"From The Sublime To The Ridiculous"
Context: At the height of his success Napoleon was determined to ruin the English by closing the ports of Europe to British manufactured and colonial goods. To promote his scheme and prevent the leakage of British products into the Continent, he was forced to extend his military rule into the Iberian peninsula and along the coast of the North Sea. At the moment when he was in great difficulty in Spain and engaged in a commercial war with England, Napoleon found himself also at war with Austria. Momentarily successful against Austria in the Battle of Wagram, July 6, 1809, he fell out, for a variety of reasons, with Russia, and the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812 sealed his doom. Advancing to Moscow only to have to retreat at great cost before the powerful thrust of winter and a series of encounters with Russian forces, Napoleon displayed his obsessive determination in a conversation at Warsaw with the French ambassador, the Abbé de Pradt. The saying has also been attributed to Talleyrand (1754-1830). Thomas Paine (1737-1809) wrote: "When authors and critics talk of the sublime, they see not how nearly it borders on the ridiculous" (The Age of Reason, Part II). J. H. Rose describes the incident in The Life of Napoleon I, Volume II, chapter 33:
. . . Despite the loss of the most splendid army ever marshalled by man, Napoleon abated no whit of his resolve to dominate Germany and dictate terms to Russia. At Warsaw, in his retreat, he informed de Pradt that there was but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous (du sublime au ridicule il n'y a qu'un pas), that is, from the advance on Moscow to the retreat.