I have just learned that today – May 5th, 2021 – is the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, for a while Emperor of France, in exile on the island of St. Helena.
It is said that history is written by the winners. This is especially true about Napoleon. He is well known and contributed much to modern France and Europe, but he left life as a prisoner.
But once he did, as Shakespeare said about Julius Caesar, “Bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.”
Once, I had occasion to read some of his writings. I also, at the University Club of St. Paul, on a dusty bookshelf, stumbled upon several volumes of his biography written by Adolphe Thiers. Thiers included many of Napoleon’s official communiques and memoranda. His mastery of bureaucratic administration was impressive; his mind was attuned to both grand ideas and the minutia of getting things done with expeditious decisiveness.
To me, Napoleon took the scientific rationalism of the French Enlightenment and gave it sovereignty over a centralized bureaucracy, as professionalized by the Bourbon monarchy, to create a process for socially engineering society to conform its thoughts and beliefs with some normative “general will,” as had been recommended by the moral philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau.
This model of the state led by a master mind creating society has been the goal of socialists of all sorts ever since.
In Latin America, Spanish monarchical colonial governments were replaced by Napoleonic states by revolutionaries such as Simon Bolivar. Since then, the political conflicts in all the countries once under Spanish rule have been rivalries between conservative elites who resist a powerful state and liberals or leftists who want to subordinate local and patriarchal hierarchies to regulation by the state on behalf of the common good. We can see the Napoleonic state at work today in Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba.
To some extent, the Napoleonic state is found in all the social welfare states in the European Union.
Napoleon left a precedent of relevance to the Caux Round Table. He invented the modern field army – with a commander in chief with staff sections reporting to him; three corps; three divisions to a corps; three regiments to a division; three battalions to a regiment; three companies to a battalion; three platoons to a company; and three squads to a platoon – all in one command and control hierarchy, from the commander on top, to all the soldiers at the bottom.
This formation of combat power and the strategies and tactics to enable it to win battles was taught to young American officers at West Point and used by the federal government in its Union armies mobilized and deployed to crush the Confederacy. After the Civil War (1861-1865), many of these officers, trained in the Napoleonic way of running a large organization, brought the decision-making structure to the new railroad and other corporations then being created as the managers of these new forms of private enterprise.
Thus, Napoleon’s command and control hierarchy was brought to capitalism and has become the global norm for corporations – CEO centric and focused on “winning.”
His role in human history, therefore, should not be forgotten.
Nor have his aphorisms lost their relevance:
“Music is the voice that tells us that the human race is greater than it knows.”
“The best cure for the body is a quiet mind.”
“Men are more easily governed through their vices than through their virtues.”
“Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.”
“Ability is nothing without opportunity. I had rather my generals be lucky than able.”
“Victory belongs to the most persevering.”
“I can no longer obey; I have tasted command and I cannot give it up.”
“The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemies.”
“Imagination rules the world.”
“Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principles which direct them.”
“You become strong by defying defeat and by turning loss and failure into success.”
“There are only two forces that unite men – fear and interest.”
“If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.”
“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go.”
“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”
“Until you spread your wings, you’ll have no idea how far you can fly.”
“A leader is a dealer in hope.”
“Riches do not consist in the possession of treasures, but in the use made of them.”
“The fool has one great advantage over a man of sense; he is always satisfied with himself.”