Recovering from him, we too, authors and readers, fulfill his prediction—that the world would greet his death with an exhalation of relief. He was an exhausting force, a phenomenon of energy contained and explosive, a rising, burning, waning flame that consumed those who touched him intimately. We have not found in history another soul that burned so intensely and so long. That will, at first so hesitant, fearful, and morose, discovered its weapons and resources in a piercing mind and eye; it became confident, rash, imperious, rioting in grasp and power; until the gods, seeing no measure in him, bound lesser wills in union to pursue him, corner him, seize him, and chain him to a rock until his fire should burn out. This was one of the great dramas of history, and still awaits its Aeschylus.
But even in his lifetime he had a Hegel, who, unblinded by frontiers, saw in him a world force—the compulsion of events and circumstances speaking through a man—forging fragments into a unity, and chaos into effective significance. Here—first in France, then in Central Europe—was the Zeitgeist, or Spirit of the Time: the need and command for order, ending the disruptive excess of individualistic liberty and fragmented rule. In this sense Napoleon was a progressive force, establishing political stability, restoring morality, disciplining character, modernizing, clarifying, codifying law, protecting life and property, ending or mitigating feudalism, reassuring peasants, aiding industry, maintaining a sound currency, cleansing and improving administration and the judiciary, encouraging science and art (but discouraging literature and chaining the press), building schools, beautifying cities, repairing some of the ravages of war. Helped by his prodding, Europe advanced half a century during the fifteen years of his rule.
He was not the most powerful and enduring force of his time. Stronger was the Industrial Revolution, which made Great Britain rich enough in iron and gold to implement and finance Napoleon’s fall, then made Europe vigorous enough to master the globe, then made America resourceful enough to rescue and replenish Europe, then… Only less strong than the Industrial Revolution, but far stronger and more lasting than the “Son of the Revolution,” was the revolution that began in France in 1789 and then spread its effects through Europe in the replacement of feudal bonds and dues with individual rights, and the worldwide action of the rival hungers that found clearest voice in the French Revolution: the hunger for freedom —of movement, growth, enterprise, worship, thought, speech, and press; and the hunger for equality—of access to opportunity, education, health, and legal justice. These hostile hungers have taken their turn in dominating the history of modern man: the hunger for liberty, to the detriment of equality, was the recurrent theme of the nineteenth century in Europe and America; the hunger for equality, at the cost of liberty, has been the dominant aspect of European and American history in the twentieth century. The French Revolution, and the American Revolution as interpreted by Jefferson, carried liberty to excess, freeing individualism to the point of a destructive disorder, and freeing superior ability to repeated crises of concentrated wealth. Napoleon provided the discipline that checked political, economic, and moral disorder in postrevolutionary France; no discipline has checked similar disorder in our times.
When Napoleon, after the Peace of Tilsit (1807), carried order to excess, subordinating statesmanship to the will to power, he no longer represented the spirit of the time. He imitated and joined the absolute Continental monarchies that he had fought; he envied and courted the aristocracy that scorned him and plotted to destroy him; he became a reactionary force when France was again hungering for freedom and calling for democracy.
It is another humor of history that whereas in his lifetime Napoleon had served to embody his country’s need for order after a riot of freedom, he became again after his death—and by the power of his remodeling legend—the Son of the Revolution, the enemy of absolutism and aristocracy, the symbol of revolt, the manageable mouthpiece of the recurrent cry for liberty. In 1799 opportunity and character had made him a dictator almost larger than history; after 1815 and his imprisonment, and still more after 1821 and his death, public imagination remade him, for half a century, into the most persuasive apostle of freedom. Few great men have remained, after death, what they had been during their lives.
Was he a warmonger? Was he responsible for those successive and accumulating wars, those millions of youths snuffed out with nothing but the anesthesia of battle to ease their passing, and those millions of desolate women to whom they never returned? Hear him. He confessed to having enjoyed generalship, because he had been trained to military art, and practiced it well; but how often he had longed to be free from war in order to practice his other art—of administration, of turning the chaos of life into productive order by establishing a strong structure of law and morality! How many times he had offered to treat for peace, and had been insulted and rebuffed! The Italians had welcomed him as a liberator, both in 1796 and in 1800; the Austrians had resubjected them while he was in Egypt; the Austrians had attacked him while he was busy on the Channel, and Prussia and Russia had joined in that attack without his having injured them. Austria had again attacked him while he was fighting in Spain; Russia had violated her pledge to support him in such a situation; Russia at Tilsit had pledged observance of the Continental Blockade against British goods, which was the only way in which France could retaliate against British blockade of French ports, and British capture of French vessels and colonies. British gold had financed coalition after coalition against him, even when his other enemies were inclined to peace; the British government had treated him like a criminal despite his voluntary surrender, whereas he himself had always dealt humanely and courteously with enemy officers captured in battle. His enemies had resolved to destroy him because he had won a kingdom by his own services and labors instead of by the accident of birth.
So ran Napoleon’s defense. English historians, usually fair, German historians, usually accurate, and many French historians, usually patriotic (Michelet, Lanfrey, Taine, Lefebvre), unite in condemning the Corsican. He was a usurper, who profited from the execution of Louis XVI, and the collapse of the corrupt Directory, to seize the throne that belonged to Louis XVIII; such usurpations could not be tolerated, since they disturbed a political stability precious to all the nations of Europe. His invitations to peace conferences were not taken seriously, since they concealed intolerable demands like recognition of French control of Switzerland and Italy, and, later, of the German Rhineland. His skill in war tempted him to wage war, so that he was a constant threat not only to the peace-preserving balance of power but to the whole political structure of European life. The enormous indemnities which he exacted after his victories left the defeated governments incapable of financing any further resistance to his fantastic dream of uniting all Europe under French sovereignty and Napoleonic rule; they were quite justified in accepting British subsidies. The capture of French colonies as a means of bringing France to her senses was quite in accord with the practice of governments in eighteenth-century wars. Could Catholic governments like that of Austria agree to live under domination by an obvious atheist who was ruthlessly persecuting the Pope who had consecrated him, and who had no weapon but his piety? Napoleon had been generously treated by the Allies after his first abdication; he had violated his agreement by leaving Elba and compelling Europe to spend millions in revenues, and thousands of lives, to subdue and capture him; England and her allies were justified in isolating him beyond likelihood of his disturbing the peace of Europe again.
Truth is seldom simple; often it has a right and a left hand, and moves on two feet. Was there ever, since Ashoka, a major war in which one nation admitted the superior justice of the enemy’s cause? It is part of the average citizen’s nature to make his God aparticeps criminis in the wars of his country. No superstate would solve the problem, for some of our greatest wars have been civil. The best we may hope for is to persuade more and more men and women to require their governments to submit more and more of their disputes to an international court or a league of nations; but we must not expect any nation to submit to arbitration of what it considers a matter of life and death. Self-preservation remains the basic law of life.
Within that limit the philosopher may seek to practice his trade, which is to understand and forgive. We can understand Emperor Francis II, shorn by Napoleon of half his state, driven from his lovely capital, returning to it still loved by his people, but humiliated and despoiled. We can understand a good Catholic being shocked by the harsh treatment of a gentle Pope—who would later ask the Allies to soften the conditions of his persecutor’s imprisonment. We can understand Czar Alexander’s reluctance to sacrifice his country’s commerce to Napoleon’s Continental Blockade. We can understand England’s resolve to defend that balance of power upon which its security from external domination depended. And we can understand France’s defense of the man who had rescued its government and morals from suicidal chaos, who had broadened its borders by brilliant victories, and had brought it unprecedented glory.
No, this fascinating man was no mere ogre of murder and destruction. He was led by his will to power, by the unchecked immensity of his dream; he was an autocrat confident that he knew better than their citizens what was good for France and Europe. But he was also, in his own fashion, a generous man, quick to forgive, secretly tender, hesitating for years before divorcing the frail Josephine. And we may say for him that he suffered and atoned, in his diseases and his doctors, in his retreat from Russia, in his living death on St. Helena.
He remains the outstanding figure of his time, with something noble about him that survives despite his selfishness in power and his occasional descents from grandeur in defeat. He thought we should not see his like again for five hundred years. We hope not; and yet it is good—and enough—to behold and suffer, once in a millennium, the power and limits of the human mind.