By Will and Ariel Durant, 1975

This is Part One of a Three-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three


Goethe thought that Napoleon’s mind was the greatest that the world had ever produced. Lord Acton concurred. Meneval, awed by the nearness of power and fame, ascribed to his master “the highest intellect which has ever been granted to a human being.” Taine, the most brilliant and indefatigable opponent of Napoleolatry, marveled at the Emperor’s capacity for long and intense mental labor; “never has a brain so disciplined and under such control been seen.” Let us agree that Napoleon’s was among the most perceptive, penetrating, retentive, and logical minds ever seen in one who was predominantly a man of action. He liked to sign himself as a “member of the Institute,” and he once expressed to Laplace his regret that “force of circumstances had led him so far from the career of a scientist”; at that moment he might have ranked the man who adds to human understanding above the man who adds to man’s power. (If Napoleon had been wise, said Anatole France, “he would have lived in an attic and written four books”; i.e., he would have been another Spinoza.) However, he could be forgiven for scorning the “ideologues” of the Institute, who mistook ideas for realities, explained the universe, and proposed to tell him how to govern France. His mind had the defects of a romantic imagination, but it had the realistic stimulus of daily contact with the flesh and blood of life. His persistent mental activity was part and servant of persistent action at the highest level of statesmanship.

First of all, he was sensitive. He suffered from the keenness of his senses: his ears multiplied sounds, his nose multiplied odors, his eyes penetrated surfaces and appearances, and discarded the incidental to clarify the significant. He was curious and asked thousands of questions, read hundreds of books, studied maps and histories, visited factories and farms; Las Cases was amazed at the range of his interest, the scope of his knowledge about countries and centuries. He had a memory made tenacious and selective by the intensity and character of his aims; he knew what to forget and what to retain. He was orderly: the unity and hierarchy of his desires imposed a clarifying and directive order upon his ideas, actions, policies, and government. He required from his aides reports and recommendations composed not of eloquent abstractions and admirable ideals but of definite objectives, factual information, practical measures, and calculable results; he studied, checked, and classified this material in the light of his experience and purposes, and issued instructions decisive and precise. We know of no other government in history that worked with such orderly preparation to such orderly administration. With Napoleon the ecstasy of liberty yielded to the dictatorship of order.

By projecting his memories into anticipations, he became skilled in calculating the results of possible responses, and in predicting the plans and moves of his foes. “I meditate a great deal,” he said. “If I seem equal to the occasion, and ready to face it when it comes, it is because I have thought the matter over a long time before undertaking it….I have anticipated whatever might happen. It is not genie (djinn) which suddenly reveals to me what I ought to do or say,….but my own reflection.” So he prepared in detail the campaigns of Marengo and Austerlitz, and predicted not only the results but the time they would require. At the summit of his development (1807) he was able to keep his wishes from obscuring his vision; he tried to anticipate difficulties, hazards, surprises, and planned to meet them. “When I plan a battle no man is more pusillanimous than I am. I magnify to myself all the evils possible under the circumstances.” His first rule in case of unforeseen emergencies was to attend to them immediately, at whatever time of the day or night. He left permanent instructions with Bourrienne: “Do not wake me when you have good news to communicate; with such there is no hurry. But when you bring bad news rouse me instantly, for then there is not a moment to lose!” He recognized that despite all foresight he might be surprised by some unexpected event, but he prided himself on having “the two-o’clock-in-the-morning courage” – the ability to think clearly and act promptly and effectively, after a sudden awakening. He tried to be on his guard against chance, and repeatedly told himself that “it is only a step from victory to disaster.”

His judgment of men was usually as penetrating as his calculation of events. He did not trust appearances or protestations; a person’s character, he thought, does not appear on his face until he is old, and speech conceals as often as it reveals. He studied himself ceaselessly, and on that basis he presumed that all men and women were led in their conscious actions and thought by self-interest. He who was the object of so much devotion (from Desaix, Lannes, Meneval, Las Cases….and those soldiers who, dying, cried “Vive l’Empereur!”) could not conceive of a selfless devotion. Behind every word and deliberate deed he saw the tireless grasp of the ego – the strong man’s ambition, the weak man’s fear, the woman’s vanity or stratagem. He sought out each person’s ruling passion or vulnerable frailty, and played upon it to mold him to imperial aims.

Despite all forethought and foresight he made (to our hindsight) an ample variety of mistakes, both in judging men and in calculating results. He might have known that Josephine could not bear a month of chastity, and that Marie Louise could not tie Austria to peace. He thought he had charmed Alexander at Tilsit and Erfurt, while the Tsar, with Talleyrand’s coaching, was deceiving him elegantly. It was a mistake to intensify British hostility in 1802 by so boldly extending his power over Piedmont, Lombardy, and Switzerland; a mistake to put his brothers on thrones too big for their brains; a mistake to suppose that the German states in the Confederation of the Rhine would submit to French sovereignty when a chance came to break away; a mistake to publish a document that showed him thinking of conquering Turkey; a mistake (as he later confessed) to waste the Grand Army in Spain; a mistake to invade endless Russia, or remain there as winter neared. Supreme over so many men, he was subject, as he said, to the “nature of things,” to the surprises of events, the frailties of disease, the inadequacies of his power. “I have conceived many plans,” he said, “but I was never free to execute one of them. For all that I held the rudder, and with a strong hand, the waves were a good deal stronger. I was never in truth my own master; I was always governed by circumstance.”

And by imagination. His soul was a battleground between keen observation enlightening reason and vivid imaginings clouding it with romance, even with superstition; now and then he dallied with omens and horoscopes. When he went to Egypt he took with him many books of science and many of sentiment or fancy – Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise, Goethe’s Werther, Macpherson’s “Ossian”; he confessed later that he had read Werther seven times; and in the end he concluded that “imagination rules the world.” Stranded in Egypt, he fed on dreams of winning India; struggling through Syria, he pictured himself conquering Constantinople with his handful of men, and then marching upon Vienna like a more invincible Suleiman. As power drove caution out of his blood he ignored Goethe’s warning of Entsagen – the acknowledgment of bounds; his proliferating successes challenged the gods – violated the calculus of limitations; and in the end he found himself petulant and helpless, chained to a rock in the sea.


His pride had begun with the self-centeredness natural to all organisms. In his youth it swelled defensively in the clash of individuals and families in Corsica, and then against the class and racial arrogance of students at Brienne. It was not by any means pure selfishness; it allowed devotion and generosity to his mother, to Josephine and her children; love for the “King of Rome”; and an impatient affection for his brothers and sisters, who also had selves to pamper and preserve. But as his successes widened, his power and responsibilities, his pride and self-absorption, grew. He tended to take nearly all the credit for his armies’ victories, but he praised, loved, and mourned Desaix and Lannes. Finally he identified his country with himself, and his ego swelled with her frontiers.

His pride, or the consciousness of ability, sometimes descended to vanity, or the display of accomplishments. “Well, Bourrienne, you too will be immortal.” “Why, general?” “Are you not my secretary?” “Tell me the name of Alexander’s.” “Hm, that is not bad, Bourrienne.” He wrote to Viceroy Eugene (April 14, 1806): “My Italian people must know me well enough not to forget that there is more in my little finger than in all their brains put together.” The letter N, blazoned in a thousand places, was occasionally graced with a J for Josephine. The Emperor felt that showmanship was a necessary prop of rule.

“Power is my mistress,” he declared to Roederer in 1804, when Joseph was angling to be declared heir; “I have worked too hard at her conquest to allow anyone to take her away from me, or even to covet her….Two weeks ago I would not have dreamed of treating him unjustly. Now I am unforgiving. I shall smile at him with my lips – but he has slept with my mistress.” (Here he did himself injustice; he was a jealous lover, but he was a forgiving man.) “I love power as a musician loves his violin.” So his ambition leaped from bound to bound: he dreamt of rivaling Charlemagne and uniting Western Europe, forcibly including the Papal State; then of following Constantine from France through Milan to the capture of Constantinople, building classic arches to commemorate his victories; then he found Europe too little, a mere “molehill,” and proposed to rival Alexander by conquering India. It would be hard work, for himself and a million troops, but it would be repaid in glory, for him and them; and if death overtook them on the way it would not be too great a price to pay. “Death is nothing; but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.” “I live only for posterity.” La gloire became his ruling passion, so hypnotic that for a decade nearly all France accepted it as its guiding star.

He pursued his aims with a will that never bent except to leap – until he had exhausted the sublime and become pitiful. His unresting ambition gave unity to his will, direction and substance to every day. At Brienne, “even when I had nothing [assigned?] to do, I always felt that I had no time to lose.” And to Jerome in 1805: “What I am I owe to strength of will, to character, application, and audacity.” Daring was part of his strategy; time and again he surprised his enemies by quick and decisive action at unexpected places and times. “My aim is to go straight toward my objective, without being stopped by any consideration”; it took him a decade to learn the old adage that in politics a straight line is the longest distance between two points.

Sometimes his judgment and conduct were clouded and perverted with passion. His temper was as short as his stature, and it shortened as his power spread. He had the heat and wilds of Corsica in his blood, and though he usually managed to check his wrath, those around him, from Josephine to his powerful bodyguard Roustam, watched their every word and move lest they incur his wrath. He became impatient with contradiction, tardiness, incompetence, or stupidity. When he lost his temper he would publicly berate an ambassador, swear at a bishop, kick philosopher Volney in the stomach, or faute de mieux, boot a log on the hearth. And yet his anger cooled almost as soon as it flared; often it was put on, as a move in the chess of politics; in most cases he made amends a day or a minute afterward. He was seldom brutal, often kind, playful, good-humored, but his sense of humor had been weakened by hardship and battle; he had little time for the pleasantries of leisure, the gossip of the court, or the wit of the salons. He was a man in a hurry, with a pack of enemies around him, and an empire on his hands; and it is difficult for a man in a hurry to be civilized.

He spent too much of his energy conquering half of Europe to have much left for the absurdities of coitus. He suspected that many forms of sexual desire were environmentally learned rather than hereditary: “Everything is conventional among men, even to those feelings which, one would suppose, ought to be dictated by Nature alone.” He could have had a covey of concubines in the full Bourbon tradition, but he made do with half a dozen mistresses spaced between campaigns. Women thought themselves immortal if they amused him for a night; usually he dispatched the matter with brutal brevity, and talked about his late partners with more coarseness than gratitude. His infidelities caused Josephine many hours of worry and grief; he explained to her (if we may believe Mme. De Remusat) that these divertimenti were natural, necessary, and customary, and should be overlooked by an understanding wife; she wept, he comforted her, she forgave him. Otherwise he was as good a husband as his cares and wanderings would allow.

When Marie Louise came to him he accepted monogamy (so far as we know) with new grace, if only because adultery might lose him Austria. His devotion to her was doubled when he beheld her agony in giving him a son. He had always shown a fondness for children; his law code gave them especial protection; now the King of Rome became the idol and bearer of his hopes, carefully trained to inherit and wisely rule a France giving laws to a united Europe. So the great ego enlarged itself with marital and parental love.

He was too immersed in politics to have time for friends; besides, friendship implies a near-equality of give and take, and Napoleon found it hard to concede equality in any form. He had faithful servitors and devotees, some of whom gave their lives for his glory and their own; yet none would have thought of calling him a friend. Eugene loved him, but as a son rather than a friend. Bourrienne (never quite trustworthy) relates that in 1800 he often heard Napoleon say:

“Friendship is but a name. I love nobody. I do not even love my brothers. Perhaps Joseph a little, from habit and because he is my elder; and Duroc, I love him too…I know very well that I have no true friends. As long as I continue what I am, I may have as many pretended friends as I please. Leave sensibility to women; it is their business. But men should be firm at heart and in purpose, or they should have nothing to do with war or government.”

This has the stoic Napoleonic ring, but it is not easily reconciled with the lifelong devotion of men like Desaix, Duroc, Lannes, Las Cases, and a host of others. The same Bourrienne attests that “out of the field of battle Bonaparte had a kind and feeling heart.” And Meneval, close to Napoleon for thirteen years, agrees:

I had expected to find him brusque and of uncertain temper, instead of which I found him patient, indulgent, easy to please, by no means exacting, merry with a merriness which was often noisy and mocking, and sometimes of a charming bonhomie….I was no longer afraid of him. I was maintained in this state of mind by all that I saw of his pleasant and affectionate ways with Josephine, the assiduous devotion of his officers, the kindliness of his relations with the consuls and the ministers, and his familiarity with the soldiers.

Apparently he could be hard when he thought that policy demanded it, and lenient when policy allowed; policy had to come first. He sent many men to jail, and yet a hundred instances of his kindness are recorded, as in the volumes of Frederic Masson. He took action to improve conditions in the jails of Brussels, but conditions in French prisons in 1814 were unworthy of the general efficiency of his rule. He saw thousands of men dead on the field of battle, and went on to other battles; yet we hear of his often stopping to comfort or relieve a wounded soldier. Very Constant “saw him weep while eating his breakfast after coming from the bedside of Marshal Lannes,” mortally wounded at Essling in 1809.

There is no question about his generosity, nor about his readiness to forgive. He repeatedly – and once too often – forgave Bernadotte and Bourrienne. When Carnot and Chenier, after years of opposition to Napoleon, appealed to him to relieve their poverty, he sent help immediately. At St. Helena he contrived excuses for those who had deserted him in 1813 or 1815. Only the British won his lasting resentment of their lasting enmity; he saw nothing but mercenary hardness in Pitt, was rather unfair to Sir Hudson Lowe, and found it impossible to appreciate Wellington. There was a considerable justice in his self-estimate: “I consider myself a good man at heart.” No man, we are told, is a hero to his valet; but Very Constant, Napoleon’s valet through fourteen years, recorded his memories in numerous volumes “breathless with adoration.”

Persons brought up to the elegant manners of the Old Regime could not bear the blunt directness of Napoleon’s style of movement and address. He amused such people by the awkward consciousness of his carriage and the occasional coarseness of his speech. He did not know how to put others at their ease, and did not seem to care; he was too eager for the substance to fret about the form. “I do not like that vague and leveling phrase les convenances [the properties]…It is a device of fools to raise themselves to the level of people of intellect…‘Good taste’ is another of those classical expressions which mean nothing to me …What is called ‘style,’ good or bad, does not affect me. I care only for the force of the thought.” Secretly, however, he admired the easy grace and quiet considerateness of the gentleman; he longed to win approval from the aristocrats who made fun of him in the salons of Faubourg St.-Germain. In his own way he could be “fascinating when he chose to be.”

His low opinion of women may have been due to his hurried carelessness of their sensitivity. So he remarked to Mme. Charpentier, “How ill you look in that red dress!” – and he turned Mme. de Stael to enmity by ranking women according to their fertility. Some women rebuked his rudeness with feminine subtlety. When he exclaimed to Mme. de Chevreuse, “Dear me, how red your hair is!” she answered, “Perhaps it is, Sire, but this is the first time a man has ever told me so.” When he told a famous beauty, “Madame, I do not like it when women mix in politics,” she retorted, “You are right, General; but in a country where they have their heads cut off, it is natural that they should want to know why.” Nevertheless Meneval, who saw him almost daily, noted “that winning charm which was so irresistible in Napoleon.”

He liked to talk – sometimes garrulously, almost always usefully and to the point. He invited scientists, artists, actors, writers, to his table, and surprised them by his affability, his knowledge of their field, and the aptness of his remarks. Isabey the miniaturist, Monge the mathematician, Fontaine the architect, and Talma the actor left reminiscences of these meetings, all testifying to the “grace, amiability, and gaiety” of Napoleon’s conversation. He much preferred talking to writing. His ideas advanced faster than his speeches; when he tried to write them down he wrote so rapidly that no one – not he himself – could then decipher his scrawl. So he dictated, and as 41,000 of his letters have been published, and doubtless other thousands were written, we can begin to understand how the honor of being his secretary was a sentence to hard labor. Bourrienne, who took the post in 1797, had the good fortune to be dismissed in 1802, and so survived til 1834. He was expected to join Napoleon at 7 a.m., work all day, and be on call at night. He could speak and write several languages, knew international law, and, with his own method of shorthand, could usually write as fast as Napoleon dictated.

Meneval, who succeeded Bourrienne in 1802, labored still harder, for “I did not know any kind of shorthand.” Napoleon was fond of him, often jested with him, but wore him out almost daily, after which he would tell him to go and take a bath. At St. Helena the Emperor recalled: “I nearly killed poor Meneval; I was obliged to relieve him for a while from the duties of his situation, and place him, for the recovery of his health, near the person of Marie Louise, where his post was a mere sinecure.” In 1806 Napoleon authorized him to engage an assistant, Francois Fain, who served to the end, and on all campaigns. Even so Meneval was quite worn out when he escaped from his fond despot in 1813. It was one of those love affairs that thrive on inequality recognized and not abused.