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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Richard Whately (1787–1863)

Did Bonaparte Exist?

From “Historic Doubts Relative to Bonaparte”

LET those who pretend to philosophical freedom of inquiry, who scorn to rest their opinions on popular belief, and to shelter themselves under the example of the unthinking multitude, consider carefully, each one for himself, what is the evidence proposed to himself in particular, for the existence of such a person as Napoleon Bonaparte. I do not mean whether there ever was a person bearing that name, for that is a question of no consequence, but whether any such person ever performed all the wonderful things attributed to him. Let him then weigh well the objections to that evidence, and if he then finds it amount to anything more than a probability, I have only to congratulate him on his easy faith.

Let us consider what sort of a story it is that is proposed to our acceptance. It carries an air of fiction and romance on the very face of it: all the events are great, and splendid, and marvellous—great armies, great victories, great frosts, great reverses, “hair-breadth ’scapes,” empires subverted in a few days—everything happening in defiance of political calculations, and in opposition to the experience of past times; everything upon that grand scale so common in epic poetry, so rare in real life, and thus calculated to strike the imagination of the vulgar, and to remind the sober-thinking few of the “Arabian Nights.” Every event, too, has that roundness and completeness which is so characteristic of fiction; nothing is done by halves; we have complete victories—total overthrows—entire subversion of empires—perfect re-establishments of them—crowded upon us in rapid succession. To enumerate the improbabilities of each of the several parts of this history would fill volumes; but they are so fresh in every one’s memory, that there is no need of such a detail. Let any judicious man, not ignorant of history and of human nature, revolve them in his mind, and consider how far they are conformable to experience, our best and only sure guide. In vain will he seek in history for something similar to this wonderful Bonaparte: “Naught but himself can be his parallel.”

Will the conquests of Alexander be compared with his? They were effected over a rabble of effeminate, undisciplined barbarians, else his progress would hardly have been so rapid: witness his father, Philip, who was much longer occupied in subduing the comparatively insignificant territory of the warlike and civilised Greeks, notwithstanding their being divided into numerous petty states, whose mutual jealousy enabled him to contend with them separately. But the Greeks had never made such progress in arts and arms as the great and powerful states of Europe which Bonaparte is represented as so speedily overpowering. His empire has been compared to the Roman. Mark the contrast: he gains in a few years that dominion, or at least control, over Germany, wealthy, civilised, and powerful, which the Romans in the plenitude of their power could not obtain, during a struggle of as many centuries, against the ignorant half-savages who then possessed it!

Another peculiar circumstance in the history of this extraordinary personage is that, when it is found convenient to represent him as defeated, though he is by no means defeated by halves, but involved in much more sudden and total ruin than the personages of real history usually meet with; yet, if it is thought fit he should be restored, it is done as quickly and completely as if Merlin’s rod had been employed. He enters Russia with a prodigious army, which is totally ruined by an unprecedented hard winter—everything relating to this man is prodigious and unprecedented; yet in a few months we find him intrusted with another great army in Germany, which is also totally ruined at Leipsic, making, inclusive of the Egyptian, the third great army thus totally lost: yet the French are so good-natured as to furnish him with another, sufficient to make a formidable stand in France. He is, however, conquered, and presented with the sovereignty of Elba. Surely, by-the-bye, some more probable way might have been found of disposing of him, till again wanted, than to place him thus on the very verge of his ancient dominions. Thence he returns to France, where he is received with open arms, and enabled to lose a fourth great army at Waterloo. Yet so eager were these people to be a fifth time led to destruction, that it was found necessary to confine him in an island some thousand miles off, and to quarter foreign troops upon them, lest they should make an insurrection in his favour!

Does any one believe all this, and yet refuse to believe a miracle? Or rather, what is this but a miracle? Is it not a violation of the laws of nature? For surely there are moral laws of nature as well as physical, which, though more liable to exceptions in this or that particular case, are no less true as general rules than the laws of matter, and therefore cannot be violated and contradicted beyond a certain point, without a miracle. Nay, there is this additional circumstance which renders the contradiction of experience more glaring in this case than in that of the miraculous histories which ingenious sceptics have held up to contempt: all the advocates of miracles admit that they are rare, exceptions to the general course of nature, but contend that they must needs be so, on account of the rarity of those extraordinary occasions which are the reason of their being performed. A miracle, they say, does not happen every day, because a revelation is not given every day. It would be foreign to the present purpose to seek for arguments against this answer: I leave it to those who are engaged in the controversy, to find a reply to it; but my present object is to point out that this solution does not at all apply in the present case. Where is the peculiarity of the occasion? What sufficient reason is there for a series of events occurring in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which never took place before?… What, for instance, would the great Hume, or any of the philosophers of his school have said, if they had found in the antique records of any nation such passages as these:

“And it came to pass after these things that Napoleon strengthened himself, and gathered together another host instead of that which he had lost, and went and warred against the Prussians, and the Russians, and the Austrians, and all the rulers of the north country, which were confederate against him. And the ruler of Sweden also, which was a Frenchman, warred against Napoleon. So they went forth, and fought against the French in the plain of Leipsic. And the French were discomfited before their enemies, and fled, and came to the rivers which are behind Leipsic, and essayed to pass over, that they might escape out of the hand of their enemies; but they could not, for Napoleon had broken down the bridges; so the people of the north countries came upon them, and smote them with a very grievous slaughter.

“Then the ruler of Austria and all the rulers of the north countries sent messengers unto Napoleon to speak peaceably unto him, saying, Why should there be war between us any more? Now Napoleon had put away his wife, and taken the daughter of the ruler of Austria to wife. So all the counsellors of Napoleon came and stood before him, and said, Behold now these kings are merciful kings; do even as they say unto thee; knowest thou not yet that France is destroyed? But he spake roughly unto his counsellors, and drave them out from his presence, neither would he hearken unto their voice. And when all the kings saw that, they warred against France, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and came near to Paris, which is the royal city, to take it: so the men of Paris went out, and delivered up the city to them. Then those kings spake kindly unto the men of Paris, saying, Be of good cheer, there shall no harm happen unto you. Then were the men of Paris glad, and said, Napoleon is a tyrant; he shall no more rule over us. Also all the princes, the judges, the counsellors, and the captains, whom Napoleon had raised up, even from the lowest of the people, sent unto Louis, the brother of King Louis whom they had slain, and made him king over France.

“And when Napoleon saw that the kingdom was departed from him, he said unto the rulers which came against him, Let me, I pray you, give the kingdom unto my son; but they would not hearken unto him. Then he spake yet again, saying, Let me, I pray you, go and live in the island of Elba, which is over against Italy, nigh unto the coast of France; and ye shall give me an allowance for me and my household, and the land of Elba also for a possession. So they made him ruler of Elba.

“In those days the pope returned unto his own land. Now the French, and divers other nations of Europe, are servants of the pope, and hold him in reverence; but he is an abomination unto the Britons, and to the Prussians, and to the Russians, and to the Swedes. Howbeit the French had taken away all his lands, and robbed him of all that he had, and carried him away captive into France. But when the Britons, and the Prussians, and the Russians, and the Swedes, and the rest of the nations that were confederate against France, came thither, they caused the French to set the pope at liberty, and to restore all his goods that they had taken; likewise, they gave him back all his possessions; and he went home in peace, and ruled over his own city as in times past.

“And it came to pass when Napoleon had not yet been a full year in Elba, that he said unto his men of war which clave unto him, Go to, let us go back to France, and fight against King Louis, and thrust him out from being king. So he departed, he and 600 men with him that drew the sword, and warred against King Louis. Then all the men of Belial gathered themselves together, and said, God save Napoleon. And when Louis saw that, he fled, and gat him into the land of Batavia; and Napoleon ruled over France.”

Now if a free-thinking philosopher—one of those who advocate the cause of unbiased reason, and despised pretended revelations—were to meet with such a tissue of absurdities as this in an old Jewish record, would he not reject it at once as too palpable an imposture to deserve even any inquiry into its evidence? Is that credible, then, of the civilised Europeans now which could not, if reported of the semi-barbarous Jews 3,000 years ago, be established by any testimony? Will it be answered that “there is nothing supernatural in all this”? Why is it, then, that you object to what is supernatural—that you reject every account of miracles—if not because they are improbable? Surely, then, a story equally or still more improbable is not to be implicitly received, merely on the ground that it is not miraculous, though in fact it really is miraculous. The opposition to experience has been proved to be as complete in this case as in what are commonly called miracles; and the reasons assigned for that contrariety by the defenders of them cannot be pleaded in the present instance. If, then, philosophers, who reject every wonderful story that is maintained by priests, are yet found ready to believe everything else, however improbable, they will surely lay themselves open to the accusation brought against them of being unduly prejudiced against whatever relates to religion.

There is another circumstance which I cannot forbear mentioning, because it so much adds to the air of fiction which pervades every part of this marvellous tale; and that is, the nationality of it.

Bonaparte prevailed over all the hostile states in turn, except England; in the zenith of his power his fleets were swept from the sea, by England; his troops always defeat an equal, and frequently even a superior, number of those of any other nation, except the English, and with them it is just the reverse; twice, and twice only, he is personally engaged against an English commander, and both times he is totally defeated, at Acre and at Waterloo; and, to crown all, England finally crushes this tremendous power, which has so long kept the Continent in subjection or in alarm, and to the English he surrenders himself prisoner! Thoroughly national, to be sure! It may be all very true; but I would only ask, if a story had been fabricated for the express purpose of amusing the English nation, could it have been contrived more ingeniously? It would do admirably for an epic poem; and indeed bears a considerable resemblance to the Iliad and the Æneid, in which Achilles and the Greeks, Æneas and the Trojans—the ancestors of the Romans—are so studiously held up to admiration. Bonaparte’s exploits seem magnified in order to enhance the glory of his conquerors, just as Hector is allowed to triumph during the absence of Achilles merely to give additional splendour to his overthrow by the arm of that invincible hero. Would not this circumstance alone render a history rather suspicious in the eyes of an acute critic, even if it were not filled with such gross improbabilities; and induce him to suspend his judgment, till very satisfactory evidence—far stronger than can be found in this case—should be produced?

Is it, then, too much to demand of the wary academic a suspension of judgment as to the “Life and Adventures of Napoleon Bonaparte”? I do not pretend to decide positively that there is not, nor ever was, any such person; but merely to propose it as a doubtful point, and one the more deserving of careful investigation from the very circumstance of its having hitherto been admitted without inquiry. Far less would I undertake to decide what is, or has been, the real state of affairs. He who points out the improbability of the current story is not bound to suggest an hypothesis of his own—though it may safely be affirmed that it would be hard to invent any more improbable than the received one. One may surely be allowed to hesitate in admitting the stories which the ancient poets tell, of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions being caused by imprisoned giants, without being called upon satisfactorily to account for those phenomena.

Amidst the defect of valid evidence under which, as I have already shown, we labour in the present instance, it is hardly possible to offer more than here and there a probable conjecture; or to pronounce how much may be true, and how much fictitious, in the accounts presented to us; for it is to be observed that this case is much more open to sceptical doubts even than some miraculous histories, for some of them are of such a nature that you cannot consistently admit a part and reject the rest, but are bound, if you are satisfied as to the reality of any one miracle, to embrace the whole system, so that it is necessary for the sceptic to impeach the evidence of all of them, separately and collectively; whereas here, each single point requires to be established separately, since no one of them authenticates the rest.

Supposing there be a state prisoner at St. Helena—which, by the way, it is acknowledged many of the French disbelieve—how do we know who he is, or why he is confined there? There have been state prisoners before now, who were never guilty of subjugating half Europe, and whose offences have been very imperfectly ascertained. Admitting that there have been bloody wars going on for several years past, which is highly probable, it does not follow that the events of those wars were such as we have been told—that Bonaparte was the author and conductor of them, or that such a person ever existed. What disturbances may have taken place in the government of the French people, we, and even nineteen-twentieths of them, have no means of learning but from imperfect hearsay evidence; but that there have been numerous bloody wars with France under the dominion of the Bourbons we are well assured; and we are now told that France is governed by a Bourbon king of the name of Louis, who professes to be in the twenty-third year of his reign. Let every one conjecture for himself. I am far from pretending to decide who may have been the governor or governors of the French nation, and the leaders of their armies, for several years past. Certain it is, that when men are indulging their inclination for the marvellous, they always show a strong propensity to accumulate upon one individual, real or imaginary, the exploits of many, besides multiplying and exaggerating these exploits a thousandfold. Thus, the expounders of the ancient mythology tell us there were several persons of the name of Hercules—either originally bearing that appellation, or having it applied to them as an honour—whose collective feats, after being dressed up in a sufficiently marvellous garb, were attributed to a single hero. Is it not just possible, that during the rage for words of Greek derivation, the title of “Napoleon,” which signifies “Lion of the Forest,” may have been conferred by the popular voice on more than one favourite general, distinguished for irresistible valour? Is it not also possible that “bona parte” may have been originally a sort of cant term applied to the “good (i.e., the bravest or most patriotic) part” of the French army collectively, and have been afterward mistaken for the proper name of an individual? I do not profess to support this conjecture; but it is certain that such mistakes may and do occur….

However, I merely throw out these conjectures without by any means contending that more plausible ones might not be suggested. But whatever supposition we adopt, or whether we adopt any, the objections to the commonly received accounts will remain in their full force, and imperiously demand the attention of the candid sceptic.