Napoleon, while a dictator, was no mere dilettante; his conquest of every field of knowledge was as ruthless as it was complete. He approached his studies as he did his wars—perhaps with the added knowledge and enticement that his wars themselves would soon be studied. For so international a man, in both acquisition of territory and capacity of scope, this should come to us as no surprise. To him, having absorbed all, no intellectual pursuit could ever be too foreign. All thinking was within the confines of his expansive reach. No subtlety was too minute for his grand and perceptive approach; no science too nebulous for his clear-sighted thought; no philosophy too slippery for the strength and resolution of his grip.
Being that he was an Italian by birth, one isn’t surprised to learn that he was a Renaissance man by nature. He was a Vitruvian by disposition, a soldier by training, and, ultimately, a hero by the acclaim of all. It was in his blood. He was Scipio, Caesar, and da Vinci all bundled into one diminutive man. Polymathy, that unique trait of which only a select few humans, throughout all of history, have been in actual possession, was the very life-force at the center of the marrow of his bones. Exiting that osseous place of origin, this blood infused a body capable of every physical and intellectual feat. Never idle, he exerted himself indefatigably in the pursuit of them all.
Though educated almost exclusively in the military arts, Napoleon was able to cultivate a shrewd, discerning, and trenchant literary sense. His favorite author, as is all the world’s, was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe was the wunderkind of Weimar and the master of every genre who turned Germany into an ecstasy and himself into a sage. He remains the patriarch from whom so many writers, flatteringly cut in a post-Shakespearean cloth, descend. He is the author to whom all of us—fallen Fausts as we are—pay perennial homage with our silly writings and readings that strive toward his phantasmagorical scope. Few succeed in reaching his heights, fewer still in appreciating their view.
Like Napoleon, he too had something of the Italian inquisitiveness and adaptability in his bones. A kindred species (though certainly one more inclined to discharge word than sword and sentiment than salvo) he’s deserving of that shared title of polymath. Though, to note, in contrast with that ventured by Napoleon, Goethe’s journey through Italy was rather a literary than a sanguinary affair—an aesthetic than a fistic one. Napoleon conquered that fertile boot, while Goethe was overcome by its beauty.
Nevertheless, Goethe was, for Napoleon, what Homer was to Alexander. We note here, if only to make a point of chronological clarity, that hundreds of years separated the lives of the latter two. As for the former, Goethe and Napoleon, they lived together in what we might call contemporaneous disunion, being that the poet’s Prussia and the despot’s France were, for the duration of their adult lives, at internecine odds. One might add that Goethe, indefatigable in both literature and life, preceded the birth of Napoleon by two decades. He survived him by one.
Alexander, that greatest of conquerors, that Macedonian menace before whom all Eurasia quaked, kept by his side throughout the torments of his life a cherished copy of the Iliad. It was with him through the course of his every campaign. The copy was given to him by none other than “The Philosopher” himself—the peripatetic Aristotle. Indeed, it was the same Aristotle, no cleverly-named philosophical facsimile, by whom the conqueror was, as a boy, so thoroughly educated in science, philosophy, and a smattering of war. In it were annotations written in the hand of Plato’s finest pupil, and Alexander slept with it beneath his pillow every single night. Accompanying it, one might add, was a prudently-placed dagger—an appendage that Achilles might’ve advised and a necessity that Aristotle might’ve mourned.
For Napoleon, slightly less forthcoming than Alexander in his appreciation for the epic tale, The Sorrows of Young Werther was his book of daily choice. It was rather tragic than epic, though not necessarily in the classical sense. It was a consummate expression of sentiment and pain. It was a deep and probing psychological journey, a vessel to the soul aboard which all feeling men could climb. Traveling through its pages, one was made acutely to feel again, as never he had before. The cost of this, of course, was the fact that Werther never again would feel at all.
In so regarding Werther as a masterful and seminal work, Napoleon was not outside the opinion of the continent and the consensus of its people. Werther was, in one production, the quintessence of the phenomenon of Sturm und Drang—the movement, originally exported by France, by which Germany was completely swept away. It was the feeling and romantic child begotten by that destructively brilliant and infamously fertile Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The more impressionable youth into whose hands his ideas fell into possession, seeking imitation of the eponymous hero Goethe named, decided to dress, to weep, and to commit self-violence as did he. Not since Cleopatra had suicide been so fashionable; not until Chekhov would it be so ubiquitous again.
Thus, upon his arrival at Erfurt in 1808, Napoleon insisted on making the acquaintance of the author who had, until that point and at a distance, so dominated his life. It was left to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, a regional figure of some noble repute, to facilitate the arrangement of the legendary meeting. No legs needed pulling, however, to get the two together, as Goethe was only too happy to oblige. In a moment of what I can only call misplaced humility, perhaps in the face of a conqueror and a king, Goethe declared Napoleon “the greatest mind the world has ever seen”. Was this sycophancy? Apparently not; Goethe seems to have been entirely sincere. If so, never has so exuberant a statement been made of a statesman. What’s more, Goethe seems to have lapsed into a momentary stupor of self-unawareness. Undoubtedly, he was the brighter star in that intellectual orbit, and there could be no diminution of his enduring light.
Yet still, all men, no matter the height of their brilliance nor the length of their reach, are prone to moments of profound unwisdom. Goethe wasn’t immune to this transitory lapse. Like his countrymen Kant and thereafter Hegel, he was desirous of one solid and unified Europe. Such a unification might bring, in the words of that Konigsberg Scotsman, a condition of perpetual peace. It was to be a continent of recognizable manners and customs over which one singular man, in this case, Napoleon, could comfortably preside. Mutual enmities and ancient quibbles would be no more. Internecine and interminable wars (of religion, territory, love, and the like) would dissolve into the ragged pages of eons past.
Hopeful for the prospects of this future to come, and impressed by the man by whom it might be secured, Goethe was smitten with Napoleon’s presence. Even more was he enthused by his promise. The infatuation, unexpectedly, was doubly returned. Upon their departure, Napoleon, in speaking of Goethe to a friend, remarked, Voila un homme!—now there is a man!
The same might’ve been said of him. Indeed, more much more was said—before being angrily redacted. For a species to whom music is absolutely vital, most humans on this side of erudition know of Beethoven’s strained relationship with Goethe’s idol. Napoleon revealed, among so many other expanding traits, a discriminating taste in music. Literature wasn’t his sole forte. Revolution, war, and kingship are, after all, themes appropriately conducive to song. And France, as euphonious as it was (and still is) amorous, loved to hear its symphonic odes. There was, at the time, no better master of the craft than Beethoven himself.
He composed his Eroica between 1803 and 1804. It was, to borrow a word from the now neighboring, now consuming French, his chef d’oeuvre. It was, in a word, his best work, his masterpiece beneath which all other of his silent scribblings would be ranked. Initially, its dedicatory note was written to that Corsican king whom Goethe had met with such sincere applause. Beethoven, evidently more ardent than Goethe in his republican political views, was a supporter of Bonaparte only at the outset of his rule. The ravages of the Revolution had exhausted their stay and the Directory was very much on the precipice of anarchy. France, being in a state of disrepair, needed for its preservation a man of stability and courage. Beethoven saw in Napoleon a temporary speed-bump en route toward a calm and republican reign. Blindly optimistic at the nineteenth century’s start, he quickly became disillusioned with what was taking shape. Napoleon, he thought, was regressing right back toward the monarchical and brutal mean.
In a moment of furor, a not uncommon manifestation of the German musician’s irrepressible wrath, Beethoven leapt upon his composition’s title page. At its very top, the name “Buonaparte” was inscribed with the attention of a patron and the reverence of a subject. At its bottom rested his own authoring name. Pen in hand and heart on sleeve, he cried out, “Is then he (Napoleon) too nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he will trample on all the rights of man, and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others and become a tyrant”. Not yet blind, Beethoven, in uttering this statement, was uncannily far-seeing. His next action varies with the teller of the tale. In one variation, he scratched out Napoleon’s name with so grave an intensity that he tore through the page. In another, he simply tore his work in two and tossed its fragments to the floor. Either way, his erstwhile devotion to the Corsican was in tatters.
The amended, painfully elongated title is far less potent than that simple one word, Eroica, by which it was preceded. Beethoven’s greatest work, upon its final release, bore the title, Sinfonia eroica per festeggiare il sovvenira d’un gran uomo—“Heroic symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man”. A great man, indeed, punctuating an insufferably garrulous title.
Till now, we’ve spanned that timeless continuum of literature and music, of the written word and the immortal sound. What, then, is left to us but a brief adventure into the realm of art?
The Napoleonic Age, you’ll see, was a particularly fine one for that medium’s expression—a testament to the Frist Consul’s prime aesthetic taste. Though in conquest of all, his artistic palate was surprisingly welcoming to many flavors and types. He was a man, and his was an age, conducive not only to the strictures of classical norms—to those sublime restraints of line, order, proportion, and reason; all qualities of which the greatest of generals must inherently be fond—but to the vibrant and romantic explosions of color and depth that were emerging at the time as well. Hence, Napoleon retained in his artistic retinue the likes of David (his consummate classicist), Gerard (a fellow Italian), Gros (an expert equestrian), Prud’hon (a breath of romantic imagination) and, perhaps best of all, Canova—a master of marble and, as we might justly call him, a true Phidias of both Paris and Rome.
In terms of its commitment to artistic patronage, the age of Napoleon didn’t quite equal that of Louis XIV, nor, for that matter, that of those Medici popes. As for the latter, it was a consequence of their spectacular and rather shameless misallocations of taxes and tithes that the Vatican was to be adorned. A king’s profligacy is something that, as humble subjects, we must countenance and obey, having no recourse to tenure change outside of a coup d’etat.
But are we so ready to forgive the spendthrift habits of a bishop of Rome—mediator, as he is, between earth and God? What are we to make of the infallibility of his papal sins? Should not these Vicars of Christ, these descendants of Peter, be held to a higher, perhaps more heavenly standard? At the rumbling outset of the sixteenth-century, their avaricious pursuit of fine art might’ve been, after all, the chief instigation of the Reformation that was simmering and exploding across the Alps. But, we must ask ourselves, who wouldn’t willingly fund with his congregants’ coins a school of Raphael’s Athens or a Michelangeloan Sistine wall? The sublimity of their work, I think, was worth the irreparable damage that was done to the church and the consequent schism that engulfed the creed. In appreciation of their misappropriation of their funds, Julius, Leo, and their like must be pardoned in the eyes of apostates and the art-loving world.
Napoleon, at his best, made only pretensions to Catholicism. Mars, rather than Jesus, would always be the first and most convincing god to whom he prayed. Thus, he felt no compunction in acquiring through force and curating with distinction Europe’s finest collection of art. The manner by which he came into possession of so resplendent a display was, as you can imagine, not entirely gracious. With the scrupulosity of a conqueror and the intemperance of a trigger-happy aesthete, he denuded from all of the national galleries over which he now presided their best pieces of art. In the time of Troy, when that impregnable ancient city of Hector finally fell, the spoils of war were women (chiefly those of whom the House of Priam was composed). In that of Napoleon, the spoils were the most alluring and voluptuous works of art. It was in this way that France’s Louvre came into possession of such historic pieces as Rembrandt’s Descent from the Cross, Correggio’s The Madonna of Saint Jerome, and Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana. Unslakable in his artistic thirst, Napoleon placed his straw in every nation’s fountain, inhaled, and swallowed at will.
Art, though doubtless the most attractive, certainly wasn’t the only thing festooning Napoleon’s France. Having satisfied his pleasure with all things literary, musical, sculptural, and pictorial, he decided now to punctuate his new and revolutionary society with all the greatest advancements of science. All else was dross in the shadow of science’s glimmering gold.
He was himself, perhaps excepting that most enlightened of despots Frederick the Great, the first modern European ruler with a thoroughly scientific past. He was steeped in all forms of it during the long and productive course of his education. The Franciscan instructors by whom he was taught at his preparatory academy at Brienne knew that science and utility (two inheritances, one might add, of the proudly anti-clerical Enlightenment and its seminal production, the Encyclopedie) were to be essential in the coming advancement of the age.
They thus fed their Corsican student (who’d only just recently arrived to France from that small, vulnerable island) with all of the mathematics, mechanics, geometry, physics, geology, and geography that the wide-eyed wunderkind could handle. In surfeiting him so, they didn’t count on his capacity being what it was; boundless was the volume of his unusually retentive brain. Quickly did he embrace and eventually did he apply all of that science with which he was brought into contact.
Probably, it was his unfailing grasp of science, in association with his resolute determination and his indomitable gaze, that set the course for his future success. Thus, due to his abiding appreciation of its potential application and its undeniable worth, there was no greater champion of science than Napoleon Bonaparte. Recognizing the men by whom these mountainous and minute sciences were to be moved, he decided to bestow a primacy of distinction on such leading figures in the scientific fields as Alessandro Volta, Pierre-Simon Laplace, Georges Cuvier, and—at the mercy of an abbreviated name—Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. These men produced works and conducted experiments that Napoleon could not only applaud from afar, but scrutinize himself under the subtle magnification of his royal microscope.
We might be tempted, at this conclusive point, to resign ourselves and agree with Goethe. Perhaps, as he proclaimed, Napoleon really was “the greatest mind the world has ever seen”. Surely, with its hundreds of years, it hasn’t produced one of commensurate aptitude and spirit since. Thomas Carlyle, displaced from the tumult of Napoleon by just a few years, considered him a hero of the most remarkable kind—albeit one slightly inferior to his own countryman Cromwell. Patriotism, even for him, proved too great an impediment to impartiality. Carlyle would never be wholly reconciled to the French, but he couldn’t avoid the inclusion of Napoleon on his laudatory list of “greats”.
We mustn’t hesitate, then, in giving Napoleon his due. He was, in embracing the consensus of Goethe and Carlyle, great at many things. Always, we remember him as a dictator, but never will we synonymize his name with that of dilettante.