Madame de Staël on the tyrant Napoleon (1818)

Germaine de Staël

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.

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”.