Abashed and red-faced, the proprietor of A Superfluous Man admits that this short biography of Napoleon is the first of Mr. Johnson’s many works that he has read. It certainly will not be the last, and even as you read this, A History of the American People awaits in the Superfluous Kindle.
Title: Napoleon: A Life, by Paul Johnson
Completed: March 22, 2012 (#21)
Recommendation: Unrepentant and unreconstructed in its English counterrevolutionary conservatism, a well-crafted essay on Napoleon and his fraught legacy.
One often hears the claim that aside from Jesus Christ, Napoleon Bonaparte is the most well-papered historical personage, with abundant biographies, studies, and homages churned out by presses each year. (What is the appropriate cliché for e-books? Do they churn, as well?)
Mr. Johnson’s book, one of the “Penguin Lives” series of short, philosophical biographies by prominent writers, is a worthy addition to the pile, perhaps best enjoyed by one who is already generally familiar with the dramatis personae and events of the Napoleonic Era.
To place Mr. Johnson in context, contra Tolstoy, he is solidly in the “Great Man Theory of History” camp:
Few individuals have had more impact on history than Napoleon Bonaparte. He is the grandest possible refutation of those determinists who hold that events are governed by forces, classes, economics, and geography rather than by the powerful wills of men and women.
Then again, contra everyone else who writes on Napoleon, Mr. Johnson is not besotted with his subject and does not romanticize Napoleon’s brief and violent reign, nor does he explain away the great suffering that this forerunner of 20th century authoritarians inflicted on the peoples of Europe:
[T]he great evils of Bonapartism—the deification of force and war, the all-powerful centralized state, the use of cultural propaganda to apotheo size the autocrat, the marshaling of entire peoples in the pursuit of personal and ideological power—came to hateful maturity only in the twentieth century, which will go down in history as the Age of Infamy. It is well to remember the truth about the man whose example gave rise to it all, to strip away the myth and reveal the reality. We have to learn again the central lesson of history: that all forms of greatness, military and administrative, nation and empire building, are as nothing—indeed are perilous in the extreme—without a humble and a contrite heart.
In his most effective chapter, Mr. Johnson considers Napoleon’s legacy, starting with the publication of the Emperor’s memoirs (and those of virtually everyone else who shared his twilight years on St. Helena) and continuing with his reburial in Les Invalides and apotheosis in the writings of all manner of wrong-headed intellectuals in the two centuries since his demise. Mr. Johnson names names–Emerson, Carlyle, Heine, and Hegel come off as hoodwinked naïfs at best, closeted totalitarians at worst. Caspar David Friedrich, Beethoven, Goya, and Burke fare better.
For a day-by-day, shot-for-shot biography, the Reader had better look elsewhere for a more comprehensive treatment than Mr. Johnson’s brief format permits, and many a fine volume is suggested in Mr. Johnson’s bibliography. As an introduction to the passions of the French Revolution and its Bonapartist aftermath, however, this is the place to start. An excellent one-two punch might be to read Mr. Johnson’s book and then A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812 – 1822, Henry Kissinger’s Harvard doctoral thesis on the Congress of Vienna.