And yet, when imagination folded its wings, he could reason with the ablest of the savants in the French and Egyptian Institutes. Though he contrived no formal system of thought in which to imprison a universe that seemed to escape every formula, his realistic mind made short work of “ideologues” who mistook ideas for facts and built airy castles without foundations in biology and history. After trying Laplace and other scientists in administrative posts he concluded, “You can’t do anything with a philosopher.”122However, he encouraged the sciences, and recommended history. “My son should study much history, and meditate upon it,” he said at St. Helena, “for it is the only true philosophy.”123
Religion was one of the fields in which the ideologues had floated on a film of notions instead of grounding themselves in history. Only a logician, Napoleon felt, would bother long with the question, Does God exist? The real philosopher, schooled in history, would ask, why has religion, so often refuted and ridiculed, always survived, and played so notable a role in every civilization? Why did the skeptic Voltaire say that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him?
Napoleon himself lost his religious faith at the early age of thirteen. Sometimes he wished he had kept it; “I imagine it must give great and true happiness.”124 Everyone knows the story how, on the trip to Egypt, hearing some scientists discourse irreverently, he challenged them, pointing to the stars, “You may talk as long as you please, gentlemen, but who made all that?”125 It is possible to quote him pro and con on this and many other subjects, for he changed his views and moods with time, and we tend to ignore their dates; yet what thoughtful person has not at fifty discarded the dogmas he swore by in his youth, and will not at eighty smile at the “mature” views of his middle age? Generally Napoleon retained belief in an intelligence behind or in the physical world,126 but he disclaimed any knowledge of its character or purpose. “Everything proclaims the existence of a God,” he concluded at St. Helena,127 but “to say whence I came, what I am, or where I am going is above my comprehension.”128 At times he spoke like a materialistic evolutionist: “Everything is matter;129 … man is only a more perfect and better reasoning animal.”130 “The soul is not immortal; if it were it would have existed before our birth.”131 “If I had to have a religion, I should adore the sun, for it is the sun that fertilizes everything; it is the true god of the earth.”132 “I should believe in religion if it had existed since the beginning of the world. But when I read Socrates, Plato, Moses, or Mohammed, I have no more belief. It has all been invented by men.”133
But why did they invent it? To comfort the poor, Napoleon answered, and to keep them from killing the rich. For all men are born unequal, and become more unequal with every advancement in technology and specialization; a civilization must elicit, develop, use, and reward superior abilities, and it must persuade the less fortunate to accept peaceably this inequality of rewards and possessions as natural and necessary. How can this be done? By teaching men that it is the will of God. “I do not see in religion the mystery of the Incarnation but the mystery of the social order. Society cannot exist without inequality of [rewards and therefore] property, an inequality which cannot be maintained without religion. … It must be possible to tell the poor: ‘It is God’s will. There must be rich and poor in this world, but hereafter, and for eternity, there will be a different distribution.’ “134 “Religion introduces into the thought of heaven an idea of equalization which saves the rich from being massacred by the poor.”135
If all this be true, it was a mistake of the Enlightenment to attack Christianity, and of the Revolution to make Catholic preaching difficult. “The intellectual [moral?] anarchy which we are undergoing is the result of the moral [intellectual?] anarchy—the extinction of faith, the negation of principles [beliefs] which have preceded.”136 Perhaps for this reason, and for political use, Napoleon restored the Catholic Church as the “sacred gendarmerie [police] of the French nation.”*He did not interpret the new alliance as binding him to the Ten Commandments; he wandered from them now and then, but he paid the priests to preach them to a generation weary of chaos and ready for a return to order and discipline. Most parents and teachers were glad to have the help of religious faith in rearing or training children—to counter the natural anarchism of youth with a moral code based upon religious and filial piety, and presented as coming from an omnipotent God watchful of every act, threatening eternal punishments, and offering eternal rewards. Most of the governing class were grateful for an educational process that would produce a public taught to accept, as natural and inevitable, the inequality of abilities and possessions. The old aristocracy was excused as cleansing its wealth with manners and grace; a new aristocracy was established; and revolution, for a generation, muted its voice and hid its guns.
In this regenerated society marriage and motherhood had to be resanctified, and property, not romantic love, had to be restored as their base and goal. Love generated by the physical attraction of boy and girl is an accident of hormones and propinquity; to found a lasting marriage upon such a haphazard and transitory condition is ridiculous; it is une sottise faite à deux–”a folly committed in pair.”138 Much of it is artificially induced by romantic literature; it would probably disappear if men were illiterate. “I firmly believe that [romantic] love does more harm than good, and that it would be a blessing … if it were banished” as a reason for uniting a man and a woman in the lifelong enterprise of rearing children and acquiring and transmitting property. “Marriage should be forbidden to individuals who have known each other less than six months.”139
Napoleon had a Mohammedan view of marriage: its function is to produce abundant offspring under conditions of freedom for the man and protection for the faithful and obedient wife. The marriage ceremony, though it may be civil, should be ceremonious and solemn, as emphasizing the obligation undertaken.140 The married couple should sleep together; this “exerts a singular influence upon married life, guarantees the position of the wife and the dependence of the husband, and preserves intimacy and morality”;141Napoleon followed this old custom until he set his mind upon divorce.
However, even a faithful wife is not enough for a man. “I find it ridiculous that a man should not be able to have more than one legitimate wife. When she is pregnant it is as if the man had no wife at all.”142 Polygyny is better than divorce or adultery. There should be no divorce after ten years of marriage. A woman should be permitted only one divorce, and should not be allowed to remarry for five years afterward.143 Adultery on the husband’s part should not be sufficient ground for a divorce, unless there is the additional circumstance of the husband’s keeping his concubine under the same roof with his wife.144 “When a husband commits an act of unfaithfulness to his wife, he should confess it to her and regret his action; then every trace of guilt is wiped away. The wife is angry, forgives, and is reconciled to him; often she even gains through it. But that is not the case with the unfaithfulness of the wife. It is all very well for her to confess and regret, but who knows whether something else remains” in her mind or womb? “Therefore she must not, and cannot ever come to an understanding with him.”145 (But he had twice forgiven Josephine.)
He guarded himself against feminine charms by adhering to the Mohammedan view of women. “We treat women too well, and in this way have spoiled everything. We have done every wrong in raising them to our level. Truly the Oriental nations have more mind and sense than we in declaring the wife to be the actual property of the husband. In fact nature has made woman our slave. … Woman is given to man that she may bear him children; … consequently she is his property, just as the fruit tree is the property of the gardener.”146
All this is so primitive (and so contrary to biology, where the female usually is the predominant sex, and the male is a tributary food-provider, sometimes himself eaten) that we should be glad to accept Las Cases’ assurance that much of it was playful bravado, or the military man’s dream of endless conscripts pouring from fertile wombs; but it was quite in harmony with the views of any Corsican condottiere. The Code Napoléon insisted on the absolute power of the husband over his wife, and over her property, as a necessity of social order. “I have always thought,” Napoleon wrote to Josephine in 1807, “that woman was made for man, and man for country, family, glory, and honor.”147 On the day after the mutual massacre known as the battle of Friedland (June 14, 1807) Napoleon drew up a program for a school to be built at Écouen “for girls who have lost their mothers, and whose people are too poor to bring them up properly.”
What are the girls at Écouen to be taught? You must begin with religion in all its strictness. … What we ask of education is not that girls should think, but that they should believe. The weakness of women’s brains, the instability of their ideas, … their need for perpetual resignation … all this can be met only by religion … I want the place to produce not women of charm but women of virtue; they must be attractive because they have high principles and warm hearts, not because they are witty or amusing. … In addition the girls must be taught writing, arithmetic, and elementary French; … a little history and geography; … not Latin … They must learn to do all kinds of women’s work. … With the single exception of the headmaster, all men must be excluded from the school … Even the gardening must be done by women.148
Napoleon’s political philosophy was equally uncompromising. Since all men are born unequal, it is inevitable that the majority of brains will be in a minority of men, who will rule the majority with guns or words. Hence utopias of equality are the consolatory myths of the weak; anarchist cries for freedom from laws and government are the delusions of immature and autocratic minds; and democracy is a game used by the strong to conceal their oligarchic rule.149 Actually France had had to choose between an hereditary nobility and rule by the business class. So, “among nations and in revolutions, aristocracy always exists. If you attempt to get rid of it by destroying the nobility, it immediately reestablishes itself among the rich and powerful families of the Third Estate. Destroy it there, and it survives and takes refuge among the leaders of workmen and of the people.”150 “Democracy, if reasonable, would limit itself to giving everyone an equal opportunity to compete and obtain.”151 Napoleon claimed to have done this by making la carrière ouverte aux talents in all fields; but he allowed many deviations from this rule.
He was a bit equivocal about revolutions. They release the violent passions of the mob, since “collective crimes incriminate no one,”152 and there is “never a revolution without a terror.”153 “Revolutions are the true cause of regeneration in public customs,”154 but in general (he concluded in 1816) “a revolution is one of the greatest evils by which mankind can be visited. It is the scourge of the generation by which it is brought about; and all the advantages which it procures cannot make amends for the misery with which it embitters the lives of those who take part in it.”155
He preferred monarchy to all other forms of government, even to defending hereditary kingship (i.e., his own) against doubts expressed by Czar Alexander.156 “There are more chances of securing a good sovereign by heredity than by election.”157 People are happier under such a stable government than under a free-for-all, devil-take-the-hindmost democracy. “In regular and tranquil times every individual has his share of felicity: the cobbler in his stall is as content as the king on his throne; the soldier is no less happy than the general.”158
His political ideal was a federation of European, or Continental, states, governed in their external relations from Paris as the “capital of the world.” In that “Association Européenne” all the component states would have the same money, weights, measures, and basic laws, with no political barriers to travel, transport, and trade.159 When Napoleon reached Moscow in 1812 he thought that only a just peace with Alexander remained in the way of realizing his dream. He had underestimated the centrifugal power of national differences; but he may have been right in believing that if Europe achieved unity it would be not through appeals to reason but through the imposition of a superior force continuing through a generation. War would then continue, but at least it would be civil.
As he approached his end he wondered whether he had been a free and creative agent or the helpless instrument of some cosmic force. He was not a fatalist, if this means one who believes that his success or failure, his health or illness, the character of his life and the moment of his death, have been determined by some hidden power, regardless of what he chooses to do;160 nor was he clearly a determinist in the sense of one who believes that every occurrence, including his every choice, idea, or act, is determined by the composition of all the forces and history of the past. But he repeatedly talked of a “destiny”—a central stream of events, partly malleable by the human will, but basically irresistible as flowing from the inherent nature of things. At times he spoke of his will as strong enough to stem or bend the current—”I have always been able to impose my will upon destiny.”161 Too uncertain to be consistent, he also said: “I depend upon events. I have no will; I await all things from their issue”162—as they issue from their source. “The greater one is”—i.e., the higher he is in authority—”the less free will one can have”—the more and stronger will be the forces impinging upon him. “One depends upon circumstances and events. I am the greatest slave among men; my master is the nature of things.”163 He combined his fluctuating moods in the proud conception of himself as an instrument of destiny—i.e., the nature of things as determining the course and terminus of events. “Destiny urges me to a goal of which I am ignorant. Until that goal is reached I am invulnerable, unassailable”—as borne with the stream. “When destiny has accomplished its purpose in me, a fly may suffice to destroy me.”164 He felt himself bound to a destiny magnificent but perilous; pride and circumstance drove him on; “destiny must be fulfilled.”165
Like all of us he frequently thought of death, and had moods defending or contemplating suicide. In youth he felt that suicide was the final right of every soul; at fifty-one he added: “if his death harms no one.”166 He had no faith in immortality. “There is no immortality but the memory that is left in the minds of men. … To have lived without glory, without leaving a trace of one’s existence, is not to have lived at all.”167