Napoleon represented the Enlightenment on horseback

Thursday, November 23rd, 2023

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsWhen I saw that Ridley Scott was directing a biopic of Napoleon, that nudged me to finally read a biography of the Emperor of the French, which I’d been meaning to do for…decades?

Dwarkesh Patel recently interviewed Andrew Roberts, the author of the biography I just read, and noted that there’s a “cult of Napoleon” in Silicon Valley:

Roberts’ introduction summarizes Napoleon’s accomplishments:

He came to power through a military coup only six years after entering the country as a penniless political refugee.


Although his conquests ended in defeat and ignominious imprisonment, over the course of his short but eventful life he fought sixty battles and lost only seven.


Yet his greatest and most lasting victories were those of his institutions, which put an end to the chaos of the French Revolution and cemented its guiding principle of equality before the law.


Napoleon’s bridges, reservoirs, canals and sewers remain in use throughout France. The French foreign ministry sits above the stone quays he built along the Seine, and the Cour des Comptes still checks public spending accounts more than two centuries after he founded it. The Légion d’Honneur, an honor he introduced to take the place of feudal privilege, is highly coveted; France’s top secondary schools, many of them founded by Napoleon, provide excellent education and his Conseil d’État still meets every Wednesday to vet laws.


The leadership skills he employed to inspire his men have been adopted by other leaders over the centuries, yet never equaled except perhaps by his great devotee Winston Churchill.


The fact that his army was willing to follow him even after the retreat from Moscow, the battle of Leipzig and the fall of Paris testifies to his capacity to make ordinary people feel that they were capable of doing extraordinary, history-making deeds.


Napoleon’s love affair with Josephine has been presented all too often in plays, novels and movies as a Romeo and Juliet story: in fact, it was anything but. He had an overwhelming crush on her, but she didn’t love him, at least in the beginning, and was unfaithful from the very start of their marriage. When he learned of her infidelities two years later while on campaign in the middle of the Egyptian desert, he was devastated. He took a mistress in Cairo in part to protect himself from accusations of cuckoldry, which were far more dangerous for a French general of the era than those of adultery. Yet he forgave Josephine when he returned to France, and they started off on a decade of harmonious marital and sexual contentment, despite his taking a series of mistresses. Josephine remained faithful and even fell in love with him. When he decided to divorce for dynastic and geostrategic reasons, Josephine was desolate but they remained friendly.


He could entirely close off one part of his mind to what was going on in the rest of it; he himself likened it to being able to open and close drawers in a cupboard. On the eve of battle, as aides-de-camp were arriving and departing with orders to his marshals and reports from his generals, he could dictate his thoughts on the establishment of a girls’ school for the orphans of members of the Légion d’Honneur, and shortly after having captured Moscow he set down the regulations governing the Comédie-Française. No detail about his empire was too minute for his restless, questing energy. The prefect of a department would be instructed to stop taking his young mistress to the opera; an obscure country priest would be reprimanded for giving a bad sermon on his birthday; a corporal told he was drinking too much; a demi-brigade that it could stitch the words ‘Les Incomparables’ in gold onto its standard. He was one of the most unrelenting micromanagers in history, but this obsession with details did not prevent him from radically transforming the physical, legal, political and cultural landscape of Europe.


Napoleon represented the Enlightenment on horseback.


‘They seek to destroy the Revolution by attacking my person,’ he said after the failure of the royalist assassination plot of 1804. ‘I will defend it, for I am the Revolution.’ His characteristic egotism aside, Napoleon was right. He personified the best parts of the French Revolution, the ones that have survived and infused European life ever since.


The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire. At the same time he dispensed with the absurd revolutionary calendar of ten-day weeks, the theology of the Cult of the Supreme Being, the corruption and cronyism of the Directory and the hyper-inflation that had characterized the dying days of the Republic.


  1. Bomag says:

    Bit of a tongue job. He didn’t help the demographics of France much.

    The French have raised up remarkably capable people over the millennia.

  2. Lucklucky says:

    What an idiot.

    “The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon.”

    Napoleon was a thug, he ransacked almost all Europe, imprisoned the pope, faked a plebiscite to make himself consul (ruler) for life, tried to reinstate slavery in the Caribbean to pay for the wars, etc. Napoleon probably delayed the industrial revolution by several decades.

  3. Jim says:

    1. Imprisons popes.
    2. Democratically elects himself king.
    3. Enslaves hunter-gatherers for fun and profit.
    4. Delays Industrial Revolution by several decades, permitting America to break free of Parliament.

    What a king.

  4. Jim says:

    *Democratically elects himself sovereign.

  5. Alex S. says:

    That is one of the reasons I can see most people being Bolsheviks in Russia, Nazis in 1930′s Germany, etc. The willingness to force others is always present.

  6. Ceck says:

    I apologize in advance for my terrible ignorance regarding Napoleon, but I am interested in his relatively modern implementation of the old idea that a war could pay for itself.

    “Once the army had been equipped and clothed in France at the expense of the French Treasury, it was expected to be self-sufficient thereafter. And there was nothing new about this approach; it had long been the practice of all the armies of the world. Bonaparte, as commander in chief of the army in Italy, had received the same instructions for his first campaign. However, as might be expected given his character, Napoleon was not content to let an old principle be applied loosely. As with all other areas of the State, he wanted to organise this source of revenue in his own way, to the extent that it was to become one of the decisive elements of his foreign policy.”

    Comment: Modern wars seem to be instigated by profiteers. I wonder whether a new Napoleon could arise who could make war without selling his soul to banksters.

  7. Bert says:

    “I wonder whether a new Napoleon could arise who could make war without selling his soul to banksters.”
    A self-sufficient army steals wherever it goes. Not sure that’s any better.

  8. Lucklucky says:

    Still lots of treasure robbed by the French from Portugal. If we weren’t on UE it will be still a contentious issue.

  9. VXXC says:

    Demographics aren’t destiny if one is a man; that is for the women.

    Men can radically alter demographics in favor of their group using tried and true and eternal methods, that is to say reducing the ‘other’ by a simple twitch of the finger or a blunt object.

    As for the Napoleon hate…meh…Envy is the most useless sin.

  10. Bomag says:

    Demographics isn’t an exact science, but there are trends that build over time.

    Wars tend to kill off the most capable men at an uncomfortable rate. Men are half the equation of stocking the next generation. It’s been suggested that Napoleon degraded the quality of the gene pool enough to make a difference.

  11. Lucklucky says:

    It is enough to ask how much testosterone levels Napoleon decreased.

Leave a Reply