What Napoleon’s Hubris Teaches Us Today
Comparisons to Fauci are valid but not because of height.
The 18th-century British cartoonist James Gillray was the first to satirize Napoleon as a “thundering boastful character.” Later in the 20th century, despite Napoleon’s being of average height for his time, the term Napoleon Complex was applied to short men whose feelings of inferiority led to “a strong desire for power and dominance.”
You don’t have to be short to feel inferior or crave power. We don’t have to speculate on Napoleon’s mindset; the despot himself shared that with General Philippe-Paul de Ségur. During Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia, Ségur served as his aide-de-camp. Ségur’s historical account Defeat: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign became a primary source for Tolstoy’s’ War and Peace.
Ségur recorded Napoleon’s declaration, “in affairs of state one must never retreat, never retrace one’s steps, never admit an error.” We can call the mindset of refusing to acknowledge errors the Napoleon Syndrome. In the grip of the Napoleon Syndrome, individuals make trouble for themselves. Leaders so obsessed can cause misery for millions.
In his classic Anything That’s Peaceful, Leonard Read observed, “When in possession of political power over the creative actions of others, a fallible human being is almost certain to mistake this power for infallibility.”
When we believe we are infallible, we mistake our thoughts for instructions rather than constructions of our mind. Inflated self-confidence leads to recklessness. Disregarding criticism and evidence, we lose touch with reality.
Napoleon’s invasion of Russia yields a timeless and sobering lesson about the consequences of exercising unbridled power while ignoring mounting evidence that you have chosen the wrong course of action. Hubris is destructive.
Never admitting an error led Napoleon to disaster. He set out to invade Russia with his Grande Armée of around 600,000 men; only about 10,000 came home. Napoleon kept chasing a decisive battle. As Napoleon moved deeper and deeper into Russia, the Russian forces mostly refused to engage.
Ségur’s account explains, “the Emperor of course believed what he most desired”—that the Russians were just around the corner. For each strategic decision, Napoleon “was better able to deceive others concerning his intentions since he was deceiving himself.” Ségur observed, Napoleon could “pass carts loaded with amputated limbs” and cover “all these horrors with glory.” He often mistook “the promptings of his impatience for the inspiration of genius!”
The Russian strategy of elusiveness and attrition was too much for Napoleon’s forces. Supply lines were stretched too long to provide food for men or horses. Starvation, disease, and bitter cold took their toll.
The sick and injured, Ségur reported, “commonly went without food, bed, blankets, straw and medicine and died in “unmentionable stench and filth.” The thirsty men fought over “puddles” of water. Ségur writes of the hunger: “A harsh, violent, merciless nature seemed to have communicated her fury to [the soldiers]…When a horse fell, … the men swarmed upon the animals and tore it into scraps, over which they fought like famished hounds!
This is no tell-all exposé from a disgruntled soldier; Ségur admired Napoleon and served him faithfully. Napoleon had instilled in his army “the love of war, of glory and of [Napoleon].” Ségur and his men thought the subjugated people would receive them as conquering heroes: “The people would flock to supply all our needs: love and gratitude should surround us.” Instead, the invasion provoked “blind rage” among Russians.
On the way to Moscow, the Battle of Smolensk resulted in a rare victory. Ségur wrote of the burned city: “we passed through the smoking ruins in military formation… triumphant over this desolation, but with no other witness to our glory than ourselves.” This was a “bloody triumph” with no benefits. Yet, Napoleon marched on in pursuit of what Ségur described as “the mirage of victory.”
Entering Moscow, Napoleon found “only a few scattered houses standing in the midst of ruins.” The city had been burnt by released convicts. Occupying an empty Moscow for five weeks, Napoleon waited in vain for Emperor Alexander to surrender. Yet, the Russians would not acknowledge defeat. Still maintaining “his policy of being above making mistakes,” Napoleon refused to acknowledge his errors. Doubling down, Napoleon considered going on to St. Petersburg. In his delusional way, he told Ségur, “We shall be overwhelmed with praise! What will the world say when it learns that in three months’ time we have conquered the two greatest capitals of the north?” The mindset driving Napoleon’s blunders is further revealed, as he explained to Ségur,
What a frightful succession of perilous conflicts will begin with my first backward step! You must no longer find fault with my inaction. I know that from a purely military point of view Moscow is worthless! But Moscow is not a military position, it is a political position. You think I am a general while I am really an Emperor.
Ségur sums up the lesson: “Fully aware of the power he reaped from the prestige of his infallibility, he shuddered at the thought of dealing it its first wound.” Before even his invasion of Russia, Napoleon had dealt himself the “first wound.” Another advisor and emissary, Armand Caulaincourt, had tried to explain to the delusional Napoleon how much he, not Alexander, was hated all over Europe.
Ségur’s account is a gripping read. Napoleon sought to protect the illusion of his infallibility by his unwillingness to admit errors.
It’s “a tale as old as time;” examples of Napoleon’s mindset are not hard to find throughout history and today.
Dr. Fauci’s refusal to acknowledge natural immunity led to cascading policy errors. The CDC, too, refused to acknowledge errors. Policymakers pushed, and still push, vaccines even while it became clear that, for at least some age groups, the costs of potential side effects exceed any benefits. Perversely given known risks, the CDC recommends everyone, even children and adults with heart disease, receive the COVID vaccine.
A noted pro-vaccine researcher Dr. Paul Offit warned, “because boosters are not risk-free, we need to clarify which groups most benefit.” Offit explained the policy of “let’s just dose everybody all the time” is not good reasoning. A noted authority on evidence-based medicine, Dr. Vinay Prasad wrote that boosters without random-clinical trials are “unethical and scientifically bankrupt.”
Will FDA and CDC bureaucrats admit their errors or, holding fast to their notions of infallibility, continue marching toward “Moscow?”
Napoleon declared to Ségur, “When one makes a mistake, one must stick to it—that makes it right.” The way of politics and bureaucracy is to refuse to change despite the costs. Only the delusional with coercive power can maintain a belief that the repetition of an error establishes its validity.
The way of peaceful commerce rejects leaders like Fauci. In business affairs, the market drives continuous improvement, and looking to detect errors results in better service to consumers. When products are introduced and things don’t go as planned, stubbornly blundering forward is not an effective strategy. The market cares not a whit about a leader’s delusions of infallibility.
Try this thought experiment: Imagine yourself at your worst, wreaking havoc on your family, friends, or associates with your insufferable arrogance. Answer honestly, are you fit to exercise power over anyone?
Considering human nature at its worst, the very foundation of the American government was set up to minimize concentrated power. Leaders holding concentrated power are especially susceptible to losing contact with reality, perpetuating errors, and destroying lives.
This essay was originally published at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).
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Thanks for this fleshing out of Napoleon's character; the parallel to modern leaders is undeniable, as is the certainty of this kind of mindset leading to disaster if left unchecked.
Looking at politics is much more frustrating than working out issues within, as the latter is well under individual control, but politics takes on a life of its own with little regard to any one person's wishes. All we can do is as you are doing here, give witness to the benefits of letting people run their own lives with out endless interference from self-appointed experts who in the end are no better qualified than we ourselves are.
The forces, internal and external that propel individuals are a fascinating topic of inquiry. Am currently reading Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be. It shares a larger picture than I had previously considered. Also, I have just ordered your book The Inner-Work of Leadership. Am very much looking forward to reading it. More and more I understand when the inner and outer are in harmony excellent beneficial results become a reality.