Napoleon: On Reading Books

Napoleon: On Reading Books

Napoleon, the greatest general to ever live, was a relentless reader and connoisseur of books. He favored the classics and could never get enough of books written about his two heroes; Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great.

Like most men of history, Napoleon embraced reading as a boy, which helped to foster one of the most innovative mind’s the world has ever known (especially regarding the tactics and strategies of warfare). He was particularly strong at understanding human nature; brilliant at motivating his armies, as well as mastering the finer points of politics.

In the acclaimed Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts, we are presented with Napoleon’s ambitious zeal. Roberts quotes Napoleon’s mother Letizia as remarking that Napoleon “had never partaken of the amusements of children his own age, that he carefully avoided them, that he found himself a little room on the third floor of the house in which he stayed by himself and didn’t come down very often, even to eat with his family. Up there, he read constantly, especially history books.”

His brother Joseph once commented that there was no question of “the very powerful action of his early readings on the inclination and character of his youth.” Napoleon insisted that reading was the only way to improve oneself and pushed his junior officers to read about the lives and battles of the great conquerors of the past. He felt this was the only true way to become an excellent general.

In 1778, Napoleon left Corsica, his birthplace, for schooling in France. He studied at the Military School of Brienne-le-Chateau and this is where his true education began. His reading stretched far and wide. Roberts describes how Napoleon “borrowed many biographies and history books from the school library, devouring Plutarch’s tales of heroism, patriotism and republican virtue…a contemporary recalled Napoleon withdrawing to the school’s library to read Polybius, Plutarch, Arrian and Quintus Curtius Rufus”

He read other classical authors as well; Livy, Virgil, Eutropius, Cicero to name a few. Voltaire, the French juggernaut Enlightenment writer, was also a personal favorite. Roberts concluded “a powerful theme thus emerges from Napoleon’s adolescent reading. While his contemporaries played sports outside, he would reading everything he could about the most ambitious leaders of the ancient world. For Napoleon, the desire to emulate Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar was not strange. His schooling opened to him the possibility that he might one day stand alongside the giants of the past.”

His interests did not only lie in military history, but also in literature and poems as well. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, another preeminent Enlightenment political philosopher, was also a personal hero of Napoleon, who adopted a good deal of his beliefs. Napoleon actually read Rousseau’s 800 page La Nouvelle Héloïse as a 9 year old boy, a book which “argued that one should follow one’s authentic feelings rather than society’s norms, an attractive notion for any teenager, particularly a dreamer of ferocious ambition.” Napoleon also adored the works of other authors such as Tasso, Ossian, Corneille, and Racine.

As he approached 19 years old in 1788, he was enrolled in artillery school at Auxonne in eastern France where he continued his studies and reading. Even as an officer, money was nearly non-existent, but Napoleon was easy going and didn’t need much to get by. Roberts states “he ate only once a day, at 3PM, thereby saving enough money from his officer’s salary to send some home to his mother; the rest he spent on books. He changed his clothes once every eight days. He was determined to continue his exhaustive autodidactic reading programme and his voluminous notebooks from Auxonne are full of the history, geography, religion and customs of all the most prominent peoples of the ancient world, including the Athenians, Spartans, Persians, Egyptians and Carthaginians.”

Napoleon’s imagination knew no limits and he began to do his own writing to reflect this. His output was simply staggering; 33,000 letters in his lifetime and roughly 60 essays, novels and pamphlets before the age of 26. Even though French was his second language, he still attempted to stretch himself intellectually. In 1791, he entered the prestigious Lyons Academy essay content on the subject: What are the Most Important Truths and Feelings for Men to Learn to Be Happy? Napoleon spent months on his essay, and although he did not win, his attempt shows his growing confidence and ambition.

By 1790, Napoleon was still getting by on a meager officer’s salary. He continued to make due. Roberts quotes him as saying, “Do you know how I managed? By never entering a cafe or going into society; by eating dry bread, and brushing my own clothes so that they might last the longer. I lived like a bear, in a little room, with books for my only friends…These were the joys and debaucheries of my youth.”

Like most great men of history, Napoleon’s success was a combination of sheer determination and circumstance; being born at the right place and time. France was in the midst of a bloody revolution by 1789, and Napoleon was a direct beneficiary of the chaos and violence. He rose up the ranks at breakneck speed – becoming a general at age 24 in December 1793. The rest became history.

It would be incorrect to label Napoleon as strictly an opportunist. From his time as a boy, he prepared himself for the world’s stage. It began with his fascination of the military giants of the past; Caesar, Alexander, Hannibal and so on. From there, he read all the classical authors, poets and play-writers. He was also well aware of his brief contemporaries Rousseau and Voltaire, reading everything they wrote as well. This dedication to learning and education created the foundation which launched Napoleon into his military successes and political achievements.

Without such a curious mind, what would this man have become? One is left to ponder. However, as it stands, he was a man who died winning 60 battles to 7 losses. No other conqueror before or since has replicated such an achievement.

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*All quotes all from the book, Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts as noted above.

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