WALTER RUSSELL MEAD
March 31, 2012
In the last grand strategy class before spring break this semester, we came to Napoleon. It’s been a long journey from Sun Tzu back at the start of the semester, but Napoleon, himself an assiduous student of grand strategy who carried a copy of Sun Tzu with him on campaign, studied the careers of Hannibal and Scipio, and made practical and conscious use of the teachings of Machiavelli, is an important figure for young grand strategists to contemplate.
Dedicating time to Napoleon is one of the shifts I’ve made to the grand strategy curriculum used at the mother of all grand strategy programs back at Yale. I don’t do this lightly, but Napoleon strikes me as a pivotal figure in strategic history whose rise and fall have much to teach, and whose career and accomplishments remained the focus of strategic thought from Jomini and Clausewitz to Mahan and beyond. He also straddles the boundary between classical and renaissance strategists and the strategists of the modern world. Like Machiavelli, Napoleon’s intellectual toolkit came from the literary productions of ancients like Polybius, Plutarch and Livy, but unlike the great Florentine the political and ideological problems that engaged and ultimately overwhelmed Napoleon are very much like those strategists must grapple with today.
In the US today, Napoleon is an obscure figure without much significance to contemporary politics or thought. To the extent he is remembered, it is for two great blunders and his fall: Louisiana, Russia and Waterloo are the words most prominently associated with his career in the minds of those few American undergraduates today who know anything specific about him at all.
Ignorance of and indifference to Napoleon is one of the chief differences between educated Americans and educated Europeans. On this side of the Atlantic he doesn’t have much of a legacy; though as Stanley Kowalski points out in Streetcar Named Desire, Louisiana still uses the Napoleonic Code as the basis of its law, the other 49 states don’t. In Europe he is the father of the modern legal system that still underlies the laws and procedures of the European Union and the man who abolished feudalism in Germany. It was Napoleon who laid out the model of church-state relations that still governs the European approach to this issue — and Napoleon whose emancipation of the Jews solved one set of problems and created another. His vision of a united Europe able to resist Anglo-Saxon influence still resonates; his effort to reconcile the powerful state of European absolutism with democratic legitimacy in a post-revolutionary age remains an influential political idea. Americans didn’t embrace Napoleon like the French; the battle against him that became a national epic in Britain and Russia leaves us cold; his unintentional role in the birth of German nationalism and in Hegel’s proclamation of the end of history do not engage much attention over here.
In teaching Napoleon to young grand strategists, I find that the first thing I have to do is to open their eyes to Napoleon’s enormous historical importance and continuing impact on our world today; the second is to help them grasp the sheer greatness and audacity of the man. They have to feel his accomplishment: how a poor young man from Corsica, who didn’t speak French well, wasn’t particularly handsome or witty or charming, who had no connections with the powerful and the rich made himself master first of France and then of half the world. That Napoleon was a great commander when given armies to lead is one thing; that he got himself into a position to command armies at all may be the more remarkable accomplishment of his career.
We will analyze his fall more fully in a second class where we readDefeat, Philippe de Ségur’s remarkable eyewitness account of the Russian campaign. But in the first class the discussion centers around Napoleon’s rise and the dilemmas that confront him once he’s discovered, as he said, that you can do anything with bayonets except sit on them.
The most important thing about the young Napoleon that students need to appreciate is the intensity of his ambition and the will and the intelligence he brought to the task of fulfilling it. This is not a story of military strategy per se; the conquest of Josephine and the ability to build a relationship with a powerful older patron like Barras meant as much or more at this stage as Napoleon’s (still mostly unseen and unknown) military talents.
The other strategists we’ve studied or considered – Pericles, Alcibiades, Alexander, Hannibal, Fabius, Scipio, Julius and Augustus Caesar – were well positioned politically before they embarked on their military careers. They were born at or near the pinnacle in their respective societies; while all of them faced political opponents at home they all began with great assets in the struggle for power at home. Napoleon started with nothing and had nothing external to his abilities and ambitions on which he could rely.
This Napoleonic ambition is something students need to come to terms with one way or another. Most bright and ambitious Americans start out in life more like Napoleon than like Pericles; they are born and grow up far from the centers of power. They can’t rely on their parents’ money or rolodexes to boost them into contention for political power. Like Napoleon, they have to work their way in.
As students start to see the young Napoleon in this way, they begin to consider the parallels between his situation and ambitions and their own. Do students want power, influence and wealth enough to work and scheme for them? If so, how should they start? What ethical considerations, if any, should inform or limit their quest? What does success look like and how is it assessed?
Napoleon had extraordinary political and personal as well as military gifts. His genius was not limited to the ability to read a battlefield and take the right action at the right time. He had a gift for reading people, for knowing what each one most desperately wanted and needed. He then had the ambition and singleness of purpose to decide which people mattered to him, and then to give them what they wanted. Napoleon betrayed almost everyone in the end, and one can retrace his progress through life by tracking discarded friendships and betrayed collaborators much as the Grand Army’s retreat through Russia was marked by abandoned wagons, loot and artillery pieces. Nevertheless before you can betray someone you have to win them over and Napoleon was willing and able to do whatever it took. One doesn’t want to end like Napoleon, but one could do much worse than begin as he did.
As Napoleon rose, he had to judge how to keep people loyal to him. This again required an exquisite sensitivity to what others want. One man can be yours for money, another seeks dignity and honor, a third power, and someone else wants the freedom and the resources to undertake an interesting and exacting task. In Napoleon’s day, when women could only play politics indirectly, taking (or no doubt in some cases pretending to take) women seriously on intellectual matters and working through political discussions with them to give them a sense of ‘being in the game’ could take a man very far with some women. Napoleon played this game for all it was worth.
I’m trying to encourage my grand strategy students to hone their people reading and people pleasing skills. This is not, as Johnson said of Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son, to teach them ‘the manners of a dancing master and the morals of a whore’. George Washington worked very hard to ingratiate himself with powerful women and men around him; so did Alexander Hamilton. A great man and a scoundrel will need many of the same skills; I would hope my students would be as good at reading people as an accomplished scam artist, but then use those powers for good.
Napoleon stooped to conquer; it’s a skill many of us could use.
Another characteristic that strikes us in the young Napoleon (shorn of the various ill-sourced stories about his youth that biographers published once he was world famous) is the will. This was a boy and a young man who willed success with an intensity and passion that can still shock from a distance of more than two hundred years. His genius owed much to his will, I feel. He was able to find solutions that nobody else saw because his mind was driven by its passion for glory and success to make efforts that other minds couldn’t be bothered to make. Other people are not so much stupider than Napoleon than they are lazier and less driven.
The young Napoleon reminds me of the Chuck Norris jokes. Like Norris, Napoleon didn’t read; he just stared hard at books until they broke down and told him everything they knew. Norris, they say, doesn’t go out hunting, because hunting implies the possibility of failure. Norris goes out killing. Napoleon was much the same.
For many of my students, this is the first class they’ve taken in which they’ve been encouraged to think seriously about the nature of their ambitions and how to achieve them. Power both fascinates and disorients the academy today. Throughout the millennia teachers have assumed that getting and keeping power was one of the chief reasons that students came to their classes. The rhetorical instructors of ancient Greece and Rome were teaching students the skills that would enable them to persuade: either to persuade jurors to acquit or convict, or to persuade voters to support a given course of action or a particular candidate.
Today we focus on introducing them to various lines of academic inquiry and on giving them ‘job skills’ that will help them earn a good living. Both of these are perfectly good things to study, but how many professors would start a class off by saying that the goal of the class is to teach students to acquire, hold and use power in society at large?
More classes should start in exactly that way. An education, among other things, should help you become adept at the power game. Few things are as deeply human as the drive for power, and ambition remains one of the great drivers of any society. Getting away from that reality and providing courses that aren’t grounded in helping young people achieve the fame, glory and power that it is natural for them to seek is getting away from an essential and vital part of the educational process. An exclusive focus on instrumental and secondary types of learning marks a college or university as a ‘sheeple factory’: a place dedicated to turning out staffers and followers rather than a place where young eagles flock in order to learn how to soar.
Perhaps a mass society like ours needs more sheeple stalls and fewer eagles’ nests. From a certain angle the American academy looks like the most brilliant experiment in social control ever invented. Restless intellectuals can spend their tenured lives debating the fine points and arcana of recondite disciplines without in any way inconveniencing the social order. Athens and Rome were tiny communities compared to the modern American state; if we had the same ratio of eagles to sheeple that Rome and Athens did our social order might burst apart under the stress of all that ambition. Perhaps Frank Fukuyama is right, and the end of history both demands and creates a race of sheeple (“last men” in Nietzsche’s phrase) to staff and uphold it.
I am not so sure that is true, particularly in a time like ours when the social and institutional infrastructure of 20th century, blue model America is breaking up. When paradigms need to shift, there is no point in teaching students to conform to the intellectual and occupational patterns that have already been established around them. They need to explore, to challenge and to dare: to dream of greatness and develop the fixed purpose to achieve it whatever the obstacles that try to hold them back.
Eagles don’t make good pets. They are often ungrateful to their teachers. They look to the future and not to the past, they look to what works and not towards what used to work. They don’t color between the lines, they struggle to conceal their insincerity when mouthing the genteel pieties of the upper middle class, and they have a self confidence that can be hard to distinguish from arrogance. They are carnivores not vegans, they like winning more than they like sharing, and they see bureaucrats as obstacles to be circumvented and tools to be used rather than as serious and thoughtful professionals guiding mankind toward a higher path.
They are, in other words, insufferable — and perhaps especially so when young and still unformed. But we need them.
Teaching grand strategy is a way of reintroducing courses in ‘eagle studies’ to the modern academy. Grand strategy as a discipline is the study of power and how to get it. It is not about deconstructing power, attacking power structures or subverting hierarchies – although all of these can be skills a young eagle needs. It is about learning to fly rather than studying the mechanics of flight; an encounter with Napoleon, one of the greatest eagles of them all, is I think a high point of a grand strategy course.