Napoleon was a bona fide intellectual, and not just an intellectual among generals

Sunday, July 7th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon, while still “merely” a general, was elected a member of the Institut de France, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), then (as now) the foremost intellectual society in France:

Thereafter he often wore the dark-blue uniform of the Institut with its embroidered olive green and golden branches, attended science lectures there, and signed himself as ‘Member of the Institut, General-in-Chief of the Army of England’ in that order.


His proposers and supporters at the Institut undoubtedly thought it a boon to have the foremost general of the day as a member, but Napoleon was a bona fide intellectual, and not just an intellectual among generals. He had read and annotated many of the most profound books of the Western canon; was a connoisseur, critic and even amateur theorist of dramatic tragedy and music; championed science and socialized with astronomers; enjoyed conducting long theological discussions with bishops and cardinals; and he went nowhere without his large, well-thumbed travelling library. He was to impress Goethe with his views on the motives of Werther’s suicide and Berlioz with his knowledge of music. Later he would inaugurate the Institut d’Égypte and staff it with the greatest French savants of the day. Napoleon was admired by many of the leading European intellectuals and creative figures of the nineteenth century, including Goethe, Byron, Beethoven (at least initially), Carlyle and Hegel; he established the University of France on the soundest footing of its history.

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