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18 Years Old. Took a while (18 years) but finally made it.
Pretty odd. The age that society agreed should mark the end of being a dependent on another human being and the start of being an adult. The age where you are supposed to be more mature and better able to conduct yourself with newfound powers. Like being old enough to join the army (or forced to join), drive, drink, trade new exotic financial derivatives on shady but somehow legal websites to lose millions of dollars to ken griffin's citadel securities in fees, watch Oppenheimer and so much more. The rest come when you turn 21 in Singapore.
A year ago, I spent my birthday researching other incredibly successful people in modern human history and comparing myself at the feeble age of seventeen to them at seventeen because comparison gives joy.
This year, I want to spend this time researching the greatest downfalls in history to answer the age old question - who fell off the most in all of human history? In modern times, I can think of a couple examples of people who's 11 figure empires collapsed in incredible fashion but there are much greater stories of failure in history.
There are countless people who were rulers of empires stretching across continents and thousands of kilometres dictating lives of millions of people and then met their demise in spectacular fashion.
Let's start off with Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon Bonaparte was the Emperor of France and arguably history's greatest military general. Born in Corsica which was newly annexed by France at the time, Napoleon was born to minor nobility and was an outsider to French society.
He had to work his way up through the ranks in the French military. He used the chaos of the French revolution to rise up the ranks quickly through his victories as a leader and eventually engineered a coup to become First Consul of the Republic before literally crowning himself Emperor of the French.
Napoleon's rule came to end when he was finally defeated in 1814 and exiled to the island of Elba off the coast of Italy. He would then return from exile and successfully reform his army. He was then defeated at the famous Battle of Waterloo in 1815. To make sure that he wouldn't return back to France from exile, he was sent to the island of Saint Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It is thousands of kilometres away from the nearest coast and extremely remote. This is where Napoleon spent the rest of his life.
From being born in the small island of Corsica, to rising the ranks as a military general in France to being Emperor of the French Empire which at its peak had control and influence over almost the entirety of the European continent to being exiled to a tiny remote island thousands of kilometres away from the nearest human civilisation. .
Napoleon had a battle win loss ratio of 75:11 throughout his military career which is incredible. He was also really into history when growing up. Napoleon was a huge admirer of history's greatest military commanders like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Fredrick the Great. While a cadet at Brienne Military College, It is said that
Of all histories, his biggest favorite was Plutarch's The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. It stimulated him to dream and worship the exploits of empire-building heroes such as Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, two of whom he later emulated as a conqueror. Will Durant, author of The Age of Napoleon, the final volume of his popular "Story of Civilization" series, best sums up Napoleon's love for Plutarch's Lives. "He (Napoleon) breathed the passion of those ancient patriots and drank the blood of those historic battles". He was so steeped in Greek and Roman history that Pasquale Paoli, the great Corsican rebel leader was to later remark to him, "There is nothing modern in you; you are entirely out of Plutarch."
Although Napoleon had a incredible rise to power and equally impressive magnitude of failure, he is remembered today for being short and the word Napoleon Complex is used to described a domineering or aggressive attitude perceived as a form of overcompensation for being physically small or short. This brings me back to the previous post about rewriting history.
Napoleon is remembered this way as he embarrassed the British for decades and absolutely humiliated them throughout his rule. When Napoleon finally lost and was exiled, the British wanted to mock their former enemy to diminish his legacy during his life and after his death.
They constantly mocked Napoleon even though he was around 1.70m which was actually average height for the time. Moreover, Napoleon was seen as short as he was always next to his bodyguards, the Imperial Guards who have to meet a certain height criteria to get selected.
Next up is Charles Lindbergh. As a fan of history and more specifically history from 1850 to 1950, I was surprised I have only just heard about Charles Lindbergh. I learnt about Charles Lindbergh from one of the conversations in The American Story by David M Rubenstein.
Charles Lindbergh was an American aviator, military officer and the first modern celebrity. He went from being a normal person to overnight international superstardom from making the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight from New York City to Paris (5800km) in 33.5 hours back in 1927.
If you are wondering, yes he had to be awake the whole time and started to hallucinate halfway through, he continually fell asleep and woke up seconds or minutes later. At certain points he was 10,000 ft in the air while at other times he was as low as 10 ft and right above the tides.
The account of his flight is simply incredible when you consider the primitive technology that he had to use to navigate across the Atlantic. While only 500 people were there to see his flight depart from New York City, nearly 150,000 Parisians celebrated his arrival in Paris.
As an overnight superstar, Lindbergh became even more famous due to his good looks. It’s like if Jungkook was the first person to step on to Mars and helped popularise and make space travel accessible to everyone. A parade of 4 million people greeted him back home in New York and millions more saw him in his victory tour around the country.
He later gained the sympathy of the world when his first baby son was kidnapped and murdered. The heart wrenching news story and investigation was covered everywhere and captivated the minds of millions.
His downfall from fame starts with his neutrality during World War Two. In the 1930s, Lindbergh visited Germany to inspect the Luftwaffe and was entertained by Nazi leaders and received awards there. He then praised Hitler in 1937 and continued to oppose the war in Europe. He also had anti-semitic views at the time. He reversed his stance against war after the attack on Pearl Harbour but his reputation was already destroyed. He was seen as a Nazi sympathiser and a traitor to the nation.
The President of the United States at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was not a fan of Charles Lindbergh as he was seen as a front for the American Neutrality movement. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, he took part in 50 civilian missions against the Japanese. After the war, he toured Nazi concentration camps and wrote that he was disgusted and angered by what had taken place.
His legacy was fatally tainted after the war for both his anti-semitism and his isolationist views. Moreover, it was later revealed after his death that he had three separate secret families throughout Europe - Two of whom were sisters. One sister wasn't aware of the ordeal until much later which must have been an awkward conversation to have to say the least. He was so famous in American society that the Time Magazine created the now well known "Person of the Year" to honour Charles Lindberg's first solo transatlantic flight that was a pivotal moment in aviation.
Next on the list is Julius Caesar. We all know how this story ends. Caesar gets brutally stabbed on the steps of the Forum by a group of senators and in Shakespeare's play he says the famous line "Et tu, Brute?". Julius Caesar rose to power in 49 BCE when he crossed the Rubicon River with his army defying the senate's orders and sparking a civil war against Pompey.
The Rubicon River marked the boundary between the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul and Italy. This was considered an act of insurrection by the senate. This crossing of the rubicon is even used as an expression to describe making an irrevocable decision. Similar to burning one's bridges or burning one's boats.
After victory against Pompey, Caesar became dictator. However, there were fears of Caesar further concentrating power and his series of political and social reforms had mixed reactions from the Senate and Roman elite. This eventually led to his ultimate demise at the hands of his senators. Caesar’s death led to more political turmoil with eventually Augustus becoming the first Roman Emperor, establishing the Roman Empire.
What's the lessons from all this? I am currently reading Theodore Roosevelt's biography by Edmund Morris. One of Teddy Roosevelt's greatest speeches was "The Man in the Arena". In it he says the following:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. Shame on the man of cultivated taste who lets refinement to develop in to fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a work day world
I write greatest downfalls and fall offs in history in a tongue in cheek way to reduce the seriousness of this post but these stories throughout history remind us that even the greatest downfalls are still fundamentally great.
The people mentioned in this post and others whose downfalls are so well documented in history are not failures no matter how much failure they achieved. The real failure comes from living a life desiring mere easy peace. As Teddy Roosevelt put it in The Strenuous Life, "A life of slothful ease, a life of that peace which springs merely from lack either of desire or of power to strive after great things".
I am not saying living a life as the most famous person in the world, leader of a country or billionaire is what everyone should aspire so as to not be a failure. I am talking about living a life that is without intention or not to its fullest in whatever aspect and capacity. What's worse than that is criticising the person in the Arena. I am not completely innocent either.
Often times even in this blog, I have made statements that in hindsight looking back are criticising the man in the arena. I try my best to make sure its more about sharing and articulating thoughts and ideas rather than criticising the man in the arena but I do fall short (though I am taller than Napoleon).
Former US President Richard Nixon, a name synonymous with corruption, resigned from office in 1974 after the Watergate scandal. In his resignation speech, he quoted Theodore Roosevelt's The Man in the Arena speech as well.
Sometimes I have succeeded and sometimes I have failed, but always I have taken heart from what Theodore Roosevelt once said about the man in the arena, "whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again because there is not effort without error and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deed, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumphs of high achievements and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly."
I know I have made it this far into a post without mentioning you know who's name yet but Elon Musk is a present day example of this. His recent antics have made him prime target for criticism. I too have done my fair share of criticism (but only with regards to him selling Tesla stock to pay for Twitter and constantly lying in tweets with regards to crypto) but he is getting attacked for his running of Twitter.
Twitter, now called X, went through a full rebrand and he is getting mocked by the entire internet and media for the firing of his employees, destroying Twitter brand value, right leaning political views, allowing controversial users back in the name of free speech and more.
What actually matters is if Elon pulls off his quest for Free Speech. Doesn't matter if the media and popular opinion of the day think it's going to succeed or fail. He is the man in the arena who's story will either be a tale of caution or one that is revered and told for centuries to come. Not the critic who wrote a donation funded opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times or an anonymous miserable Redditor on r/news.
You can either choose to make fun of Napoleon's "short" stature that is a false narrative which has been imprinted into society by the present day authors of history or you can choose to study Napoleon's life and take away lessons (no matter how minuscule) to improve your quality of life.
The best part about history isn’t the truth, it’s the stories that pass down knowledge and wisdom from the greatest winners and losers. The wisdom and lessons filtered through 110 billion lenses. History is a set of lies agreed upon. What matters is the stories we tell and the lessons imparted from these stories.
Most people will never live a life so valiantly and full as Napoleon, who even in his darkest days had millions captivated around the globe and whose legacy and story will live on for centuries. Memento Mori and it's the life you truly lived that matters. As Abraham Lincoln, the person with the most biographies written about them, famously said "It's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years".