Notes From Emil Reich’s “Foundations of Modern Europe” Part XI

I might not post all the chapters on Napoleon. I haven’t decided yet.


Napoleon. -I

Of all the characters of modern history Napoleon has been most admired and most condemned. He is generally credited with having been the greatest captain of modern times, one of the greatest statesmen, and at the same time one of the most selfish and ruthless characters on record. On the other hand, numerous historians, both French and non-French, are almost fanatic in their unconditioned admiration of the genius as well as of the character of the great emperor. The number of documents, books, and essays published on the career of the incomparable Corsican is so immense, and is increasing so constantly, that we might easily indulge in the belief that we are at present fully equipped for an equitable and adequate appreciation of Napoleon. However, as in the case of the French Revolution, we must not for a moment ignore the fact that we are as yet not in a position to pass final sentence on a man whose personality was deeper and more complex than that of Goethe; whose diplomatic activity was more comprehensive than that of Richelieu, Kaunitz, and Metternich put together; whose military exploits covered the whole of Europe and parts of Africa and Asia;and whose activity as a legislator was so immense that modern France may truly be said to be the direct offspring of the administrative measures and institutions decreed by Napoleon.

Personality as a rule does not yield to analysis; but when personality becomes one of dimensions so vast and of depths so unfathomable as was that of the great Emperor of the French, all the resources of psychological or ethical analysis fail us. If, moreover, one considers the incredible mass of misrepresentations spread wholesale all over the Napoleonic literature in Europe and America, the pose of so many modern historians as judges on a man like Napoleon cannot but seem absurd. Every student of history knows that nearly three hundred and fifty years after the death of Charles V. we are not yet in a position to pronounce definitely on the character and historical position of that sombre Habsburg. It is absurd to think that we are already capable of giving a right historical perspective to a ruler of infinite superiority to Charles V., and whose death occurred not quite three generations ago. Certainly with regard to Napoleon, if in any case of historical study, the student must give up the faintest tendency to rash and immodest judgment. The actions and facts made or directly inspired by Napoleon are in number so immense that by picking out some of them one can easily believe Napoleon to have been afflicted with the greatest or most villainous of vices; just as by selecting other facts one can demonstrate him to have been a man of the most exalted and sublime character. Like every great doer, Napoleon did both good and bad actions, generous and mean ones, he was grateful and ungrateful.

In 1796-1797, on the Bridge of Lodi or in the swamps of Arcole, he showed extraordinary physical courage. In 1814, after his first abdication, he showed extreme physical cowardice. He was an excellent husband, yet he brutally divorced his first wife, whom at heart he never ceased to love. He was a faithful son and brother, yet he treated, at times, the members of his family with extreme severity. Nor need we be astonished at all that. It is the symptom and essence of a great personality to harbour in one and the same soul the most conflicting qualities, the most contradictory tendencies. Napoleon, who can properly be compared only to Alexander the Great and Cæsar, showed in his varied life the same bewildering mass of apparently incoherent phenomena that has made a judgment on the great king of Macedon and on the founder of the Roman Empire a matter of the utmost difficulty. To the present day we are still under the influence of Cæsar, let alone of Napoleon. Broad and comprehensive facts still bespeak the unique greatness of the two men, and to the present day the opinions on Cæsar differ as widely as do those on Napoleon.

While it is thus impossible to bracket the character and genius of Napoleon into one neat formula of ethical judgment, it is, we take it, not quite impossible to account for the strange fact that the greatest statesman and captain of modern times came from an obscure and, in point of European history, quite unimportant little island, from Corsica. Twice in modern times we may notice this peculiar connection of a political mind of the first magnitude with a place of origin quite out of proportion to the ultimate result. The builder of the mightiest body politic in modern times, the originator of the most important and in many ways the most imposing political association of the last four centuries, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, came from the obscure, poor, and insignificant country of the Basques. The man whose powerful mind has framed, animated, and organized the “Society of Jesus” was a Basque. In the case of Napoleon, however, we can do more than merely state the interesting fact that the first Emperor of the French in modern times came from Corsica.

To be continued…