Napoleon Buonaparte : Case Study in Eventrics

“There is a tide in the affairs of men                Which taken in the flood, leads on to fortune”

                                         Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

 Eventrics, a term I have coined, is the theory of events and their interactions. Up to now, I have almost entirely given my attention to the ‘micro’ end of Eventrics, that is to Ultimate Event Theory, an ‘ultimate event’ being the smallest possible event, roughly the equivalent of an atom or elementary particle. But it is now time to turn to ‘macro-Eventrics’ and, in particular, human power politics. Any principles that underlie massive human-directed complexes of events have, on the face of it, little or nothing to do with the sort of things I have been discussing up to now [on the website] ─ but that is just as true of matter-based physics when we shift from the world of the electron to the world of matter in bulk. As a disbeliever in continuity, I ought to be prepared for such a difference, but I would never have expected it to be so large. It is notoriously difficult to say exactly what this extra ingredient is, which is why reductionist theories have, in the last two hundred years or so, decisively gained the upper hand over ‘vitalist’ or ‘system’ theories. For the moment, the question of how and at what exact scale groups of causally bonded ultimate events start behaving in a qualitatively different manner from their individual components will be laid aside. Chief features of ‘power’ event-chains  In the last post I mentioned a few features of power politics viewed from the standpoint of Eventrics and, in particular, enunciated the basic doctrine that “it is events, not human beings that drive history”. I stressed the importance of a so-called ‘tipping point’ or ‘moment of opportunity’ in the fortunes of famous individuals. Persons become powerful, so I argued, not because they have outstanding intelligence, looks or charm ─ though clearly such things are assets ─ but because they (1) “fit the situation they find themselves in” and (2) because they seize with both hands the passing opportunity that presents itself (if it presents itself). I also advanced the notion that the recommended way to seize power and hold it is based on two, and essentially only two items, which are summed up in the codeword used by the US for the invasion of Panama : “Shock and Awe”. Descending the stairs immediately after putting this post on the Internet, my eye was drawn to a battered second-hand book on Napoleon (Napoleon by Paul Johnson) that I remembered only vaguely (Note 1). I opened it and came across the following passage that I had marked in red in the margin : “Victor Hugo, a child of one of Bonaparte’s generals, was later to write: Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. It is equally true to say : No one is more fortunate than a man whose time has come. Bonaparte was thus favoured by fortune and the timing of the parabola, and he compounded his luck by the alacrity and decision with which he snatched at opportunities as they arose”. Paul Johnson, Napoleon   Exactement, c’est ça. Certainly, the author would seem to be wholly in agreement with the ‘First and Second Principles of Eventrics’. I then wondered how some of the other general principles I tentatively outlined applied to Napoleon. Did he have his ‘moment of opportunity’? Did he apply “Shock and Awe” as his principal methods? In fact, yes, on both counts but first let us enquire a little more into the thesis that it is not the man who commands events but rather the events that offer the opportunity to the man. This is not quite the same thing as saying a successful person is ‘lucky’, though as a matter of fact a surprising number of very successful people do say this, and not out of modesty. Three Dictators If we exclude Russia as being somewhat out on its own, and thus Stalin, the three most powerful non-elected individuals in Western history are Cromwell, Napoleon and Hitler. It is worthwhile examining their backgrounds carefully. None came from a rich, well-educated, aristocratic background ─ but none of them came from a working-class background either (Note 1). Oliver Cromwell, though distantly related to Henry VIII’s all-powerful minister Thomas Cromwell, came from the ‘lower gentry’ and even for a while apparently worked his own land. He did attend Oxford for one year but made no sort of mark there. More to the point, he had absolutely no formal military training, perhaps a blessing in disguise since it forced him to improvise and innovate. As for Hitler, he was the son of an Austrian Customs Official and had at least enough education to be able to present samples of his work to the Viennese School of Architecture (which twice refused him). Bonaparte’s family were small-time impoverished Corsican gentry turned lawyers “just rich enough to own their own house and garden and employ servants” as Johnson puts it. Coming from the lower gentry or the ‘upwardly mobile’ lower middle class can actually be an advantage if you have your eye on the heights : such persons have enough of a leg up to obtain one or two useful contacts and a minimum of education and professional training  — but not enough to spare them the titanic effort needed if they want to seriously improve their condition.

The Young Napoleon  

Napoleon JPEGOf the three ‘dictators’ Napoleon was without a doubt the most talented in the ‘normal’ sense of the word. He had outstanding powers of concentration and application and a memory for “facts and locations” that never ceased to astonish people; he was a better mathematician than any Western ruler I can think of and such a good map-reader that he would be considered a ‘genius’ if we treated cartography on a level with, say, astronomy . At school he was not quite a prodigy ─ real prodigies rarely achieve anything in later life ─ but he was not far short of being one. Whereas the military training at the Ecole Militaire, Paris, usually took two or three years, Napoleon passed all his exams in a single year and qualified as a 2nd Lieutenant at the ripe age of 16. His examiner in mathematics was the world-famous mathematician and astronomer, Laplace.
So, what would Buonaparte have been in another time and place? There have been extremely few eras in history when talent alone could win out over entrenched interests and tradition. All three of our ‘dictators’ came to power in extremely uncertain times, Cromwell during the English Civil War, Hitler during the chaotic post-war German Weimar Republic and Napoleon himself emerged from obscurity after the most famous revolution of all time. Even so, Napoleon, a ‘provincial’ with a Corsican accent and an obscure titre de noblesse that his fellow students didn’t take seriously, and with no family money behind him, nearly missed the boat since most of the best places were already filled by the time he hit Paris. Under the Directory, most important appointments were controlled by a self-serving clique that ruled France from the centre of Paris, and the ambitious young Buonaparte had little direct access to this circle. At one point he thought of offering his services to the Sultan or emigrating to India where he might well have been a rather less successful Clive ─ less successful only because France did not bother so much about India as England did.
My conclusion is that, in another time and place, Buonaparte would certainly have been someone, but equally certainly he would not have been Napoleon.

A Strange Combination of Circumstances” 
As countless historians have pointed out, had Napoleon been born a decade or so earlier when his native Corsica was owned by Genoa, he would not have been a French citizen at all and so would not have qualified to become a boursier (paid student) first at Brienne and later at the Ecole Militaire in Paris. The teaching seems to have been pretty good and by a second stroke of luck, the young officer shortly after receiving his commission, was assigned to an artillery regiment commanded by Baron Duteil, “perhaps the most distinguished gunner in the French army” (Marshall-Cornwall, Napoleon as Military Commander). The Baron was extremely impressed by the cadet officer, who had not yet been under fire, and helped him as much as he could. And the scarcely credible slackness of a young officer’s life under the ancien régime (when there wasn’t actually a war on) meant that the young Napoleon had plenty of time to supplement his formal education with intensive personal study, not just military theory but also politics and ancient history (Note 2).
After the revolution, virtually all the top officers went over to the royalist side so the fledgling republic needed all the trained soldiers it could find and was ready to promote them accordingly. Nonetheless, Napoleon very nearly squandered the chance of a lifetime because he got embroiled in the struggle for Corsican Independence, changing sides more than once, until he finally opted for Revolutionary France. But then, while inspecting the coastal defences of the South of France he had three amazing strokes of luck. (1) The General in charge of the forces near Toulon, Carteaux, was incompetent and soon to be relieved of his functions (2) Carteaux’s artillery commander, Dugommier was badly wounded and (3) Napoleon ‘happened’ to come across a certain Saliceti, an old Corsican friend of the family, now a leading politician in the Paris Convention. Saliceti arranged for the promising but still relatively inexperienced officer, scarcely out of his teens, to be put in charge of the artillery for the relief of Toulon. As Marshall-Cornwall says, “It was a strange combination of circumstances”.

First Moment of Opportunity : Awe
Toulon was the first and most important ‘tipping point’ in Napoleon’s career and though it was ‘Fortune’ that gave him the golden opportunity, it was Napoleon who seized it firmly with both hands and never let it go. The siege of Toulon, more correctly the attack on the forts and batteries surrounding Toulon, was an impeccably executed manoeuvre conducted largely according to plans drawn up by Napoleon himself and enthusiastically endorsed by the new commander, du Teil, the brother of Napoleon’s artillery mentor (another amazing stroke of luck). Napoleon himself took part in the final assault on the key position, Fort Mulgrave, and was wounded by a bayonet. His commander du Teil sent a glowing report to the War Minister Words fail me to describe Buonaparte’s merits. He has great knowledge and as much intelligence and courage, and that is only a faint outline of the qualities of this rare officer”.
        Toulon was, militarily speaking, an awesome performance and at the age of 24 the young artillery officer found himself promoted to général de brigade ( Brigadier) skipping all the intermediary ranks including Colonel. This could surely never have happened in any national army in the world except perhaps during the American War of Independence. Shortly before the successful conclusion of the siege, Napoleon was brought to the notice of a ‘political commissar’ ─ one feels oneself already in the 20th century ─ sent by the Paris Convention to scout around for promising talent, but doubtless also to check on people’s political correctness. The person in question was a Royalist officer turned Republican, Paul Barras. This remarkable man was to play a key role in Napoleon’s life since he later downloaded onto him an attractive but aging mistress with bad teeth, Josephine de Beauharnais, and, more important still, provided Napoleon with his first chance to show his political mettle. It is well to remember that it was Barras that spotted Napoleon and not the reverse, and that Napoleon came to his notice not through social contacts but by his actions. Although Barras was an opportunist who wanted to use Napoleon for his own purposes, the other senior figures, the two du Teils and Napoleon’s new superior General Dugommier, all war-hardened veterans, seem to have been literally spell-bound by the young officer, somewhat as Beauregard was spell-bound by Jeanne d’Arc.

Second Moment of Opportunity : Shock
I mentioned in the last post that the recipe for power is Shock & Awe (not necessarily in that order). Occasionally, figures achieve eminence without the first element but they are almost always religious or artistic figures, not political or military ones. Machiavelli is quite adamant about the importance of Shock and advises the would-be usurper to get this part over with as quickly and decisively as possible : “If you take control of a state, you should make a list of all the crimes you have to commit and do them all at once. He who acts otherwise, either out of squeamishness or out of bad judgment, has to hold a bloody knife in his hand all the time. (…) Do all the harm you must at one and the same time, that way the full extent of it will be noticed, and it will give least offence” (Note 3
        We do not know at what point Napoleon decided he wanted not only military but political power as well. Actually, he did not have a lot of choice. While the chaotic aftermath of the French Revolution gave able young officers like Napoleon their chance, it also made them extremely vulnerable to the vicissitudes of party politics. After such a brilliant start Napoleon was briefly imprisoned when the Jacobins were guillotined since he had been on good terms with the younger Robespierre. The ever ready Corsican Saliceti came to his aid, arguing that France needed officers like Napoleon ─ but from then on he was regarded by the authorities with some distrust, though returned to his duties. After the collapse of the first attempt to invade Italy (with plans partly drawn up by Napoleon himself), Napoleon must have felt that his promising career had been nipped in the bud. There he was, poor, regarded with some suspicion at Paris and despite his striking looks, gauche and unsuccessful with women.
But Barras was now the leading figure of the Directory. This man, even more than Napoleon in a sense, was an absolute master of what I call Eventrics since, incredibly, while starting off as a Royalist officer, he went through all the vicissitudes of the Revolution unscathed, changing sides exactly at the right time and like a political Soros always backing the winner. In 1795 Napoleon was called to the bureau topographique (sort of Planning Office) in Paris. The political situation was extremely serious : the poorer population of Paris, feeling that the revolution had been snatched out of their hands by a lot of devious politicians and currency speculators, were getting ready for the third stage of the Revolution. Barras was granted full powers to restore order while the other members of the new government barricaded themselves in the Tuileries. Napoleon’s job was to quell the revolt. According to Johnson, on 13 vendémiaire (5 October) about 30,000 malcontents (??), many of them armed, rampaged through the centre of Paris. This sounds like an enormous number of people given the smaller populations at the time and much of Paris was an ideal battleground for urban guerrilla ─ as parts of it remained right up to the ‘student revolution’ of May 1968.
It is not clear whether Buonaparte seized this second opportunity to distinguish himself because of ambition, or because of conviction (most likely both). Politically, Napoleon was what we would today consider ‘Centre-Left’. He was sincere in his dislike of the ancient régime, opposed to the power of the Catholic Church, believed everyone should be equal before the law and was an active patron of the arts and sciences. But, like all other ‘middle-class’ people at the time, he would have been horrified by the idea of giving power to ‘the mob’ (Note 3).
Buonaparte applied the Machiavellian principles to the letter. He realized that in hand-to-hand fighting the rebels, even if poorly armed, would probably get the upper hand by sheer weight of numbers. His plan, then, was to lure the rioters away from the lethal alleyways of much of central Paris into an open space, of which there were not so many then, where he could unleash his artillery on them. Fortunately for him, the Tuileries, siege of the government and target of the populace’s anger, did have some open space around it. Johnson goes so far as to suggest that Napoleon deliberately chose ‘grapeshot’ rather than balls or shells because “it scattered over a wide area, tending to produce a lot of blood” but maiming rather than killing its victims. If this is the case, Buonaparte possibly did the ‘right thing’ ─ or so at any rate Machiavelli would have said ─ since it was more politically expedient (and even more humane) to frighten once and for all than to kill. A heavy initial death toll after a massed charge would have enraged the assailants and made them even more desperate, thus more dangerous. As it was, the operation went off as successfully as the raising of the siege of Toulon : the mob recoiled, bloodied and terrified out of their wits by the noise of the big guns at point-blank range, and never got together in such numbers again until the July Revolution of 1830 by which time Napoleon was long dead.

A classic case  Napoleon’s career is almost too pat as a study in Eventrics power politics. First, an ideal situation to step into, two ‘moments of opportunity’, one military and one political, a steady ascent to absolute power, finally decline due to overconfidence and unnecessary risk-taking (invasion of Russia). When the tide of events left him stranded, his dash and mastery changed to bluster and obstinacy. Napoleon could easily have got a better deal for himself, and certainly for France, if he had accepted the Allied offers of returning France to its 1799 or 1792 frontiers instead of fighting on against Allied forces that outnumbered him eight or ten to one. And most historians think that, even if he had won the Battle of Waterloo after his return from Elba (which he nearly did), he could never have remained in power. Nothing particularly surprising here from the point of view of ‘Eventrics’, simply the trap of believing yourself to command events when they always, at the end of the day, control you. Byron apparently thought Napoleon should have died fighting and certainly that would have been better for his posthumous image. Hitler committed suicide on the advice of Goebbels in order precisely to “maintain the Fuhrer legend” which was judged to be more important than the man himself.     SH 24/3/14  

Note 1 Surprisingly, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s (for a while) all-powerful minister, was the son of a Putney blacksmith. But Thomas Cromwell’s position was always precarious and he did not last long. Henry VIII put into practice Machiavelli’s golden rule of getting someone to do the dirty work and, then, when his services were no longer needed, getting rid of him, thus earning the gratitude of the common people.

Note 3 “Apart from his service duties, Buonaparte plunged into an intensive course of self-education, devouring in particular books on military and political history. In order to train     his memory, he wrote out a preface for every book he read, and these voluminous digests still survive; they cover a wide range of subjects…”          Marshall-Cornwall, Napoleon as Military Commander p. 18  

Note 3 The  quotation is form Machiavelli, The Prince ch. VIII (edited and translated David Wootton)  
Machiavelli praises Cesare Borgia for putting Remiro d’Orco, “a man both cruel and efficient” in charge of the Romagna. “D’Orco in short order established peace and unity and acquired immense authority. At that point the duke decided such unchecked power as no longer necessary, for he feared people might come to hate it. (…) In order to purge the ill-will of the people and win them completely over to him, he [Cesare Borgia] wanted to make it clear that, if there had been any cruelty, he was not responsible for it and that his hard-hearted minister was to blame. One morning, in the town square of Cesena, he had Remiro d’Orco’s corpse laid out in two pieces, with a chopping board and a bloody knife beside it. This ferocious sight made the people of the Romagna simultaneously happy and dumbfounded.” Machiavelli,  The Prince ch. 7 translated Wootton  

Note 4 Today, at a safe distance of two centuries, one tends to feel sympathetic to the rioters and, as a socialist and a romantic, I used at one time to think that “the people” were automatically in the right especially when attacked by the military. However, I hardly think much good would have come of this popular uprising : there would just have been more pointless bloodshed and general chaos. In effect, the ‘Third Revolution’ was postponed until the 1871 Paris Commune. In this case grape-shot was not enough : some 22,000 people, mainly civilians, were killed in a single week, the notorious ‘semaine de sang’ 21-28 May 1871.                              


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