Napoleon's New Rep
Who would have thought it, one day, I would come to see Napoleon and his legacy with disdain! It feels as though it was only yesterday I was sitting in class in my 3rd year of university listening to a lecture on the french revolution - on how it created the modern age of nation-states and opened the era of democracy - and feeling a certain pride swell inside me.
Did I not take heed of that first sign? Pride for what!? As if I had had a hand in the revolution myself… But that pride enraptured me (as it does many-a-frenchman) and I found myself writing an essay praising “the rights of man, emancipation from prejudices, and equality of citizenship, and all these ideas [that] Napoleon has retained in full force” as my namesake put it so passionately in those opening passages of War and Peace.
How easy it is for the imagination to latch on to some fanciful emotion. How humbling it is to see where that emotion came from to begin with - the shallow shores of ego. The desire to be different and respected by flaunting some past glory spuriously attributed to your own persona!
Well… What a revolution it was. I already knew it didn’t start off terribly well, with Robespierre’s Terror-turned-civil war. Although prior to that the revolution might be considered commendable. But we students are usually taught that it’s only after the Terror and the Directoire that the going gets good. Glory awaits with the battle of Valmy, the first Consul, the coronation of the Emperor and the consolidation of an Empire not seen in Europe since the infamous Alexander the Great.
But what good, in reality, did Napoleon bring the world? For - and this is the irony of it all - it is not only the French who admire the man. No! The English, Americans, Greeks, Indians, Chinese… you name it. Everywhere the man is considered one of the greatest men in history. Michael E. Hart places him at n.34 in his 100 Most Influential Persons in History, ahead of the likes of Edison, Hitler, Calvin and Mao. I can understand why the French adulate him in virtue of this very fact (Pasteur and Lavoisier, ranked 11th and 20th on Hart’s list aren’t, for some reason, as glamorous). But the question remains unanswered: what good did he actually bring the world?
Two answers are often repeated and I don’t have any qualms with them: Napoleon brought the world the Code Civil and the metric system (by standardizing them across his empire). The third answer I am tempted to replace it with something altogether different in view of accurately praising this man history books are so adamant upon. The very thing I sincerely admired about Napoleon was the belief that he had taken the virtues of the Enlightenment as his foundation and spread them across Europe. Liberté Egalité Fraternité. Who isn’t enraptured by them? France’s mantra seemed to embody those beautiful philosophical ideas and was subsequently placed on a pedestal in my imagination, which, on the basis of god-knows what information, was subsequently embodied by Napoleon himself.
Liberté. Napoleon didn’t bring freedom to anyone but himself. If the claim that he truly was freeing other peoples by bringing the revolution to their doorsteps isn’t dubious enough, let us not forget that Napoleon reinstated slavery. That’s right - France has the extraordinary status of being the only country to abolish slavery twice. Once a pioneer in human rights, it had officially abolished slavery in 1794. That Napoleon reinstated it in 1802 is testament to some of his backwardness. Egalité. He may have instilled a notion of equality in the military pecking order based on merit, as he did with the Code Napoleon, but that is as far as enlightened ideals went for him. Fraternité. He propped up his (actual) brothers as kings, as he did with his half-brother. That wasn’t quite the fraternity the Enlightenment had in mind.
Rather than prolong the Enlightenment, the progress that was made came to a brutal halt and actually saw a reversal under the cool guidance of the world-celebrity Napoleon. Who else gets the Pope to come down to their place to crown them Emperor (while reinstating Catholicism as the state religion)? Napoleon was simply a megalomaniac with a genius for strategic thinking, and innovative, bold war tactics (which also cost him key campaigns in both Egypt and Russia). Rings a bell doesn’t it.
To come to what we might be better off remembering him by, should we want to remain somewhat fond of the man: it is thanks to the devastation he wrought across Europe that Spain lost control of its colonies in South America, enabling the independence movements there the flourish. More generally, he shocked Europe to the point that its rulers pledged against any such war to reoccur and to keep the peace at all cost. In the event, they were a little ahead of their time - they had WWI and II to go through. Yet the Concert of Europe assembled in Vienna back in 1815 once Napoleon was finally defeated arguably set the foundations for the League of Nations, the EEC, the European Union and the United Nations: the idea of having a supra-national body police member nation-states to retain the peace so painfully fought for.
In a curious twist, the man who, like all leaders before him, fought for glory, gave nations the desire to fight for peace. All fighting is bad. But let us not qualify greatness with glory. Napoleon reminded the world of the dangers of one man’s ambitions, of glory run riot fueled on the nationalistic and utopian fever of his people. That is what we should remember of him, too. As to the French, they should be humbled by facts and put away their selective memory. They’d do better to follow Hart’s advice and pick Pasteur and Lavoisier as their national heroes - a lot more to be proud of there.