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Napoleon the Reader: The Early Years

By Ira Grossman

Napoleon was a very well-read man. Although mathematics was his best subject in school, the books he read were diverse in subject and discipline. This experience would prove useful to him later in life as both a ruler and a conqueror. Because he did the most reading during his years at Brienne Military College and during his first years as a junior officer, I shall focus only on these two periods in his early life.

During his years at Brienne Military College (1779-1784), Napoleon’s biographer Albert Guerard wrote that, as a lonely cadet who was often teased by his fellow students, he became an avid reader and acquired a taste for the classics of Ancient Greece, Rome, the Renaissance and of France’s Age of Louis XIV. It was at Brienne, that he discovered the joys of reading the works of Roman historians Plutarch, Tacitus, Livy, etc.

Of all histories, his biggest favorite was Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. It stimulated him to dream and worship the exploits of empire-building heroes such as Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, two of whom he later emulated as a conqueror. Will Durant, author of The Age of Napoleon, the final volume of his popular “Story of Civilization” series, best sums up Napoleon’s love for Plutarch’s Lives. “He (Napoleon) breathed the passion of those ancient patriots and drank the blood of those historic battles”. He was so steeped in Greek and Roman history that Pasquale Paoli, the great Corsican rebel leader was to later remark to him, “There is nothing modern in you; you are entirely out of Plutarch.”

Another historic tale he read was “Jerusalem Delivered”, an epic poem about the heroic exploits of the Crusaders in the Holy Land by the 16th Century Italian poet Torquato Tasso. Interestingly, Vincent Cronin, Napoleon’s biographer, tells us that Corsican rebels sang selections from this poem when they were fighting the Genoese and the French.

Besides heroic tales of antiquity, he also found time to read a book that dealt with a more domestic topic. This was Jacques Delille’s Jardins, a touching story about a Tahitian man who is brought to Europe and becomes desperately homesick when he sees a mulberry tree from his homeland, according to Cronin. After he saw the tree, Cronin wrote, the man hugged and kissed it with joyful utterances of “Tree from my homeland, tree from my homeland!”

Another book he read during this period of his life was Gil Blas by Alain Rene Le Sage. It is the story about a penniless Spanish boy who rises to become secretary to the Prime Minister, according to Vincent Cronin. He actually purchased the book in October 1784, when he arrived in Paris, having graduated from Brienne, to begin studies at the Ecole Militaire.

After graduating from the Ecole Militaire in 1785, he was given the rank of second lieutenant of artillery in the La Fere Regiment and stationed at the City of Valence on the Rhone river, located some sixty miles from Lyon. He took up full duties in January 1786. He was stationed at Auxonne in 1788.

It is interesting to note that he read more during his early years as an officer than when he was a cadet at Brienne. His spare time reading activities consisted of a thorough self-study of literature and history. There were several reasons why he decided to conduct a self-directed university-equivalent of what amounted to a crash course in the humanities.

First of all, he wanted to acquire new knowledge that he did not get when he was at Brienne.Secondly, he aimed at intellectually improving himself.

Thirdly, he wanted to find out what was wrong with the current French society. He wanted to know why there was so much injustice, unnecessary poverty, corruption among high officials.

In this sense, he felt that reading history and political theory, could help him find answers to these social problems, explained biographer Vincent Cronin. He thought that if he found answers to current social problems, maybe he could find a way to set Corsica free from French rule.

In commenting about that Napoleon read during his garrison days, Vincent Cronin observed, “A review of what he read and wrote will give an excellent indication of how he came to make his fateful choice when the (French) revolution began.”

To sample a few of his readings, he read and memorized the dramas of Voltaire and the three great dramatists of the Age of Louis XIV, Corneille, Moliere, Racine; reread Amyot’s translation of Plutarch; studied Machiavelli’s The PrinceThe Essays of Montaigne, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, Raynal’s Philosophical History of the two Indies, Marigny’s History of the Arabs, John Barrow’s History of England, Buffon’s Natural History, Plato’s Republic, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, the political and philosophical works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and several others.

To get a general idea of Napoleon’s hunger for knowledge during his first years as an officer, it would be helpful to quote from a passage from Emil Ludwig’s popular narrative biography of Napoleon that describes how he went about educating himself,

“Like every young man of his generation he is keenly interested in the State and society…the impoverished lieutenant bends over his books, reading with sure instinct about the things… that will be of use to him in days to come: artillery, its principles and its history; the art of siege; Plato’s Republic; the constitution of the Persians, the Athenian, the Spartan State; the history of England; the campaigns of Frederick the Great; French finances; the Tartars and the Turks; their manners and customs, and the topography of their countries, the history of Egypt, history of Carthage; description of India; English accounts of contemporary France: Mirabeau, Buffon, and Machiavelli; the history and constitution of Switzerland; the history and constitution of China, India, the Inca state; the history of the nobility and the story of patrician misdeeds; astronomy, geology, and meteorology; the laws of the growth of population; statistics of mortality. . .”

As part of his program of self-study, he took notes while he read, on a variety of subjects. He usually took down passages of interest that contained numbers, proper names, anecdotes and words in italics, as Cronin pointed out. For instance, while reading the Comte de Buffon’s Natural History, he took notes on the formation of the planets, of the earth, of the rivers, of seas, of lakes, of winds, of volcanoes, of earthquakes, and of man.

At other times, he took down information ranging from the varieties of the foot-race in ancient Crete, a list of the Hellenic fortresses in Asia Minor, to the campaigns of Frederick the Great of Prussia, according to biographer Emil Ludwig.

A passage he copied down from Raynal’s Philosophical History of the Two Indies is especially fascinating because it explains why Alexander the Great decided to make Egypt, of all places, the center of his vast empire. Emil Ludwig notes that Napoleon memorized this passage so perfectly, that he could recite it by heart thirty years after he took down these words.

Being the attentive note-taker that he was, Napoleon thought of a another way to improve himself intellectually. To increase his vocabulary, he took down into his copy-book unfamiliar words or names such as the following terms that Vincent Cronin listed in his biography.

“Dance of Daedalus, Pyrrhic dance; Odeum-theatre-Prytaneum; Timandra, a famous courtesan who remained constantly faithful to Alcibiades in his misfortune; Rajahs, Pariah, coconut milk, Bonzes, Lama”

The wide variety of books Napoleon read, make him an enlightened cosmopolitan human being in the best tradition of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In this discussion of Napoleon’s tastes in books, we have come to know a Napoleon that we seldom if ever learn about in school. Learning about the number of hours he put in to mold himself into an ideal educated human being, will serve as an inspiration for anyone who has the desire to learn.

For Further Reading:

Cronin, Vincent. Napoleon London : HarperCollins Publishers; 1994.

Durant, Will & Ariel. The Age of Napoleon New York : Simon & Schuster, 1975.

Guerard, Albert. Napoleon I New York : Alfred A Knopf;1969.

Herold, J. Christopher. The Age of Napoleon Boston : Houghton Mifflin Company; 1987.

Ludwig, Emil. Napoleon Garden City : Garden City Publishing Company; 1926.