Napoleon: A Life

At the age of seventeen, Napoleon’s religious views started to coalesce, and they did not change much thereafter. Despite being taught by monks, he was never a true Christian, being unconvinced by the divinity of Jesus. He did believe in some kind of divine power, albeit one that seems to have had very limited interaction with the world beyond its original creation. Later he was sometimes seen to cross himself before battle,77 and, as we shall see, he certainly also knew the social utility of religion. But in his personal beliefs he was essentially an Enlightenment sceptic.

Between 1793 and 1797, the French would lose 125 warships to Britain’s 38, including 35 capital vessels (ships-of-the-line) to Britain’s 11, most of the latter the result of fire, accidents and storms rather than French attack.15 The maritime aspect of grand strategy was always one of Napoleon’s weaknesses: in all his long list of victories, none was at sea.

By the time Napoleon had spent five years at Brienne and one at the École Militaire he was thoroughly imbued with the military ethos, which was to stay with him for the rest of his life and was to colour his beliefs and outlook deeply. His acceptance of the revolutionary principles of equality before the law, rational government, meritocracy, efficiency and aggressive nationalism fit in well with this ethos but he had little interest in equality of outcome, human rights, freedom of the press or parliamentarianism, all of which, to his mind, did not. Napoleon’s upbringing imbued him with a reverence for social hierarchy, law and order, and a strong belief in reward for merit and courage, but also a dislike of politicians, lawyers, journalists and Britain.

Despite hating mobs and technically being a nobleman, Napoleon welcomed the Revolution. At least in its early stages it accorded well with the Enlightenment ideals he had ingested from his reading of Rousseau and Voltaire.

Essentially a compromise between Roman and common law, the Code Napoléon consisted of a reasoned and harmonious body of laws that were to be the same across all territories administered by France, for the first time since the Emperor Justinian. The rights and duties of the government and its citizens were codified in 2,281 articles covering 493 pages in prose so clear that Stendhal said he made it his daily reading.38 The new code helped cement national unity, not least because it was based on the principles of freedom of person and contract. It confirmed the end of ancient class privileges, and (with the exception of primary education) of ecclesiastical control over any aspect of French civil society.39 Above all, it offered stability after the chaos of the Revolution.

For a man who was to exhibit such acute political sharpness later in his career, Napoleon completely misread the revolution's opening stages. 'I repeat what I have said to you,' he wrote to Joseph on July 22, a week after the fall of the Bastille, 'calm will return. In a month, there will no longer be a question of anything. So, if you send me 300 livres [7,500 francs] I will go to Paris to terminate our business.

He appealed to the pride of those he would conquer but gave them no doubt as to the consequences of resistance. ‘The French army loves and respects all peoples, especially the simple and virtuous inhabitants of the mountains,’ read a proclamation to the Tyrolese that month. ‘But should you ignore your own interests and take up arms, we shall be terrible as the fire from heaven.

He appealed to the pride of those he would conquer but gave them no doubt as to the consequences of resistance. ‘The French army loves and respects all peoples, especially the simple and virtuous inhabitants of the mountains,’ read a proclamation to the Tyrolese that month. ‘But should you ignore your own interests and take up arms, we shall be terrible as the fire from heaven.’6

He pronounced that novels were 'for ladies' maids' and ordered the librarian, 'Only give them history books. Men should read nothing else.

His constant references to the ancient world have the effect of giving ordinary soldiers a sense of their lives.

His favourite entertainments were intellectual rather than social; he went to public lectures and visited the observatory, the theatre and the opera. ‘Tragedy excites the soul,’ he later told one of his secretaries, ‘lifts the heart, can and ought to create heroes.’24

I am very happy to see the enemy wish to avoid our coming to him. – Napoleon

If you would make war,' he would say to to General d'Hedouville in December 1799, 'wage it with energy and severity; it is the only means of making it shorter and consequently less deplorable for mankind.

I lived like a bear, in a little room, with books for my only friends . . . These were the joys and debaucheries of my youth.

It is not genius which reveals to me suddenly, secretly, what I have to say or do in a circumstance unexpected by other people: it is reflection, meditation.

Men can be unjust towards me, my dear Junot,’ he wrote to his faithful aide-de-camp, ‘but it suffices to be innocent; my conscience is the tribunal before which I call my conduct.

More books have been written with Napoleon in the title than there have been days since his death in 1821.

Napoleone di Buonaparte, as he signed himself until manhood, was born in Ajaccio, one of the larger towns on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, just before noon on Tuesday, August 15, 1769.

Napoleon’s rise through the ranks was therefore by no means unique given the political and military circumstances of the day.73 Still, his progress was impressive: he had spent five and a half years as a second-lieutenant, a year as a lieutenant, sixteen months as a captain, only three months as a major and no time at all as a colonel. On December 22, 1793, having been on leave for fifty-eight of his ninety-nine months of service – with and without permission – and after spending less than four years on active duty, Napoleon was made, at twenty-four, a general.

Nations slaughter each other for family quarrels, cutting each other’s throats in the name of the Ruler of the Universe, knavish and greedy priests working on their imagination by means of their love of the marvellous and their fears.

No man is considered just and virtuous who does not know whence he came and wither he is going. – Napoleon

reality after he won the battle of Pedicoste in 1763. The man the Corsicans nicknamed Il Babbù (Daddy) quickly set about reforming the island’s financial, legal and educational systems, built roads, started a printing press and brought something approaching harmony between the island’s competing clans of powerful families. The young Napoleon grew up revering Paoli as a lawgiver, reformer and genuinely benevolent dictator. Genoa had no appetite for the fight that she knew would be required to reassert her authority over Corsica, and reluctantly sold the island to King Louis XV of France for 40 million francs in January 1768.

That's war: very high in the morning and very low in the evening: from triumph to failure is only one step.

The Court of Vienna is behaving very badly,’ Napoleon wrote to Joseph from Valladolid on January 15, 1809, ‘it may have cause to repent. Don’t be uneasy. I have enough troops, even without touching my army in Spain, to get to Vienna in a month . . . In fact, my mere presence in Paris will reduce Austria to her usual irrelevance.’1 He did not know at that stage that Austria had already received a large British subsidy to persuade her to fight what would become the War of the Fifth Coalition. Archduke Charles had been putting all able-bodied men between eighteen and forty-five into uniform in the new Landwehr militia, some of whose units were indistinguishable from the regular army.

The future is a matter of contempt for those with courage. - Napoleon Bonaparte.

The idea of God is very useful,' Napoleon said, 'to maintain good order, to keep men in the path of virtue and to keep them from crime.

The Italian city-state of Genoa had nominally ruled Corsica for over two centuries, but rarely tried to extend her control beyond the coastal towns into the mountainous interior, where the Corsicans were fiercely independent. In 1755 Corsica’s charismatic nationalist leader, Pasquale Paoli, proclaimed an independent republic, a notion that became

Thermidorian reaction’, led by Barras and Fréron, overthrew Maximilien Robespierre on July 27 (9 Thermidor in the revolutionary calendar). Both brothers and sixty other ‘Terrorists’ were guillotined the next day. Had Napoleon been in Paris at the time he might well have been scooped up and sent to the guillotine along with them.

The true conquests, the only ones that cause no regret, are those made over ignorance.’68