Napoleon: A Life by Paul Johnson (Book Review)

A few years back, my wife and I went on a Mediterranean cruise. One of the stops was Ajaccio, Corsica—the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. We learned a lot about Bonaparte during our tour of the city, and I purchased a biography when we got back. Somehow it sat on my shelf untouched until last month.

Many Napoleon bios are long, some pushing more than 1,000 pages. I wanted to learn about Napoleon, but I didn’t want to go that deep on the French emperor. At under 200 pages, Napoleon: A Life is a relatively short read. Here are my learnings.

Napoleon’s dad died when he was just 15, and Napoleon took his place as head of the family. He did this even though he had an older brother (he was the second of eight children).

Bonaparte joined the French military and advanced quickly, partly because his country was constantly at war. His impact on the battlefield helped him skip multiple ranks as he rose to the top. He became emperor at age 34.

What set Napoleon apart? Mathematics. In the words of the author:

He paid constant attention to the role of calculation in war: distances to be covered, speed and route of march, quantities of supplies and animals, etc… Asked how long it would take to get a siege train from the French fortress of Verdun to the outskirts of Vienna, most officers of the day would shrug bewildered shoulders or make a wild guess. Bonaparte would consult a map and give the answer in exact days and hours.

He was incredibly skilled at reading large and small scale maps. He moved quickly and gave very detailed orders, two things that led to countless victories.

He was also known for his work ethic. Of his stamina, one of his contemporaries said: “He can work 18 hours at a stretch on one or on several subjects. I never saw him tired. I never found him lacking in inspiration, even when weary in body, nor when violently exercised, nor when angry.”

Despite Napoleon’s talents, his decisions were often shortsighted. The Louisiana Purchase proved to be a massive mistake. He sold the French-owned territory for $15 million to the United States, a relatively small amount for 828,000 square miles of invaluable land.

But he was never lacking in confidence. Napoleon said of himself:

Various subjects and affairs are stowed away in my brain as in a chest of drawers. When I want to take up any business, I shut one drawer and open another. None of them ever gets mixed, and never does this incommode me or fatigue me… I am always at work… I work all the time, at dinner and at the theater. I wake up at night in order to resume my work. I got up last night at 2am. I stretched myself on my couch before the fire to examine the army reports sent to me by the Minister of War. I found 20 mistakes in them… There is nothing relating to warfare that I cannot make myself. If nobody knows how to make gunpowder, I do. I can construct gun-carriages… If cannons must be cast, I will see that it is done properly. If tactical details must be taught, I will teach them.

Napoleon is a complicated man. You can’t label him a mercenary, but he’s not a patriot either. I’d call him an opportunist. He was a man who took full advantage of the time he lived in.

Napoleon was a war-time leader and struggled to rule on a long-term basis. He constantly looked for action. He once declared, “Europe is too small for me… I must go East.” He didn’t know when to stop himself and this eventually led to his downfall.

Bonaparte’s unending thirst for power led to the death of millions. Johnson writes, “No dictator of the tragic twentieth century—from Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong to pygmy tyrants like Kim Il Sung, Castro, Perón, Mengitsu, Saddam Hussein, Ceaușescu, and Gadhafi—was without distinctive echoes of the Napoleonic prototype.”

Napoleon may have been a great man, but he was certainly not a good man. Many of the biographies I’ve read leave me wanting to emulate the subject, but Napoleon: A Life pushed me in the other direction. The life of the French emperor serves as a warning of how our greatest strengths, if unchecked, can often become our greatest weaknesses.

 

2 thoughts on “Napoleon: A Life by Paul Johnson (Book Review)

  1. Excellent review! I liked your conclusion at the end. Very interesting, and very insightful on your part. Keep up the good work…

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