Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Age of Napoleon

The Age of Napoleon
© 1975 will Durant
870 pages

Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me – or didn’t.  Will and Ariel Durant intended for Rousseau and Revolution to be the final volume in their epic history of Western Civilization, but grew bored waiting for the Grim Reaper to show up and claim them.  They decided, therefore, to scratch an itch, and devote a final volume to Europe in the age of Napoleon.  No individual has ever dominated a single volume in this fashion; even Charles the Fifth,  in The Reformation, would disappear  in chapters chronicling Persia and Arabia.   But Napoleon’s story encompasses not just France and England, but Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria,  and Russia.  The emperor does move backstage at times – in the chapters on  English poetry and novels, for instance – but he is never completely gone.  This final volume manages through Napoleon’s person to be just as comprehensive, but more tightly bound.

The Durants open with a more involved chronicle of the French revolution that concluded Rousseau and Revolution, this one making more obvious that the revolution was a slow but quickening crumbling of royal legitimacy that collapsed into the chaos of revolution after a few sudden shocks.  The king’s decision to attempt to escape France in fear of his life was one such shock, demonstrating that he was and remained an actor – not a prop.  From here, the Durants follow the Wars of the Coalitions, as the various nations of Eurrope fell in to and out of alliances with or against France, with the enmity between England and France being the only fixed point.  In 1807, with Napoleon  enjoying one of his greatest triumphs – the subjugation of Prussia, and the pretended friendship of Russia –  the Durants pause to cover  both French and English culture, including one hundred pages on English poetry alone.   They then alternate  sections on the culture of Germany, Russia, Italy, Iberia, etc and sections on the Napoleonic wars as they encompassed these regions.

Related to this volume’s unusual dominance by one person is the unusually heavy amount of military coverage here. The Durants typically dispatch wars in  a few sentences, concerned with them only as a background to  the social or political events that develop as a consequence.  There’s no getting away from battles and Napoleon, though, even considering the energy he poured into the political administration of France and Europe, and the long-term effects that energy would have.  The result is not a military history, however; there are no maps of battles.  Instead, the Durants treat the readers with their usual balance of literature, science, economics, etc.   there is a section on Jane Austen, for instance.  Another prominent author, Germaine de Staël,  maintained a long rivalry with Napoleon; she wrote a celebratory survey of German culture that pined for more amity between France and the Germans, and was present in Russia when Napoleon drove towards Moscow.  Beethoven, of course, merits a full section of his own.

Napoleon reliably described himself as a Son of the Revolution, even though his policies ended some revolutionary dreams.  His concordant with Rome, for instance,  re-established the Catholic Church in France, albeit in a corralled form. That was a far cry from the total secularization (or de-christianization, depending on the revolutionary), dreamed of by many – those who redrew the calendar and butchered France's artistic legacies,  those who in a just heaven will be consigned to  war forever with the whitewashing Puritans and the sculpture-smashing Wahhabis,   as well as others who would destroy art and heritage for ideology. Napoleon did apply much of the revolutionary, modernizing spirit to those parts of Europe he conquered  -- overwriting their ancient laws and traditions with constitutions from his own pen.   Although Napoleon kept faith with some of the past as convenient -- his concordant with Rome, for instance -- the Durants observe that in his army and state,  merit reigned, allowing even commoners to advance.

Although the Napoleonic wars have never been of great interest to me, the Durants' volume created an actual enthusiasm in me about the subject. As usual, I was impressed with their critical but forgiving evaluation of Napoleon, whom they regard as one of the singular men of history.  His reputation owes not just to his role in closing the violence of the revolution, or in his spectacular battles -- but pouring so much energy into his work, and being so successful in combat and in administration, that he transformed Europe,  planting seeds that would flourish throughout the 19th century. A century after his final defeat at Waterloo, an even greater war -- one spurred by changes Napoleon wrought -- would be harrowing the soil of France in blood, bones, and cannon once more.

And now, dear readers, what's next in Will Durant's Story of Civilization?



  1. excellent, even-handed commentary... makes me want to grab some Durant... i get a kick out of MME De Stael's comment re men and dogs... she was married for a while to Benjamin Constant, at one time a fairly well known author...

  2. Constant showed up, too! I'd never heard of de Stael before reading this. Of course, Durant's warm, humane view is present in his smaller works, too, like "Heroes of History".

  3. Napoleon was a GIANT of the 19th century and you simply can't understand it without constant reference to him. The 19th is my 2nd favourite century I think. There's so much that started there that's still working out the consequences of today.

    1. Out of curiosity, what is your first favorite century? The 20th?

    2. Yes, it is... although I do find the 15th increasingly fascinating.

      Although I do love History I'm not really one to dwell on the past of think that we are some sort of degenerate rump of a previous Golden Age. Despite all of the present problems this is still the best time to be around. Previous ages might have been simpler - actually previous decades seem simpler - but that's seeing things through a Romantic lens. You can imagine a world without AIDS, Nukes and International Terrorism but it would also be an age without the Internet, jet flight, MRI scanners & anti-biotics....


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