Napoleon, Hegelian hero

Author(s) : BROUSSARD Nicolas
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The originality of the Hegelian philosophy lies in its philosophical, rather than historical interpretation of Napoleonic politics. The powerful admiration of Hegel for Napoleon, admiration stressed by all the commentators of the german philosopher, admiration shared equally by one of the most famous interpreters of Hegel, A. Kojève, matters little here.
What is important is that Hegel’s perspective is not historical, but philosophical : by pondering over universal history, Hegel intended to draw the philosophical meaning from Napoleonic politics. In terms of his philosophy, Hegel does not look at the world from the point of view of original history, nor from the point of view of reflexive history, but ascends to the point of view of philosophical history (1). This is why understanding the Hegelian interpretation requires first an understanding of the Hegelian philosophy of history. What are its dominant features, which apply here? I would say there are three which suffice. First, that universal history is ruled by the Absolute; then, that the Absolute is realized dialectically and progressively in the dramas, comedies and tragedies of history; finally, that heroes, nations and states constitute the successive instruments of the accomplishment of the Absolute. Here is the famous Hegelian theme of the guile of Reason, of the artifice of Reason that Hegel probably borrowed from Greek tragedy.

As far as the philosophy of history is concerned, what is the first trait of the Hegelian vision of the Napoleonic hero ? A famous passage is often quoted. It is an extract from the letter Hegel addressed from Iena to his friend Niethammer, October 13th, 1806, when he had just finished writing The Phenomenology of Mind : ” I saw the Emperor -this soul of the world- go out from the city to survey his reign; it is a truly wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrating on one point while seated on a horse, stretches over the world and dominates it. ” (Correspondance, T. I, p.114). The fact that the greatest philosopher of modernity finished writing The Phenomenology of Mind on the eve of Napoleon’s entrance into Iena, one of those events which ” happen once every hundred or thousand years ” cannot be, in an Hegelian perspective, the result of historical contingency because the beginning of the end of political history coincides with the end of philosophy : Napoleon achieves on the level of action what Hegel carries out on the level of thought. Napoleon realizes the Absolute about whose science Hegel expounds in The Phenomenology of Mind.

However, what is the knowledge we can gain from the scene described by Hegel ? That day, Hegel did not have to say his morning prayer, that is, he did not have to read the newspapers, because the historical reality, the actualization of the Absolute was happening before his very eyes. Furthermore, Hegel saw Napoleon go out from the city and go on reconnaissance, but Napoleon himself did not see Hegel : Hegel knew therefore what Napoleon was doing while Napoleon did not know what Hegel was doing.

Napoleon was, therefore, carrying out, without knowing, the Hegelian philosophy of history : instrument of the Absolute on the scene of the world, Napoleon was becoming the hero of modern history. Finally, if Napoleon’s action consisted of a tangible actualization of the Absolute, such action must have been aesthetically beautiful. This is why Hegel wrote to his friend Niethammer that ” it is a wonderful sensation to see such an individual ” : Napoleon’s action was both extraordinary and admirable.

What could be, then, the second feature of Hegel’s Napoleonic hero ? Hegel admires Napoleon because he is a man of action : this is why, in the above mentioned extract, Hegel wrote to Niethammer that Napoleon goes out from the city to go on reconnaissance, whereas the historical hero, being a man of action, is a constant feature of the Hegelian philosophy of history. As Hegel wrote in Elements of the Philosophy of Right (& 348) : ” At the forefront of all actions, hence of historical actions, stand individuals or subjectivities which effectively cause the substantial reality to occur. ” In Lectures on the Philosophy of History, written a few years later, Hegel teaches his students that historical heroes ” are practical-minded men. ” (p.35). Napoleon, like Alexander and Caesar, is thus a man of action : he is not what he thinks, neither what he hides, but what he does. In The Phenomenology of Mind, he had already developed this idea : ” The real being of man lies rather in his deed; it is in this deed that individuality is effective… the individual is what this deed is. ” (p.231). While writing these sentences, Hegel may have thought of Napoleon. This is the quite plausible hypothesis of J. Hyppolite, great commentator of Hegel :

“The acting individuality, ” he wrote, ” here is the concrete mind Hegel considers ; it is not impossible,” he continued, ” that he thinks of the great men of action of whom history gives us so many examples… It seems we have to evoke, as much as the romantic figures, a particular figure who must have haunted his imagination. That is Napoleon.”
Napoleon appears to be the “man of action” who revealed to man his creative possibilities (Genesis and structure of the Phenomenology of Mind, p.478) (2). But if the historical hero is a man of action, then a psychology of the historical hero is useless and vain. Why ? Because it is always a ” servant ” psychology. Hegel, in the Lectures, mentions the words of Goethe : ” There is no hero for his servant according to a famous saying, I added – and Goethe said it again ten years afterwards – not because the man is not a hero, but because the other is the servant. ” (p.36). The servant psychology reverses the order of knowledge because the conquests, and not the desire of conquering, explain the historical hero, and, because ” the small psychological mind ” belittles the great man. Moreover, the Hegelian reputation of vulgar psychologism has, as a consequence, the justification of the historical action of the hero : certainly the historical hero, like Napoleon, can act by infringing upon the laws of morals and of rights, he can trample down ” many an innocent flower, ” ” ruin many a thing on his way, ” (Lectures, p.37) but his action is justified because while pursuing his goal, he contributes to the actualization of the Absolute : isn’t the history of the world, in Hegel’s opinion, the justice of the world ?
Hero because he is the man of action who makes the Absolute effective, Napoleon is also one because he knows what he is doing : he is a hero because he knows “what is necessary and what to do when the time comes” (Lectures, p.35). The historical heroes, including Napoleon, know ” the truth of their times and their worlds because they are aware of the historical necessity : that is why, like Alexander and Caesar, Napoleon is a wise man because he knows the nature of his era. ” If his knowledge is both eminent and incomparable, then the hero cannot be advised. What Hegel writes about great men, in the Lectures, applies for Napoleon : ” What they would have learned from others in terms of plans and well-meaning advice would have been, on the contrary, more narrow-minded and more wrong ; because they knew best what was at hand. ” Consequently, the hero teaches, educates and elevates souls : therefore, the Hegelian hero is not a despot because he does not rule souls, but because those souls let him lead them. The Hegelian vision of the Napoleonic hero is thus, I would say, quite the opposite of the vision that Benjamin Constant had at the same period : Benjamin Constant, a Montesquieu disciple, thought that Napoleon’s political action, essentially warlike and conquering in his view, was anachronistic because the modern world was, according to Constant, characterized by the pre-eminence of trade. Napoleon is not, in Hegel’s view, anachronistic because he is, using the Platonic vocabulary, ” the soul of the world “, he constitutes therefore the principle of unity and movement of the modern world : Napoleon is at the forefront of the historical actuality because he is an actor of it.
In other words, Napoleon is an historical hero because he knows the historical changes that must be accomplished, and because he makes these changes. Of course, his knowledge is not the panoramic knowledge of the philosopher who knows, like Hegel, the direction and purpose of world history. But if his knowledge is partial, it corresponds nevertheless to the historical situation in which he is acting : Napoleon makes history, but he does not fully know the history he is making. Actor of history, instrument of the Absolute, scholar among the ignorants, victim of historical necessity. As we will see now, here is the quadruple character which defines the Hegelian Napoleon.
On the scene of a modern world, Napoleon is the epic hero, not because he would be some sort of demigod, not because he would be ” der erscheinende Gott, “(3) the god who appears, but because he ” situates himself at the head of the events… because they must be connected to his own person, occur and be resolved by him. ” (Aesthetics, B, 4, p.308), but he is also a tragic and pathetic hero. In the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel wrote that Caesar perished a murder victim, Alexander died exhausted by conquests and Napoleon died while exiled on an island. He also wrote in Elements of the Philosophy of Right (& 348) that the actions of historical heroes ” bring them neither honor nor gratitude from their contemporaries or from public opinion of posterity. ” For what reasons was Napoleon’s destiny to be tragic and his end pathetic ? First, Napoleon was, in the historical sense, only the instrument of the Absolute. If he was only the instrument of the Absolute, he could be only the victim of the historical necessity : Napoleon was to perish because he was playing only a unique and transitory role on the scene of History. That is why Hegel wrote from Nurnberg to his friend Niethammer, April 29th 1814 : ” Great things have happened around us. It is a frightening and fantastic spectacle to see a tremendous genius destroying himself. It is the most tragic thing ever. ” (Correspondance, T.2, p.31). Secondly, history cannot repeat itself : as the Bourbons were twice expelled, Napoleon was twice expelled. Hegel did not believe in the success of Napoleon, back from Elba island (Correspondance, T.1, p.51). The repetition now comical -the Restauration was a farce-, now tragically -the Waterloo battle- of the historical failure demonstrates that the fundamental category of history is to Hegel the one of a change both necessary and irreversible. Napoleon was to fail, failure that Hegel said he foresaw in the Phenomenology (Correspondance, T.2, p.31), because the Absolute was leaving France, crossing the Rhine to go and objectivize itself in the Prussian state. Napoleon, tragic hero, is also a pathetic hero in Hegel’s perspective because nothing great in the world is made without passion : Napoleon’s destiny could not be happy, it had to be miserable. Napoleon did not attain ” a quiet pleasure, ” “his whole life was only toil and sorrow,” and ” his whole nature was only his passion. ” His end was also pathetic because he met only the ingratitude of the world : if the historical hero is at the forefront of his epoch, he cannot be understood by his contemporaries.
Napoleon is not only the epic, tragic and pathetic hero of the modern history, he is also a hero on the level of practical philosophy – on the level of the philosophy of war, rights and State.
Hegel certainly admired in Napoleon a general who flies from victory to victory. But military science did not interest Hegel as much as it inspired, at the same period, Clausewitz, the Prussian general and patriot who was fascinated by Napoleon and whom he calls, in De la Guerre (5, 3, p.309), ” the greatest war leader of modern times. ” In the emperor of the French, Hegel admires first of all the general : how could he forget the victory of the Great Army on the Prussian army he observed in Iena ?
How could he forget the entrance of ” the French soldiers ” followed by the regular troops in Iena, ” the bivouac fires of the French battalions “, the blaze of the city ? (Correspondance, T.1, p.114). ” Nobody had imagined a war such as the one we saw ” he wrote October, 24, 1806, to Niethammer. In 1822, at Waterloo, like Chateaubriand who had attended the battle from far away, the Commentaires by Caesar in hand (4), Hegel confesses again his admiration for Napoleon’s military genius : ” Friday ” he wrote, ” we visited by cabriolet the Waterloo battlefield – and I saw there these plains and hills eternally unforgettable ; I particularly noticed the height covered with wood, from where the visibility can spread a few miles around, and from where Napoleon, the prince of battles, had established and lost his throne. ” (Correspondance, T.2, p.310) (5). From 1806 to 1822, the Hegelian vision of Napoleon did not change : Napoleon is the general who develops, at a point in time and space, a ubiquitous and panoramic vision of the world.
If Hegel is not concerned about military science, he nevertheless develops a philosophy of war. More precisely, his vision of history and politics is military. He exposes it spontaneously in a letter to his friend Niethammer, dating from July 5, 1816. While he considers that the Absolute arises henceforth in the Prussian State : ” I stick ” he writes “to this idea that the spirit of time has given the order to move forward. This order has been obeyed ; this being is moving forward irresistibly like an armored and compact phalanx and with a movement as imperceptible as the sun’s, through good and bad roads. Countless light troops, against him and for him, flank him everywhere. ” (Correspondance, T.2, p.81).`
This assimilation of the march of the Absolute to the march of the antique (Greek) infantry can be explained because the fight, first pacific then aggressive, between the States constitutes, in Hegel’s view, the fundamental condition of history of the States so that it forces into movement the historical dialectic. Historical progress is thus the justification of war (Elements of the Philosophy of Right, & 324). At the same time, Hegel names Napoleon “the Prince of battles ” because the victory of the revolutionary and imperial armies have insured that the progress of the Absolute in history would be both irresistible and invincible. But, more precisely, Napoleon is the modern hero because Hegel recognizes in him the traits of the antique hero. ” Prince of the battles “, Napoleon is, like Caesar and Alexander, necessarily a soldier because the soldier both holds the science and exercises the art of conflictuel relationships between States ; moreover, the courage of the Hegelian hero drives him to expose himself, like Napoleon, “to the forefront of all actions. ” The Hegelian hero accepts to give up the vital bonds which attach him to existence and to die free on the battlefield ” the place of heroism.” Napoleon is ” the Prince of battles ” because he embodies and illustrates the antique “virtues ” of the warrior (6).
But, on the other hand, and not any more on the level of international public law, but on the level of national public law, Napoleon is also the modern hero. Hegel does not actually think that the State can be founded on a contract, like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau thought. But rather, he is a disciple of Machiavelli, who, in The Prince, demonstrates that States are historically established by a deed combining guile, strength and violence. The State can certainly seem to lie on an historical foundation, and that is why Hegel reproaches for Napoleon having wanted to impose a ” more rational ” Constitution on Spain (Elements of the Philosophy of Right, & 274), but in the last analysis it lies, in his eyes, on ” the hero’s right ” (Heroenrecht) to found States. What is the Hegelian justification of the heroes’ right ? The heroes’ right is not the law of the strongest because a coup which fails demonstrates at the same time that it was not justified. That is why the coup which succeeds and which introduces law in the morals and in the institutions of a nation is legitimate to Hegel : the heroes’ right is fair because the heroes are, like the Greek heroes, legislators. Therefore Hegel writes in Elements (& 350) : ” This is the absolute right of the Idea to interfere in legal determinations and in the objective institutions which result from marriage and agriculture, that the form of the realization of the Idea appears both like legislation and like a blessing from God, or like violence and injustice. This right is the right of the heroes to found States. ”
Hegel admires, thus, in Napoleon the founder of the modern State. In Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel relates and then justifies the coup of Brumaire, 18th. : “Again arises a government organized like the old one ; but the leader and monarch is now a changeable directoire of five people forming undoubtedly a moral, but not individual, unity. Mistrust was prevailing among them as well and the government was in the hands of the legislative assemblies. It had therefore the same fatal destiny, because the absolute need of a governmental power had made itself felt. Napoleon reinstated it under the form of military power and then placed himself again at the head of the State as a source of individual will ; he knew how to govern and was soon done with the internal. ” (p.342).
Napoleon is thus, to Hegel, the founder of the modern State because its principle is henceforth not the will of all, not the will of a few but the will of the Prince.
Heroic founder of the modern State, Napoleon is also the public and private law teacher. Undoubtedly, Hegel thinks again about Napoleon when he writes in The Principles of the Philosophy of Right (& 215) : ” The rulers who have given a code to their peoples, even if it was an undefined collection, as it was the case for Justinian, but especially when it is a national law, presented under the form of a precise and ordered code, have not only become the greatest benefactors of their peoples who have accordingly glorified them. They also accomplished a great act of justice “. Hegel never saw in Napoleon an usurper, like Benjamin Constant had, nor like Germaine de Staël’s despot, but rather a public and private law teacher. From 1806 to the end of the Empire, Hegel develops this topic in his correspondance. In a letter he addresses from Bamberg to Niethammer August 29, 1807, Hegel writes : ” The German public law teachers are bound to write numerous works about the idea of sovereignty and the meaning of the Confederation’s deeds. The great public law teacher lives in Paris. ” (Correspondance, T.1, p.170). Hegel expects, thus, the Protector of the Rhine Confederation to modify the Bavarian public law. He writes to Niethammer, October 13, 1807 : “It seems that from Paris the last decision did not come yet… which will not only concern the external attribution of territories but will also have – for the best of the peoples – an influence on the internal organization. ” (Correspondance, T.1, p.176). Asking as well from his friend Niethammer (who had become High Counsellor for Schools and Worship at the Bavarian Ministry of Interior) the introduction of a Monitor comparable to the French Monitor, Hegel writes, January 22, 1808 : ” But you do not have even a political Monitor ; to express a word you have the freedom of writing and the press freedom, but no publicity : I mean here that the government exposes to his people the situation of the State, the use of public funds, the servicing of debt, the administrative organization, etc. However, with the new organization in view, many things will undoubtedly come ; here one talks about twelve prefects : will there be a State council and a national representation ?” (Correspondance, T.1, p.191). February, 11, 1808, again writing to Niethammer, Hegel still hopes for the introduction in Bavaria of a constitution inspired by the Westphalian constitution : ” heaven’s will – that is to say the Emperor of the French – must make it work and that the forms of centralization and organization adopted until then disappear, in which there is no justice, no guarantee, no participation of the people, but the arbitrary and the presumptuous judgement of only one. ” (Correspondance, T.1, p.199). Finally, Hegel expects the introduction of a Civil code. Flaying then one of his acquaintances named Van Velden, who as a landowner fears the introduction of the Code, he writes to Niethammer : “I was telling him that the German princes could not avoid to make polite gestures to the Emperor of the French by adopting the work on which he has himself toiled and which he considers as his personal project… But the Germans “, he writes full of bitterness, ” are still blind, exactly like 20 years ago. ” (Correspondance, T.1, p.199) (7). Hegel’s expectations must have been satisfied because the minister Montgelas imposed a new constitution on Bavaria. In a period document dating from May 1, 1808, one can read ” it gives all the rights that citizens of a State can reasonably desire, the abolition of the privileges, hereditary dignities, State guilds of particular provinces, the reunification of the whole Kingdom in a unique body to be judged according to the same laws governed by the same principles, imposed by the same principles… Serfdom is abolished where it still exists. The nobility loses its franchises and pecuniary exemptions and contributes to the public charges in the same proportion as all citizens… The law guarantees to everyone the safety of the person and property, the freedom of conscience, freedom of the press according to the laws established to repress abuses, the equal admission to all the charges, dignities, benefits, a civil and criminal Code common for everyone. ” (Dunan, Les Débuts du Royaume de Bavière) (8).
Prince of the battles, founder of the State, law teacher. Such is Napoleon to Hegel’s eyes, but he is also and above all the organizer of the modern State.
Hegel opens his lessons on Roman history by reporting the famous bit of conversation between Goethe and Napoleon : ” One day he was conversing with Goethe about the nature of tragedy. He expressed then the opinion that the modern tragedy was differing from the old one essentially in that we do not have fate any more of which men will succumb and that in the place of the ancient Fatum has appeared politics. It should thus be used as the modern destiny for tragedy, as the power of circumstances to which the individual has to bend to. ” (Lectures, p.215). Hegel’s interest for politics conceived as a destiny probably lies in his biography : Hegel was the son of a Finances civil servant of the Wurtemberg dukedom who opened the family circle to political and administrative problems. He values as well the historical circumstances : Hegel’s youth coincides with ” this glorious sunrise ” which was to him the French Revolution. Moreover, Hegel lives, writes and teaches in an economically, socially and politically behind-the-times Germany. Politics are thus “the power of circumstances ” which forms Hegel’s individuality. But the conversation between Napoleon and Goethe was of special interest to Hegel – his whole life a reader of Shakespeare (9) – because his vision of history is on the one hand theatrical, and on the other hand political. It is theatrical because world history is the stage on which are played the historical dramas, the comedies and the tragedies whose main actors are historical heroes, nations, States, Empires. But it is also political because world history, ruled by the dialectic and progressive realization of freedom consists in the necessary transition from democracy to aristocracy, then to monarchy. In the theater of modern history, which constitues the last act of the drama of the Absolute, Napoleon is the hero who organizes the State. More precisely, Hegel is the shakespearean philosopher of the Napoleonic drama but he is also, with the State being the divine on earth, the theologian of the Napoleonic State.
The Empire of Napoleon did not interest Hegel, nor was he interested in the Kantian idea of a federation of States realizing a peace both universal and perpetual. We know why : States are individuals whose moral duty should oblige them to keep constant peaceful relationships, but, since they are individuals, they are compelled to exclude each other and to keep sometimes aggressive relationships. But the idea of nation does not fascinate Hegel either: while he was reporting in the Bamberg Newspaper, at the peak of the Empire, the capture of Dantzig, the Friedland battle, the Tilsit peace, the Portugal expedition, the bombing of Copenhagen by Admiral Gambier, the Spanish war and the Erfurt meeting, Fichte, in his Discours à la Nation allemande called on the German elites to defeat the despotism of Napoleon, whom he calls “the man without a name.” It is only the solution brought by Napoleon to the problem of the State which interests Hegel. After the fall of the Empire, the return of the kings and Napoleon’s death, Hegel dedicated himself to political philosophy : he wrote Elements of the Philosophy of Right, published in 1821, the year of Napoleon’s death (10). The coincidence of Napoleon’s disappearance and the publishing of Elements illustrates the Hegelian idea of philosophy being the retrospective thoughts about a bygone world. “As the thought of the world” he writes, ” philosophy appears only at the time when reality has ended the processus of its formation and has accomplished itself. What the concept teaches us, history shows with the same necessity : one must wait until the reality had reached its maturity for the ideal to appear in front of the real, seize the world in its substance and rebuild it under the form of an intellectual empire… Minerva’s owl flies away only at nightfall.” (Prefaces, p.59). In Elements, Hegel brings to light the main traits and ideals of the modern State that Napoleon, in the noise and the furor of the historical fights, had established and organized.
Let us leave it to historians to decide to which extent the political and military reforms carried out, after the 1805 disaster, by the Prussian ministers (Stein and Hardenberg) and generals (Schamhorst ad Gneisenau) imitate or not the model of the French State, revolutionary and imperial. Let us dismiss as well the false idea according to which the Hegelian philosophy of State would only copy the Prussian State, progressive before the fall of Empire, reactionary afterwards.
What matters here are the fundamental traits of the Hegelian State, thus of the modern State, and at the same time, the Napoleonic. What are they? In his admirable Hegel et l’État E. Weil has them perfectly brought out : the Hegelian State is an hereditary and constitutional monarchy. It is strongly centralized in its administration, decentralized on the economical level, with a body of professional civil servants, no State religion, and sovereignty outside and inside. All these traits – apart from the first one which can be discussed – characterize the modern State and correspond to the reality of the Napoleonic State. In particular, the fact that Hegel stresses the monarch’s will (11), the counsellors of the Prince, the role of the government and the administration demonstrates to me that he brings out from the Napoleonic State the nature of the modern State. The originality of the Hegelian philosophy of State is triple : first, the model of the modern State is not, to Hegel, English but French. While the French political philosophy – from Montesquieu to Chateaubriand – adopted English ideas, the German political philosophy, particularly Hegel, adopted the French ideas. A liberal philosopher, Hegel does not think that the English political institutions guarantee civil freedom or political freedom (Précis de l’Encyclopédie des sciences philosophiques, & 544). Moreover, the German philosopher holds a singular place in European thought of the first half of the 19th century because he is, it seems to me, the only one who understood, faced with the thunder of historical events, the nature of the Napoleonic State : he cannot be linked with the group of Prussian patriots, nor the one of Austrian reactionaries, nor the one of the French-speaking liberals. At last and above all, Hegel never thought that the Napoleonic State was a despotic State. In his correspondance, his books and his lectures, Hegel says or writes that the Napoleonic State, based on the equality of rights, realizes freedom in modern history. From Iena to Berlin, his judgement did not vary. In a letter to Niethammer, dated August 29, 1807, Hegel wrote : “The German princes have not understood yet the idea of a liberal monarchy, nor tried to realize it. Napoleon will have to organize all this. ” (Correspondance, T.1, p.170) (12). When the Empire had vanished from the theater of the world, Hegel denounces, in a letter addressed to Niethammer July 5, 1816, the return of the ” beavers ” of the ” fleas “. The ” bugs ” who claim to restore the feudal and clerical institutions. At last, around 1830, in Berlin, in his last lectures dedicated to the philosophy of history, more precisely to the Consulate and the Empire, Hegel teaches to his students that Napoleon ” turned (…) towards the outside the boundless power of his character, subdued Europe and spread all over his liberal institutions.” (Lectures on the Philosophy of History, e, p.343).
Pathetic, tragic and epic hero on the scene of modern history because he is the instrument of the Absolute, man of action and thought, but also Prince of the battles, law teacher, founder and organizer of the State on the political level, Napoleon embodies therefore, like a new and ultimate Theseus, the Hegelian hero.
Bonaparte, First Consul, had asked of de Villiers in 1801 a four-hour talk and a four-page report summarizing Kant’s philosophy, but Napoleon Emperor did not know Hegel, nor read a page of the secretary of the Absolute : moreover, Germaine de Staël, in De l’Allemagne, published in 1810, never mentions the name of the German philosopher. If The Phenomenology of Mind, published in 1807, whose manuscript for the publisher had crossed the French lines in a mail coach to arrive at Iena, had been quickly translated, and if the Emperor had read it, he probably would have thrown it into a fire : Phenomenology is the most difficult book of modern philosophy and, like Hegel, Napoleon did not appreciate the ideologist. Napoleon would probably not have understood Hegel, but Hegel did understand Napoleon. One must be a great philosopher to understand a great man. Because he was calculating the forseeable and unforeseeable consequences of his deeds, Napoleon was acting as a man of thought, but Hegel thought as a man of action because the Absolute appeared, according to him, in historical actors and actions. The commentators on the Hegelian works interpret, in an opposed manner, the theme of the end of history. Recently, the American disciple of Kojève, F. Fukuyama, in his book entitled La fin de l’histoire, assures that Napoleon put modern history to an end. E. Weil considered that the modern State, organized by Napoleon, did not constitute to Hegel the completion of universal history, while Kojève judged that the universal and homogeneous State founded by Napoleon constituted the beginning of the term. The solution of this problem does not lie, in my opinion, in Elements, nor in The Lectures, but in Aesthetics. There Hegel opposes the heroic age “to the prosaic character of the present time.” Thus the modern history, the Empire which is bygone from the scene of the world, is prosaic. It is not poetic any more, and consequently, it cannot be epic any more. “The monarchs nowadays” Hegel writes, “are not, like the heroes of the mythical age, the physical peak of the Whole, but a center, more or less abstract, of institutions firmly established and protected by laws and constitutions. The monarchs nowadays have let the most important governmental acts escape from their hands. They do not speak the law any more ; the finances, the civil order and public safety are not their special task any more…” (Aesthetics, p.254). The reader of this chapter is gripped by a kind of nostalgia and melancholy. All institutions able to assure freedom and equality have been established up to the time of Hegel so that Napoleon is the last hero of universal history (13). No hero will come after him – and, actually, no hero came. By writing that modern monarchs are not the “physical peak of the Whole” any more, does Hegel remember the quasi-Theophanic sensation he felt while watching Napoleon passing by on a horse, October 13, 1806, in Iena ? “I saw the Emperor – this soul of the world – go out from the city to survey his reign ; it is a truly wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrating on one point while seated on a horse, stretches over the world and dominates it.”

Notes

(1) Let us recall three definitions : the original history is the immediate history, written by the witnesses or the actors; the reflexive history refers to the historical science; the philosophical history defines the philosophy of history.
(2) This point of view can be connected to Goethe's : "That is why Napoleon was one of the most productive man who ever lived." Conversations de Goethe avec Eckermann, p.551 (Gallimard).
(3) Kojève considers, in his Introduction à la lecture de Hegel that Napoleon is to Hegel, at the end of the chapter 6 of the Phenomenology, preceding the exposition of the absolute knowledge, " the God who appears." Kojève is wrong because the expression refers to the Christ and because Napoleon is a hero, that is a demigod.
(4) Whether or not Chateaubriand held the Comments in hands, as he wrote in Mémoires d'Outre Tombe, he places anyway Napoleon at the same level as Caesar.
(5) Chateaubriand calls Napoleon "the man of the battles."
(6) On the contrary, one of the reasons for the opposition of B. Constant to Napoleon was that he hated the antique city and philosophy.
(7) Hegel, director if the Nurnberg Gymnasium from 1808 to 1816 admires the regulation of the french high schools. See the excellent edition by B. Bourgeois of the pedagogic texts of Hegel (Vrin ed.).
(8) Was this constitution applied ? Rambaud doubts it.
(9) Napoleon is a reader of Corneille : he would have made him Prince.
(10) After Napoleon's death, Hegel reads Le Memorial, Gourgaud and Montholon. From Berlin, Hegel writes to Van Ghert : "In Brussels, according to what I am learning, there is a reprint of the Mémoires sur Napoléon, from Gourgaud and Montholon ; could you ask the bookkeeper to send me an issue?" (Correspondance, T.3, p.14). Let us recall that the Napoleonic literature is then submitted to the Prussian censorship.
(11) The monarch is the individual who makes the decision : he signs. This Hegelian idea is illustrated by the session of the Council of State, February 19, 1811. (See Le Souvenir Napoléonien, ndeg.397, p.26).
(12) May, 21st 1813, in a letter addressed to Niethammer, Hegel laughs at the Bachkirs, the Cossacks and " other excellent liberators." (Correspondance, T.2, p.12).
(13) Let us recall two judgments, the first one from Chateaubriand, the second from Goethe : " Isn't everything over with Napoleon?" (Mémoires d'Outre Tombe, 25th Book), "his life was the march of a demigod, from battle to battle and from victory to victory; One could say about him that he was in a perpetual enlightenment : that is also why his destiny had such a fame that the world had never seen before him, and will maybe never see after him." (Conversations de Goethe avec Eckermann, p.550).

Publication Title :
Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien
Review number :
400
Year of publication :
1995
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