Napoleon I the Great (15 August 1769-5 May 1821) is one of history’s greatest conquerors, but he is far more complex than a mere military man. He wrote and spoke of just about every aspect of life he could, as evidenced by the multi-volume collections of his numerous letters and memoirs. His ideas give great insights into Napoleon as a lover and philosopher, among other things. While researching this influential man for my book, Meteors that Enlighten the Earth: Napoleon and the Cult of Great Men, I came across many fascinating quotations that could fill multiple lists, but I have found ten remarks in particular that I find striking for various reasons. This list features ten of these most intriguing words of the great man in semi-chronological order. Rather than provide my analysis of them, I shall present the quotations to you with some background context and allow you to discuss your own thoughts on them in the comment section below the list.
10. Napoleon on Oral Sex
While Napoleon is most typically known as a conqueror of armies, as is the case with many male conquerors throughout history, he also enjoyed conquests of women. He married twice and had several mistresses during his life and had one legitimate and two illegitimate children through these relationships. Yet, by far the most celebrated love of his life was his first wife: Josephine de Beauharnais. While Napoleon campaigned in Italy, he wrote extensively to his wife, who did not reciprocate in kind and in his correspondences, he reveals himself as someone romantic to the point of obsession with his wife, including remarks in a perhaps surprisingly risqué manner.
9. Napoleon REALLY Loves Josephine
Written on 21 November 1796: “I am going to bed with my heart full of your adorable image. I cannot wait to give you proofs of my ardent love. How happy I would be if I could assist you at your undressing, the little firm white breast, the adorable face, the hair tied up in a scarf a la creole. You know that I will never forget the little visits, you know, the little black forest. I kiss it a thousand times and wait impatiently for the moment I will be in it. To live within Josephine is to live in the Elysian fields. Kisses on your mouth, your eyes, your breast, everywhere, everywhere.”
Here we once again get a sense of Napoleon’s thoughts while fighting a bloody war that lasted for months. He does not merely report about military life, but dreams of sexual encounters with his wife as what real heaven (the Elysian fields) is. We thus once again see the side of a man whose thoughts were hardly focused solely on bloodshed even while fighting a war.
8. Napoleon Being More Romantic
“A beautiful woman pleases the eye, a good woman pleases the heart; the first is a jewel, the second is a treasure.”
Now the previous two quotations might make Napoleon seem almost perverted in his letters to his wife, and yet, he also had a tender side as well that demonstrated he valued women for more than just their physical attributes.
7. Napoleon’s Opposition to Torture
Written in 1798, while in Egypt: “The barbarous custom of whipping men suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this method of interrogation, by putting men to the torture, is useless. The wretches say whatever comes into their heads and whatever they think one wants to believe. Consequently, the Commander-in-Chief forbids the use of a method which is contrary to reason and humanity.”
Given the debates held even in modern democracies about whether or not torture is justified, for example, when trying to stop terrorists, Napoleon’s words here are perhaps still relevant two hundred years later. Even in his day, an Enlightened conqueror realized the problems inherent in this form of interrogation. Moreover, the quotation is consistent with his approach to conquering Egypt. He brought with him an army of scholars in addition to his soldiers who among other things discovered the Rosetta stone.
6. Napoleon Anticipates Karl Marx on Religion
Written in 1806: “Religion associates with Heaven an idea of equality which prevents the rich from being massacred by the poor.”
When it came to religion, Napoleon understood its value, but approached it as a utilitarian would. In Egypt he played the role of someone who respected Islam. He also proposed creating a Palestine for Jews and called a Grand Sanhedrin while emperor. He reconciled with the Pope and had him attend Napoleon’s coronation. Later, Napoleon held the Pope as a virtual prisoner and annexed Rome to be the second city of the French Empire. In these various actions, we see a man who used religion as a means by which to prevent further chaos as occurred in the French Revolution. What he actually believed (or did not believe) is debatable, but he did nevertheless identify organized religion as beneficial for society to not descend into anarchy.
5. Napoleon on Dogs and Men
Written September 1816: “If you do not like dogs, you do not like fidelity; you do not like those who are attached to you; and, therefore, you are not faithful.”
As a dog owner (I had two basset hounds and now have a dachshund and yes, I named one after Napoleon’s first wife and another after his second!), I understand where he is coming from in this remark. Napoleon reflected toward the end of his life on how people betrayed him (1816 is after his final defeat and during his final exile). He remembered, for example, an incident on a battlefield where a dead soldier lay guarded by his dog. Napoleon was moved by how everyone had abandoned this soldier except his dog. The defeated Napoleon on St. Helena felt abandoned and even betrayed by many and so it is hardly a shock that he would identify canine faithfulness as a supreme quality worthy of respect.
4. Napoleon on his Biggest Mistake
“The Santo Domingo affair was a foolish business on my part. It was the greatest mistake I ever made in my administration. I should have treated with the black leaders as with provincial authorities, appointed Negro officers in all the black regiments, kept Toussaint L’Ouverture as viceroy, sent no troops, and left everything to the blacks, except for giving them a few white advisers, a treasurer for instance, and even these I would have wanted to marry black women. That way, seeing that they were not surrounded by the threat of white power, the Negroes would have come to trust my policy.”
Winston Churchill, when discussing the hypothetical capture of Hitler during World War II, denounced any idea of sending Hitler to St. Helena as an insult to Napoleon’s memory. While plenty of authors have tried to draw parallels between Napoleon and Hitler, the two are opposites in terms of their actions with regards to genocide. This particular quotation by Napoleon reflects the distinction between the two men. Yes, both fought and lost grandiose wars to conqueror Europe, but their methods varied and their opinions on their methods varied as well. One does not find Hitler lamenting the Holocaust as something that was morally regrettable. Napoleon, however, realized that of all the unforgivable blemishes in his career, re-instituting slavery was the worst. Granted slavery in itself is not as disgusting as full on annihilation, but it is unquestionably one of the most shameful aspects of human history. In an age in which Britain, America, and France were all some years from abolishing slavery in 1833, 1865, and 1848, respectively, Napoleon commenting decades earlier is a sign of maturity and intellect that an unfortunate number of his contemporaries did not share.
3. Napoleon on Polygamy
“The question of freeing the blacks is a complex and difficult problem. In Africa and Asia it has been solved, but only by the means of polygamy. There a single family has both white and Negro members. Since the head of the family has white, black, and mulatto wives, his white and mulatto offspring are brothers, are brought up in the same cradle, bear the same family name, and share the same table. Should it prove impossible, then, to authorize polygamy in our colonies, limiting the legal number of wives to two, one white, one black?”
With this quotation, we have Napoleon further elaborating on his non-racist ideas in a manner inconsistent with the mainstream viewpoints of his time and in a manner somewhat paralleling Alexander the Great. When Alexander invaded Persia, he encouraged marriages between Greco-Macedonians and Persians. He even married two Asian women: Roxana and Stateira. Not all of his Greco-Macedonians were enthusiastic about these policies. Yet, they served as part of a dream to unify people. It is only fitting that Napoleon, who greatly admired Alexander, also contemplated intermarriage as way of unifying peoples. Even during his reign, he considered proposals to encourage marriages among Catholics, Jews, and Protestants to bring together the various peoples of his empire. Ultimately, Napoleon appears to have hoped that neither religion nor race would be dividing factors among we humans who after all are really belong to one HUMAN race.
2. Napoleon’s Anticipation of the European Union
“There are dispersed in Europe, upwards of 30,000,000 of French, 15,000,000 of Spaniards, 15,000,000 of Italians, and 30,000,000 of Germans; and it was my intention to incorporate these people each into one nation. In this state of things, there would have been some chance of establishing, in every country, a unity of codes, principles, opinions, sentiments, views, and interests. Then, perhaps, by the help of the universal diffusion of knowledge, one might have thought of attempting, in the great European family, the application of the American Congress, or the Amphictyons of Greece. The impulse is given; and I think, that since my fall, and the destruction of my system, no grand equilibrium can possibly be established in Europe, except by the concentration and confederation of the principle nations. The sovereign, who, in the first great conflict, shall sincerely embrace the cause of the people, will find himself at the head of all Europe, and may attempt whatever he pleases. Europe thus divided into nationalities freely formed and free internally, peace between States would have become easier: the United States of Europe would become a possibility.”
Now realistically, Napoleon did not have the means by which to conquer and thereby unify the word, but he did come close with Europe and when explaining what he was attempting to establish, we have him reflecting on his love of history by referencing the examples of Ancient Greece and contemporary America as models for Europeans to follow. In his time, it was clear that in order to establish a unified Europe, the crowned heads of centuries-old monarchies would not accept such an idea through diplomacy. So, he tried to accomplish his dream via warfare, which of course failed. In fact, it took even worse wars than those fought by Napoleon for Europeans to finally realize that they best chance for stability lied in peaceful unification and so ultimately the dreams of a “United States of Europe” were ultimately realized through decades of diplomacy in the aftermath of humanity’s worst conflicts.
1. Napoleon’s Tragic End
26 April 1821, less than a month before his death: “I have just seen my good Josephine, but she didn’t want to kiss me. She slipped away the moment I wanted to take her in my arms. She was sitting there; it was as if I had last seen her only the night before. She hadn’t changed, always the same, still completely devoted to me. She told me we were going to see each other again and never again leave each other. She has promised me. Did you see her?”
We end our list by coming full circle. We started with Josephine and so we shall end with her. After all, Napoleon’s reported last word was, “Josephine.” When all was said and done, when he began his final physical decline into death, his thoughts were not of great military campaigns or even fantastic political ambitions, but of the love of his life. In these dying utterances, we see not some larger than life legend, but a man, reflecting on his lost love.