A Few of Our Biographies:
An Excerpt From "The Age of Napoleon"
This is Part Three of a Three-Part Excerpt
IV. THE GENERAL
His body and mind, character, and career were in part molded by his military education at Brienne. There he learned to keep himself fit in any weather or place; to think clearly at any hour of day or night; to distinguish without hesitation; to see terrains as possibilities for the open or hidden movement of masses of men; to anticipate enemy maneuvers and prepare to counter them; to expect the unexpected and meet it unsurprised; to inspire individual souls by addressing them en masse; to anesthetize pain with glory, and make it sweet and noble to die for one’s country: all this appeared to Napoleon as the science of sciences, since a nation’s life depends – other means having failed – upon its willingness and ability to defend itself in the final arbitrament of war. “The art of war,” he declared, “is an immense study, which comprises all others.”
So he cultivated most those sciences that would contribute most to the science of national defense. He read history to learn the nature of man and the behavior of states; he surprised the savants, later, by his knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome, of medieval and modern Europe. He “studied and restudied” the campaigns Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Turennne, Eugene of Savoy, and Frederick the Great; “model yourself on them,” he told his officers, “reject every maxim contrary to those of these great men.”
From the military academy he passed to the camp, and from the camp to the control of a regiment. Perhaps from his stoic mother he had the gift of command and knew its secret: that most persons would rather follow a lead than give it – if the leaders leads. He had the courage to take responsibility, to stake his career again and again upon his judgment; and, with a daring that too often laughed at caution, he passed from one gamble to another – ever playing with more human pawns for higher stakes. He lost the last wager, but only after proving himself the ablest general in history.
His military strategy began with measures for winning the minds and hearts of his men. He interested himself in the background, character, and hopes of each officer directly under his command. He mingled now and then with the common soldiers, recalling their victories, inquiring about their families, and listening to their complaints. He good-humoredly rallied his Imperial Guard, and called them “les grogneurs” because they grumbled so much; but they fought for him to the last death. Sometimes he spoke cynically of the simple infantryman, as when, at St. Helena, he remarked that “troops are made to let themselves be killed”; but he adopted, and provided for, all the children of the French warriors who died at Austerlitz. More than any other section of the French nation his soldiers loved him – so much so that, in Wellington’s judgment, his presence on the battlefield was worth forty thousand men.
His addresses to his army were an important part of his strategy. “In war,” he said, “morale and opinion are more than half the battle.” No other general since Caesar at the Rubicon had ever exercised such fascination over his men. Bourrienne, who wrote some of those famous proclamations at Napoleon’s dictation, tells us that the troops in many cases “could not understand what Napoleon said, but no matter, they would have followed him cheerfully barefoot and without provisions.” In several of his addresses he explained to them his plan of operations; usually they understood, and bore more patiently the long marches that enabled them to surprise or outnumber the foe. “The best soldier,” he said, “is not so much the one who fights as the one who marches.” In a proclamation of 1799 he told his auditors: “The chief virtues of a soldier are constancy and discipline. Valor comes only in the second place.” He often showed mercy, but he did not hesitate to be severe when discipline was endangered. After his first victories in Italy, when he deliberately allowed his troops some pillage to make up for the Directory’s skimping on their food, clothing, and pay, he forbade such conduct, and enforced the order so rigorously that it was soon obeyed. “Vienna, Berlin, Madrid, and other cities,” says Meneval, “witnessed the condemnation and execution of soldiers belonging as well to the Imperial Guard as to other army corps, when these soldiers had been found guilty of pillage.”
Napoleon expressed part of his strategy in a mathematical formula: “The strength of an army, like the amount of momentum in mechanics, is estimated by the mass times the velocity. A swift march enhances the morale of an army, and increases its power for victory.” There is no authority for ascribing to him the aphorism that “an army travels on its stomach” – that is, on its food supply; his view was rather that it wins with its feet. His motto was “Activite, activite, vitesse” – action and speed. Consequently he placed no reliance on fortresses as defenses; he would have laughed at the Maginot Line of 1939. “It is axiomatic,” he had said, far back in 1793, “that the side which remains behind its fortified line is always defeated”; and he repeated this in 1816. To watch for the time when the enemy divides or elongates his army; to use mountains and rivers to screen and protect the movement of his troops; to seize strategical elevations from which artillery could rake the field; to choose a battleground that would allow the maneuvers of infantry, artillery, and cavalry; to concentrate one’s forces – usually by swift marches – so as to confront with superior numbers a segment of the enemy too far from the center to be reinforced in time: these were the elements of Napoleonic strategy.
The final test of the general is in tactics – the disposition and maneuvering of his forces for and during battle. Napoleon took his stand where he could survey as much of the action as his safety would allow; and since the plan of operations, and its quick adjustment to the turn of events, depended upon his continued and concentrated attention, his safety was a prime consideration, even more in the judgment of his troops than in his actual practice; if he thought it necessary, as at Arcole, he did not hesitate to expose himself; and more than once we read of men being killed at his side in his place of observation. From such a point, through a staff of mounted orderlies, he dispatched instructions to the commanding officers in the infantry, the artillery, and the cavalry; and these messengers hurried back to keep him informed of the turn of events in every segment of the action. In battle, he believed, soldiers acquired their value chiefly through their position and maneuverability. Here too the aim was concentration – of massed men and heavy fire upon a particular point, preferably a flank, of the enemy, in the hope of throwing that part into a disorder that would spread. “In all battles a moment comes when the bravest troops, after having made the greatest efforts, feel inclined to run....Two armies are two bodies that meet and endeavor to frighten each other; a moment of panic occurs, and that moment must be turned to advantage. When a man has been present in many actions, he distinguishes that moment without difficulty.” Napoleon was especially quick to take advantage of such a development, or, if his own men wavered, to send reinforcements, or change his line of operation in the course of a battle; this saved the day for him at Marengo.
Retreat was not in his vocabulary before 1812.
It was natural that one who had developed such skill in generalship should come to find a macabre thrill in war. We have heard him lauding civilians as above soldiers; he gave precedence, at his court, to the statesmen over the marshals; and when conflicts arose between the civilian populations and the military he regularly took the civilian side. But he could not conceal from himself or others that he experienced on the battlefield a pleasure keener than any that came from administration. “There is a joy in danger,” he said, and he confessed to Jomini that he “loved the excitement of battle”; he was happiest when he saw masses of men moving at his will into actions that changed the map and decided history. He viewed his campaigns as responses to attacks, but he admitted, according to Bourrienne, “My power depends upon my glory, and my glory on my victories. My power would fall were I not to support it by new glory and new victories. Conquest has made me what I am, and conquest alone can maintain me.” We cannot quite trust the hostile Bourrienne for this pivotal confession; but Las Cases, to whom Napoleon was next to God, quoted him as saying (March 12, 1816), “I wished for the empire of the world, and, to ensure it, unlimited power was necessary to me.”
Was he, as his enemies put it, “a butcher”? We are told that he recruited a total of 2,613,000 Frenchmen for his armies; of these about one million died in his service. Was he disturbed by the slaughter? He mentioned it in his appeals to the Powers for peace; and we are told that the sight of the corpses at Eylau moved him to tears. Yet, when it was all over, and he looked at the matter in retrospect, he told Las Cases: “I had commanded in battles that were to decide the fate of a whole army, and I had felt no emotion. I had watched the execution of maneuvers that were bound to cost the lives of many among us, and my eyes had remained dry.” Presumably a general must comfort himself with the thought that the premature deaths of those uprooted youths were insignificant displacements in space and time; would they not have come to an end anyway, obscurely, less gloriously, without the anesthesia of battle and the amends of fame?
Even so, he felt, as many scholars (Ranke, Sorel, Vandal....) felt, that he had been more sinned against than sinning; that he had fought and killed in self-defense; that the Allies had vowed to depose him as the “Son of the Revolution,” and the usurper of a Bourbon Throne. Had he not repeatedly proposed peace and been repulsed? “I only conquered in my own defense. Europe never ceased to war against France, against her principles, and against myself. The coalition never ceased to exist, either secretly or openly.” He had taken, at his coronation, an oath to preserve the “natural boundaries” of France; what would France have said if he had surrendered them? “The vulgar have never ceased blaming all my wars on my ambition. But were they of my choosing? Were they not always determined by the ineluctable nature of things? – by the struggle between the past and the future?” He was always weighed down, after the exuberant first years, by the feeling that no matter how many victories he might win, one decisive defeat would wipe them out and leave him at the mercy of his foes. He would have given half the world for peace, but on his own terms.
We may conclude that until Tilsit (1807) and the invasion of Spain (1808), Napoleon was on the defensive, and that thereafter, in the attempt to subjugate Austria, then Prussia, then Spain, then Russia, and to enforce his Continental Blockade, he brought additional wars upon an exhausted France and a resentful Europe. Though he had proved himself a superlative administrator, he abandoned the cares of state for the glory and ecstasy of war. He had won France as a general, and as a general he lost it. His forte became his fate.
V. THE RULER
As a civilian ruler he never quite forgot that he had been trained as a general. The habits of leadership remained, discouraging, except in the Council of State, objection or debate. “From my first entrance into [public] life I was accustomed to exercise command; circumstances and the force of my character were such that as soon as I possessed power I acknowledged no master and obeyed no laws except those of my own creating.” We have seen him, in 1800, emphasizing the civilian form of his rule – when the generals were plotting to depose him; but in 1816 he argued that “in the last analysis, in order to govern, it is necessary to be a military man; one can rule only in boots and spurs.” So, with a sharp eye to the secret and contradictory ideals of the French people, he declared himself a man of peace and a genius of war. Hence the relative democracy of the Consulate melted into the monarchy of the Empire, and finally into absolute power. The last of the Napoleonic codes – the penal (1810) – is a reversion to the barbaric severity of medieval penalties. Nevertheless he became almost as brilliant in government as in battle. He predicted that his achievements in administration would outshine his martial victories in human memory, and that his codes were a monument more lasting than his strategy and tactics (which are irrelevant to current war). He longed to be the Justinian as well as the Caesar Augustus of his age.
In the 3,680 days of his imperial rule (1804-1814) he was in Paris for only 955, but in these he remade France. When at home and before 1808, he presided regularly, twice a week, over the Council of State; and then, said Las Cases (himself a member), “none of us would have been absent for the whole world.” He worked hard; in his eagerness to get things done he sometimes rose at 3 a.m. to begin his working day. He expected almost as much from his administrative aides. They were always to be ready to give him precise up-to-the-hour information on any matter falling within their jurisdiction; and he judged them by the accuracy, order, readiness, and adequacy of their reports. He did not consider his day finished until he had read the memoranda and documents that almost daily came to him from the various departments of his government. He was probably the best-informed ruler in history.
For major ministries he chose men of first-rate ability, like Talleyrand, Gaudin, and Fouche, despite their troublesome pride; for the rest, and generally for administrative posts, he preferred men of the second rank, who would not ask questions or propose measures of their own; he had no time or patience for such discussions; he would take a chance on his own judgment, assuming the responsibility and risk.
He required of his appointees an oath of fidelity, not only to France but to himself; in most cases they readily agreed, feeling the mesmerism of his personality and the grandeur of his designs. “I aroused emulation, rewarded every merit, and pushed back the limits of glory.” He paid for his method of selecting aides by gradually surrounding himself with servitors who rarely dared to question his views, so that in the end there was no check upon his haste or pride except the power of his foreign foes. Caulaincourt in 1812 was an exception.
He was severe on his subordinates; stern to reprove and slow to praise, but ready to reward exceptional service. He did not believe in putting them confidently at their ease; some uncertainty of tenure would encourage diligence. He did not necessarily object to their liaisons, nor even to some shady elements in their past, for these gave him a hold on their good behavior. He used his assistants to the limit, then let them retire with a generous pension, and perhaps some sudden title of nobility. Some of them did not survive to that denouement; Villeneuve, defeated at Trafalgar, killed himself rather than face reproof. Napoleon was not long moved by protests against his severity. “A statesman’s heart must be in his head”; he must not let sentiment interfere with policy; in the operation of an empire the individual counts for little – unless he is a Napoleon. Perhaps he exaggerated his insensitivity to personal charms when he said, “I like only those people who are useful to me, and only so long as they are useful”; he continued to love Josephine long after she had become a hindrance to his plans. Of course he lied at need, like most of us; and, like most governments, he doctored his war bulletins to keep up public spirit. He had studied Machiavelli with pencil in hand; an annotated copy of “The Prince” was found in his carriage at Waterloo. He considered good anything that furthered his aims. He did not wait for Nietzsche to lead him “beyond good and evil” in “the will to power”; hence Nietzsche called him “that Ens realissimum,” and the only good product of the Revolution. “The strong are good, the weak are wicked,” said the Emperor. “Joseph,” he mourned, “is too good to be a great man”; but he loved him.
Akin to these views – learned in Corsica and war – was his oft-repeated opinion that men are moved, and can be ruled, only by interest or fear. So, year by year, these feelings became the levers of his government. In 1800, sending General Hedouville to suppress a rising in the Vendee, he advised him, “as a salutary example, to burn down two or three large communes [towns], chosen among those whose conduct is worst. Experience has taught him [the First Consul] that a spectacularly severe act is, in the conditions you are facing, the most humane method. Only weakness is inhuman.” He instructed his judicial appointees to pass severe sentences. “The art of the police,” he told Fouche, “consists in punishing rarely and severely.” He not only employed a large force of police and detectives under Fouche or Regnier, but organized an additional secret police agency whose duty it was to help – and spy on – Fouche and Regnier, and to report to the Emperor any anti-Napoleonic sentiments expressed in the newspapers, the theater, the salons, or in books. “A prince,” he said, “should suspect everything.” By 1804 France was a police state. By 1810 it had a new supply of minor Bastilles – state prisons in which political offenders could be “detained” by imperial order, without a regular procedure in the courts. We should note, however, that the Emperor had moments of mercy. He issued many pardons, even to those who had plotted to kill him, and sometimes he reduced the severity of a court penalty. To Caulaincourt, in December, 1812, he mused:
They think I am stern, even hardhearted. So much the better – this makes it unnecessary for me to justify my reputation. My firmness is taken for callousness. I shall not complain, since this notion is responsible for the good order that is prevailing...Look here, Caulaincourt, I am human. No matter what some people say, I too have entrails [‘bowels of mercy’], a heart – but the heart of a sovereign. I am not moved by the tears of a duchess, but the sufferings of the people touch me.
Unquestionably he was a despot, often enlightened, often hastily absolute. He confessed to Las Cases, “The state was myself.” Something of his tyranny might be excused as the usual control, by the government, of a nation’s economy, theaters, and publications in time of war. Napoleon explained his omnipotence as necessary in the difficult transition from the licentious liberty of the Revolution after 1791 to the reconstructive order of the Consulate and the Empire. He recalled that Robespierre, as well as Marat, had recommended a dictatorship as needed to restore order and stability to a France verging on the dissolution of both the family and the state. He felt that he had not destroyed democracy; what he had replaced in 1799 was an oligarchy of corrupt, merciless, and unscrupulous men. He had destroyed the liberty of the masses, but that liberty was destroying France with mob violence and moral license, and only the restoration and concentration of authority could restore the strength of France as a civilized and independent state.
Until 1810 Napoleon could forgivably feel that he had been true to the Revolution’s second goal – equality. He had upheld and spread the equality of all before the law. He had established not an impossible equality of abilities and merits, but an equality of opportunity for all talents, wherever born, to develop themselves in a society offering education, economic opportunity, and political eligibility to all; perhaps this carriere ouverte aux talents was his most lasting gift to France. He almost ended corruption in public life; this alone should immortalize him. He gave to all the example of a man using himself up in administration when not called to the battlefield. He remade France.
Why did he fail? Because his grasp exceeded his reach, his imagination dominated his ambition, and his ambition domineered over his body, mind, and character. He should have known that the Powers would never be content to have France rule half of Europe. He succeeded measurably in leading Rhineland Germany out of feudalism into the nineteenth century, but it was beyond him, or any man at that time, to bring into a lasting federation an area long since partitioned into states each with its jealous traditions, dialect, manners, creed, and government. Just to name those diverse realms, from the Rhine to the Vistula, from Brussels to Naples, is to feel the problem: kingdoms or principalities like Holland, Hanover, Westphalia, the Hanseatic cities, Baden, Bavaria, Wurttemberg, Illyria, Venice, Lombardy, the Papal States, the Two Sicilies – where could he find men strong enough to rule these areas, to tax them, finally to take their sons to war against nations more akin to them than the French? How could he forge a unity between those forty-four additional departments and the eighty-six of France, or between those proud and sturdy 16 million added people and these proud and volatile 26 million Frenchmen? Perhaps it was magnificent to try, but it was certain to fail. In the end imagination toppled reason; the polyglot colossus, standing on one unsteady head, tumbled back into difference, and the rooted force of national character defeated the great dictator’s will to power.
VI. THE PHILOSOPHER
And yet, when imagination folded its wings, he could reason with the ablest of the savants in the French and Egyptian Institutes. Though he contrived no formal system of thought in which to imprison a universe that seemed to escape every formula, his realistic mind made short work of “ideologues” who mistook ideas for facts and built airy castles without foundations in biology and history. After trying Laplace and other scientists in administrative posts he concluded, “You can’t do anything with a philosopher.” However, he encouraged the sciences, and recommended history. “My son should study much history, and meditate upon it,” he said at St. Helena, “for it is the only true philosophy.”
Religion was one of the fields in which the ideologues had floated on a film of notions instead of grounding themselves in history. Only a logician, Napoleon felt, would bother long with the question, Does God exist? The real philosopher, schooled in history, would ask, why has religion, so often refuted and ridiculed, always survived, and played so notable a role in every civilization? Why did the skeptic Voltaire say that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him?
Napoleon himself lost his religious faith at the early age of thirteen. Sometimes he wished he had kept it; “I imagine it must give great and true happiness.” Everyone knows the story how, on the trip to Egypt, hearing some scientists discourse irreverently, he challenged them, pointing to the stars, “You may talk as long as you please, gentlemen, but who made all that?” It is possible to quote him pro and con on this and many other subjects, for he changed his views and moods with time, and we tend to ignore their dates; yet what thoughtful person has not at fifty discarded the dogmas he swore by in his youth, and will not at eighty smile at the “mature” views of his middle age? Generally Napoleon retained belief in an intelligence behind or in the physical world, but he disclaimed any knowledge of its character or purpose. “Everything proclaims the existence of a God,” he concluded at St. Helena, but “to say whence I came, what I am, or where I am going is above my comprehension.” At times he spoke like a materialistic evolutionist: “Everything is matter;....man is only a more perfect and better reasoning animal.” “The soul is not immortal; if it were it would have existed before our birth.” “If I had to have a religion, I should adore the sun, for it is the sun that fertilizes everything; it is the true god of the earth.” “I should believe in religion if it had existed since the beginning of the world. But when I read Socrates, Plato, Moses, or Mohammed, I have no more belief. It has all been invented by men.”
But why did they invent it? To comfort the poor, Napoleon answered, and to keep them from killing the rich. For all men are born unequal, and become more unequal with every advancement in technology and specialization; a civilization must elicit, develop, use, and reward superior abilities, and it must persuade the less fortunate to accept peaceably this inequality of rewards and possessions as natural and necessary. How can this be done? By teaching men that it is the will of God. “I do not see in religion the mystery of the Incarnation but the mystery of the social order. Society cannot exist without inequality of [rewards and therefore] property, an inequality which cannot be maintained without religion....It must be possible to tell the poor: ‘It is God’s will. There must be rich and poor in this world, but hereafter, and for eternity, there will be a different distribution.’” “Religion introduces into the thought of heaven an idea of equalization which saves the rich from being massacred by the poor.”
If all this be true, it was a mistake of the Enlightenment to attack Christianity, and of the Revolution to make Catholic preaching difficult. “The intellectual [moral?] anarchy which we are undergoing is the result of the moral [intellectual?] anarchy – the extinction of faith, the negation of principles [beliefs] which have preceded.” Perhaps for this reason, and for political use, Napoleon restored the Catholic Church as the “sacred gendarmerie [police] of the French nation.” He did not interpret the new alliance as binding him to the Ten Commandments; he wandered from them now and then, but he paid the priests to preach them to a generation weary of chaos and ready for a return to order and discipline. Most parents and teachers were glad to have the help of religious faith in rearing or training children – to counter the natural anarchism of youth with a moral code based upon religious and filial piety, and presented as coming from an omnipotent God watchful of every act, threatening eternal punishments, and offering eternal rewards. Most of the governing class were grateful for an educational process that would produce a public taught to accept, as natural and inevitable, the inequality of abilities and possessions. The old aristocracy was excused as cleansing its wealth with manners and grace; a new aristocracy was established; and revolution, for a generation, muted its voice and hid its guns.
In this regenerated society marriage and motherhood had to be resanctified, and property, not romantic love, had to be restored as their base and goal. Love generated by the physical attraction of boy and girl is an accident of hormones and propinquity; to found a lasting marriage upon such a haphazard and transitory condition is ridiculous; it is une sottise faite a deux – “a folly committed in pair.” Much of it is artificially induced by romantic literature; it would probably disappear if men were illiterate. “I firmly believe that [romantic] love does more harm than good, and that it would be a blessing...if it were banished” as a reason for uniting a man and a woman in the lifelong enterprise of rearing children and acquiring and transmitting property. “Marriage should be forbidden to individuals who have known each other less than six months.”
Napoleon had a Mohammedan view of marriage: its function is to produce abundant offspring under conditions of freedom for the man and protection for the faithful and obedient wife. The marriage ceremony, though it may be civil, should be ceremonious and solemn, as emphasizing the obligation undertaken. The married couple should sleep together; this “exerts a singular influence upon married life, guarantees the position of the wife and the dependence of the husband, and preserves intimacy and morality”; Napoleon followed this old custom until he set his mind upon divorce.
However, even a faithful wife is not enough for a man. “I find it ridiculous that a man should not be able to have more than one legitimate wife. When she is pregnant it is as if the man had no wife at all.” Polygyny is better than divorce or adultery. There should be no divorce after ten years of marriage. A woman should be permitted only one divorce, and should not be allowed to remarry for five years afterward. Adultery on the husband’s part should not be sufficient ground for a divorce, unless there is the additional circumstance of the husband’s keeping his concubine under the same roof with his wife. “When a husband commits an act of unfaithfulness to his wife, he should confess it to her and regret his action; then every trace of guilt is wiped away. The wife is angry, forgives, and is reconciled to him; often she even gains through it. But that is not the case with the unfaithfulness of the wife. It is all very well for her to confess and regret, but who knows whether something else remains” in her mind or womb? “Therefore she must not, and cannot ever come to an understanding with him.” (But he had twice forgiven Josephine.)
He guarded himself against feminine charms by adhering to the Mohammedan view of women. “We treat women too well, and in this way have spoiled everything. We have done every wrong in raising them to our level. Truly the Oriental nations have more mind and sense than we in declaring the wife to be the actual property of the husband. In fact nature has made woman our slave....Woman is given to man that she may bear him children;....consequently she is his property, just as the fruit tree is the property of the gardener.”
All this is so primitive (and so contrary to biology, where the female usually is the predominant sex, and the male is a tributary food-provider, sometimes himself eaten) that we should be glad to accept Las Cases’ assurance that much of it was playful bravado, or the military man’s dream of endless conscripts pouring from fertile wombs; but it was quite in harmony with the views of any Corsican condottiere. The Code Napoleon insisted on the absolute power of the husband over his wife, and over her property, as a necessity of social order. “I have always thought,” Napoleon wrote to Josephine in 1807, “that woman was made for man, and man for country, family, glory, and honor.” On the day after the mutual massacre known as the battle of Friedland (June 14, 1807) Napoleon drew up a program for a school to be built at Ecouen “for girls who have lost their mothers, and whose people are too poor to bring them up properly.”
What are the girls at Ecouen to be taught? You must begin with religion in all its strictness....What we ask of education is not that girls should think, but that they should believe. The weakness of women’s brains, the instability of their ideas....their need for perpetual resignation...all this can be met only by religion....I want the place to produce not women of charm but women of virtue; they must be attractive because they have high principles and warm hearts, not because they are witty or amusing....In addition the girls must be taught writing, arithmetic, and elementary French;....a little history and geography;....not Latin....They must learn to do all kinds of women’s work....With the single exception of the headmaster, all men must be excluded from the school....Even the gardening must be done by women.
Napoleon’s political philosophy was equally uncompromising. Since all men are born unequal, it is inevitable that the majority of brains will be in a minority of men, who will rule the majority with guns or words. Hence utopias of equality are the consolatory myths of the weak; anarchist cries for freedom from laws and government are the delusions of immature and autocratic minds; and democracy is a game used by the strong to conceal their oligarchic rule. Actually France had had to choose between an hereditary nobility and rule by the business class. So, “among nations and in revolutions, aristocracy always exists. If you attempt to get rid of it by destroying the nobility, it immediately reestablishes itself among the rich and powerful families of the Third Estate. Destroy it there, and it survives and takes refuge among the leaders of workmen and of the people.” Democracy, if reasonable, would limit itself to giving everyone an equal opportunity to compete and obtain. Napoleon claimed to have done this by making la carriere ouverte aux talents in all fields; but he allowed many deviations from this rule.
He was a bit equivocal about revolutions. They release the violent passions of the mob, since “collective crimes incriminate no one,” and there is “never a revolution without terror.” “Revolutions are the true cause of regeneration in public customs,” but in general (he concluded in 1816) “a revolution is one of the greatest evils by which mankind can be visited. It is the scourge of the generation by which it is brought about; and all the advantages which it procures cannot make amends for the misery with which it embitters the lives of those who take part in it.”
He preferred monarchy to all other forms of government, even to defending hereditary kingship (i.e., his own) against doubts expressed by Tsar Alexander. “There are more chances of securing a good sovereign by heredity than by election.” People are happier under such a stable government than under a free-for-all, devil-take-the-hindmost democracy. “In regular and tranquil times every individual has his share of felicity: the cobbler in his stall is as content as the king on his throne; the soldier is no less happy than the general.”
His political ideal was a federation of European, or Continental, states, governed in their external relations from Paris as the “capital of the world.” In that “Association European” all the component states would have the same money, weights, measures, and basic laws, with no political barriers to travel, transport, and trade. When Napoleon reached Moscow in 1812 he thought that only a just peace with Alexander remained in the way of realizing his dream. He had underestimated the centrifugal power of national differences; but he may have been right in believing that if Europe achieved unity it would be not through appeals to reason but through the imposition of a superior force continuing through a generation. War would then continue, but at least it would be civil.
As he approached his end he wondered whether he had been a free and creative agent or the helpless instrument of some cosmic force. He was not a fatalist, if this means one who believes that his success or failure, his health or illness, the character of his life and the moment of his death, have been determined by some hidden power, regardless of what he chooses to do; nor was he clearly a determinist in the sense of one who believes that every occurrence, including his every choice, idea, or act, is determined by the composition of all the forces and history of the past. But he repeatedly talked of a “destiny” – a central stream of events, partly malleable by the human will, but basically irresistible as flowing from the inherent nature of things. At times he spoke of his will as strong enough to stem or bend the current – “I have always been able to impose my will upon destiny.” Too uncertain to be consistent, he also said: “I depend on events. I have no will; I await all things from their issue” – as they issue from their source. “The greater one is” – i.e., the higher he is in authority – “the less free will one can have” – the more and stronger will be the forces impinging upon him. “One depends upon circumstances and events. I am the greatest slave among men; my master is the nature of things.” He combined his fluctuating moods in the proud conception of himself as an instrument of destiny – i.e., the nature of things as determining the course and terminus of events. “Destiny urges me to a goal of which I am ignorant. Until that goal is reached I am invulnerable, unassailable” – as borne with the stream. “When destiny has accomplished its purpose in me, a fly may suffice to destroy me.” He felt himself bound to a destiny magnificent but perilous; pride and circumstance drove him on; “destiny must be fulfilled.”
Like all of us he frequently thought of death, and had moods defending or contemplating suicide. In youth he felt that suicide was the final right of every soul; at fifty-one he added: “if his death harms no one.” He had no faith in immortality. “There is no immortality but the memory that is left in the minds of men...to have lived without glory, without leaving a trace of one’s existence, is not to have lived at all.”
VII. WHAT WAS HE?
Was he a Frenchman? Only by the accident of time; otherwise he was French neither in body nor in mind nor in character. He was short, and later stout; his features were stern Roman rather than brightly Gallic; he lacked the gaiety and grace, the humor and wit, the refinement and manners of a cultured Frenchman; he was bent on dominating the world rather than enjoying it. He had some difficulty in speaking French; he retained a foreign accent til 1807; he spoke Italian readily, and seemed more at home in Milan than in Paris. On several occasions he expressed dislike of the French character. “The Emperor,” reported Las Cases, “dilated upon our volatile, fickle, and changeable disposition. ‘All the French,’ he said, ‘are turbulent, and inclined to rail....France loves change too much for any government to endure there.’”
He spoke often – with the emphasis of one not sure – of his love for France. He resented being called “the Corsican’; “I wanted to be absolutely French”; “the noblest title in the world is that of having been born a Frenchman.” But in 1809 he revealed to Roederer what he meant by his love of France: “I have but one passion, one mistress, and that is France. I sleep with her. She has never been false to me. She lavishes her blood and treasure on me. If I need 500,000 men she gives them to me.” He loved her as a violinist can love his violin, as an instrument of immediate response to his stroke and will. He drew the strings of this instrument taut until they snapped, nearly all of them at once.
Was he the “Son of the Revolution”? So the Allies sometimes called him; but by this they meant that he had inherited the guilt of the Revolution’s crimes, and had continued its repudiation of the Bourbons. He himself repeatedly said that he had brought the Revolution to an end – not only its chaos and violence but its pretenses to democracy. He was the Son of the Revolution insofar as he retained peasant emancipation, free enterprise, equality before the law, career open to talent, and the will to defend the natural frontiers. But when he made himself consul for life, then emperor, when he ended freedom of speech and the press, made the Catholic Church a partner in the government, used new Bastilles, and favored aristocracy old and new – then, surely, he ceased to be the Son of the Revolution. In many ways he remained so in the conquered lands; there he ended feudalism, the Inquisition, and priestly control of life; there he brought in his Code and some rays of the Enlightenment. But, having so dowered these states, he gave them kings.
Was he rightly, despite his will, called “the Corsican”? Only in his family loyalty, his flair for combat, his passionate defense of France against its foes; but he lacked the Corsican spirit of feud, and his reading of the philosophes far removed him from the medieval Catholicism of his native isle. He was Corsican in blood, French in education, and Italian in almost everything else.
Yes, after all attempts to answer them, we must go back to Stendhal and Taine, and say that Napoleon was a condottiere of the Italian Renaissance, preserved in mold and type by the isolation, feuds, and wars of Corsica. He was Cesare Borgia with twice the brains, and Machiavelli with half the caution and a hundred times the will. He was an Italian made skeptical by Voltaire, subtle by the ruses of survival in the Revolution, sharp by the daily duel of French intellects. All the qualities of Renaissance Italy appeared in him: artist and warrior, philosopher and despot; unified in instincts and purposes, quick and penetrating in thought, direct and overwhelming in action, but unable to stop. Barring that vital fault, he was the finest master of controlled complexity and coordinated energy in history. Tocqueville put it well: he was as great as a man can be without virtue, and he was as wise as a man can be without modesty. Nevertheless he remained within the bounds of probability when he predicted that the world would not see the likes of him for many centuries.