You can’t get away from Napoleon in this anniversary year of Waterloo: books, TV programs and endless magazine articles. He, rightly, continues to fascinate as one of the great men of history – proof, if ever it was needed, that while the currents of history provide the backdrop, those currents can be decisively channeled by the genius of an individual.

Napoleon is particularly interesting as he continues to divide opinion between those who see him in the same bracket as Hitler – a warmongering, self-aggrandizing tyrant who bought death and destruction to Europe, and those that see him, as he described himself, as ‘the revolution on horseback’ - the lawgiver and destroyer of the caste system of the Ancien Regime, who forged the modern world.

The fascinating thing about Napoleon is that both are true.  What he saw – maybe not explicitly – is that the French Revolution of Liberte, Fraternite and Equalite was ultimately about Equalite, more specifically equality of opportunity, of which he was the living embodiment. As Chamfort said on Fraternite, ‘Be my brother or I will kill you’. As for Liberte, Napoleon was welcomed as the cure for the chaos that followed the Revolution and France, to this day, shows a preference for the firm hand of the state over too much liberty.

It seems a contradiction that the man who crowned himself emperor and installed his (generally worthless) siblings on the thrones of Europe could see himself as the embodiment of the Revolution. But as well as his family, he also installed his marshals – the embodiment of self-made men - on other thrones: Bernadotte’s decedents still sit on the throne of Sweden. His family were his Achilles Heel, though they do offer an attractive side to his character that was so lacking in sociopaths like Hitler, Stalin and Mao. At his coronation he turned to his brother, Joseph, and whispered in his ear ‘If only papa could see us now’. It is hard to imagine Hitler doing the same thing.

Beethoven famously tore up his dedication of the Eroica Symphony when he heard about Napoleon’s coronation - and that moment was indeed where the great project went wrong. From then on he became a dynast – with the same problem that all dynasts have; primogeniture doesn’t work in a modern state as it by definition cuts back equality of opportunity and you are dependent to the crooked timber of the gene pool. Had he stayed on as First Consul and maybe ultimately done a Cincinnatus and retired in glory to his estate, or perhaps kingdom, with Josephine – the world would not have to debate the contradiction of tyrant and liberator.

It is that contradiction, though, that makes him such a figure of fascination and human interest. He was a genius whose legacy is at the heart of France today, loathed and loved by his contemporaries who even if they sought to destroy him, acknowledged his greatness – as we do today.  


Proof of Heaven

Proof of Heaven
Dr Eban Alexander is a neurosurgeon of some distinction. He describes himself and a C and E - Christmas and Easter - Christian, convinced th...
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