Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. IV. Representative Men: Seven Lectures
VI. Napoleon; or, the Man of the World
AMONG1 the eminent persons of the nineteenth century, Bonaparte is far the best known and the most powerful; and owes his predominance to the fidelity with which he expresses the tone of thought and belief, the aims of the masses of active and cultivated men. It is Swedenborgs theory that every organ is made up of homogeneous particles; or as it is sometimes expressed, every whole is made of similars; that is, the lungs are composed of infinitely small lungs; the liver, of infinitely small livers; the kidney, of little kidneys,2 etc. Following this analogy, if any man is found to carry with him the power and affections of vast numbers, if Napoleon is France, if Napoleon is Europe, it is because the people whom he sways are little Napoleons.
In our society there is a standing antagonism between the conservative and the democratic classes; between those who have made their fortunes, and the young and the poor who have fortunes to make; between the interests of dead labor,that is, the labor of hands long ago still in the grave, which labor is now entombed in money stocks, or in land and buildings owned by idle capitalists,and the interests of living labor, which seeks to possess itself of land and buildings and money stocks. The first class is timid, selfish, illiberal, hating innovation, and continually losing numbers by death. The second class is selfish also, encroaching, bold, self-relying, always outnumbering the other and recruiting its numbers every hour by births. It desires to keep open every avenue to the competition of all, and to multiply avenues: the class of business men in America, in England, in France and throughout Europe; the class of industry and skill. Napoleon is its representative. The instinct of active, brave, able men, throughout the middle class every where, has pointed out Napoleon as the incarnate Democrat. He had their virtues and their vices; above all, he had their spirit or aim. That tendency is material, pointing at a sensual success and employing the richest and most various means to that end; conversant with mechanical powers, highly intellectual, widely and accurately learned and skilful, but subordinating all intellectual and spiritual forces into means to a material success. To be the rich man, is the end. God has granted, says the Koran, to every people a prophet in its own tongue. Paris and London and New York, the spirit of commerce, of money and material power, were also to have their prophet; and Bonaparte was qualified and sent.
Every one of the million readers of anecdotes or memoirs or lives of Napoleon, delights in the page, because he studies in it his own history.3 Napoleon is thoroughly modern, and, at the highest point of his fortunes, has the very spirit of the newspapers. He is no saint,to use his own word, no capuchin, and he is no hero, in the high sense. The man in the street finds in him the qualities and powers of other men in the street. He finds him, like himself, by birth a citizen, who, by very intelligible merits, arrived at such a commanding position that he could indulge all those tastes which the common man possesses but is obliged to conceal and deny: good society, good books, fast travelling, dress, dinners, servants without number, personal weight, the execution of his ideas, the standing in the attitude of a benefactor to all persons about him, the refined enjoyments of pictures, statues, music, palaces and conventional honors,precisely what is agreeable to the heart of every man in the nineteenth century, this powerful man possessed.
It is true that a man of Napoleons truth of adaptation to the mind of the masses around him, becomes not merely representative but actually a monopolizer and usurper of other minds. Thus Mirabeau plagiarized every good thought, every good word that was spoken in France. Dumont relates that he sat in the gallery of the Convention and heard Mirabeau make a speech. It struck Dumont that he could fit it with a peroration, which he wrote in pencil immediately, and showed it to Lord Elgin, who sat by him. Lord Elgin approved it, and Dumont, in the evening, showed it to Mirabeau. Mirabeau read it, pronounced it admirable, and declared he would incorporate it into his harangue to-morrow, to the Assembly. It is impossible, said Dumont, as, unfortunately, I have shown it to Lord Elgin. If you have shown it to Lord Elgin and to fifty persons beside, I shall still speak it to-morrow: and he did speak it, with much effect, at the next days session. For Mirabeau, with his overpowering personality, felt that these things which his presence inspired were as much his own as if he had said them, and that his adoption of them gave them their weight. Much more absolute and centralizing was the successor to Mirabeaus popularity and to much more than his predominance in France. Indeed, a man of Napoleons stamp almost ceases to have a private speech and opinion. He is so largely receptive, and is so placed, that he comes to be a bureau for all the intelligence, wit and power of the age and country. He gains the battle; he makes the code; he makes the system of weights and measures; he levels the Alps; he builds the road. All distinguished engineers, savans, statists, report to him: so likewise do all good heads in every kind: he adopts the best measures, sets his stamp on them, and not these alone, but on every happy and memorable expression. Every sentence spoken by Napoleon and every line of his writing, deserves reading, as it is the sense of France.
Bonaparte was the idol of common men because he had in transcendent degree the qualities and powers of common men. There is a certain satisfaction in coming down to the lowest ground of politics, for we get rid of cant and hypocrisy. Bonaparte wrought, in common with that great class he represented, for power and wealth,but Bonaparte, specially, without any scruple as to the means. All the sentiments which embarrass mens pursuit of these objects, he set aside. The sentiments were for women and children. Fontanes, in 1804, expressed Napoleons own sense, when in behalf of the Senate he addressed him,Sire, the desire of perfection is the worst disease that ever afflicted the human mind. The advocates of liberty and of progress are ideologists;a word of contempt often in his mouth;Necker is an ideologist: Lafayette is an ideologist.4
An Italian proverb, too well known, declares that if you would succeed, you must not be too good. It is an advantage, within certain limits, to have renounced the dominion of the sentiments of piety, gratitude and generosity; since what was an impassable bar to us, and still is to others, becomes a convenient weapon for our purposes; just as the river which was a formidable barrier, winter transforms into the smoothest of roads.
Napoleon renounced, once for all, sentiments and affections, and would help himself with his hands and his head. With him is no miracle and no magic. He is a worker in brass, in iron, in wood, in earth, in roads, in buildings, in money and in troops, and a very consistent and wise master-workman. He is never weak and literary, but acts with the solidity and the precision of natural agents. He has not lost his native sense and sympathy with things.5 Men give way before such a man, as before natural events. To be sure there are men enough who are immersed in things, as farmers, smiths, sailors and mechanics generally; and we know how real and solid such men appear in the presence of scholars and grammarians: but these men ordinarily lack the power of arrangement, and are like hands without a head. But Bonaparte superadded to this mineral and animal force, insight and generalization, so that men saw in him combined the natural and the intellectual power, as if the sea and land had taken flesh and begun to cipher. Therefore the land and sea seem to presuppose him. He came unto his own and they received him. This ciphering operative knows what he is working with and what is the product. He knew the properties of gold and iron, of wheels and ships, of troops and diplomatists, and required that each should do after its kind.
The art of war was the game in which he exerted his arithmetic. It consisted, according to him, in having always more forces than the enemy, on the point where the enemy is attacked, or where he attacks: and his whole talent is strained by endless manuvre and evolution, to march always on the enemy at an angle, and destroy his forces in detail. It is obvious that a very small force, skilfully and rapidly manuvring so as always to bring two men against one at the point of engagement, will be an overmatch for a much larger body of men.
The times, his constitution and his early circumstances combined to develop this pattern democrat. He had the virtues of his class and the conditions for their activity. That commonsense which no sooner respects any end than it finds the means to effect it; the delight in the use of means; in the choice, simplification and combining of means; the directness and thoroughness of his work; the prudence with which all was seen and the energy with which all was done, make him the natural organ and head of what I may almost call, from its extent, the modern party.6
Nature must have far the greatest share in every success, and so in his. Such a man was wanted, and such a man was born; a man of stone and iron, capable of sitting on horseback sixteen or seventeen hours, of going many days together without rest or food except by snatches, and with the speed and spring of a tiger in action; a man not embarrassed by any scruples; compact, instant, selfish, prudent, and of a perception which did not suffer itself to be baulked or misled by any pretences of others, or any superstition or any heat or haste of his own.7 My hand of iron, he said, was not at the extremity of my arm, it was immediately connected with my head. He respected the power of nature and fortune, and ascribed to it his superiority, instead of valuing himself, like inferior men, on his opinionativeness, and waging war with nature. His favorite rhetoric lay in allusion to his star; and he pleased himself, as well as the people, when he styled himself the Child of Destiny.8 They charge me, he said, with the commission of great crimes: men of my stamp do not commit crimes. Nothing has been more simple than my elevation, t is in vain to ascribe it to intrigue or crime; it was owing to the peculiarity of the times and to my reputation of having fought well against the enemies of my country. I have always marched with the opinion of great masses and with events. Of what use then would crimes be to me? Again he said, speaking of his son, My son can not replace me; I could not replace myself. I am the creature of circumstances.
He had a directness of action never before combined with so much comprehension. He is a realist, terrific to all talkers and confused truth-obscuring persons. He sees where the matter hinges, throws himself on the precise point of resistance, and slights all other considerations. He is strong in the right manner, namely by insight. He never blundered into victory, but won his battles in his head before he won them on the field. His principal means are in himself. He asks counsel of no other. In 1796 he writes to the Directory: I have conducted the campaign without consulting any one. I should have done no good if I had been under the necessity of conforming to the notions of another person. I have gained some advantages over superior forces and when totally destitute of every thing, because, in the persuasion that your confidence was reposed in me, my actions were as prompt as my thoughts.
History is full, down to this day, of the imbecility of kings and governors. They are a class of persons much to be pitied, for they know not what they should do. The weavers strike for bread, and the king and his ministers, knowing not what to do, meet them with bayonets. But Napoleon understood his business. Here was a man who in each moment and emergency knew what to do next. It is an immense comfort and refreshment to the spirits, not only of kings, but of citizens. Few men have any next; they live from hand to mouth, without plan, and are ever at the end of their line, and after each action wait for an impulse from abroad. Napoleon had been the first man of the world, if his ends had been purely public. As he is, he inspires confidence and vigor by the extraordinary unity of his action. He is firm, sure, self-denying, self-postponing, sacrificing every thing,money, troops, generals, and his own safety also, to his aim; not misled, like common adventurers, by the splendor of his own means. Incidents ought not to govern policy, he said, but policy, incidents. To be hurried away by every event is to have no political system at all. His victories were only so many doors, and he never for a moment lost sight of his way onward, in the dazzle and uproar of the present circumstance. He knew what to do, and he flew to his mark. He would shorten a straight line to come at his object. Horrible anecdotes may no doubt be collected from his history, of the price at which he bought his successes; but he must not therefore be set down as cruel, but only as one who knew no impediment to his will; not bloodthirsty, not cruel,but woe to what thing or person stood in his way! Not bloodthirsty, but not sparing of blood,and pitiless. He saw only the object: the obstacle must give way. Sire, General Clarke can not combine with General Junot, for the dreadful fire of the Austrian battery.Let him carry the battery.Sire, every regiment that approaches the heavy artillery is sacrificed: Sire, what orders?Forward, forward! Seruzier, a colonel of artillery, gives, in his Military Memoirs, the following sketch of a scene after the battle of Austerlitz.At the moment in which the Russian army was making its retreat, painfully, but in good order, on the ice of the lake, the Emperor Napoleon came riding at full speed toward the artillery. You are losing time, he cried; fire upon those masses; they must be engulfed: fire upon the ice! The order remained unexecuted for ten minutes. In vain several officers and myself were placed on the slope of a hill to produce the effect: their balls and mine rolled upon the ice without breaking it up. Seeing that, I tried a simple method of elevating light howitzers. The almost perpendicular fall of the heavy projectiles produced the desired effect. My method was immediately followed by the adjoining batteries, and in less than no time we buried some thousands of Russians and Austrians under the waters of the lake.9
In the plenitude of his resources, every obstacle seemed to vanish. There shall be no Alps, he said; and he built his perfect roads, climbing by graded galleries their steepest precipices, until Italy was as open to Paris as any town in France. He laid his bones to, and wrought for his crown. Having decided what was to be done, he did that with might and main. He put out all his strength. He risked every thing and spared nothing, neither ammunition, nor money, nor troops, nor generals, nor himself.
We like to see every thing do its office after its kind, whether it be a milch-cow or a rattlesnake; and if fighting be the best mode of adjusting national differences, (as large majorities of men seem to agree,) certainly Bonaparte was right in making it thorough. The grand principle of war, he said, was that an army ought always to be ready, by day and by night and at all hours, to make all the resistance it is capable of making. He never economized his ammunition, but, on a hostile position, rained a torrent of iron,shells, balls, grape-shot,to annihilate all defence. On any point of resistance he concentrated squadron on squadron in overwhelming numbers until it was swept out of existence. To a regiment of horse-chasseurs at Lobenstein, two days before the battle of Jena, Napoleon said, My lads, you must not fear death; when soldiers brave death, they drive him into the enemys ranks. In the fury of assault, he no more spared himself. He went to the edge of his possibility. It is plain that in Italy he did what he could, and all that he could. He came, several times, within an inch of ruin; and his own person was all but lost. He was flung into the marsh at Arcola. The Austrians were between him and his troops, in the mêlée, and he was brought off with desperate efforts. At Lonato, and at other places, he was on the point of being taken prisoner. He fought sixty battles. He had never enough. Each victory was a new weapon. My power would fall, were I not to support it by new achievements. Conquest has made me what I am, and conquest must maintain me. He felt, with every wise man, that as much life is needed for conservation as for creation. We are always in peril, always in a bad plight, just on the edge of destruction and only to be saved by invention and courage.
This vigor was guarded and tempered by the coldest prudence and punctuality. A thunderbolt in the attack, he was found invulnerable in his intrenchments. His very attack was never the inspiration of courage, but the result of calculation. His idea of the best defence consists in being still the attacking party. My ambition, he says, was great, but was of a cold nature. In one of his conversations with Las Casas, he remarked, As to moral courage, I have rarely met with the two-oclock-in-the-morning kind: I mean unprepared courage; that which is necessary on an unexpected occasion, and which, in spite of the most unforeseen events, leaves full freedom of judgment and decision: and he did not hesitate to declare that he was himself eminently endowed with this two-oclock-in-the-morning courage, and that he had met with few persons equal to himself in this respect.
Every thing depended on the nicety of his combinations, and the stars were not more punctual than his arithmetic. His personal attention descended to the smallest particulars. At Montebello, I ordered Kellermann to attack with eight hundred horse, and with these he separated the six thousand Hungarian grenadiers, before the very eyes of the Austrian cavalry. This cavalry was half a league off and required a quarter of an hour to arrive on the field of action, and I have observed that it is always these quarters of an hour the decide the fate of a battle. Before he fought a battle, Bonaparte thought little about what he should do in case of success, but a great deal about what he should do in case of a reverse of fortune. The same prudence and good sense mark all his behavior. His instructions to his secretary at the Tuileries are worth remembering. During the night, enter my chamber as seldom as possible. Do not awake me when you have any good news to communicate; with that there is no hurry. But when you bring bad news, rouse me instantly, for then there is not a moment to be lost. It was a whimsical economy of the same kind which dictated his practice, when general in Italy, in regard to his burdensome correspondence. He directed Bourrienne to leave all letters unopened for three weeks, and then observed with satisfaction how large a part of the correspondence had thus disposed of itself and no longer required an answer. His achievement of business was immense, and enlarges the known powers of man. There have been many working kings, from Ulysses to William of Orange, but none who accomplished a tithe of this mans performance.
To these gifts of nature, Napoleon added the advantage of having been born to a private and humble fortune. In his later days he had the weakness of wishing to add to his crowns and badges the prescription of aristocracy; but he knew his debt to his austere education, and made no secret of his contempt for the born kings, and for the hereditary asses, as he coarsely styled the Bourbons. He said that in their exile they had learned nothing, and forgot nothing. Bonaparte had passed through all the degrees of military service, but also was citizen before he was emperor, and so has the key to citizenship. His remarks and estimates discover the information and justness of measurement of the middle class. Those who had to deal with him found that he was not to be imposed upon, but could cipher as well as another man. This appears in all parts of his Memoirs, dictated at St. Helena. When the expenses of the empress, of his household, of his palaces, had accumulated great debts, Napoleon examined the bills of the creditors himself, detected overcharges and errors, and reduced the claims by considerable sums.
His grand weapon, namely the millions whom he directed, he owed to the representative character which clothed him. He interests us as he stands for France and for Europe; and he exists as captain and king only as far as the Revolution, or the interest of the industrious masses, found an organ and a leader in him. In the social interests, he knew the meaning and value of labor, and threw himself naturally on that side. I like an incident mentioned by one of his biographers at St. Helena. When walking with Mrs. Balcombe, some servants, carrying heavy boxes, passed by on the road, and Mrs. Balcombe desired them, in rather an angry tone, to keep back. Napoleon interfered, saying Respect the burden, Madam.10 In the time of the empire he directed attention to the improvement and embellishment of the markets of the capital. The market-place, he said, is the Louvre of the common people. The principal works that have survived him are his magnificent roads. He filled the troops with his spirit, and a sort of freedom and companionship grew up between him and them, which the forms of his court never permitted between the officers and himself. They performed, under his eye, that which no others could do. The best document of his relation to his troops is the order of the day on the morning of the battle of Austerlitz, in which Napoleon promises the troops that he will keep his person out of reach of fire. This declaration, which is the reverse of that ordinarily made by generals and sovereigns on the eve of a battle, sufficiently explains the devotion of the army to their leader.
But though there is in particulars this identity between Napoleon and the mass of the people, his real strength lay in their conviction that he was their representative in his genius and aims, not only when he courted, but when he controlled, and even when he decimated them by his conscriptions. He knew, as well as any Jacobin in France, how to philosophize on liberty and equality; and when allusion was made to the precious blood of centuries, which was spilled by the killing of the Duc dEnghien, he suggested, Neither is my blood ditchwater. The people felt that no longer the throne was occupied and the land sucked of its nourishment, by a small class of legitimates, secluded from all community with the children of the soil, and holding the ideas and superstitions of a long-forgotten state of society.11 Instead of that vampyre, a man of themselves held, in the Tuileries, knowledge and ideas like their own, opening of course to them and their children all places of power and trust. The day of sleepy, selfish policy, ever narrowing the means and opportunities of young men, was ended, and a day of expansion and demand was come. A market for all the powers and productions of man was opened; brilliant prizes glittered in the eyes of youth and talent. The old, iron-bound, feudal France was changed into a young Ohio or New York; and those who smarted under the immediate rigors of the new monarch, pardoned them as the necessary severities of the military system which had driven out the oppressor. And even when the majority of the people had begun to ask whether they had really gained any thing under the exhausting levies of men and money of the new master, the whole talent of the country, in every rank and kindred, took his part and defended him as its natural patron. In 1814, when advised to rely on the higher classes, Napoleon said to those around him, Gentlemen, in the situation in which I stand, my only nobility is the rabble of the Faubourgs.
Napoleon met this natural expectation. The necessity of his position required a hospitality to every sort of talent, and its appointment to trusts; and his feeling went along with this policy. Like every superior person, he undoubtedly felt a desire for men and compeers, and a wish to measure his power with other masters, and an impatience of fools and underlings. In Italy, he sought for men and found none. Good God! he said, how rare men are! There are eighteen millions in Italy, and I have with difficulty found two,Dandolo and Melzi. In later years, with larger experience, his respect for mankind was not increased. In a moment of bitterness he said to one of his oldest friends, Men deserve the contempt with which they inspire me. I have only to put some gold-lace on the coat of my virtuous republicans and they immediately become just what I wish them. This impatience at levity was, however, an oblique tribute of respect to those able persons who commanded his regard not only when he found them friends and coadjutors but also when they resisted his will. He could not confound Fox and Pitt, Carnot, Lafayette and Bernadotte, with the danglers of his court; and in spite of the detraction which his systematic egotism dictated toward the great captains who conquered with and for him, ample acknowledgments are made by him to Lannes, Duroc, Kleber, Dessaix, Massena, Murat, Ney and Augereau. If he felt himself their patron and the founder of their fortunes, as when he said I made my generals out of mud,he could not hide his satisfaction in receiving from them a seconding and support commensurate with the grandeur of his enterprise. In the Russian campaign he was so much impressed by the courage and resources of Marshal Ney, that he said, I have two hundred millions in my coffers, and I would give them all for Ney. The characters which he has drawn of several of his marshals are discriminating, and though they did not content the insatiable vanity of French officers, are no doubt substantially just. And in fact every species of merit was sought and advanced under his government. I know, he said, the depth and draught of water of every one of my generals. Natural power was sure to be well received at his court. Seventeen men in his time were raised from common soldiers to the rank of king, marshal, duke, or general; and the crosses of his Legion of Honor were given to personal valor, and not to family connexion. When soldiers have been baptized in the fire of a battlefield, they have all one rank in my eyes.
When a natural king becomes a titular king, every body is pleased and satisfied. The Revolution entitled the strong populace of the Faubourg St. Antoine, and every horse-boy and powder-monkey in the army, to look on Napoleon as flesh of his flesh and the creature of his party: but there is something in the success of grand talent which enlists an universal sympathy. For in the prevalence of sense and spirit over stupidity and malversation, all reasonable men have an interest; and as intellectual beings we feel the air purified by the electric shock, when material force is overthrown by intellectual energies. As soon as we are removed out of the reach of local and accidental partialities, Man feels Napoleon fights for him; these are honest victories; this strong steam-engine does our work. Whatever appeals to the imagination, by transcending the ordinary limits of human ability, wonderfully encourages and liberates us.12 This capacious head, revolving and disposing sovereignly trains of affairs, and animating such multitudes of agents; this eye, which looked through Europe; this prompt invention; this inexhaustible resource:what events! what romantic pictures! what strange situations!when spying the Alps, by a sunset in the Sicilian sea; drawing up his army for battle in sight of the Pyramids, and saying to his troops, From the tops of those pyramids, forty centuries look down on you; fording the Red Sea; wading in the gulf of the Isthmus of Suez. On the shore of Ptolemais, gigantic projects agitated him. Had Acre fallen, I should have changed the face of the world. His army, on the night of the battle of Austerlitz, which was the anniversary of his inauguration as Emperor, presented him with a bouquet of forty standards taken in the fight. Perhaps it is a little puerile, the pleasure he took in making these contrasts glaring; as when he pleased himself with making kings wait in his antechambers, at Tilsit, at Paris and at Erfurt.
We can not, in the universal imbecility, indecision and indolence of men, sufficiently congratulate ourselves on this strong and ready actor, who took occasion by the beard, and showed us how much may be accomplished by the mere force of such virtues as all men possess in less degrees; namely, by punctuality, by personal attention, by courage and thoroughness. The Austrians, he said, do not know the value of time. I should cite him, in his earlier years, as a model of prudence. His power does not consist in any wild or extravagant force; in any enthusiasm like Mahomets, or singular power of persuasion; but in the exercise of common-sense on each emergency, instead of abiding by rules and customs. The lesson he teaches is that which vigor always teaches;that there is always room for it. To what heaps of cowardly doubts is not that mans life an answer.13 When he appeared it was the belief of all military men that there could be nothing new in war; as it is the belief of men to-day that nothing new can be undertaken in politics, or in church, or in letters, or in trade, or in farming, or in our social manners and customs; and as it is at all times the belief of society that the world is used up. But Bonaparte knew better than society; and moreover knew that he knew better. I think all men know better than they do; know that the institutions we so volubly commend are go-carts and baubles; but they dare not trust their presentiments. Bonaparte relied on his own sense, and did not care a bean for other peoples. The world treated his novelties just as it treats everybodys novelties,made infinite objection, mustered all the impediments; but he snapped his finger at their objections. What creates great difficulty, he remarks, in the profession of the land-commander, is the necessity of feeding so many men and animals. If he allows himself to be guided by the commissaries he will never stir, and all his expeditions will fail. An example of his common-sense is what he says of the passage of the Alps in winter, which all writers, one repeating after the other, had described as impracticable. The winter, says Napoleon, is not the most unfavorable season for the passage of lofty mountains. The snow is then firm, the weather settled, and there is nothing to fear from avalanches, the real and only danger to be apprehended in the Alps. On these high mountains there are often very fine days in December, of a dry cold, with extreme calmness in the air. Read his account, too, of the way in which battles are gained. In all battles a moment occurs when the bravest troops, after having made the greatest efforts, feel inclined to run. That terror proceeds from a want of confidence in their own courage, and it only requires a slight opportunity, a pretence, to restore confidence to them. The art is, to give rise to the opportunity and to invent the pretence. At Arcola I won the battle with twenty-five horsemen. I seized that moment of lassitude, gave every man a trumpet, and gained the day with this handful. You see that two armies are two bodies which meet and endeavor to frighten each other; a moment of panic occurs, and that moment must be turned to advantage. When a man has been present in many actions, he distinguishes that moment without difficulty: it is as easy as casting up an addition.
This deputy of the nineteenth century added to his gifts a capacity for speculation on general topics. He delighted in running through the range of practical, of literary and of abstract questions. His opinion is always original and to the purpose. On the voyage to Egypt he liked, after dinner, to fix on three or four persons to support a proposition, and as many to oppose it. He gave a subject, and the discussions turned on questions of religion, the different kinds of government, and the art of war. One day he asked whether the planets were inhabited? On another, what was the age of the world? Then he proposed to consider the probability of the destruction of the globe, either by water or by fire: at another time, the truth or fallacy of presentiments, and the interpretation of dreams. He was very fond of talking of religion. In 1806 he conversed with Fournier, bishop of Montpellier, on matters of theology. There were two points on which they could not agree, viz. that of hell, and that of salvation out of the pale of the church. The Emperor told Josephine that he disputed like a devil on these two points, on which the bishop was inexorable. To the philosophers he readily yielded all that was proved against religion as the work of men and time, but he would not hear of materialism. One fine night, on deck, amid a clatter of materialism, Bonaparte pointed to the stars, and said, You may talk as long as you please, gentlemen, but who made all that? He delighted in the conversation of men of science, particularly of Monge and Berthollet; but the men of letters he slighted; they were manufacturers of phrases. Of medicine too he was fond of talking, and with those of its practitioners whom he most esteemed,with Corvisart at Paris, and with Antonomarchi at St. Helena. Believe me, he said to the last, we had better leave off all these remedies: life is a fortress which neither you nor I know any thing about. Why throw obstacles in the way of its defence? Its own means are superior to all the apparatus of your laboratories.14 Corvisart candidly agreed with me that all your filthy mixtures are good for nothing. Medicine is a collection of uncertain prescriptions, the results of which, taken collectively, are more fatal than useful to mankind. Water, air and cleanliness are the chief articles in my pharmacopia.
His memoirs, dictated to Court Montholon and General Gourgaud at St. Helena, have great value, after all the deduction that it seems is to be made from them on account of his known disingenuousness. He has the good-nature of strength and conscious superiority.15 I admire his simple, clear narrative of his battles;good as Cæsars; his good-natured and sufficiently respectful account of Marshal Wurmser and his other antagonists; and his own equality as a writer to his varying subject. The most agreeable portion is the Campaign in Egypt.
He had hours of thought and wisdom.16 In intervals of leisure, either in the camp or the palace, Napoleon appears as a man of genius directing on abstract questions the native appetite for truth and the impatience of words he was wont to show in war. He could enjoy every play of invention, a romance, a bon mot, as well as a stratagem in a campaign. He delighted to fascinate Josephine and her ladies, in a dim-lighted apartment, by the terrors of a fiction to which his voice and dramatic power lent every addition.
I call Napoleon the agent or attorney of the middle class of modern society; of the throng who fill the markets, shops, counting-houses, manufactories, ships, of the modern world, aiming to be rich. He was the agitator, the destroyer of prescription, the internal improver, the liberal, the radical, the inventor of means, the opener of doors and markets, the subverter of monopoly and abuse. Of course the rich and aristocratic did not like him. England, the centre of capital, and Rome and Austria, centres of tradition and genealogy, opposed him. The consternation of the dull and conservative classes, the terror of the foolish old men and old women of the Roman conclave, who in their despair took hold of any thing, and would cling to red-hot iron,the vain attempts of statists to amuse and deceive him, of the emperor of Austria to bribe him; and the instinct of the young, ardent and active men every where, which pointed him out as the giant of the middle class, make his history bright and commanding. He had the virtues of the masses of his constituents: he had also their vices. I am sorry that the brilliant picture has its reverse. But that is the fatal quality which we discover in our pursuit of wealth, that it is treacherous, and is bought by the breaking or weakening of the sentiments; and it is inevitable that we should find the same fact in the history of this champion, who proposed to himself simply a brilliant career, without any stipulation or scruple concerning the means.
Bonaparte was singularly destitute of generous sentiments. The highest-placed individual in the most cultivated age and population of the world,he has not the merit of common truth and honesty. He is unjust to his generals; egotistic and monopolizing; meanly stealing the credit of their great actions from Kellermann, from Bernadotte; intriguing to involve his faithful Junot in hopeless bankruptcy, in order to drive him to a distance from Paris, because the familiarity of his manners offends the new pride of his throne. He is a boundless liar. The official paper, his Moniteur, and all his bulletins, are proverbs for saying what he wished to be believed; and worse,he sat, in his premature old age, in his lonely island, coldly falsifying facts and dates and characters, and giving to history a theatrical éclat. Like all Frenchmen he has a passion for stage effect. Every action that breathes of generosity is poisoned by this calculation. His star, his love of glory, his doctrine of the immortality of the soul, are all French. I must dazzle and astonish. If I were to give the liberty of the press, my power could not last three days. To make a great noise is his favorite design. A great reputation is a great noise: the more there is made, the farther off it is heard. Laws, institutions, monuments, nations, all fall; but the noise continues, and resounds in after ages. His doctrine of immortality is simply fame. His theory of influence is not flattering. There are two levers for moving men,interest and fear. Love is a silly infatuation, depend upon it. Friendship is but a name. I love nobody. I do not even love my brothers: perhaps Joseph a little, from habit, and because he is my elder; and Duroc, I love him too; but why?because his character pleases me: he is stern and resolute, and I believe the fellow never shed a tear. For my part I know very well that I have no true friends. As long as I continue to be what I am, I may have as many pretended friends as I please. Leave sensibility to women; but men should be firm in heart and purpose, or they should have nothing to do with war and government. He was thoroughly unscrupulous. He would steal, slander, assassinate, drown and poison, as his interest dictated. He had no generosity, but mere vulgar hatred; he was intensely selfish; he was perfidious; he cheated at cards; he was a prodigious gossip, and opened letters, and delighted in his infamous police, and rubbed his hands with joy when he had intercepted some morsel of intelligence concerning the men and women about him, boasting that he knew every thing; and interfered with the cutting the dresses of the women; and listened after the hurrahs and the compliments of the street, incognito. His manners were coarse. He treated women with low familiarity. He had the habit of pulling their ears and pinching their cheeks when he was in good humor, and of pulling the ears and whiskers of men, and of striking and horse-play with them, to his last days. It does not appear that he listened at key-holes, or at least that he was caught at it. In short, when you have penetrated through all the circles of power and splendor, you were not dealing with a gentleman, at last; but with an impostor and a rogue; and he fully deserves the epithet of Jupiter Scapin, or a sort of Scamp Jupiter.17
In describing the two parties into which modern society divides itself,the democrat and the conservative,I said, Bonaparte represents the democrat, or the party of men of business, against the stationary or conservative party. I omitted then to say, what is material to the statement, namely that these two parties differ only as young and old. The democrat is a young conservative; the conservative is an old democrat. The aristocrat is the democrat ripe and gone to seed;because both parties stand on the one ground of the supreme value of property, which one endeavors to get, and the other to keep. Bonaparte may be said to represent the whole history of this party, its youth and its age; yes, and with poetic justice its fate, in his own. The counter-revolution, the counter-party, still waits for its organ and representative, in a lover and a man of truly public and universal aims.
Here was an experiment, under the most favorable conditions, of the powers of intellect without conscience.18 Never was such a leader so endowed and so weaponed; never leader found such aids and followers. And what was the result of this vast talent and power, of these immense armies, burned cities, squandered treasures, immolated millions of men, of this demoralized Europe? It came to 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.19 The attempt was in principle suicidal. France served him with life and limb and estate, as long as it could identify its interest with him; but when men saw that after victory was another war; after the destruction of armies, new conscriptions; and they who had toiled so desperately were never nearer to the reward,they could not spend what they had earned, nor repose on their down-beds, nor strut in their châteaux,they deserted him. Men found that his absorbing egotism was deadly to all other men. It resembled the torpedo, which inflicts a succession of shocks on any one who takes hold of it, producing spasms which contract the muscles of the hand, so that the man can not open his fingers; and the animal inflicts new and more violent shocks, until he paralyzes and kills his victim. So this exorbitant egotist narrowed, impoverished and absorbed the power and existence of those who served him; and the universal cry of France and of Europe in 1814 was, Enough of him; Assez de Bonaparte.
It was not Bonapartes fault. He did all that in him lay to live and thrive without moral principle. It was the nature of things, the eternal law of man and of the world which baulked and ruined him; and the result, in a million experiments, will be the same. Every experiment, by multitudes or by individuals, that has a sensual and selfish aim, will fail. The pacific Fourier will be as inefficient as the pernicious Napoleon. As long as our civilization is essentially one of property, of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions. Our riches will leave us sick; there will be bitterness in our laughter, and our wine will burn our mouth. Only that good profits which we can taste with all doors open, and which serves all men.
Note 1. The man of action, made on the largest pattern, with intellect to match his will, and yet a believer in his star, to which, though it turned out to be but a lurid planet, not a sun, he hitched his wagon, could not fail to interest Emerson. That worlds earthquake, Waterloo, occurred when he was twelve years old. He supplemented his Plutarchs Lives by all the memoirs of Napoleon then written, and especially enjoyed his letters to his brother, the King of Spain. Courage, address and disbelief in the impossible were virtues as much needed by the scholar as the soldier, but executive ability, knowledge how to deal directly with men and things, was admired by the man of the gown. He said, I like people who can do things. In his journal of 1838 he thus contrasted temperaments: The advantage of the Napoleon temperament, impassive, unimpressible by others, is a signal convenience over this other tender one, which every aunt and every gossiping girl can daunt and tether. This weakness, be sure, is merely cutaneous, and the sufferer gets his revenge by the sharpened observation that belongs to such sympathetic fibre. As even in college I was already content to be screwed in the recitation room, if on my return, I could accurately paint the fact in my youthful journal. And in 1856 his interest in other peoples facts, to find in them the law applicable to his own or every mans life, thus appears: Whatever they may tell you, believe that one fights with cannon as with fists, said Napoleon; when once the fire is begun, the least want of ammunition renders what you have already done useless. I find it easy to translate all his technics into all of mine, and his official advices are to me more literary and philosophical than the mémoires of the Academy. And again in 1844: I myself can easily translate, not without some terror, the maxim, that an army should never have more than one line of operation and the principle of never joining your columns before your enemy or near him. This lecture on Napoleon, like that on Shakspeare, was read in Exeter Hall, London, in 1848. [back]
Note 2. Malpighis dictum of tota in minimis existit Natura. [back]
Note 3. Anecdotes of this kind, which Mr. Emerson used as parables, always interested him, and in his lectures he found their sure value, though when he pruned these with a classic severity for his essays, many were omitted. Mrs. Emerson objected to this, but he said that when the lectures were published they must have on their Greek jackets. On coming home from church in 1835 he wrote in his journal: I cannot hear a sermon without being struck by the fact that amid drowsy series of sentences what a sensation a historical fact, a biographical name, a sharply objective illustration makes! Why will not the preacher heed the admonition of the silence momentary of his congregation and (what is often shown him) that this particular sentence is all they carry away? Is he not taught hereby that the synthesis is to all grateful, and to most indispensable, of abstract thought and a concrete body? Principles should be verified by the adducing of facts and sentiments incorporated by their appropriate imagery. Only in a purely scientific composition, which by its text and structure addresses itself to philosophers, is a writer at liberty to use mere abstractions. [back]
Note 4. Dr. Richard Garnett in his Life of Emerson says in connection with this paragraph: The discussion on Napoleon shows Emerson at his best as a connoisseur of men, and would alone prove that he did not addict himself to speculation out of incapacity or contempt for the affairs of the world. The ideologist judges the man of action more shrewdly and justly than the man of action would have judged the ideologist; and after having most brilliantly painted Napoleons perfect sufficiency in all things for which virtue is not needful, puts him on his right footing with Bonaparte is the idol of common men, etc. In the following extract from the journal the scholar owns his debt to the great soldier: May 1, 1838. I sat in sunshine this afternoon beside my little pond in the woods, and thought how wide are my works and my plays from those of the great men I read of or think of. And yet the solution of Napoleon, whose life I have been reading, lies in my feelings and fancies as I loiter by this rippling, water. I am curious concerning his day,what filled it,the crowded orders, the stern determinations, the manifold etiquette. The soul answers, Behold his day! In the sighing of these woods, in the quiet of these gray fields, in the cool breeze that sings out of those Northwestern mountains, in the workmen, the boys, the girls you meet, in the hopes of the morning, the ennui of noon, and sauntering of afternoon, in the disquieting comparisons, in the regrets at want of vigor, in the great idea and the puny execution, behold Napoleons day; another, yet the same; behold Byrons, Websters, Miltons, Scipios, Pericless dayDay of all that are born of woman. [back]
Note 5. Mr. Emerson was alive to the failings of his class. The one fault that he finds with Plato is that in dealing with the questions of life and passion and sin and hope he is always literary and never otherwise. [back]
Note 6. There is in one of Mr. Emersons note-books a newspaper cutting containing a translation of a remarkable characterization of Napoleon by Fichte in a lecture given at Berlin in 1813. The following is quoted from it: Let us now look at the man who has placed himself at the head of that people. First of all, he is no Frenchman. If he were, those social fundamental views and that regard for the opinions of others, or, in short, for something outside of himself, as well as that benevolent weakness and inconsequence which manifested themselves, for instance, in Louis XIV.,in my opinion the worst outgrowth of French national character,would also have been exhibited in him. But he came from a people which, even among the ancients, were notorious as savages; which at the time of his birth had relapsed into still greater barbarism, through bitter slavery; which had fought a hard struggle to break its chains, and been cheated out of its freedom He received his education among the French people, whom he thus became acquainted with; the character of that nation exhibiting itself at that in a revolution whereof he had opportunity to observe the most secret motives. He could not fail soon to comprehend with convincing clearness this people to be a very excitable body, capable of taking any direction given to it from without, but utterly incapable of giving to itself a self-deter-mined and permanent direction This complete clearness concerning the true character of the nation over which he assumed supreme rule was reinforced by a powerful and inflexible will, grounded in his descent from a strong people, and hardened through his continual but secret conflict with the surroundings of his youth. Armed with these two components of human greatness, calm clearness and firm will, he would have become the benefactor and savior of mankind, if but the slightest presentiment of the moral nature of man had fallen upon his soul. But it did not. And thus he became an example for all time as to what these two components, purely by themselves and without any contemplation of the spiritual, can achieve. [back]
Note 7. In the journal the quotation from Las Casas, which follows in the text, is preceded by this sentence: It was observed that the Emperor was not fond of setting forward his own merits: That is, said he, because with me morality and generosity are not in my mouth, but in my nerves. [back]
Note 8. There is a remarkable passage in the oration called Literary Ethics (Nature, Addresses and Lectures, P. 179) on Napoleons utter faithfulness to facts in his campaigns, but also his reserve belief in the freedom and quite incalculable force of the soul. [back]
Note 9. As I quote at second hand, and cannot procure Seruzier, I dare not adopt the high figure I find. Note to First Edition. [back]
Note 10. This, and the story of Cæsars civilly eating the asparagus which his poor host had dressed with a salve, and his reproving his officers for their grimaces of disgust, always strongly appealed to Mr. Emersons natural feelings of consideration and courtesy to the humblest person. He was drawn more to Napoleon by this speech, Respect the burden, Madam, than by any other story told of him, and he frequently used it as a lesson to his children and others, of honor and consideration for laborers and servants. [back]
Note 11. Journal, 1836. I like the man in OMearas picture. He is good-natured, as greatness always is, and not pompous. [back]
Note 12. Mr. Emerson delights in a liberator of man. He defines the poet as such in one way, and the hero of this chapter in another way. Napoleons sharing the hardships of his soldiers, and personal knowledge of them, his power of labor, his faith in means, his breaking down the bars of feudalism and throwing open the door, closed for centuries to native power and merit in the humblest, went far with Emerson.
Laurel crowns cleave to deserts,
And power to him who power exerts.
In the essay on Aristocracy, in Lectures and Biographical Sketches, is much to this purpose. But the touch of softness and of imagination in this Man of Destiny found in the following anecdote gave especial pleasure: Journal, 1844. Bonaparte was sensible to the music of bells. Hearing the bell of a parish church, he would pause and his voice faltered as he said, Ah! that reminds me of the first years I spent at Brienne. I was then happy.
Note 15. Journal, 1838. Napoleon like all men of genius, is greatly impersonal in his habit of thought. He sees the sublime laws and not the individual men. Men are to him but illustrations, and hence a magnanimous tolerance . The Admiral Cockburn admits that Napoleon is the most good-natured and reasonable of the whole set. Able men generally have this vast fund of justice and good dispositions, because an able man is nothing else than a good free vascular organization whereinto the Universal Spirit freely flows, so that his fund of justice is not only vast, but infinite. [back]
Note 16. Journal, 1845. Napoleon stands at the confluence of the two streams of thought and of matter, and derives thence his power. [back]
Note 17. Jupiter Scapin is a title which appears to have been applied to Napoleon by Abbé de Pradt. [back]
Note 18. Journal. Napoleon was called by his men Cent Mille. Add honesty to him, and they might have called him Hundred Millions. [back]
Note 19. Journal, 1838. The only fault in Napoleons Biography is that he was beaten at Waterloo. What can Genius avail against Facts, which are the Genius of God? Bonaparte by force of intellect is raised out of all comparison with the strong men around him. His marshals, though able men, are as horses and oxen. He alone is a fine tragic figure related to the dæmons, and to all time. Add as much force of intellect again, to repair the immense defect of this morale, and he would have been in harmony with the ideal world.