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Madame de Staël on the tyrant Napoleon (1818)

Madame Germaine de Staël (née Necker) (1766-1817) had the opportunity to observe Napoleon at first hand. She concluded that he was a ruthless tyrant who regarded individuals as pawns on a chessboard which he controlled:

Far from recovering my confidence by seeing Bonaparte more frequently, he constantly intimidated me more and more. I had a confused feeling that no emotion of the heart could act upon him. He regards a human being as an action or a thing, not as a fellow-creature. He does not hate more than he loves; for him nothing exists but himself; all other creatures are ciphers. The force of his will consists in the impossibility of disturbing the calculations of his egoism; he is an able chess-player, and the human race is the opponent to whom he proposes to give checkmate. His successes depend as much on the qualities in which he is deficient as on the talents which he possesses. Neither pity, nor allurement, nor religion, nor attachment to any idea whatsoever could turn him aside from his principal direction. He is for his self-interest what the just man should be for virtue; if the end were good, his perseverance would be noble.

It was with this sentiment, at least, that I saw him for the first time at Paris. I could not find words to reply to him when he came to me to say that he had sought my father at Coppet, and that he regretted having passed into Switzerland without seeing him. But, when I was a little recovered from the confusion of admiration, a strongly marked sentiment of fear succeeded. Bonaparte, at that time, had no power; he was even believed to be not a little threatened by the defiant suspicions of the Directory; so that the fear which he inspired was caused only by the singular effect of his person upon nearly all who approached him. I had seen men highly worthy of esteem; I had likewise seen monsters of ferocity: there was nothing in the effect which Bonaparte produced on me that could bring back to my recollection either the one or the other. I soon perceived, in the different opportunities which I had of meeting him during his stay at Paris, that his character could not be defined by the words which we commonly use; he was neither good, nor violent, nor gentle, nor cruel, after the manner of individuals of whom we have any knowledge. Such a being had no fellow, and therefore could neither feel nor excite sympathy: he was more or less than man. His cast of character, his spirit, his language, were stamped with the imprint of an unknown nature—an additional advantage, as we have elsewhere observed, for the subjugation of Frenchmen.

Far from recovering my confidence by seeing Bonaparte more frequently, he constantly intimidated me more and more. I had a confused feeling that no emotion of the heart could act upon him. He regards a human being as an action or a thing, not as a fellow-creature. He does not hate more than he loves; for him nothing exists but himself; all other creatures are ciphers. The force of his will consists in the impossibility of disturbing the calculations of his egoism; he is an able chess-player, and the human race is the opponent to whom he proposes to give checkmate. His successes depend as much on the qualities in which he is deficient as on the talents which he possesses. Neither pity, nor allurement, nor religion, nor attachment to any idea whatsoever could turn him aside from his principal direction. He is for his self-interest what the just man should be for virtue; if the end were good, his perseverance would be noble.

Every time that I heard him speak, I was struck with his superiority; yet it had no similitude to that of men instructed and cultivated by study or society, such as those of whom France and England can furnish examples. But his discourse indicated a fine perception of circumstances, such as the hunter has of his prey. Sometimes he related the political and military events of his life in a very interesting manner; he had even somewhat of Italian imagination in narratives which allowed of gaiety. Yet nothing could triumph over my invincible aversion for what I perceived in him. I felt in his soul a cold sharp-edged sword, which froze the wound that it inflicted; I perceived in his mind a profound irony, from which nothing great or beautiful, not even his own glory, could escape; for he despised the nation whose votes he wished, and no spark of enthusiasm was mingled with his desire of astonishing the human race.

About this Quotation:

The classical liberal historian and observer of the French Revolution, Madame de Staël, comes close in these passages to providing us with a psychology of the tyrant. She describes him as being unable to feel sympathy for other human beings, seeing other people as mere pawns which he could move about on a chessboard, being supremely egotistical, believing himself to be superior to all others, and that his soul was “a cold sharp-edged sword” and that his character had “an air of vulgarity” about it. She concluded that “In every respect it is war, and only war, which suits him”.

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