Lecture 122: Another Book Chesterton Did Not Write – Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
The Apostolate of Common Sense

Lecture 122: Another Book Chesterton Did Not Write

Napoleon

Napoleon
 

Shortly before his death, it was announced that Chesterton was going to write a book on Napoleon. If he even started to, no manuscript has been found. And as to what it would have contained, we can only speculate based on scattered references to Napoleon that appear throughout his published essays. 

It is clear that Chesterton would have offered a defense of Napoleon that would have come in the face of an almost universal English disapproval. Chesterton compares the English version of Napoleon to the Tudor version of Richard III, who is a villain because the victors have been the only ones telling the story. Wellington defeated Napoleon, and English history tells only of the defeated French general who deserved his defeat. A tyrant. An egotistical little beast. A devil. The Corsican Ogre.  

But Chesterton argues that Napoleon was not a devil. First of all, we have discounted all the adoration felt for Napoleon by his own soldiers, and we have “believed nothing but a few obscure libels written in London about Boney as a bogey who ate children. Napoleon may not have been so noble as his followers thought; but he was not so black as he was painted by hack liars who had never been within a hundred miles of him.” (Listener, Oct. 3, 1934)  

His soldiers admired him “not merely because he was a conqueror, but also because he was a soldier. He ruled France not because he had conquered it, but because he had conquered its enemies.” (Daily News, July 24, 1909) 

We should leave off talking nonsense about Napoleon, and especially talking nonsense against Napoleon… What he was doing, what he was driving at, why he was what he was, and what the whole terrific business was all about, none of us seems to have had any notion then, and none of us seems to have any notion now. What is wanted is not glorification of Napoleon, still less glorification of him as a demi-god, which is even worse than denunciation of him as a demon. What is wanted is a calm and candid consideration of him as a historical human being, and of the things he stood for, which were much more important than himself. This is the one thing that nobody will do for Napoleon; and the trick by which his reasonable fame still suffers is simple enough. 

 

The trick consists of first artificially attiring him in all the terrors of a superman, and on that ground denying him the rights of a man… (Illustrated London News, May 21, 1921) 

Chesterton points out the irony that in the modern world, the rule is that fictitious characters are too “tinted with every shade of shady or shabby grey,” but historical characters are always painted in “sensational black and white.” (Illustrated London News, June 17, 1922)  

He grants that Napoleon was sometimes cruel. And yes, he was vain, but he was also a genius, which no one denies. His vanity was the “innocent and active” vanity of a schoolboy. He was “bullet-headed and ambitious,” a quality that enabled him to inspire his troops to great victories. But it also made him more straightforward in his diplomacy, and less of a bully than the diplomats before or after him. He honestly enthusiastic for the cause of French justice and equality, and, very importantly to Chesterton, honestly in love with a woman. 

If he was not always a Christian, he was always a pagan, or what we would call a pious pagan. He stood for a mass of customs that are reflected in the Code Napoleon,  a legislation who recognizes as the central figure of its family council, says Chesterton, that terrible person, the French grandmother. His pagan culture was Latin culture and the center of his culture was agriculture. “It desires the human family to stand on its own feet, within the frontiers of its own land. With that object it was revolutionary. With that object it is conservative.” (Illustrated London News, May 21, 1921) And it is precisely what separates the French Revolution from the Bolshevist Revolution. 

Chesterton would have argued that the Code Napoleon finds its economic expression in a peasantry. The family “is the supreme and sacred institution of Latin society; and whether we are to be the friends or foes of that society, we shall be wise to understand it better. The men who are professing to reconcile all nations do not attempt to understand it at all.” (Illustrated London News, June 17, 1922)

This essay was first published in the November/December 2016 issue of Gilbert! magazine.