Commentary Magazine

The Ashes of Napoleon

Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo, quipped the French dramatist Jean Cocteau. If that is so, how crazy did Napoleon have to be in order to think he was Napoleon? Making oneself the supreme French writer of the 19th century may have required an immense capacity for self-aggrandizement; becoming the very embodiment of French glory and the greatest man of action since Julius Caesar—getting a million of his countrymen to die for his name and causing the death of four million others—called for a sense of ordained magnificence beside which even the most monumental egotism pales.

As Paul Johnson points out in his dazzlingly compendious new biography in the Penguin Lives series, more books have been written about Napoleon than about any other man except for Jesus Christ. But one is not sorry to see the biographical ranks swell by three more volumes as good as Johnson’s Napoleon1 and Robert Asprey’s double-decker production, The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and The Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte.2 Both Johnson’s and Asprey’s are disenchanted renderings that strip the legend of its gold and ermine and reckon the cost that numberless men and women paid for the brief season of Napoleonic splendor.

The rise and the reign were as brilliant as the fall was welcome and salutary. Here is the briefest of recitations. Napoleon was born in Corsica in 1769, of a noble but impoverished family with Tuscan roots; at the age of nine was sent off as a scholarship boy to a French royal military academy; in 1789, as a twenty-year-old army officer, practiced a harsh form of crowd control on revolutionary mobs; signed on with the Revolution when it became apparent the monarchy was done for; dabbled in Corsican politics until he and his family were expelled from their homeland; wrote a romantic novel; made his name at the siege of Toulon in 1793 against a force of royalists supported by Spanish and British troops, and was promoted from captain directly to brigadier general; was imprisoned during the Terror, but eluded the guillotine; turned cannon on a Parisian mob bent on a coup in 1795, and effectively signaled the end of the Revolution; led the invasion of Italy in 1796; conquered Egypt in 1798, taking with him a cohort of intellectuals and artists who produced monumental works of Orientalist scholarship; was appointed first consul under the new constitution in 1799, a position that gave him more power than Louis XIV had enjoyed; whipped the Austrians in Italy once again in 1800; made himself consul for life in 1802; responded to a plot against his life in 1803 by arranging the murder of the young Duc d’Enghien, whom he almost certainly knew to be innocent; styled himself the modern Justinian for his extensive legislative reform in 1804, establishing the Civil Code, which abolished the vestiges of feudalism and would later be known as the Napoleonic Code; crowned himself emperor in 1804; defeated the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz in 1805, widely regarded as his greatest victory; established the Continental System, which proscribed the import or passage of British goods and ensured war to the bitter end with England; contributed significantly to the cause of European Jewish emancipation, but later clamped down on Jewish economic activity and freedom of movement; launched an especially brutal and ultimately unsuccessful war against Spain in 1808, immortalized by Goya’s fearsome drawings and etchings; made the irreparable blunder of invading Russia in 1812; lost the battle of Leipzig in 1813; abdicated in 1814, giving up the rule of France for exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba; tired of exile by 1815, and returned to France with a force of 700 men, restoring the empire unopposed; met his final defeat by Wellington and Blücher at Waterloo; was exiled to Saint Helena, in the middle of the South Atlantic, and remained there until his death in 1821.



There is a historiographic tradition, naturally enough most vital in France, that holds up Napoleon as the champion of democratic liberalism, who broadcast the Rights of Man throughout a benighted aristocratic Europe. Paul Johnson will have none of this. Although Napoleon presented himself as “the Enlightenment embodied, bringing rationality and justice to peoples hitherto ruled in the interests of privileged castes,” and although he may even have believed to some degree in the image he presented, the reality of his rule belied the magniloquent professions of moral generosity. The very peoples who cheered him as their liberator came in due course to think of him as a tyrant worse than his predecessors.

What Napoleon did best was generalship, and he did it far better than anyone else. As Johnson writes, “Bonaparte’s strategy of lightning wars, aimed at bringing his opponents one by one to a large-scale battle, destroying their army, and occupying their capital, then imposing a punitive peace, was a highly successful formula.” By the same token, abandoning this formula ensured his defeat at Waterloo, where Napoleon was dilatory about striking northward into Belgium because he wanted the Allies to be the aggressors and thus to grant him the moral advantage. He should have thought like a soldier and not like a politician.

Earlier in his reign, however, he should have thought more like a statesman and less like a soldier. All war, all the time, had become Napoleon’s hallmark—he really did not have much use for peace—and it was more than France could bear. One of the strengths of Asprey’s biography lies in its deft tracing of the growing French reluctance to pursue their master’s dreams of glory. Even the brave wearied of having their bravery taxed to its limits. The baubles and gold braid with which Napoleon rewarded his men lost their luster, and bourgeois serenity started to look awfully enticing. The Napoleonic cult of honor could not last.

And it was, after all, the emperor’s honor—the mark he would leave on history—that was paramount. The heroic Corsican liberator Pasquale Paoli, the second greatest man that island produced, told the young Napoleon: “There is nothing modern in you; you are entirely out of Plutarch.” He was right Well versed in the writings of the ancient biographer, Napoleon looked to the classical world and especially to Rome for exemplars of virtuous manhood. So had the French revolutionaries before him, but whereas they found their inspiration in the Roman republic, Napoleon turned in endless bemusement to the grandeur of the empire, whose supreme genius was Julius Caesar. This model of greatness in war beckoned to him across the centuries, and Napoleon followed devotedly and ecstatically, writing at one point: “He crossed the Rubicon with only a single legion, seized thirty cohorts at Corfinium, and drove Pompey from Italy in three months. What swiftness! What suddenness! What audacity!”

A Caesar bends every thought and action to winning power and glory, and is willing quite casually to snuff out anyone who stands in his way; these are the principal lessons that Plutarch himself draws in his admiring life of the emperor. Julius Caesar’s craving for dominance and renown was truly insatiable, and to this end he employed means of a brazen monstrosity that to Plutarch, and to Napoleon, were simply the marks of an invincible resolve. Caesar, Machiavelli, Napoleon—these were men who never lost their innocence; they enjoyed a clear conscience no matter what they might have said or done, and were answerable to nothing but their own appetites.



Numerous writers and thinkers of the 19th century, including some of the very greatest, shared a taste for this savage Napoleonic elan, and it is to them that we can turn for a somewhat more contemporary sense of the man and the thoughts he inspired. Napoleon did have his severe detractors, most notably Chateaubriand, Madame de Staël, Hugo, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy; but there was no shortage of writers eager to be the emperor’s Plutarch. Paul Johnson informs us that Stendhal, Sir Walter Scott, and William Hazlitt all wrote laudatory full-dress biographies, Hazlitt’s running to ten volumes. Although Johnson does not mention her, Jane Austen, of all people, gave serious thought to a biography. Heinrich Heine, Thomas Carlyle, Hillaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Hardy, and George Bernard Shaw all fell under the imperial spell.

The modern cult of irrepressible thrusting energy uninhibited by outworn moral prescriptions, so characteristic of fascism and revolutionary Communism alike, largely draws its force from the Napoleonic example, which in turn owes so much to the pagan classical world. Indeed, both those 19th-century figures who condemned Napoleon and those who applauded him recognized the fundamental egotism of his ends and the brutal callousness of his means. How far his admirers were willing to go in praising the emperor was a measure of their passion for the heroic pagan ideal as against their compassion for the sufferings of ordinary men.

Take, for example, the heroes of Stendhal’s two great novels, Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black and Fabrizio del Dongo in The Charterhouse of Parma. Both these young men are marinated in fantasies of Napoleonic glory, but both come to a bad end. Julien, a provincial carpenter’s son, gauges every stage in his social advancement against the standard of Napoleon’s rise; early in his career, regular feedings of the Napoleonic legend sustain his hunger for wealth, power, and renown. Yet at the conclusion, in prison awaiting execution for the attempted murder of the woman he had seduced, Julien mentally lambastes Napoleon for “pure charlatanism,” having himself evidently come to believe that his own misadventures were nothing but a species of malignant self-delusion.

A peculiarly American variant of the Stendhalian perspective is that of Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Representative Men. For Emerson, Napoleon enjoyed such widespread admiration because good, democratic men were all “little Napoleons,” “subordinating all intellectual and spiritual forces into means to a material success.” The man who had aimed at the world’s richest prizes, and who snatched an armload, was a figure suited to the climbing, grasping temperament of a middle class newly empowered.

Emerson is not entirely against that temperament: his Napoleon serves as the grandest example of “how much may be accomplished by the mere force of such virtues as all men possess in less degree; namely, by punctuality, by personal attention, by courage, and thoroughness.” Still, he asks, “what was the result of this vast talent and power?” It was “no result. All passed away, like the smoke of his artillery, and left no trace. He left France smaller, poorer, feebler, than he found it; and the whole contest for freedom was to be begun again.”



But the most interesting 19th-century literary reactions to Napoleon were those of Goethe, Nietzsche, and Victor Hugo. Goethe’s sublime moral carelessness would seem to have made him a choice prospect for the Napoleonic charm. He was—but with a difference. In a passage of coruscating comic verve, Johnson relates an encounter between the emperor and the greatest contemporary writer at a gathering of kings and princes in Erfurt in 1808.

Napoleon, it seems, wanted Goethe for his own, and called him to a private audience. After the writer had been left standing a good while to watch the emperor swallow his breakfast, Napoleon looked up and declared, “Voilà un homme” (“there is a man”). Proceeding to inform Goethe that he had read The Sorrows of Young Werther seven times, he asked him, as a personal favor, to come to Paris to revive the French theater with plays about “how a great man, a modern Caesar, can bring general happiness to mankind.” Goethe, who had been flattered before, ably deflected these overtures, causing the master of Europe to leave off being charming and bury his nose in a report on the Polish question. On his way out, the poet caught an overpowering whiff of the eau de cologne with which the emperor liked to slather his person.

This encounter left its mark. On some later occasions, Goethe was given to speak of Napoleon as a being of the rarest quality, or so Johann Peter Eckermann records in his Conversations with Goethe. Thus, on March 11, 1828, Goethe hailed the emperor as a “demigod,” one whose destiny “was more brilliant than any the world had seen before him, or perhaps will ever see after him.” But on other occasions, contemplating Napoleon’s ruin, he spoke in quite a different vein: “When we reflect that such an end befell a man who had trampled underfoot the life and happiness of millions, his fate appears after all very mild. . . . Napoleon affords an example of the danger of elevating oneself to the Absolute.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, by contrast, thought Napoleon the supreme modern man of action—the highest accolade in his philosophical vocabulary. For him, it was democracy, the sickly inheritor of a contemptible Christian morality, that was the curse of modern life, spawning cripples who pretended to be spiritual heroes. What Goethe had disparaged as the Napoleonic elevation of the individual will to the Absolute was exactly what Nietzsche found so appealing. In On the Genealogy of Morals, he wrote: “Like a last signpost to the other path, Napoleon appeared, the most isolated and late-born man there has ever been, and in him the problem of the noble ideal as such made flesh.” As Alex-ander had cut the Gordian knot, so Napoleon with a stroke of his sword had solved the problem of synthesizing the “inhuman and superhuman”: the creative man of action must be a destroyer, and Napoleon was unquestionably that.

Given Nietzsche’s general perspective on life, it is little wonder that he should have despised Victor Hugo, regarding the great French novelist as a shameless purveyor of saccharine romance and moral grandiosity. One need only look at the chapters on Waterloo in Les misérables to see what Nietzsche meant. For Hugo, the ultimate reason Napoleon lost the battle was that God Himself brought him down. (“Napoleon had been impeached before the Infinite, and his fall was decreed. He vexed God. Waterloo is not a battle; it is the change of front of the universe.”) When Hugo speaks in this vein, he is the mouthpiece of the Almighty, and he is not exactly humble about his own appointed role. One suspects that Tolstoy’s historical disquisitions in War and Peace owe a large debt to Hugo, and this theological legacy does not show either novelist to his best advantage.

At the same time, however, and quite apart from his views of history and Providence, there is in Hugo the artist an imaginative sympathy with living beings of every kind that overwhelms all philosophical objections and that shows democratic art at its fullest emotional reach. To Nietzsche, of course, this imaginative sympathy was so much tiresome weepiness, and represented the democratic spirit at its most insufferable. But Hugo was hardly antiwar as a matter of principle, and his fervid j’accuse of Napoleon is wholly compatible with a principled admiration of men great in war who serve the cause of freedom (one thinks of such defenders of their country’s liberty as Marlborough, Nelson, Wellington, or Churchill). Here, at any rate, again from Les misérables, is Hugo’s cascading eloquence on the death of a nameless French soldier at Waterloo:

If anything is frightful, if there be a reality which surpasses dreams, it is this: to live, to see the sun, to be in full possession of manly vigor, to have health and joy, to laugh sturdily, to rush toward a glory which dazzlingly invites you on, to feel a very pleasure in respiration, to feel your heart beat, to feel yourself a reasonable being, to speak, to think, to hope, to love; to have mother, to have wife, to have children, to have sunlight, and suddenly, in a moment, in less than a minute, to feel yourself buried in an abyss, to fall, to roll, to crush, to be crushed, to see the grain, the flowers, the leaves, the branches, to be able to seize upon nothing, to feel your sword useless, men under you, horses over you, to strike about you in vain, your bones broken by some kick in the darkness, to feel a heel which makes your eyes leap from their sockets, to grind the horseshoes with rage in your teeth, to stifle, to howl, to twist, to be under all this, and to say: just now I was a living man!

Presented with a force that no historian has been able to summon, this is the indictment of Napoleon. If Nietzsche thrills to the thought of the nonpareil general and ruler—greater than Caesar, greater even than Napoleon himself—whom he hopes the future will yet produce, Hugo speaks for every last soldier whose suffering the actual emperor Napoleon regarded with lordly indifference. Multiply this case by some five million, as Hugo tacitly compels you to do, and you begin to measure the cost of Napoleonic glory and its demonic idolatry of the self. At our own distance, struck dumb by the sheer overpowering scale both of the glory and of the gore, one can only hope the world will be spared the cold blazing dominion of another such paragon.



1 Viking, 208 pp., $19.95.

2 Basic Books, vol. 1, 580 pp., $35.00; vol. 2, 608 pp., $37.50.


About the Author

Algis Valiunas writes on culture and politics for COMMENTARY and other magazines. His "Goethe’s Magnificent Self" appeared in January.

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