Napoleon: Aristocratic,Militarist Reactionary (3/3).

(Background see here, here and here.)

Why Study Napoleon?

Practical Reasons for Studying Napoleon.

Let’s get the practical reasons out of the way first.

Why Study Napoleon?

A: 1: Because he was a “Great Man”.

At the very least, Napoleon deserves study because he was a ruler who exercised power both in the civil realm and on the battlefield.

2: Because Napoleon offers an example of reactionary engineering:

herefore, my own designs are inspired by the experience of Hitler, Muhammad, and Jesus. As well as Octavian, Franco, and William I. Also important to my thinking are Frederick the Great, Mussolini, and Napoleon. And we can’t forget a few American luminaries, such as Ben Hill, J. Edgar Hoover, and Harry Hopkins. History is largely the study of political force, which is an extension of military force. Generals must study generalship by studying battles – any battles, all battles, without regard to the character or merits of the participants. Those who aim to design any system of political force must likewise learn from any and all parties, leaders and movements of the past, American or foreign, vicious or virtuous.

Mencius Moldbug.

There is no such creature as “political engineering”. In correspondence, Moldbug rejects this criticism categorically; citing the school of thought dating back to Machiavelli and historical examples such as Napoleon’s legal code, which persisted across continental Europe long after the emperor himself was permanently dethroned. Maybe there’s something here.

Adam Gurri.

3: Napoleon provides a case study of the problems, challenges and difficulties that any ruler – reactionary or otherwise – will have to confront – especially in a nation deeply infected with leftism.

We explored some of the difficulties here and below we examine some what he did in the years 1800-1804. (See here for a fuller exploration).

Finally, the example of Napoleon is instructive because of the dangers that men like him represent. This speaks more to absolutism than a system where the sovereign can be replaced. 

Within the Machiavellian tradition, one would expect a certain type of person to rise to the top in political struggles. The qualities that make for political success – courage, intelligence, ruthlessness, charisma – can also make for spectacular failure.

Thus, considerable criticism is warranted of Napoleon’s foreign policy in the years after 1804 and especially after the battle of Tilsit.

Napoleon, after becoming emperor, and especially after marrying Marie Louise had effectively “won”.

That is to say that by marrying into the royalist social network he had brought France full circle after the Revolution. Napoleon had laid the foundation for a stable and peaceful France and had the possibility of a stable and peaceful Europe. That Napoleon choose war is to be criticized, both on moral grounds, but also, crucially, on strategic ones as well.

Napoleon had only to while away the years until his son succeeded him. In the meantime, his energies should have been spent developing the economy, science, technology and urban and cultural centers of France.

In short, Napoleon needed to effect a transition from Caesar to Augustus. 

But he was psychologically incapable of doing so. (We have more to say about this here and here.)

Paradoxically, however, Napoleon’s failure was a strange one, depending on your viewpoint because, as we will see from Metternich below, the France that Napoleon handed over was not the France of the Revolution but the counterrevolution.


1: Napoleon: Reactionary or Counterrevolutionary?

What is a reactionary?

What is a counterrevolutionary?

What is a liberal?

Is the meaning invariant – does it mean the same thing across all time and in all places?

Carl’s understanding of how these terms were used in post-revolutionary France is superior to our own, so perhaps he can help clear things up.

His reply to our first essay was to draw a distinction between counterrevolution and restoration; he considers himself a counterrevolutionary but would be happy to see a more “vanilla” restoration. (But what is that?)

The term “reaction-reactionary” as in the “Thermidorean reaction” would make no historical sense if applied to Napoleon.

Reaction, in the sense of Thermidoreans, could be summed as up as neither Monarchy nor Terror.

What about “counterrevolutionary”?

In his first post, Carl writes:

Ultimately, the purpose of this blog is to bring back counterrevolutionary, feudal and aristocratic thought to the forefront and use it to critique the modern right along with modernity in general.

Napoleon could more accurately be described as a “counterrevolutionary” and someone who represented the martial virtues that true Aristocracy is based on. Napoleon, however, as Marx claimed, swept away feudalism, so there is that.

Carl correctly identifies the core of the issue with the following question:

This is an important historiographic contention: is Napoleon the culmination of the Revolution, or is he the bearer of an independent epoch?

We answer that the regime Napoleon created was the beginning of an independent epoch. It was not a full restoration, but it not the culmination of the Revolution.

If you like, you could call it an “imperial revolution.”

For starters, Prince Metternich considered Napoleon a counterrevolutionary:

August 29, 1823. — There was but one single man in France who understood how to master the Revolution, and that man was Bonaparte. The King’s Government inherited from him, not the Revolution, but the counter-Revolution….

Memoirs of Prince Metternich. 

Frank McLynn offers the following argument that Napoleon was “in no sense” an heir of the “Revolution”. McLynn:

It will be clear enough from the foregoing that in no sense can Napoleon be considered an heir of the French Revolution and its principles. It is possible to see him as a man of the Revolution “only if one ignores the social and political tendencies of the early years 1789 – 93, to say nothing of the radical phase in 1793 – 94. Those who claim that Napoleon was in tune with Revolutionary principles are forced back on the absurd argument that the Revolution was really about returning to the status quo ante, before the legacy of the American war of 1775 – 83, which almost bankrupted France, forced Louis XVI to tamper with a fragile social fabric. On this view the Revolution was purely an economic and administrative transformation, and Jacobinism was simply the Revolution taking a wrong turning; equality and fraternity and all the rest of it was just so much hot air. Another influential view is that French history is a perennial quest for social order, which is why it is punctuated by bouts of absolutism and Caesarism; the obvious implication is that Napoleon was an organic growth but the Revolution was an aberration.

Napoleon. Frank McLynn.

On this point then, it would be better to Napoleon not as a culmination of the Revolution, but the culmination of centuries of the state slowly centralizing power. This culmination of the centralizing state (which necessarily included a military machine) was foreseen by Guibert:

Among men like these let there arise— there cannot but arise— some vast genius. He will lay hands, as it were, on the knowledge of all the community, will create the political system, put himself at the head of the machine and give the impulse of its movement.

Guibert. Quoted from The Campaigns of Napoleon. David Chandler.

As for Aristocracy, we already covered that Napoleon created a new Aristocratic system. Napoleon in making himself emperor and by marrying into the royalist social network demonstrates him as a man who restored, as much as possible and necessary, the old system.

Returning to the question of what is a reactionary, here is Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn definition and then compare Napoleon’s thought and action afterwards:


As a reactionary, I believe in liberty, but not in equality.

Compare with Napoleon:

Napoleon himself always made his position crystal-clear to his intimates. He told them he became disenchanted with the Jacobins very early because they prized equality over liberty. He always favoured the old nobility over the Jacobins.

Napoleon. Frank McLynn.

Two out of three is not bad no when it came to Revolution?

We have done with the romance of the Revolution,’ he told an early meeting of his Conseil État, ‘we must now commence its history.’ Napoleon gave the Conseil direction, purpose and the general lines of policy, which have been accurately summed up as ‘a love of authority, realism, contempt for privilege and abstract rights, scrupulous attention to detail and respect for an orderly social hierarchy.

Napoleon the Great. Andrew Roberts.

2: Reactionary Ethos: Master the Mob.

To be a reactionary, one of the necessary conditions – psychologically anyway – is to have an instinctive distrust of the “masses” and a horror of anarchy and chaos.

One becomes a reactionary when one reacts against madness, stupidity and weakness.

And Napoleon, as Carlyle admits, had a “heart-hatred” for anarchy.


Napoleon, in his first period, was a true Democrat. And yet by the nature of him, fostered too by his military trade, he knew that Democracy, if it were a true thing at all, could not be an anarchy: the man had a heart-hatred for anarchy. On that Twentieth of June (1792), Bourrienne and he sat in a coffee-house, as the mob rolled by: Napoleon expresses the deepest contempt for persons in authority that they do not restrain this rabble.

Here is a long passage, taken from Andrew Robert’s Napoleon the Great that shows us what Carlyle is referring to:

 Napoleon was in Paris on June 20, 1792 when the mob invaded the Tuileries, captured Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and forced the king to wear a red cap of liberty on the palace balcony. Bourrienne had met him at a restaurant on the rue Saint-Honoré, and when they saw a heavily armed crowd marching towards the palace, he claims that Napoleon said, ‘Let’s follow the rabble.’ Taking their place on the riverside terrace, they then watched with (presumably well-disguised) ‘surprise and indignation’ the historic scenes that followed. Two days later Napoleon described them to Joseph:


Bourrienne later reported that Napoleon remarked: ‘What madness! How could they allow that rabble to enter? Why do they not sweep away four or five hundred of them with cannon? Then the rest would take themselves off very quickly.’ The humiliation of the royal family on that occasion further lowered the monarchy in Napoleon’s estimation. He supported the toppling of the king but could not understand why Louis XVI had meekly allowed himself to be humiliated. As it was, the royal couple had less than two months of this hazardous liberty left to them.

Napoleon the Great. Andrew Roberts.

Don Dombosky in Nietzsche on Napoleon cites Gustave Le Bon’s judgement that, while Napoleon saw through “democratic illusions”, he made use of them:

Gustave Le Bon, the famous innovator of crowd psychology, comments that Napoleon was ‘suspicious of large and incompetent assemblies of popular origin’……he was ‘not bewildered by democratic illusions’ and felt ‘disgust for the [French] revolution and the sovereignty of the populace’ (anti-democratic)….

3: Napoleon’s Sex Realism.

A necessary condition to be a reactionary would require one to be a “sex realist.”

Carl quickly moves over Napoleon’s social and legal reforms regarding women.

Undiscovered Jew provides Alexander Hamilton’s view of what the Revolution had done to the family:

Equal pains have been taken to deprave the morals as to extinguish the religion of the country, if indeed morality in a community can be separated from religion. It is among the singular and fantastic vagaries of the French revolution, that while the Duke of Brunswick was marching to Paris, a new law of divorce was passed; which makes it as easy for a husband to get rid of his wife, and a wife of her husband, as to discard a worn out habit. To complete the dissolution of those ties, which are the chief links of domestic and ultimately of social attachment, the Journals of the Convention record with guilty applause accusations preferred by children against the lives of their parents.

What then of the legal reforms?

Fearing the disintegration of the family as the basic social institution, the framers of the Code gave the paterfamilias almost total power, including over the property of his wife.

Article 213 of the Civil Code stated: ‘A husband owes protection to his wife, a wife obedience to her husband.Grounds for divorce were restricted to adultery (and then only if the husband introduced a permanent mistress into the family household), conviction of a serious crime, and grave insults or cruelty, but it could also be obtained by mutual agreement so long as the grounds were kept private. A wife could be imprisoned for two years for adultery, while a man would only be fined. A husband would not be prosecuted if he murdered his wife caught in flagrante. The Code protected married and single men from having to support an illegitimate child, or even being identified as the father. It also prevented women from making legal contracts, taking part in lawsuits, serving as a witness in court or to births, deaths or marriages. Wives could not sell produce in markets without their husbands’ permission, and were forbidden to give, sell or mortgage property without their husbands’ written consent. Unmarried women could not be legal guardians or witness wills. In all this, the Code reflects Napoleon’s profound sexism: ‘Women should not be looked upon as bearers of children.

Napoleon the Great. Andrew Roberts.

The most reactionary aspect of the Code, however, was its treatment of women. Until 1794 feminism and women’s rights enjoyed halcyon days: in September 1792 the revolutionaries enacted a law allowing divorce by mutual consent, with the unsurprising result that for the rest of the 1790s one in three French marriages ended in divorce. The Directory had attempted to reverse the progressive legislation of 1791 – 94, but the death blow to feminist aspirations was dealt by the Code Napoléon.

Napoleon. Frank McLynn.

Napoleon’s answer to Madame de Staël, on what kind of women are best, was “those who have the most children.”

Napoleon was pretty based.

4: Napoleon on the Need for Religion.

Despite the fact that Napoleon was a deist, he understood the importance and had a respect for religion. As Metternich remarked:

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 favourable 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.

He was also much impressed with the idea of deriving the origin of supreme authority from the Divinity. He said to me one day at Compiegne, shortly after his marriage with the Archduchess, ‘ I see that the Empress, in writing to her father, addresses her letter to His Sacred and Imperial Majesty. Is this title customary with you ? ‘ I told him that it was, from the tradition of the old German Empire, which bore the title of the Holy Empire, and because it was also attached to the Apostolic crown of Hungary. Napoleon then replied, in a grave tone :—’ It is a fine custom, and a good expression. Power comes from God, and it is that alone which places it beyond the attacks of men. Hence I shall adopt the title some day.

Memoirs of Prince Metternich. 

A reactionary need not be religious, though he must recognize the importance of religion – if that religion is useful for peace, order, security, law and liberty:

The idea of God is very useful,’ Napoleon said, ‘to maintain good order, to keep men in the path of virtue and to keep them from crime.’ ‘To robbers and galley slaves, physical restrictions are imposed,’ he said to Dr Barry O’Meara on St Helena, ‘to enlightened people, moral ones.’

Napoleon the Great. Andrew Roberts.

5: Napoleon: Aristocratic Radical.

Here, we explored Nietzsche’s belief that Napoleon was model for his preferred political system. Don Dombosky summarized Nietzsche’s view of Napoleon as follows:

Nietzsche admires and elevates Napoleon’s character as an example against modern moral softening, against the Christian ‘evil eye’ for our ‘natural inclinations’ .

Nietzsche’s political philosophy, his Aristocratic Radicalism, is neither fascist nor liberal democratic but is rather a type or species of Bonapartism….

Nietzsche on Napoleon.

Napoleon, then, represents a certain type of reactionary ruler and regime. One considerably different to two other types either of the “priestly” or “shop-keeping” kind.

Again, we explore Metternich, Carlyle and Nietzsche complimentary and contrasting views of Napoleon here in more depth.


Napoleon is a reactionary – an Aristocratic, Militarist Reactionary.

The central reason why he should be studied (especially the years 1800 to 1804) is the example he provides of reactionary political engineering.

Here we outlined nine areas worthy of study:

2: Master of the Revolution.

3: Master of War.

4: Master of Religion.

5: Master of Law and Order.

6: Master of Coin.

7: Master of Education.

8: Master of the Cathedral.

9: Master of the Masses.

10: Master of France.

On the other hand, he should also be studied for his mistakes, and the dangers that men like him represent when they have absolute power.

What, if any, kind of responsibility or fail-safe mechanism can there be to restrain men like Napoleon who, to paraphrase Goethe, pick their fight with the universe itself?




9 thoughts on “Napoleon: Aristocratic,Militarist Reactionary (3/3).

  1. Your second part, which cut through such wide topics as absolutism, Christian universalism and instrumentalism, was a broad enough manifesto that it covers subjects I will be writing about in detail in the future — my blog still being in the early phases, and it isn’t strictly oriented around any Grundrisse format of stating analytical principles.

    It seems to me that Frank McLynn does not consider the Directory period following the fall of Robespierre to be revolutionary. J.F. Bosher deals with this. The original Thermidorian moment subsided and the Directory proceeded to (if more slowly) radicalize again esp. through 18 Fructidor. Most Thermidorians were Jacobins who defected from the camp due to the tense public safety situation, but largely did not revise their principles significantly.

    Whether or not Napoleon had an orthodox or merely instrumentalist view of religion, the Concordat and the Organic Articles presented an intensified version of Gallicanism, and the biens nationaux were not restored. True, you could write that off as absolutist status quo — to an extent.

    Metternich’s comment is interesting. It’s also true in a strict sense, since the Restoration did largely inherit and keep intact the reforms of the Consulate, and had civic equality in its Charter. But it was to a degree because of Louis XVIII’s need to satisfy foreign powers by passing the Declaration of St-Ouen to satisfy the demands set by the Treaty of Paris (1814). Many ultras were against it. There were two periods of counterrevolutionary radicalization: at the very beginning with the chambre introuvable and at the very end with the Polignac ministry. Anti-sacrilege/anti-blasphemy laws were nevertheless passed, for instance.

    Being suspicious of mobs and the rabble is a trait shared by everyone from ultra-royalists to managerial social liberals.


    1. “Being suspicious of mobs and the rabble is a trait shared by everyone from ultra-royalists to managerial social liberals.”

      Yes, but a reactionary differs very much in what is to be done about them. We thought that would go without saying.


    2. “Whether or not Napoleon had an orthodox or merely instrumentalist view of religion, the Concordat and the Organic Articles presented an intensified version of Gallicanism, and the biens nationaux were not restored. True, you could write that off as absolutist status quo — to an extent.”

      It was instrumental. Yet his instrumental instincts aligned with tradition.


  2. “Until 1794 feminism and women’s rights enjoyed halcyon days . . .”

    Did those come from Christianity? Or atheist Masons?


    1. A long development of certain strands of Christian ethics in the context of unsecure power.

      The Reformation shattered the glass and the anarchic, early fires, of Christianity were stoked once more.

      It was a long process, with many mutations. In fairness, “Christianity” is not really to blame – no one is.


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