Magazine | February 9, 2015, Issue

The Last Conquistador

Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts (Viking, 976 pp., $45)

Never, probably, has there been a greater disproportion between the splendor of the career and the insipidness of the result. “I owe everything to my glory,” Napoleon said, and the glory was real. But the time is long gone when glory could be its own justification, could be (as Caesar and Alexander supposed it to be) an end in itself. When confronted even with so glorious a trajectory as Bonaparte’s, we parsimonious moderns judge by results. What good, we ask, did it do?

In his new biography, Andrew Roberts, one of the most accomplished historians at work today, does his best to show that the glory of the would-be conqueror of the world was preeminently useful. That he fails to prove his case does not in the least detract from the quality of a book that is — let it be said at once — magnificent. Roberts writes about Napoleon for the same reason that the most devoted of the Napoleonic marshals served him, from the pure pleasure of being in touch with greatness. The book is a labor of love, as great biographies very nearly always are. (What would Boswell’s have been if he had despised Dr. Johnson?) So convincingly does Roberts bring Napoleon to life that by the end of the volume even a dyed-in-the-wool Anglophile will find the emperor’s procrastination on the morning of Waterloo maddening. If only he would get on with it, and smash Wellesley before the arrival of Blücher’s corps.

Roberts does full justice to the sublime atavism Napoleon was, a child of the ancients born to mock the complacencies of an age of prose and political economy. He sweeps the reader up into the life of the last great romantic conquistador, as steeped in antiquity as Leopardi, and as deeply enamored of its mysticisms of fortune, destiny, and amor fati. “Oh, Napoleon,” Paoli said to him when he was hardly more than a boy, “there is nothing modern in you, you belong wholly to Plutarch!”

For there were depths of archaicism, of primitive wildness, in him, so much so that, even before he attained substantial power, he scared people. “But when I was a little recovered from the confusion of admiration,” Mme. de Staël said of her first sight of him, “a strongly marked sentiment of fear succeeded.” General Augereau was inclined to despise the stripling officer sent to command the Army of Italy. But after the first encounter he admitted that the “little bastard of a general actually scares me.” Command presence indeed, with a touch of Corsican brigandry in it.

“I am not a man like other men,” Napoleon said. His lightning intuitions on the battlefield set him apart, as did his feats of will — in February 1815 he escaped from Elba with no force but that of his own character, and France fell a second time at his feet. The mortal man seemed simultaneously to live on a plane of timeless myth. “I love power,” he said. “But I love it as an artist. . . . I love it as a musician loves his violin, for the tones, chords, and harmonies he can get from it.” He claimed that he had but “one passion, one mistress, and that is France. I sleep with her. She has never been false to me. She lavishes her blood and treasures on me; if I need 500,000 men, she gives them to me.” Nevertheless, after he had bent her to his will, he hankered, as Alexander had before him, for new concubines to conquer.

The great man thought his life like a novel; and Roberts’s book, though always scrupulous in its scholarship, has a charm and vividness more nearly akin to picaresque romance than to sober history. And yet for all the exuberance of his narrative, Roberts cannot resist the importunings of that modern bitch-goddess, utility. Rather than concede that his romantic charlatan will never pass a greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number test fairly administered, he descends to special pleading. Napoleon was at heart a philanthropist. The “greatest and most lasting victories” of the victor of Marengo and Austerlitz, he writes, were “those of his institutions.” Napoleon used his glory altruistically, to build up the modern administrative state, that useful and benevolent, as well as rational and enlightened, form of civil polity. If the Grande Armée was glorious in battle, it was, more importantly, an agent of Progress and Enlightenment, the instrument by which “modern ideas of governance could be spread across Europe.”

Can it be? Is the hero who might have said with Hölderlin, “I grew up in the arms of the gods,” to be admired chiefly as the prophet of the fonctionnarisme of the French administrative state? Is the eagle really to be ranged with such crows as Jean Monnet, Alexandre Kojève, and their fellow projectors of a rationally administered, centrally directed European superstate? Is the man who taught the world that, after all these centuries, Caesar and Alexander had a successor, to find his ultimate resting place not in the Invalides but among the patron saints of the paper-pushers of Brussels?

#page#Roberts portrays Napoleon as a knight errant of Enlightenment, chivalrously seeking to preserve the ideals of the philosophes from destruction at the hands of reactionary cabals in Prussia, Austria, and Germany. But this is mostly fantasy: The struggle between Napoleon and Czar Alexander was in fact a struggle of rival despotisms. Napoleon clothed his ascendancy in the language of Enlightenment; the Romanovs, like the Habsburgs, clothed theirs in the language of religion and legitimacy. “I know well that nowadays it requires a rod of iron to rule men,” he told the English officer Sir Henry Keating on St. Helena, “but it must be gilded, and we must make them believe when we strike them that they direct the blow themselves. It is necessary always to talk of liberty, equality, justice, and disinterestedness, and never grant any liberty whatever. No change of system is required, but only a change of language.”

Certain elements of the Napoleonic program — his support for meritocracy, for example — are, to be sure, attractive to the modern eye, but he had his reasons. He rewarded merit lavishly, but always with a view to the preservation of his own mastery, in accordance with his vision of a Europe under “one Head — an Emperor whose subalterns should be kings, who should distribute kingdoms among his lieutenants, making of one, the King of Italy, giving Bavaria to another, raising a third to be Landamman of Switzerland, and a fourth to be Stadtholder of Holland, while all of them should hold places in the Imperial Household, with titles of Grand Cup-Bearer, Grand Butler, Grand Equerry, Grand Huntsman, etc.”

Indeed it is the superficial attractiveness of the Napoleonic ideal of enlightened dictatorship that has made it so much more dangerous than the obscurantist autocracies of kaiser and czar. The theoretical basis of the Russian and German empires — the divine right of monarchs — was archaic even in 1815 and is now quite dead. But the presumption and conceit of the enlightened administrative state is very much alive. “The divine right of kings,” Disraeli wrote in 1870, “may have been a plea for feeble tyrants, but the divine right of government is the keystone of human progress.” He might have been speaking for many of our leaders today.

Kojève thought Napoleon a model tyrant, but model or not, he was, from first to last, inclined to tyranny. It is notable that, in his long love-hate relationship with England, he showed (whenever he was not condemning perfidious Albion) a shrewd perception of the sources of English greatness. Her hodgepodge of traditional institutions, her slovenly administrative habits, her subordination of civil functionaries to the common and the Parliament-made law, her press freedoms, her weakness for merchants, her antipathy to mandarins — Napoleon saw that at some level it worked, and indeed lived to see the nation of shopkeepers dismantle his empire. But he could hardly adopt the English system as a model for France, as Tocqueville and Guizot would have liked to do: It would have obliged him to relinquish his mastery. His reluctance to do this explains why he advocated the coercive policies of the Continental Enlightenment rather than the liberating ones of the Anglo-Scottish one.

Napoleon was the first great nationalist statesman, but his nationalist policies were as tainted by imperial cynicism as his enlightened ones. In creating the modern French nation, he continued the centralizing work of the Revolutionary regimes, which had, Tocqueville said, built up “a central authority with powers wider, stricter, and more absolute than those which any French King had ever wielded.” The provinces, Balzac wrote, became as “stale as stagnant water”; only the capital mattered. In contrast to the American Founders, whose federal system was intended to prevent the aggrandizement of a national metropolis, Napoleon made France even more subservient to Paris than it had been before, and would have made the rest of Europe no less so had not England and her allies stopped him.

The man was morally a mistake, but his story is enchanting. Roberts’s skillfully contrived narrative allows the reader to revel in it. I came away from the book more convinced than ever that Bonaparte’s enlightened statesmanship was of the surface: His soul was that of a romantic irrationalist. He was, says de Pradt, who served him in various secretarial and diplomatic capacities, “all illusion, as one cannot fail to be when one is all imagination. Whoever has watched his course has noticed his creating for himself an imaginary Spain, an imaginary Catholicism, an imaginary England, an imaginary financial state, an imaginary noblesse, and still more an imaginary France.” The man who, in de Pradt’s words, so “poeticized,” so “Ossianized,” his life was a great dreamer — Emma Bovary, endowed with a world-historic efficacy of will.

He pushed his mastery all the way to Moscow before Fortune, that fickle strumpet, turned against him. The spectacle is as fascinating to study through the medium of Roberts’s graceful prose as it would have been harrowing to experience firsthand. “Soldiers,” Napoleon says at one point to his grenadiers, “I need your lives, and you owe them to me.” Such words cannot be squared with a utilitarian or even a humane morality; still there was grandeur in the man, and never more so than when his star began to wane. “Like a Shakespearian tragic hero,” Roberts writes of the emperor in the aftermath of Borodino, he “chose the fatal path despite others being available.” All in all, this book is a masterly revelation of an extraordinary fate.

– Mr. Beran, a lawyer and a contributing editor of City Journal, is the author of, among other books, Forge of Empires, 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran, a lawyer and writer, is the author of Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861–1871 and Murder by Candlelight, among other books.

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