The other day, I had a pop quiz -- where does the expression "From the ridiculous to the sublime" come from? The only slight hint I gave most people won't likely know unless you read history. (Which admittedly isn't much of a hint, as far as hints go.) I also noted that the actual phrase was, contrary to popular usage, "From the sublime to the ridiculous."
So, who said it?
Though the answer is pretty obscure, the person saying it is not. Nor is the context. In fact, it's the context that I find most fascinating at all, because it adds such richness to the quote.
I discovered the quote when reading the last volume of Will and Ariel Durant's epic Story of Civilization. That eleventh book, The Age of Napoleon, covers the years 1789-1815. In case that helps.
The person who made the statement is none other than -- Napoleon Bonaparte!
And even more remarkably, the context is that he was on his way back to France, escaping with his life after the disastrous campaign in Moscow. To avoid detection, Napoleon took three carriages from the town Smorgonie, changing them along the way. Here's what the Durants wrote, on page 711 --
"Napoleon rode with Caulaincourt, who arranged relays of horses, and with General Wonsowicz, who acted as interpreter. To him Napoleon handed two pistols, saying, 'In case of real danger kill me rather than let me be taken.' Fearing capture or assassination, he disguised himself by exchanging costumes with Caulaincourt. 'Passing through Poland,' Caulaincourt recalled, 'it was always I who was the distinguished travelor, and the Emperor was simply my secretary.'
"The ride to Paris was continuous, night and day. The longest stop was at Warsaw, where Napoleon surprised the French representative, the Abbé de Pradt, with a now proverbial remark: 'From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.'"
You can now amaze and enthrall your friends, and probably win a lot of bar bets.
Me, I find that remarkable.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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