THE FIRST MODERN MAN
Do you want to conquer the world?
Or just understand yourself?
Napoleon Bonaparte can help.
He was not only one of the greatest success stories of world history, but also one of its spectacular failures. He died a prisoner in exile on a lonely island in the South Atlantic at the age of fifty-one, comparing himself to the mythical Prometheus, chained to a rock.
Winner. Loser. Ruler. Exile.
We can learn from a guy like that.
Napoleon was soldier, emperor, invader, liberator, tyrant, reformer, builder, destroyer, revolutionary, reactionary, leader, manipulator, looter, giver, husband, adulterer, charmer, and bogeyman. An English nursery rhyme warned that Bonaparte would eat naughty children.
In France, Napoleon embodied national glory. He carefully cultivated his own image, was self-satisfied enough to give copious advice, and made pronouncements for posterity. Bonaparte was obsessed with his place in history, and his maxims are as prolific as the commonsense homilies of Benjamin Franklin.
Napoleon’s statements are more debatable than Old Ben’s, however, because he teaches from failure as well as success. Because of that, Bonaparte is particularly instructive. The self-crowned emperor is the general who gambled it all away in Russia. The conqueror of Europe could never get at Britain across the English Channel. The soldier who enthralled his troops was a brooder, confessing to few friends and no love. He was triumphant, but dissatisfied. A Colossus, but cornered.
“What a novel my life has been!” he exclaimed in exile on St. Helena.
Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld called him, “the most competent human being who ever lived,” in his book, Command in War. French historian and statesman Gabriel Hanotaux credited him with “the richest natural gifts ever received by mortal man.” His foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord said in retrospect, “His career is the most extraordinary that has occurred in one thousand years . . . He was clearly the most extraordinary man I ever saw.”
(Napoleon called Talleyrand, “shit in silk stockings” after one of the minister’s periodic betrayals.)
Bonaparte has plenty of detractors. Some historians have made careers critiquing almost everything Napoleon did, including his morality, personal conduct, strategy, tactics, diplomacy, code of laws, and civil administration. Historian Owen Connelly’s military biography of Bonaparte is titled Blundering to Glory.
“History is written by the winners,” Bonaparte said. Unfortunately for him, he ultimately lost. He had a dizzying ascent from artillery captain in 1793 to emperor of France and master of most of Europe by 1807. Then he fell into unending war in Spain, a disastrous invasion of Russia, abdication, exile, and final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Napoleon had divorced Josephine for a loveless political second marriage in order to father an heir, was excommunicated by the Pope, and had some of his closest advisors turn on him.
From such heights, and depths, we learn. How could a Nobody from an impoverished, backward island in the Mediterranean – Corsica – go so far in his adopted France? And how could this Somebody, with an empire that stretched from Madrid to Warsaw, and from Hamburg to Naples, fall so fast and so completely?
The truly noble figures of history, such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Abraham Lincoln, or Gandhi, are easy to admire and difficult to emulate. They seem a step above, and a step removed. Not Napoleon. He was brilliant but flawed, lucky and unlucky, hailed and betrayed, revered and friendless. He was a genius so painfully human that in his life we find examples of the best and worst in our own.
This book grew out of research for my Ethan Gage series of adventure thrillers, featuring an American rascal and Franklin protégé who struggles to survive in Napoleon’s tumultuous world. Ethan has a wry view of the greats with whom he mingles, and describes a brilliant yet very fallible Bonaparte.
What a time the pair inhabit! The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries spawned the political, scientific, and industrial revolutions that produced our modern world. The era’s strivers and eccentrics lived life as grand opera. Battle still had glory. Ships still had beauty. Dresses were scandalous, generals were peacocks, palaces were as grand as they were drafty, and furnishings had over-the-top ornateness. All was perilous risk and outrageous reward, with scant security and wild opportunity. Ethan and his wife Astiza are my novels’ central characters, but Napoleon is the blazing sun around which all the historical figures revolve. Few men have so dominated their era.
Napoleon’s contradictions seem modern, the stuff of gossip magazines, reality show confessionals, and TV psychiatry. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were so horribly warped that they are evil enigmas. Genghis Khan and Attila are far removed in mind and environment. Caesar, Hannibal, and Alexander are ancient. Napoleon opponents Wellington and Kutuzov were military men answering to political masters.
Bonaparte was both master and commander, ruler and instrument, who won his own battles. He endured the fame and scrutiny given modern politicians. He started from nothing, once so impoverished that he had to pawn his watch to buy a uniform coat. He was a climber, a self-promoter, and an opportunist. He seems embarrassingly recognizable in our twenty-first century – the self-made man, the entrepreneur, the egotist, the scrambler, the poser, the wit – and thus understandable, if not entirely understood by himself.
Certainly he loved to talk about himself. His contemporaries added far more. By an estimate of Encyclopedia Britannica, there are two hundred thousand books about Napoleon Bonaparte. French historians double that total, according to the International Napoleonic Society. More than any person in history!
This Napoleon book is about you.
This is not just a collection of Napoleon’s maxims. Nor is it a complete biography, although its pages give a guide to Napoleon’s career. It is a book to consider your own life and career through the lens of quotations and episodes that portray Napoleon’s thoughts, successes, and failures. He instructs and bewilders. I cheerfully plunder his trajectory to glean practical lessons for business executives, entrepreneurs, military officers, cubicle captives, students, or anyone else who is ambitious and wondering what to make of life.
Napoleon is also fun. As a novelist, I declare that no fiction writer would dare create such an improbable figure, because no reader would swallow it. Only the historical fact of his existence makes Napoleon’s story believable.
Which is why it is interesting to hear what Bonaparte has to say.
Chapters are organized by advice the general and emperor might give, taken from his own statements and examples. Bear in mind that debate continues over whether Napoleon was good or bad, visionary or narcissistic. The Dutch author Pieter Geyl published a historical compendium of opposing views called Napoleon, For and Against, in 1949. Nothing has been settled since. All we can do is apply our critical thinking skills.
While this book frequently quotes Bonaparte, historians sometimes extract the maxims from their broader context. Additionally, there were no digital recorders in Napoleon’s day, so many of his attributed words are what others tell us he said.
We can imagine the emperor commenting, “Yes, but,” or, “Did I really say that?” For example, “An army marches on its stomach,” is often attributed to Napoleon. But it may also originate with Frederick the Great, and doesn’t appear in English until the twentieth century. It possibly was not uttered by anyone famous at all. Attributing pithy wit to The Great is one way to make it go viral.
That doesn’t make the idea untrue. The maxim makes a good point – that armies rely on food and logistics – and Napoleon would probably be happy to take credit for it, since he did for so much else.
Besides, history is a very imperfect story. Or, as Napoleon commented, “What is history but a fable agreed on?”
Even fables can be instructive.
To quote Napoleon again, “The only author who deserves to be read is he who never attempts to direct the opinion of the reader.”
This is typical Bonaparte, contradictory to other statements he made and hypocritical in the extreme, since he can be said to have invented modern censorship and propaganda. Napoleon wrote to direct opinion all the time, most famously in his Army Bulletins that exaggerated victory and minimized defeat. If any giant of history tried to influence readers’ opinion it was Napoleon, down to his St. Helena memoirs and dying day.
No matter. His argument was that authors should let facts speak for themselves.
So consider the facts and words, and come to your own conclusions.