Goethe thought that Napoleon’s mind was the greatest that the world had ever produced.29 Lord Acton concurred. Méneval, awed by the nearness of power and fame, ascribed to his master “the highest intellect which has ever been granted to a human being.”30Taine, the most brilliant and indefatigable opponent of Napoleolatry, marveled at the Emperor’s capacity for long and intense mental labor; “never has a brain so disciplined and under such control been seen.”31 Let us agree that Napoleon’s was among the most perceptive, penetrating, retentive, and logical minds ever seen in one who was predominantly a man of action. He liked to sign himself as a “member of the Institute,” and he once expressed to Laplace his regret that “force of circumstances had led him so far from the career of a scientist”;32 at that moment he might have ranked the man who adds to human understanding above the man who adds to man’s power.*However, he could be forgiven for scorning the “ideologues” of the Institute, who mistook ideas for realities, explained the universe, and proposed to tell him how to govern France. His mind had the defects of a romantic imagination, but it had the realistic stimulus of daily contact with the flesh and blood of life. His persistent mental activity was part and servant of persistent action at the highest level of statesmanship.
First of all, he was sensitive. He suffered from the keenness of his senses: his ears multiplied sounds, his nose multiplied odors, his eyes penetrated surfaces and appearances, and discarded the incidental to clarify the significant. He was curious and asked thousands of questions, read hundreds of books, studied maps and histories, visited factories and farms; Las Cases was amazed at the range of his interest, the scope of his knowledge about countries and centuries. He had a memory made tenacious and selective by the intensity and character of his aims; he knew what to forget and what to retain. He was orderly: the unity and hierarchy of his desires imposed a clarifying and directive order upon his ideas, actions, policies, and government. He required from his aides reports and recommendations composed not of eloquent abstractions and admirable ideals but of definite objectives, factual information, practical measures, and calculable results; he studied, checked, and classified this material in the light of his experience and purposes, and issued instructions decisive and precise. We know of no other government in history that worked with such orderly preparation to such orderly administration. With Napoleon the ecstasy of liberty yielded to the dictatorship of order.
By projecting his memories into anticipations, he became skilled in calculating the results of possible responses, and in predicting the plans and moves of his foes. “I meditate a great deal,” he said. “If I seem equal to the occasion, and ready to face it when it comes, it is because I have thought the matter over a long time before undertaking it. … I have anticipated whatever might happen. It is no genie [djinn] which suddenly reveals to me what I ought to do or say, … but my own reflection.”34 So he prepared in detail the campaigns of Marengo and Austerlitz, and predicted not only the results but the time they would require. At the summit of his development (1807) he was able to keep his wishes from obscuring his vision; he tried to anticipate difficulties, hazards, surprises, and planned to meet them. “When I plan a battle no man is more pusillanimous than I am. I magnify to myself all the evils possible under the circumstances.”35 His first rule in case of unforeseen emergencies was to attend to them immediately, at whatever time of the day or night. He left permanent instructions with Bourrienne: “Do not wake me when you have good news to communicate; with such there is no hurry. But when you bring bad news rouse me instantly, for then there is not a moment to lose!”36 He recognized that despite all foresight he might be surprised by some unexpected event, but he prided himself on having “the two-o’clock-in-the-morning courage”—the ability to think clearly and act promptly and effectively, after a sudden awakening.37 He tried to be on his guard against chance, and repeatedly told himself that “it is only a step from victory to disaster.”38
His judgment of men was usually as penetrating as his calculation of events. He did not trust appearances or protestations; a person’s character, he thought, does not appear on his face until he is old, and speech conceals as often as it reveals. He studied himself ceaselessly, and on that basis he presumed that all men and women were led in their conscious actions and thought by self-interest. He who was the object of so much devotion (from Desaix, Lannes, Méneval, Las Cases … and those soldiers who, dying, cried“Vive l’Empereur!”) could not conceive of a selfless devotion. Behind every word and deliberate deed he saw the tireless grasp of the ego—the strong man’s ambition, the weak man’s fear, the woman’s vanity or stratagem. He sought out each person’s ruling passion or vulnerable frailty, and played upon it to mold him to imperial aims.
Despite all forethought and foresight he made (to our hindsight) an ample variety of mistakes, both in judging men and in calculating results. He might have known that Josephine could not bear a month of chastity, and that Marie Louise could not tie Austria to peace. He thought he had charmed Alexander at Tilsit and Erfurt, while the Czar, with Talleyrand’s coaching, was deceiving him elegantly. It was a mistake to intensify British hostility in 1802 by so boldly extending his power over Piedmont, Lombardy, and Switzerland; a mistake to put his brothers on thrones too big for their brains; a mistake to suppose that the German states in the Confederation of the Rhine would submit to French sovereignty when a chance came to break away; a mistake to publish a document that showed him thinking of conquering Turkey; a mistake (as he later confessed) to waste the Grand Army in Spain; a mistake to invade endless Russia, or remain there as winter neared. Supreme over so many men, he was subject, as he said, to the “nature of things,” to the surprises of events, the frailties of disease, the inadequacies of his power. “I have conceived many plans,” he said, “but I was never free to execute one of them. For all that I held the rudder, and with a strong hand, the waves were a good deal stronger. I was never in truth my own master; I was always governed by circumstance.”39
And by imagination. His soul was a battleground between keen observation enlightening reason and vivid imaginings clouding it with romance, even with superstition; now and then he dallied with omens and horoscopes.40 When he went to Egypt he took with him many books of science and many of sentiment or fancy—Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse, Goethe’s Werther, Macpherson’s “Ossian”;41 he confessed later that he had read Werther seven times;42 and in the end he concluded that “imagination rules the world.”43Stranded in Egypt, he fed on dreams of winning India; struggling through Syria, he pictured himself conquering Constantinople with his handful of men, and then marching upon Vienna like a more invincible Suleiman. As power drove caution out of his blood he ignored Goethe’s warning of Entsagen—the acknowledgment of bounds; his proliferating successes challenged the gods—violated the calculus of limitations; and in the end he found himself petulant and helpless, chained to a rock in the sea.