Galloping into Enlightenment: “Napoleon: A Life” by Andrew Roberts

best napoleon biographyFor a pleasurable holiday read, Andrew Roberts biography, Napoleon: A Life (2014), is a 810-page gift to be enjoyed for the fascinating and easily accessible history lesson about the “founder of modern France and one of the great conquerors of history.”

Considered the definitive biography of the soldier-statesman who once said, “What a novel my life has been,” it has received numerous awards, such as Winner of the Grand Prix of the Foundation Napoleon, and was listed as a New York Times Notable Book and included in Amazon’s “100 Biographies and Memoirs to Read in a Lifetime” list.

With a small amount of effort, but without being a strenuous chore like so many history lessons can be, Mr. Robert’s book is a “biography worthy of its subject: magisterial, insightful, beautifully written, by one of our foremost historians.” It is, as The Economist writes, the “first single-volume general biography to make full use of the treasure trove of Napoleon’s 33,000-odd letters, which began being published in Paris only in 2004.”

An exhaustively researched book that took Mr. Roberts, as he wrote in the introduction, “longer than Napoleon spent on Elba and St. Helena put together”, Mr. Roberts believes that his book stands apart from the vast majority of Napoleon biographies in detailing a more accurate portrait of Napoleon’s character and personality, aided by his visit to 53 of Napoleon’s 60 battle sites, a boat trip to St. Helena and the discovery of new and crucial archived documents.

Furthermore, Mr. Roberts dispels the notion that “the Napoleon Complex” led to Napoleon’s demise:

“My own interpretation is very different from other historians. What brought Napoleon down was not some deep-seated personality disorder but a combination of unforeseeable circumstances coupled with a handful of significant miscalculation: something altogether more believable, human and fascinating.”

Recognizing Napoleon’s legacy as “one of the most fiercely debated in all of modern historiography,” Mr. Roberts makes clear that there is no debate as to what he considers Napoleon’s greatest victories:

“…his greatest and most lasting victories were those of his institutions, which put an end to the chaos of the French Revolution and cemented its guiding principle of equality before the law…[t]oday, the Napoleonic Code forms the basis of law in Europe and aspects of it have been adopted by 40 countries spanning every continent except Antarctica.”

He continues: “Napoleon’s bridges, reservoirs, canals and sewers remain in use throughout France. The French foreign ministry sits above the stone quays he built along the Seine, and the Cour des Comptes still checks public spending accounts more than two centuries after Napoleon founded it. The Legion d’Honneur, an honor he introduced to take the place of feudal privilege, is highly coveted; France’s top secondary schools, many of them founded by Napoleon, provide excellent education and his Conseil d’Etat still meets every Wednesday to vet laws.”

“Even if Napoleon hadn’t been one of the great military geniuses of history,” Mr. Robrts writes, “he would still be a giant of the modern era.”

Accordingly, Mr. Robert’s book about Napoleon (1769-1821) – one of the world’s greatest leaders and inspiring statesman – truly is a gift of enlightenment that he feels would behoove those in leadership in Washington today:

“A key aspect of modern American political leadership is the ability to compartmentalize one’s mind, so that one can concentrate entirely upon a problem, make a decision and then concentrate in an equally focused way on something else entirely,” Mr. Roberts writes in an essay for the Wall Street Journal. “In this, Napoleon was a master, managing to write the rules for a girls’ school on the eve of the Battle of Borodino in 1812 and the regulations for the Comédie Française while living in the Kremlin after having captured Moscow a week later.”

He continues “…the contenders for the White House in 2016 would do well to look to Napoleon for guidance and inspiration, not just for how to run their campaigns but, once in office, for how to conduct themselves as chief executive.”

It is in the spirit of All Things Enlightening that ATG gallops forth into the New Year with quotes below from the man who was said to represent the “Enlightenment on Horseback”:

  • “A general’s most important talent is to know the mind of the soldier and gain his confidence, and in both respects the French soldier is more difficult to lead than another. He is not a machine that must be made to move, he is a reasonable being who needs leadership.” – Napoleon to Chaptal
  • “I sensed that fortune was abandoning me. I no longer had in me the feeling of ultimate success, and if one is not prepared to take risks when the time is ripe, one ends up doing nothing.” – Napoleon on the Waterloo campaign
  • “The masses…should be directed without their being aware of it.” – Napoleon to Fouche, September 1804

Quotes from

  • “If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.”
  • “Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools.”
  • “Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.”
  • “I start out by believing the worst.”
  • “Men of genius are meteors, intended to burn to light their century.”
  • “Adversity is the midwife to genus.”
  • “Imagination rules the world.”
  • “I am never angry when contradicted, I seek to be enlightened.”
  • “I have never found the limit of my capacity for work.”
  • “We will walk faster when we walk alone.”
  • “Great ambition is the passion of great character. He who is endowed with it, may perform either very great actions, or very bad ones; all depends upon the principles which direct him.”
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