Napoleon: For and Against

By Pieter Geyl; Olive Renier | Go to book overview
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'And so the imperious despot applied to the white-robed pontiff.' Can this somewhat artificial pathos and sentiment, to which Vandal has recourse upon occasion, hide the strictly practical and mundane nature of his conclusion? He does not attempt to disguise the fact that such was Bonaparte's attitude. Bonaparte, he writes, realized that with all his genius, his power, his glorious armies, his generals, prefects, lawyers, commissioners and gendarmes, he could not hope to drill men's consciences . . . And he worked out in figures the moral strength possessed by the shepherd of souls at Rome. 'How must I treat him?' asked his first envoy to the Holy See. 'Treat him as if he had two hundred thousand men.'1

Do these considerations dispose of d'Haussonville? No: they run parallel, without touching his argument. But they fill in the picture and help us to see Bonaparte's problem as he himself saw it. That in general is the great merit of Vandal's work, that he recreated the period, as it were, from within. But judgment should not therefore abdicate. Later we shall be considering another criticism of Bonaparte's actions in his ecclesiastical policy, a criticism which also proceeded from a standpoint other than that of immediate expediency, and we shall see then that our insight into the problem and the character can be still further enriched.


'The standpoint of immediate expediency' is perhaps a less sympathetic way of styling Vandal's attitude to his problems than he deserves. I also, a moment ago, spoke of 'recreating the period from within', and at the beginning of this chapter I referred to Vandal's 'awe when confronted with Fact'.

It must be said, meanwhile, that as in the case of Houssaye's work, the impression gained from L'avènement de Bonaparte depends much on the narrow time limits of the subject matter within which the conception is worked out. We see Bonaparte rising above the confusion and corruption in which, according to the writer, the many-headed administration of the five Directors and the two Councils was so hopelessly involved. Afterwards we see him only in those first days when the task of reform and of construction satisfied his devouring desire for action. Even the violent discarding, after Marengo, of the limitations to which his power was still subject is dealt with only very briefly, while Vandal has

II, 470 sqq.


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