Passing Bull 26: Tolstoy, Napoleon, and flawed greatness


On my fourth reading of War and Peace – in the wonderful new Folio edition – I marvelled at it more than I had previously.  It is a truly great testament to humanity.  For what it is worth, I would now rate it above Ulysses and Don Quixote.  And I would do that even though the masterpiece is shot through with a rotten flaw – the nagging bullshit about Napoleon and his role in history, and some very quaint views about free will.  Still, readers of Shakespeare know that Tolstoy can make an idiot of himself, and genius is not proof against inanity.  Indeed, the rest of us might be relieved that genius can err, just as we used to feel some wonder when the Tiger duffed a shot before he hit the wall.

In his recent book Napoleon the Great, the historian Andrew Roberts said that in his opinion, as the title of the book suggests, Napoleon was great. Napoleon was certainly a man of great industry and he had what many regard as a kind of military genius. Mr Roberts does not give his criteria of greatness, but let me state briefly some of the reasons why that title might sit oddly on a man that Mr Roberts describes as ‘the Enlightenment on horseback’ – which presumably means something different to a philosophical killer or an intellectual cowboy.

As a statesman, Napoleon worked wonders in France and he left the Code named after him as his testament. But if he found Paris and France ablaze, he left them smoking ruins. It took France more than four generations to recover from Napoleon – if indeed it ever did.

His wars cost somewhere between 4 million and 5 million people killed. If you are being bayoneted or raped, you do not enquire about the motives of the person attacking you.

Napoleon lost because he had to lose. He was a compulsive gambler who kept doubling his bets. He was profligate with the lives of his French and soldiers of other nations in a way that the Duke of Wellington could never have been.

He committed the one crime that is unforgivable in a soldier in command. He deserted his own troops. He did that twice. He did it in Egypt and he did it in Russia. Each of those campaigns was commenced to satisfy his own pride and not to pursue some seriously arguable military objective. He apparently had the absurd idea that people would welcome him as their liberator or as the person bringing them the benefits of French civilisation. That idea is absurd, and it was seen to be absurd, by a leader of the French Revolution whose name is now generally reviled – Robespierre. Robespierre opposed starting the wars that were to lead into the wars that we call revolutionary. In the course of doing so, he made the following observations:

The most extravagant idea that can arise in the mind of a politician is the belief that a people need only make an armed incursion into the territory of a foreign people, to make it adopt its laws and its constitution.  No one likes armed missionaries; and the first counsel given by nature and prudence is to repel them as enemies.

We have seen the truth of those observations borne out in different theatres of Asia and the Middle East time and again in our own lifetime, but a man purporting to be a great soldier and statesman must forfeit any claim to any kind of greatness for failing to see what the terrorist Robespierre so clearly saw.

Napoleon also fails as both a general and a statesman because of his being embroiled in the two theatres where he was defeated, Spain and Russia, for no adequate military objective. The losses sustained by France in Russia, and the crimes committed against humanity in Spain and Russia, alone disqualify Napoleon from any claim to greatness.  The Russian campaign showed his double or nothing gambling instinct, and his swansong at Waterloo cost more than 40,000 men their lives or their welfare.

The failure in Russia was made worse by his inability to publish a declaration to free the serfs. This champion of French liberty was no champion of the spirits of 1789, and no such champion could ever have made himself Emperor and created his own nobility as Napoleon did.  He had become more and more hostile to the Revolution, and he had instituted a despotic police state.  He then made stupid members of his family kings in Europe.

Napoleon, therefore, might fairly be it accused of having betrayed his men, his country, and the ideals of the French Revolution. Mr Roberts may have succumbed to Romance in the form of bullshit. This is how the distinguished French historian Georges Lefebvre concluded his biography of Napoleon:

Yet the Romantics were not wholly wrong about him, for his classicism was only one of culture and cast of mind. His springs of action, his unconquerable energy of temperament, arose from the depths of his imagination. Here lay the secret of the fascination that he will exercise forevermore on the individual person. For men will always be haunted by romantic dreams of power, even if only in the passing fires and disturbances of youth; and there will thus never be wanting those who will come like Barres’ heroes to stand in ecstasy before the tomb.

Others may prefer to spend time before the tombs of some of the five million people who died so that Napoleon could pursue la gloire.

Poet of last month – Burns

Let Not Woman E’er Complain


Let not Woman e’er complain

Of inconstancy in love;

Let not woman e’er complain

Fickle Man is apt to rove:

Look abroad through Nature’s range,

Nature’s mighty law is change;

Ladies would it not be strange

Man should then a monster prove.


Mark the winds and mark the skies;

Ocean’s ebb and Ocean’s flow:

Sun and moon but set to rise;

Round and round the seasons go:

Why then ask a silly Man,

To oppose great Nature’s plan?

We’ll be constant while we can

You can be no more, you know.


And that, too, is on any view bullshit that conforms my views about Burns as a nativist curio.

One thought on “Passing Bull 26: Tolstoy, Napoleon, and flawed greatness

  1. Geoff,
    A great email.
    I hope you had a good Christmas and new year. Christmas was marked for me by the only funny joke ever to come out of a Christmas cracker: Q – what did one snowman say to the other snowman? A – Can you smell carrot?


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