Friedrich the Second, Called Frederick the Great” by the prominent philosopher, essayist, and historian Thomas Carlyle. The saying occurred in the description of an unsuccessful military endeavor. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

They were stronger than Turk and Saracen, but not than Hunger and Disease. Leaders did not know then, as our little Friend at Berlin came to know, that “an Army, like a serpent, goes upon its belly.”

The referent “little Friend at Berlin” was ambiguous, but a later volume of this work by Carlyle clearly ascribed the adage to Frederick II, i.e., Frederick the Great.

Frederick II died in 1786 and Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821. An instance of the aphorism was attributed to Frederick II by 1858 and to Bonaparte by 1862. In each case the long delay reduced the credibility of the linkage.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1858, History of Friedrich the Second, Called Frederick the Great by Thomas Carlyle, Volume 1, Book 2, Chapter 6: The Teutsch Ritters or Teutonic Order, Quote Page 83, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

Never Attribute to Malice That Which Is Adequately Explained by Stupidity

Robert Heinlein? Napoleon Bonaparte? Ayn Rand? David Hume? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Robert J. Hanlon? Arthur Cushman McGiffert? William James Laidlay? Ernst Haeckel? Thomas F. Woodlock? Nick Diamos?

Dear Quote Investigator: It is easy to impute hostility to the actions of others when a situation is actually unclear. A popular insightful adage attempts to constrain this type of bitter speculation. Here are two versions:

  1. Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by stupidity
  2. Don’t ascribe to malice what can be plainly explained by incompetence.

This notion has been attributed to military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, to science fiction author Robert Heinlein, and to others. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive support for ascribing the statement to Napoleon Bonaparte. Robert Heinlein did include a thematically similar remark in a 1941 short story.

The earliest close match known to QI appeared in the 1980 compilation “Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong” edited by Arthur Bloch. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

HANLON’S RAZOR:
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

The description “Hanlon’s Razor” was used because the creator was a computer programmer named Robert J. Hanlon. The phrase “Hanlon’s Razor” was analogous to the phrase “Occam’s Razor”. Both referred to heuristics designed to prune sets of hypotheses by favoring simplicity. More details about Hanlon are presented further below based on the research conducted by quotation expert Mardy Grothe appearing in the 2011 book “Neverisms”.

Many people have expressed similar thoughts over the years and additional selected citations in chronological order are shown below. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1980, Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong, Compiled and Edited by Arthur Bloch, Quote Page 52, Price/Stern/Sloan Publishers Inc., Los Angeles, California. (Verified with scans)

What Is History But a Fable Agreed Upon?

Napoléon Bonaparte? Voltaire? Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Claude Adrien Helvétius? Wendell Phillips? Ralph Waldo Emerson?

history10Dear Quote Investigator: A popular skeptical viewpoint about history can be expressed in a few different ways:

1) What is history but a fable agreed upon?
2) History is a set of lies agreed upon.
3) History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.

These cynical adages have been linked to several major figures including: the military and political leader Napoléon Bonaparte, the French philosopher and firebrand Voltaire (pen name of François-Marie Arouet), and the author and wit Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent evidence known to QI appeared in a 1724 essay about historiography titled “L’Origine des Fables” (“Of the Origin of Fables”) by Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. The French excerpt below from a 1728 collection is followed by a translation into English. Boldface has been added: 1 2

A quel dessein nous l’auroit-on donné pour faux? Quel auroit été cet amour des hommes pour des faussetés manifestes & ridicules, & pourquoi ne dureroit-il plus? Car les Fables des Grecs n’étoient pas comme nos Romans qu’on nous donne pour ce qu’ils sont, & non pas pour des Histoires; il n’y a point d’autres Histoires anciennes que les Fables.

Why would they have bequeathed us a mass of falsehoods? What could this love of men for manifest and ridiculous falsehood, have been, and why did it not last longer? For the Greek fables were not like our novels, which are intended as stories and not as histories; there are no ancient histories other than these fables.

Fontenelle’s comment above provided only a partial match to the saying under examination. He was referring to ancient history and not all history. Nevertheless, prominent figures such as the French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius and Voltaire ascribed the adage to Fontenelle. Perhaps Fontenelle wrote or spoke an expression that provided a closer match elsewhere, but QI has not yet located it.

Many years later Napoléon Bonaparte used an instance of the saying, but he disclaimed credit. The transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson also used an instance, but he credited Napoléon. The well-known orator Wendell Phillips employed a version with the word “lies” in 1881. Detailed illustrations for these assertions are given in the chronological citations below.

QI thanks previous researchers on this topic including Fred R. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, Professor William C. Waterhouse, and Barry Popik.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1728, Oeuvres Diverses by M. De de Fontenelle, (Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle), Volume 1, De L’Origine des Fables, Start Page 329, Quote Page 329, A La Haye, Chez Gosse & Neaulme. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1961, French Philosophers from Descartes to Sartre, Selected and edited by Leonard M. Marsak (Leonard Mendes Marsak), The Origin of Myths by Bernard de Fontenelle, Start Page 108, Quote Page 108, Meridian Books: The World Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio. (Verified on paper)

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous There Is But One Step

Napoleon Bonaparte? Thomas Paine? Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Thomas Warton? Pierre-Jacques Changeux? James Joyce? Mark Twain?

paine09Dear Quote Investigator: Aesthetic evaluations are sometimes complex and contradictory. A well-known saying reflects this unstable nature. Here are two versions:

1) The sublime is only a step removed from the ridiculous.
2) From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but a step.

This expression has been linked to the military leader Napoléon Bonaparte, activist and revolutionist Thomas Paine, literary modernist James Joyce, and humorist Mark Twain. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match for this saying located by QI appeared in French in a 1777 collection of philosophical thoughts titled “Pensées Nouvelles et Philosophiques”. The words were attributed to the prominent author Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Du sublime au ridicule, disait Fontenelle, il n’y a qu’un pas: de la raillerie à l’insulte il y en a encore moins.

Here is one possible translation into English:

From the sublime to the ridiculous, said Fontenelle, it is only one step: from raillery to insult there is even less.

Fontenelle died in 1757, two decades before the book’s publication. Hence, this citation did not provide strong evidence of a linkage, but it did show that the expression was in circulation in French by 1777.

Each of the writers mentioned by the questioner has employed this saying and precise citations are presented further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1777, Pensées Nouvelles et Philosophiques, Statement Number 264 (CCLXIV), Quote Page 75, Published by Marc-Michel Rey, Amsterdam. (Google Books Full View) link

Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba

Napoleon Bonaparte? J.T.R. of Baltimore? Apocryphal?

elbanapoleon02Dear Quote Investigator: A famous palindrome is attributed to the renowned French leader Napoleon Bonaparte who was once exiled to the island of Elba:

Able was I ere I saw Elba.

Supposedly Napoleon said this reversible phrase to Barry Edward O’Meara who was his physician during his captivity on the island of Saint Helena. Is there any truth to this entertaining piece of folklore?

Quote Investigator: Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821, and the earliest appearance of this palindrome located by QI was published in a U.S. periodical called “Gazette of the Union” in 1848. The article credited someone with the initials J.T.R residing in Baltimore, Maryland with the creation of the palindrome. Here is an extended excerpt discussing three palindromes. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Among other things worthy of note, our friend J.T.R. called our attention to the following ingenious though somewhat antique, arrangement of words by the “water poet,” Taylor:

“Lewd did I live & evil I did dwell.”

He remarked that this sentence had attracted considerable attention, and that challenges had been frequently given in the papers for the production of a combination of words, that would so perfectly “read backward and forward the same,” as this line does.

During some moments of leisure, he had produced the following line. In our opinion it is much more perfect than Taylor’s because there are no letters used or dispensed with, which are not legitimate, as in his, in the first and last letters—”lewd” and “dwell:”

“Snug & raw was I ere I saw war & guns.”

With the exception of the sign &, which is twice substituted for the properly spelt conjunction, which it represents, the sentence is perfect. By the way, there is couched in the sentence a fact, which many a soldier who has just returned from the battle fields of Mexico will fully appreciate.

But our friend was not satisfied with this near approach to perfection, but determined to produce a line which would require the aid of no sign to justify it as a correct sentence, and the following was the result of his endeavor:

“Able was I ere I saw Elba.”

Those who are acquainted with the career of Napoleon, will readily recognize the historical force of the sentence in its application to that distinguished warrior. Although our friend has cut more than one figure in the world, in all of which he brought credit to himself, we know he did not desire to figure in our paper to the extent we have caused him to do; he merely submitted the above sentences for our personal amusement, and we take the liberty of giving them to our readers; challenging any of them to produce lines of equal ingenuity of arrangement with the same amount of sense.

According to the text above, Napoleon did not construct the palindrome; however, the person who did craft the phrase employed the historical episode of exile as an inspiration for his wordplay.

Within a decade the palindrome had been reassigned directly to Napoleon Bonaparte. An illustrative citation in a Virginia newspaper in 1858 is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1848 July 8, “The Gazette of the Union, Golden Rule, and Odd-Fellows’ Family Companion”, Doings in Baltimore: Ingenious Arrangement of Words, Quote Page 30, Published for the Proprietors by J. R. Crampton, New York. (Google Books full view) link

Never Interfere With an Enemy While He’s in the Process of Destroying Himself

Napoleon Bonaparte? Haley Barbour? Woodrow Wilson?

Dear Quote Investigator: I saw Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi on television recently and he recited a quotation that he attributed to Napoleon [HBCNN] [HBFOX]:

You know, Napoleon said ‘Never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself.’

Is this an accurate quote? Could you investigate whether Napoleon actually presented this as military advice?

Quote Investigator: Yes, QI can attempt to trace this quote for you. QI was unable to find an exact match for this advice in the 1800s, but QI did find words attributed to Napoleon in an 1836 history book during a discussion of an 1805 battle. These words may have been transformed into the modern maxim. QI also found similar statements made during the past one-hundred and seventy-four years.

Continue reading