(The American Catholic will observe its tenth anniversary in October. We will be reposting some classic TAC posts of the past. This post is from November 21, 2014. )
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.