Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Napoleon and the French paradox

Daniel Mark Epstein marks the anniversary (this month) of the 200 years since Napoleon’s coronation. The Louvre has arranged an exhibit around Jacques-Louis David’s huge tableau. Epstein: "It is the celebration of a turning point in history and a controversial painter, and the illumination of a paradox at the heart of French culture." Read this short piece. Then read Paul Johnson’s Napoleon, then the best history of the revolution, Simon Schama’s Citizens. And, through it all, do not forget that the French Revolution produced Napoleon, while the American Revolution produced George Washington.
As Johnson says, "It does not seemed to have occurred to him [Napoleon] to study the example of his older contemporary George Washington, who translated military victory into civil progress and renounce the rule of force in favor of the rule of law."
How do you say, paradoxe in English?

Discussions - 3 Comments

Not that I have any wish to apologize for the French and their manifold derelictions, but Washington may have had the benefit of a certain cultural learning that Napoleon did not.

British culture had already experienced military dictatorship, under Cromwell in the century before Washington. Young George, like many if not most people in the "Anglosphere" of the day, was raised with folk and historical memories of the late Lord Protector as a bad man who betrayed the people’s liberties. That NOT being like Cromwell would be a good thing was a maxim that George more or less drew in along with his mother’s milk.

For Napoleon, the "Sun King" Louis XIV seems to have been something of a role model (Frenchmen to this day are monarchists just under the surface, something which de Gaulle understood well and used to advantage), and not a negative one as Cromwell was for Washington.

Again, this is not to excuse Bonaparte (still less to take anything away from Washington), but I do think the already-established differences in the British versus French political/historical cultures and folk memories did probably play some role.

And talk about paradoxe - The French seem to find no contradiction in calling themselves the "birthplace of liberty" while at the same time celebrating Napoleon’s empire as a glorious moment in their history. No wonder they find us "simplisitic". It takes considerable "sophistication" to believe both these things at the same time.

Yes, it’s worth noting that the ostentatiously foolish and obstructionist Dominique de Villepin, ministre des affaires etrangeres during the Iraq war buildup, has written a hero-worshipping book about Napoleon, and even wears violet-scented eau de toilette (Corsica is famous for Ajaccio violets and the colognes made from them). Quelle betise.

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