Friday, March 4, 2011

French Morality

Portrait of French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte

While I was reading a novel called Watership Down, I stumbled upon a quote. Most chapters use images to describe itself; but this book used quotes and segments from other pieces of literature. The quote was from French general and eventual emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: "Quant au courage moral, il avait trouvé fort rare, disait-il, celui de deux hueres aprés minuit; c'est-à-dire le courage de l'improviste."

I was curious to know what the quote meant, so I showed it to my Spanish teacher after I thought she said she could speak French. Turns out, she speaks Portugal and German, not French. However, she asked me to e-mail the quote to her so she may forward it to a colleague. Here was my message:

From what my research tells me and from what I assume, I have gathered that he is saying that in the darkest hour, one (it seems he is referring to two individuals, hence "celui de deux" or "the two") may find courage out of nowhere. However, upon machine translation, I received this as a reply: "As to moral courage, he had found very rare, he said, the two booed after midnight, that is to say, the courage of the blue." Though some pieces of it make sense once enough thought is put into it, considering the time and the form of language used when this was said, a machine would naturally have difficulty translating this into a form that is clear and lucid.

Though my teacher thought my interpretation was logical, the French teacher thought differently, though it was interesting regardless:

I read this and another by Victor Hugo as a student in Bordeaux, and I wrote numerous pages and essays about the quote. Indeed, Napoleon is an important father of the French republic: his stamp is everywhere in the educational system, he started the French baccalaureate (the last year rigorous exam giving a student the right to accede to the university), code of justice, defense system, ect. This quote can be put in the context of what we can call a moral imperative versus action occurring on the spur of the moment. Remember Emmanuel Kant's moral imperative: it is a philosophical concept based on principles, regardless of any consideration or situation that moral. Napoleon considers that the moral component is rare when it comes to courage. It might be impromptu, meaning that it can be an ad hoc (improvised or impromptu) act of courage.

Someone might act courageously for a variety of reasons that are not from any moral inclination of courage. For example, someone might act courageously to impress another person, to self-fulfill his ego, ect. However, the act of courage does not ipso facto (by the fact itself) equate to being morally courageous. Napoleon rightly makes a distinction between the moral imperative and other factors that might influence an act of courage. Remember, Napoleon was a great general, although his army in route to take the southern part of the U.S. was decimated in Haiti by a slave rebellion. He remains, however, a general who believes that courage shall be put in par as a moral imperative for men.

He also put an act of courage within the context of a time period, two hours after midnight (it is a little time period) when someone might act in a decisive and courageous manner, and acts differently when the circumstances change, hence without moral [imperative]. Therefore, for him, acting courageously once or twice does not equate to sentiment of courage or any courageous moral inclining.

— Ernst Jacquitte

This is rather interesting, because this is far different from what I assumed and far more interesting. Basically, for those who don't want to read long posts, Napoleon states that morality becomes almost irrelevant in an act of courage. In other words, one might save themselves in a moment of peril and completely ignore the consequences of the means; it is natural instinct to do so. But as a result, morality will be thrown to the wind.

But to make you guys laugh:

"Welcome to the 21st century, bitches!"

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