HAVING ALREADY LOOKED AT TEN THINGS NAPOLEON NEVER SAID , here are nine famous quotes that are correctly attributed to Bonaparte (although they are often taken out of context). Considering the circumstances in which the French emperor actually made the remarks may put a different spin on them. Note that all of these famous phrases differ from translation to translation, while some have changed and evolved over the past 200 years.
1. “In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter.”
Variant: “In war, moral power is to physical as three parts out of four.”
These words are from Napoleon’s notes entitled Observations on Spanish Affairs, which he wrote on Aug. 27, 1808 at the palace of Saint-Cloud. They were intended for his brother Joseph, whom Bonaparte had recently installed as king of Spain. The Spaniards were opposed to French rule and by that point, the war to pacify the country was becoming savage.
“We will not discuss here if the line of the Ebro is good…. It would be a great misfortune to abandon this line and then later be obliged to retake it.
In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter.” (1)
Incidentally, I have Napoleon utter a version of this in my book Napoleon in America.
2. “From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.”
Variant: “There is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.”
Napoleon said this during his retreat from Russia. On Dec. 5, 1812, at Smorgoni, he left the remains of his straggling army under the command of his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat (who also soon abandoned the troops), and hurried ahead towards Paris. On Dec. 10, the emperor’s sleigh reached Warsaw, where it was greeted by France’s ambassador to Poland, the Abbé de Pradt. After a brief meeting, Napoleon dismissed de Pradt, instructing him to return after dinner with two Polish politicians – Count Stanislas Potocki and the minister of finance. De Pradt recounts:
We rejoined him about three o’clock. He had just risen from table… To the repeated protests of these gentlemen of the satisfaction they felt at seeing him safe and well after so many dangers, [Napoleon said:] ‘Dangers! Not in the least. I live in the midst of agitation: the more I am crossed, the better I am. It is only sluggish kings who grow fat in their palaces: horseback and camps for me. From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step.’ It was clear that he saw himself pursued by the hissing of all Europe, which was to him the greatest possible punishment. (2)
3. “You write to me that it is impossible; the word is not French.”
Variant: “The word impossible is not French. Also misquoted as: The word impossible is not in my dictionary.”
This phrase comes from a letter that Napoleon wrote from Dresden on July 9, 1813, to General Jean Le Marois, the governor of Magdeburg, a French stronghold in Germany. Napoleon was in trouble. He had lost a large chunk of the Grande Armée in the Russian campaign. Russia and Prussia had pushed into Germany. The British had liberated most of Spain. Napoleon’s soldiers were exhausted. Desertion was high. Ammunition and supplies were scarce. After winning the bloody Battle of Bautzen in late May, Napoleon agreed to a two-month truce with the Russian-Prussian coalition. You might think the quote had something to do with an attempt to stir men for battle. Instead it’s about the delivery of fodder. Napoleon wrote:
“You have 240,000 bushels of oats at Magdeburg. ‘That is impossible,’ you write to me: that is not French. I am displeased with your letter. Immediately send two boats filled with oats for the horses of the Guard, who are dying.”(3)
4. “What is the throne? A bit of wood gilded and covered with velvet.”
Variants: “Four pieces of gilded wood covered with a piece of velvet.”
Napoleon said this to the French Legislative Body on Jan. 1, 1814. Having won the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, the Allies were ready to carry the war onto French soil. It was no longer a question of trying to save the empire; the emperor needed to save his crown. In December, he tried to gain political support by convening the Senate and the Council of State with the Chamber of Deputies in a joint session of the legislature. Two committees were elected to study Allied peace proposals, which aimed at cutting France back to its earlier frontiers. On Dec. 28, the Chamber of Deputies presented its report. It criticized Napoleon for continuing the war and for oppressing the French people. Napoleon responded by haranguing the deputies thus:
What, who are you? Nothing – all authority is in the throne; and what is the throne? This wooden frame covered with velvet? No, I am the throne… France stands more in need of me than I do of France. (4)
5. “Work is the scythe of time.”
After Napoleon was finally defeated in 1815, he gave himself up to Britain’s Frederick Maitland, the captain of HMS Bellerophon, which was blockading the French port of Rochefort. Maitland ferried Napoleon and his entourage to Plymouth Sound. Napoleon hoped to be allowed to settle in England. On July 31, however, he learned that the government in London intended to exile him to St. Helena, a remote island in the middle of the South Atlantic. One of Napoleon’s companions, the Count de Las Cases, reported this conversation on board the Bellerophon on Aug. 2, 1815.
I was again sent for by the Emperor; who, after alluding to different subjects, began to speak of St. Helena, asking me what sort of place it could be…?
‘What can we do in that desolate place?’
‘Sire,’ I replied, ‘we will live on the past: there is enough of it to satisfy us. Do we not enjoy the life of Caesar and that of Alexander? We shall possess still more, you will re-peruse yourself, Sire!’
‘Be it so!’ rejoined Napoleon; ‘we will write our memoirs. Yes, we must be employed; for occupation is the scythe of time. After all, a man ought to fulfil his destines; this is my grand doctrine: let mine also be accomplished.’(5)
6. “As to moral courage, I have very rarely met with the two o’clock in the morning kind: I mean unprepared courage.”
Once on St. Helena, Napoleon had a lot of time to talk and several people to record his musings. This quote comes from another conversation with Las Cases, on December 4-5, 1815. Murat and Marshal Ney are two of Napoleon’s generals who were executed by the Bourbons in 1815.
‘With respect to physical courage,’ the Emperor said, ‘… it was impossible for Murat and Ney not to be brave.’
‘As to moral courage,’ observed he, ‘I have very rarely met with the two o’clock in the morning kind. I mean, unprepared courage, that which is necessary on an unexpected occasion, and which, in spite of the most unforeseen events, leaves full freedom of judgment and decision.’ He did not hesitate to declare that he was himself eminently gifted with this two o’clock in the morning courage, and that, in this respect, he had met but with few persons who were at all equal to him. (6)
7. “The Mohammedan religion is the finest of all.”
Variant: “I like the Mohammedan religion best.”
Though Napoleon restored the Catholic Church in France, often read the Bible, and had an uncle who was a cardinal, his personal religious beliefs are best described as agnostic. Napoleon often talked about religion, especially when he was on St. Helena. This quote comes from the memoirs of General Gourgaud, who was one of Napoleon’s companions in exile from 1815 to 1818. According to Gourgaud, Napoleon said:|
The Mohammedan religion is the finest of all. In Egypt the sheiks greatly embarrassed me by asking what we meant when we said ‘the Son of God.’ If we had three gods, we must be heathen… Jesus said he was the Son of God, and yet he was descended from David. I like the Mohammedan religion best. It has fewer incredible things in it than ours. The Turks call Christians idolaters. (7)
8. “What is the truth of history? A fable agreed upon.”
Variant: “History is a set of lies agreed upon.”
This is another quote from Napoleon’s time on St. Helena, as recorded by the Count de Las Cases on Nov. 20, 1816.
The truth of history, so much in request, to which every body eagerly appeals, is too often but a word. At the time of the events, during the heat of conflicting passions, it cannot exist; and if, at a later period, all parties are agreed respecting it, it is because those persons who were interested in the events, those who might be able to contradict what is asserted, are no more. What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history? A fable agreed upon. (8)
9. “My maxim was, la carrière est ouverte aux talents, without distinction of birth or fortune.”
Variant: “My motto has always been a career open to all talents, without distinctions of birth.”
On St. Helena, Napoleon consciously strove to define how posterity would remember him. He said this on March 3, 1817 to the British doctor Barry O’Meara, who was sympathetic to him.
Posterity will do me justice… From nothing I raised myself to be the most powerful monarch in the world. Europe was at my feet… I have always been of opinion [sic], that the sovereignty lay in the people. In fact, the imperial government was a kind of republic. Called to the head of it by the voice of the nation, my maxim was, la carrière est ouverte aux talents, (the career is open to talents) without distinction of birth or fortune, and this system of equality is the reason that your oligarchy hate me so much. (9
Shannon Selin is the Canadian-based author of Napoleon in America, which imagines what might have happened if Napoleon had escaped from St. Helena and wound up in the United States in 1821. She blogs about Napoleonic and 19th century history at shannonselin.com. You can follow her on Twitter @ShannonSelin.
- Correspondance de Napoléon Ier publiée par ordre de l’Empereur Napoléon III, Vol. 17 (Paris, 1868), pp. 471-472.
- Abbe de Pradt, Histoire de l’Ambassade dans le Grand Duché de Varsovie en 1812 (Paris, 1815), pp. 214-215.
- Correspondance de Napoléon Ier publiée par ordre de l’Empereur Napoléon III, Vol. 25 (Paris, 1868), p. 479.
- Ida M. Tarbell, ed., Napoleon’s Addresses: Selections from the Proclamations, Speeches and Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte (Boston, 1896), pp. 127-129. There are several recorded variants of this speech, which Tarbell lists as having being given in December 1813, though other sources state January 1, 1814.
- Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. 1, Part 1 (Boston, 1823), pp. 36-38.
- Ibid., Vol. 1, Part 2, p. 10.
- Gaspard Gourgaud, Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud, translated and with notes by Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer (Chicago, 1904), pp. 274, 280. Napoleon also told Gourgaud, “If I had to choose a religion I think I should become a worshipper of the sun. The sun gives to all things life and fertility. It is the true God of the earth.” (p. 273)
- Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. 4, Part 7 (London, 1823), pp. 250-252.
- Barry Edward O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile; or, A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. 1 (New York, 1885), p. 249.