Napoleon on Christ?

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christ-victorious

I have been reading, and enjoying, Andrew Roberts’ new biography of Napoleon.  Although I am not a fan of the Little Corporal, and Roberts clearly is, I appreciate the freshness he brings to a man who has been studied endlessly since his emergence from the maelstrom of the French Revolution.  I am taking this opportunity to repost a post I wrote in 2008 on purported comments made by Napoleon about Christ:

 

 

Napoleon purportedly made some remarkable statements about Christ while he was imprisoned on Saint Helena.  This one was supposedly made to General Bertrand:

” Such is the fate of great men ! So it was with Caesar and Alexander.   And I, too, am forgotten.   And the name of a conqueror and an emperor is a college theme!   Our exploits are tasks given to pupils by their tutor, who sit in judgment upon us, awarding censure or praise.   And mark what is soon to become of me!   Assassinated by the English oligarchy, I die before my time ; and my dead body, too, must return to the earth, to become food for worms.   Behold the destiny, near at hand, of him who has been called the great Napoleon!   What an abyss between my deep misery and the eternal reign of Christ, which is proclaimed, loved, adored, and which is extending over all the earth!   Is this to die?   Is it not rather to live?   The death of Christ!   It is the death of God.”

For a moment the Emperor was silent. As General Bertrand made no reply, he solemnly added, ” If you do not perceive that Jesus Christ is God, very well, then I did wrong to make you a general.”

And this statement, also to General Bertrand:

“The conversation at St. Helena very frequently turned upon the subject of religion. One day Napoleon was speaking of the divinity of Christ. General Bertrand said,

” I can not conceive, sire, how a great man like you can believe that the Supreme Being ever exhibited himself to men under a human form, with a body, a face, mouth, and eyes. Let Jesus be whatever you please—the highest intelligence, the purest heart, the most profound legislator, and, in all respects, the most singular being who has ever existed—I grant it. Still he was simply a man, who taught his disciples, and deluded credulous people, as did Orpheus, Confucius, Brama. Jesus caused himself to be adored because his predecessors Isis and Osiris, Jupiter and Juno, had proudly made themselves objects of worship. The ascendancy of Jesus over his time was like the ascendancy of the gods and the heroes of fable. If Jesus has impassioned and attached to his chariot the multitude, if he has revolutionized the world, I see in that only the power of genius and the action of a commanding spirit, which vanquishes the world as so many conquerors have done— Alexander, Caesar, you, sire, and Mohammed—with a sword.”

Napoleon promptly replied,

” I know men, and I tell you that Jesus Christ is not a man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires, and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist. There is between Christianity and whatever other religion the distance of infinity.”

 I say these statements were purportedly made by Napoleon because controversy surrounds these and similar statements allegedly made by Napoleon about Christ on Saint Helena.  Go here for some background on the difficulty of confirming these quotes.

  I believe some of the statements attributed to Napoleon about Christ were uttered by him.  They have a Napoleonic ring to them in that they show his characteristic style:  his use of classical allusions, his tendency to declaim rather than argue, his sense of history, etc.  Napoleon had literary ambitions in his youth, and his overall style of speaking and writing stayed rather consistent throughout his career.  Napoleon also loved to talk.  When he had nothing else to occupy his attention he would burn off energy by talking.  That he gave lengthy monologues about Christ and many other topics while in captivity is not to be doubted.  That some “gilding the lilly” of the core statements went on as time passed is also not to be doubted, but I do believe that there is a hard core of accurate statements, including the two I have set forth above, regarding Napoleon’s views of Christ.

  Although often portrayed as a Deist or an atheist, Napoleon was throughout most of his life a bad Catholic.  Metternich, Napoleon’s greatest foe and shrewdest observer, summarized Napoleon’s religion as follows:     “Napoleon was not irreligious in the ordinary sense of the word. He would not admit that there had ever existed a genuine atheist; he condemned Deism as the result of rash speculation.   A Christian and a Catholic, he recognized in religion alone the right to govern human societies.   He looked on Christianity as the basis of all real civilization; and considered Catholicism as the form of worship most favorable to the maintenance of order and the true tranquility of the moral world; Protestantism as a source of trouble and disagreements.   Personally indifferent to religious practices, he respected them too much to permit the slightest ridicule of those who followed them. It is possible that religion was, with him, more the result of an enlightened policy than an affair of sentiment; but whatever might have been the secret of his heart, he took care never to betray it.”

That a bad Catholic might strive to become a good Catholic as he approaches his end is not to be marveled at.  Here is the text of Napoleon’s will.  Napoleon begins it: ” I DIE in the Apostolical Roman religion, in the bosom of which I was born more than fifty years since.”   Perhaps more significant is this legacy to his son, whom he loved more than anyone else:

“1. The consecrated vessels which have been in use at my Chapel at Longwood.

2. I direct Abbé Vignali to preserve them, and to deliver them to my son when he shall reach the age of sixteen years.”

Is this only of antiquarian interest?  Perhaps.  However it is a testament to the power of Christ that a man who was frequently called the anti-Christ during his public career would end his days stating his belief in Him.  Powers and principalities, and the men and women who lead them, come and go.  Christ remains.

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18 Comments

  1. I think the operative words here are “while imprisoned on St Helena” (and knowing he would die there).
    For most of his career he certainly showed no sign of being God-fearing and certainly disrespected the Church, to put it mildly. His earlier attitude seems to have been that religion was B, but useful for promoting public morality.

  2. Not entirely. He never appears to have fallen into the atheism so fashionable among French revolutionary elites, and he often rebuked officers who were disrespectful of the Church. He took a very utilitarian view of religion in this Vale of Tears, but the mystery of what lay beyond always kept him from totally abandoning his childhood faith.

  3. “For a moment the Emperor was silent. As General Bertrand made no reply, he solemnly added, ” If you do not perceive that Jesus Christ is God, very well, then I did wrong to make you a general.””
    .
    Indeed.

  4. Mary’s comment makes as strong case that he is not Christian at all. If Napoleon made use of religion for utilitarian purposes, then he is worse than agnostic. He crossed the rubicon so to speak.

  5. Rick: “Mary’s comment makes as strong case that he is not Christian at all. If Napoleon made use of religion for utilitarian purposes, then he is worse than agnostic. He crossed the rubicon so to speak.”
    .
    We cannot know what were Napoleon’s true intentions, if he, himself, knew. It is the nature of man. To ascribe to Napoleon such intentions as utilitarian and agnosticism would violate the Eighth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against they neighbor.” Perjury in a court of law.

  6. Amazing information ! Napoleon must be in heaven. He was better than those evil men who led the french revolution. France needs a brave leader more than ever…

  7. “If Napoleon made use of religion for utilitarian purposes, then he is worse than agnostic.”

    I don’t think so. Many great Christians throughout history have recognized the positive impact of Christianity upon society starting with Saint Paul. St. Justin Martyr made it a key argument in his apologias addressed to the Roman emperors. Napoleon was not naturally a religious man, but I think throughout his life he was puzzled by, and ultimately attracted to, the center of all History: Christ.

  8. Catching up on reading the TAC posts. This is a very good one that I perhaps missed in 2008. As for Napoleon, he may have been a conquering megalomaniac, but even megalomaniacs can recognize Who truly rules this universe. I have never been a fan of Napoleon, but I cannot wish that he went to hell in spite of what he did to Europe.

  9. He certainly abused not one but two popes, Pius Vi and Pius VII, the latter of whom he insulted by crowning himself emperor as the pope sat by. Actually, maybe that was a good thing. Napoleon’s crown had jewels in it that he had stolen from the tiara of Pius VI. Napoleon’s mother was very devout, lived in Rome, and was a friend of Blessed Ana Maria Taigi.

  10. I believe that I am too tall to suffer from a “Napolean Complex.”
    .
    And, in charity, I hope that N. came to a “better mind” while he was in exile.

  11. In my opinion, Napoleon did not have a right to the title of Emperor. For every person he killed to gain, and then keep, that title, he is guilty of murder.
    I suppose that sounds quite black-and-white.

  12. It’s complex Mico. I am no fan of the Corsican Adventurer but there is truth in his statement that he did not steal the throne of France, but picked it up from the gutter with his sword. He gave France probably the best government it had known up to his time. He stopped the persecutions of the French Revolution and restored the Church to France. His Code Napoleon is still used around the globe. My view of Napoleon echoes this passage from the Star Trek episode Space Seed:

    “KIRK: Name, Khan, as we know him today. (Spock changes the picture) Name, Khan Noonien Singh.
    SPOCK: From 1992 through 1996, absolute ruler of more than a quarter of your world. From Asia through the Middle East.
    MCCOY: The last of the tyrants to be overthrown.
    SCOTT: I must confess, gentlemen. I’ve always held a sneaking admiration for this one.
    KIRK: He was the best of the tyrants and the most dangerous. They were supermen, in a sense. Stronger, braver, certainly more ambitious, more daring.
    SPOCK: Gentlemen, this romanticism about a ruthless dictator is
    KIRK: Mister Spock, we humans have a streak of barbarism in us. Appalling, but there, nevertheless.
    SCOTT: There were no massacres under his rule.
    SPOCK: And as little freedom.
    MCCOY: No wars until he was attacked.
    SPOCK: Gentlemen.
    KIRK: Mister Spock, you misunderstand us. We can be against him and admire him all at the same time.
    SPOCK: Illogical.
    KIRK: Totally. This is the Captain. Put a twenty four hour security on Mister Khan’s quarters, effective immediately.”

  13. Donald R Mcclarey wrote, “He gave France probably the best government it had known up to his time… He stopped the persecutions of the French Revolution and restored the Church to France. His Code Napoleon is still used around the globe.”

    Hilaire Belloc said of him that his armies gave a code of laws to a continent and restored the concept of citizenship to civilisation.

  14. Hilaire Belloc tended to lose all sense of proportion when it came to both Napoleon and France. Citizenship was very well established as a concept in the United States and other locales before Napoleon and the Grande Armee tramped through Europe.

  15. It was the generals of the Grande Armée that Napoléon ordered, in every territory it occupied, to proclaim “the abolition of the teind [dîme]; of feus; of rights of superiority, fixed or casual, adstrictions [banalités]; of servitude, real or personal; privileges of chase and fishing; statute labour [corvées].” In short, all privileges of every kind.
    Even when “the kings crept out again to feel the sun,” it proved impossible to restore these abuses.

  16. I think it was Marshal Lefebvre who got to the essence of the liberty brought by France to its subject peoples during Napoleon’s reign. Entering a conquered town he told the inhabitants that now they all were free. He then noted that they should not let it go to their heads and if any of them made a move without his say so, they would be shot.

  17. Donald M McClarey wrote, “if any of them made a move without his say so, they would be shot”
    The judicial murder of Palm, the German bookseller is an indelible stain on Napoléon’s memory, impossible to justify; but Palm is chiefly remembered because such incidents were rare. Even the execution of the Duc d’Enghein was Savary’s action, rather than the First Consul’s.

    Neither the Emperor nor his marshals behaved like Carrier or Saint-Just or the other Deputies on Mission during the Revolutionary Wars.

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