Napoleon: a Cautionary Tale for Young Idealists

This is an aspect of the important general truth that Napoleon made history but never in circumstances of his own choosing. As he said on St Helena: ‘I may have conceived a good many plans, but I was never free to execute one of them. For all that I held the rudder, and with so strong a hand, the waves were a good deal stronger. I never was in truth my own master; I was always governed by circumstances.’ (Mclynn)


1.1. Napoleon was a genius tactician and a terrible geopolitician.
1.2. Napoleon didn’t have to go to Russia. Just his pride.
1.3. Napoleon could’ve stopped having conquered all Europe sued for peace acceptable to everyone long-term.
1.4 But he only knew how to wage war & couldn’t accept the humiliation of Alexander I deciding to stop supporting Napoleon’s UK blockade.
1.5. Napoleon always reasoned from the worst case scenario. He was a great student of history. He anticipated everything that could go wrong in all of the previous wars.
1.6. Plutarch wrote about Parthians doing this to Romans: “nothing was farther from the thoughts of the Parthians than to attack the Romans in front.”
1.7. Peter the Great did this to Charles XII 100 years before Napoleon.
1.8. Napoleon should’ve known that Russians would refuse to give him the battle.
1.9. Return from Elba – same thing. What was his plan?
1.10. There was no way for him to win long-term. No chance.
1.11. Again, just pride. Even if he won Waterloo, another coalition in 3 years would’ve defeated him.
1.12. Napoleon knew how to win a battle but not how to win a war.
1.13. Napoleon had no clue what to do during peace. And as soon as there were no battles to win, he was bored, lost, and disoriented.
1.14. Napoleon’s tactical and logistical genius totally masked strategic ineptitude, from himself and others.
1.15. Napoleon’s tactical genius was useless against an opponent who cares about winning more than about not looking cowardly.
1.16. Napoleon didn’t have a winning condition or the long-term grand strategy for the wars he fought.
1.17. Therefore, Napoleon had to lose eventually.
1.18. The only way to win is to retire, voluntarily (Jesus, Washington).


2.1. Napoleon’s ego was of Eurasian proportions & insecurities larger than his tactical genius.
2.2. Napoleon’s study of history didn’t prevent him from growing arrogant and prideful beyond any measure.
2.3. Napoleon’s wife cheated on him mercilessly and he couldn’t do anything about it.
2.4. Women are a measure of a great man’s commitment to the eternal.
2.5. Napoleon’s retinue was such that he was forced to appoint his untalented brothers as Kings of Italy, Spain, and Holland.
2.6. Even Napoleon’s Ambassador to Russia secretly wanted him to lose.
2.7. Napoleon was desperate for Alexander I to love him. He kept writing letters to Alexander thinking they were friends; kept asking for Alexander’s daughter’s hand; Napoleon couldn’t accept the fact that Alexander I would never love him.
2.8. Human sympathy for David battling Goliath goes deeper than our sympathy for our family, friends, and country.
2.9. Napoleon is no different from Alexander, Hitler or Stalin – all killed by their arrogance.
2.10. You win too much; you get too confident; you forget that the challenges grow bigger with your success.
2.11 Eventually your pride overwhelms your genius; you think yourself half-God; you forget that you might lose.
2.12. The call of Greatness got Napoleon to the top of the world; didn’t let him go; and finally shipped him to Saint Helena.


3.1. Napoleon left no intellectual legacy. There are Napoleonic wars but there’s no Napoleonic thought.
3.2. Whatever idealism Napoleon had in the beginning, by the late 180xs, it was all about maintaining power.
3.3. Napoleon claimed Enlightenment ideals while crowning himself the Emperor of the French.
3.4. After he conquered all of Europe, Napoleon’s main foe was the most Enlightened nation in Europe.
3.5. Napoleon wrote a modern code of laws while being a petty capricious dictator.
3.6. “I am the state” - Louis XIV x Napoleon I.
3.7. Great genius wins battles. Faceless bureaucracy wins wars.
3.8. Neither Britain nor America were affected by Napoleon (except Lousiana).
3.9. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. No exceptions.
3.10. Sulla didn’t get corrupted himself; yet his absolute power corrupted the next generation & the entire culture of Rome.
3.11. Caesar later said that retiring was Sulla’s biggest mistake.
3.12. Corrupting the next generation is a hundred times worse than getting corrupted yourself.
3.13. The only way to evaluate a leader is to see what happens when they’re gone.
3.14. And as soon as Napoleon – a minor Italian nobleman – died, the French went back to being French.

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