Excellence Without Virtue

From Quora: Who is a person who receives a lot of praise but was actually a terrible person?

Allen Lobo, Corporate finance executive, former physician-scientist

Napoleon Bonaparte.

I shall not be kind at all to the man here despite the fact that he remains one of my favorite historical characters and certainly in my opinion, one of the greatest and most gifted men who ever lived.

The man was as thoroughly amoral of a character as you could find, one with no ethical principles except the ruthless pursuit of power which was as absolute as it was relentless.

My favorite description of the man remains the one by Alexis De Tocqueville who said of him

Napoleon was as a great as a man could be without virtue.

Yes, he did manage to put on an elaborate charade for a few years as First Consul of France about wanting to spread the principles of the French Revolution and all of that pretentious guff.

But his precisely true power hungry nature was revealed when he declared himself Emperor of France in 1804. And in an act typical of the man, took the crown from the Pope during the coronation ceremony and placed it over his head himself. That event of crowning himself emperor thoroughly disillusioned such figures like Beethoven who in earlier days had eaten up all of that like a lot of the idealistic men then in Europe who thought Consul Bonaparte was sincere in being ‘a man of the people’.

As in the picture above with that wreath on his head, he eventually came to see himself as the “modern day Caesar”. And made no pretense whatsoever of it.

What about his famed dedication to his soldiers and love for France then?

He abandoned his entire army in Egypt to their own fate with no supplies and at the mercy of disease and starvation. And just how valuable he regarded their lives was revealed by how he once said to Austrian foreign minister Klemens von Metternich that he had no problem losing the lives of any number of men in battle so long as he could replace them. They were to him like bullets or bayonets – completely expendable.

This wasn’t merely some anecdotal momentary quote out of character of the man, you know. It was evidenced by how recklessly he went to war time and again. How could he not?

He had ascended to power by military conquests. Only keeping those conquests and then having more could keep him in that seat of power and he knew that.

And he was perfectly willing to have Paris wrecked by the Allies in 1814 by fighting right to the end under hopeless circumstances for nothing but his own ego. In that sense he was precisely as much of a patriot to France as Hitler was to Germany.

Both men were vain enough to sincerely hold that the glory of their nation and that of themselves were indistinguishable. It is not patriotism but vanity disguised as dedication.

Except that in Napoleon’s case thankfully for France, his own marshals put an end to this complete madness in 1814 by refusing to obey his orders to march on Paris. Of course he then conveniently made it look like his forced abdication was a noble act of voluntary sacrifice, which was complete rubbish because it was necessitated by mutiny.

The man acted most cruelly of all to the one and only woman who had loved him deeply and remained faithful to him to the end, the Polish countess Marie Walewska, a woman who was as stunningly beautiful in looks as she was generously kind in heart.

After having raped her the first few times (she as a young Polish countess recently widowed and famed for her beauty, was pressurized into ‘offering’ herself to him by Polish noblemen as a way to curry favor with Napoleon for the independence of Poland), he plainly refused to even see her in his later days as she then pined for him even after he was reduced to nothing but a pathetic captive. Even as everyone else deserted him, she still loved him.

It is some measure of the doom which he was leading France to that his foreign minister, the brilliant Charles de Talleyrand (arguably the greatest diplomat of not only his time but in the entire 19th century) eventually decided to betray Napoleon.

Talleyrand sincerely had the interests of France at heart and astutely saw how Bonaparte was hurting her by not only sending her sons to war as cannon fodder but endangering her interests, left right and center by making enemies of all of Europe.

How French allies were only so by force and intimidation. As evidenced as how quickly everyone turned on him when the first opportunity arose after his disastrous campaign in Russia where he managed to lose 400,000 men.

As von Metternich said to Armand de Caulaincourt (Napoleon’s personal aide) when the latter remarked that “most of Europe was French” –

Only France is French, Monsieur de Caulaincourt. The other nations are French by force. So it is temporary.”

And in one of the greatest cases of irony in history, Napoleon then gave impetus to Prussian nationalism which would play no small role first in the formation and then rise of Germany. A nation which would go on to make France bleed dry no fewer than three times in the Franco-Prussian War and then both World Wars.

Some retribution by fate it was. I’d expounded on that matter to a fair degree in one of my earlier answers.

Allen Lobo’s answer to What are the best examples of irony?


But the greatest victory by Napoleon was not in any of his battles. Not Jena, Marengo, Wagram, Friedland or even his finest military triumph at Austerlitz.

No, his greatest achievement remains in how he masterfully managed to manipulate the record of history from being a man who was willing to shed rivers of blood for his own glory and vanity, to being the wannabe ‘liberator’ of Europe.

His most successful coup of all was ironically pulled off in his final days of exile on that arid rock of St. Helena. Where he listed his memoirs and managed to spin what had been a career of bloodshed and often plain butchery into a tale of romantic endeavor to free Europe from the bonds of its monarchs.

Whatever good came of his conquests was purely a byproduct and certainly not by design. Much like the landmark (and often praiseworthy) reforms which he made in France were nevertheless borne in large part out of a desire for efficiency in imposing his rule over her.

As for the ‘freed people’ in the rest of Europe then, go and ask the Spaniards what ‘liberation’ by Napoleon meant.

How he brazenly annexed their nation with no pretense even, placed his brother Joseph on the throne and then had no compunction about having his soldiers inflict the most horrific atrocities on the discontented populace. The Spaniards of course gave as good as they got then and the conflict descended to horrific proportions in terms of no mercy show by either side (the Peninsular War is where the word ‘guerrilla’ warfare originates from).

Or of how his younger brother Louis, whom he made King of Holland was then terribly disillusioned when he got into dispute with Napoleon about not wanting to bleed that nation dry while the latter merely viewed Holland like a cow to be milked.

Or of how he wholesale looted the art treasures of Italy to then establish what is now The Louvre Museum. In case you wonder how so many priceless works of art by the Italian masters are not in Rome, Florence or Naples but in Paris? Well now you know.

Then this isn’t to say that there were no praiseworthy qualities about the man. Hardly.

He was unbelievably efficient and energetic. Incredibly brilliant and intellectually curious. There are few examples in history as Napoleon of just how far a man can rise based on sheer talent and hard work after being born into relatively humble circumstances.

And of course, he remains THE greatest military tactician in modern history, no exceptions made. The man won more battles than Alexander, Hannibal and Caesar combined. There is a damn good reason why he is nicknamed “The human god of war”.

But in terms of not his abilities but his character? Lord, no!

There is little to nothing admirable about the man’s morality. Because there was simply nothing in that domain.

The cornerstone of his character was the ability to coldly manipulate and use people for his purpose and then cast them away. The quintessential psychopath.

Much like Alexander, he was in essence a brilliant and ambitious thug.

And much like Alexander, he managed to spin an elaborate yarn about wanting to liberate the peoples whom he conquered and then subjugated for the sake of his own vanity and ambition.

Napoleon then remains one of the prime examples in history of how brilliance and even genius on the one hand versus morality on the other can have no correlation whatsoever.

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