Napoleon has generally been viewed harshly by anti-liberal thinkers, with a few notable exceptions such as Nietzsche and Léon Bloy. A great deal of criticism has been leveled at him. He has been accused of being a mere petty dictator without any higher authority legitimizing him, an enemy of the Catholic Church, a liberal egalitarian who brought the violence of the French Revolution to the legitimate monarchies of Europe in his conquests.
In certain respects, these criticisms have a measure of accuracy. However, the charges of liberalism and illegitimate authority could easily be leveled at the English monarchy following the Glorious Revolution. Indeed the influence on English liberalism on French Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Montesquieu has been noted. If we are to judge Napoleon, we must judge him compared to his contemporaries. From this point of view, Napoleon’s vision was far wider than any man of his age. His field of view extended across history, reaching back to the glory of the Roman Empire and extending into the future of the Pan-European dream articulated by Third Positionists such as Thiriart in the wake of the Second World War. Moreover, he was not only a geopolitical visionary, but an economic one as well, who fought the forces of usury and advocated a continental autarky. Napoleon was the grandfather of Great Europe, a community of common struggle from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
From a purely practical point of view, preferring the legitimate monarchy of France to Napoleon is unrealistic considering the depths of crisis the monarchy lead France into and the spectacular recovery of France under Napoleon. However, the strongest case against Napoleon is not a matter of practical politics but one of spiritual authority. Napoleon occupied a position belonging to the kings of France, a position that had been sanctified by the Divine Right of Kings. However, venal or corrupt the King was, he still represented a sacred principle. Napoleon, in contrast came to power in a coup, which can be said to represent a “might is right” claim to authority. For a traditionally oriented society, true authority is based on sacred principle not sheer violence, thus rule by a dictator strong enough to keep the country in order is a regression, no matter how effective that dictator is.
However, we must consider Napoleon’s role in the course of history, his evolution from mere officer to Emperor. Napoleon did not overthrow the King Louis XVI; he was not responsible for the regicide. Certainly, he was on the side of the French Revolutionaries in the conflict against the King as a young officer. However, his entry into the world of political power was to seize control of the weak and ineffective Directory that had been established by the Revolution, ending the chaos unleashed by it. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, we can see Napoleon as somewhat of a reactionary, ending the wild political experimentation of the French Revolution, yet this could viewed as simply a pragmatic approach to progress, rather than a resistance to it. When in power he reversed the course of the War of the Second Coalition and led France to a positive peace treaty three years later.
Two years after the Peace of Amiens, Napoleon was crowned Emperor in 1804. We should note that Napoleon refused the consecration traditionally given to the Kings of France, so we cannot say that he had inherited the same type of sacred authority they held. Yet, Napoleon’s coronation was absolutely imbued with divine meaning. He did not receive consecration as the King of France, but as Emperor, and the symbolism he utilized claimed the heritage of ancient Rome and Charlemagne. He received a blessing from Pope Pius VII himself, with whom he had accorded a concordat in 1801, ending the imposed secularism of the French Revolution.
From the standpoint of traditional methods of legitimacy, we can consider the creation of the Empire and the foundation of the Napoleonic dynasty as the Western equivalent to a doctrine found in China, the Mandate of Heaven. According to this ancient teaching, a dynasty that has been shown to lose the blessing of heaven, through signs such as national hardship and catastrophe, can be replaced by a new one claiming the blessing of heaven. While the rebellion itself is not a right and rebellions of those claiming the favor of heaven have been quashed harshly, a successful revolution could be sanctified when the course of action transfers sovereignty to the man who can handle it the best. From the point of view of the Mandate of Heaven, Napoleon had been appointed to replace a dynasty that had lost the confidence of divine providence. While Napoleon’s accession to Emperor had only come after a plebiscite, we can evidently see in the adopted imperial style and through the blessing of the Pope, the transcendence of mere secular, democratic mechanisms of power, towards glorified ideals.
Napoleon’s relation with the Catholic Church would eventually sour, yet that is not a reason to strip him of any sacred authority. We can see in the eventual conflict between Pope and Emperor echoes of the Ghibelline-Guelph conflict of between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope during the 12th to 15th centuries. Like the Holy Roman Emperors he asserted the authority of the Empire over the Church. The Ghibelline-Guelph struggle arose from different issues than the conflict between Napoleon and the Pope, which was driven by imperial territorial expansion at the expense of the Papal States. However, Napoleon directly invoked the heritage of Charlemagne as Emperor of Rome, explicitly putting himself as the heir to the spiritual tradition of the Holy Roman Empire, as the temporal lords of Rome. He stated the idea that the Papal States were imperial fiefdoms, “Considering that when Charlemagne, Emperor of the French and our august predecessor, made the donation of several counties to the bishops of Rome, he intended them only as fiefs and for the good of his States, and that through this donation, Rome did not cease to be a part of his empire: that since that time, this mixture of spiritual power and temporal authority has been, and still is, a source of discussion which has too often led to pontiffs using the influence of one to support the claims of another.” While it may look like a sacrilege to claim authority over the Pope, the Imperial-Ghibelline tradition hearkens back to a tradition predating Christianity, though never explicitly claiming to be so, the idea of sacred kingship. Evola lays out this spiritual conflict between Church and Empire in Revolt Against the Modern World:
The meaning of such a struggle, however, eludes both those who stop at a superficial level and at everything that from a metaphysical point of view is regarded as a mere occasional cause — thus seeing in it only a political competition and a clash of interests and ambitions rather than a material and spiritual struggle — and those who regard this conflict as one between two opponents who are fighting over the same thing, each claiming the prerogative of the same type of universal power. On the contrary, the struggle hides the contrast between two incompatible visions; this contrast points once again to the antithesis of North and South, of solar and lunar spirituality. The universal ideal of a “religious” kind advocated by the Church is opposed to the imperial ideal, which consists in a secret tendency to reconstruct the unity of the two powers, of the regal and the hieratic, or the sacred and the virile. Although the imperial idea in its external expressions often claimed for itself the dominion of the corpus and of the ordo of the medieval ecumene; and although the emperors often embodied in a mere formal way the living lex and subjected themselves to an asceticism of power — the idea of “sacred regality appeared yet again on a universal plane. Wherever history hinted only implicitly at this higher aspiration it was the myth that bespoke it; the myth was not opposed to history, but rather revealed its deeper dimension.
The historical figure of the Emperor claiming Rome is the embodiment of this myth, though he may be unaware of it and simply performing his legal duties. This esoteric interpretation of the Ghibelline Holy Roman Emperors is just as valid for Napoleon, as they both demonstrate the conflict between the imperial principle and the Church. Thus what we see is not blasphemy, but the supersession of Christianity by one of the truly perennial Traditional doctrines.
Yet we cannot say Napoleon embodied Perennial Tradition in every aspect of his rule, he was a man of his time, an era riven by strife and spiritual degradation. Napoleon can be rightly criticized from the Right for his acceptance of certain facets of the Enlightenment, notably the elimination of aristocratic privileges and the equality of all men before the law. However, he reversed the most radical aspects of the French Enlightenment, restoring relations with the Catholic Church, scrapping the Republican Calendar, and abolishing divorce by mutual consent. Furthermore, it should be noted that the legitimate monarchies of Europe that Napoleon would fight against were by no means immune to Enlightenment liberalism. The ideas of the Enlightenment in the legitimate monarchies would result in so-called Enlightened Despotism in Prussia, Austria, and Russia under Frederick the Great, Joseph II, and Catherine the Great respectively. Indeed, the same philosophers who inspired the French Revolution were influential to their thinking, Voltaire himself corresponding with both Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great. Britain, Napoleon’s chief enemy was long a fortress of liberal ideology, going back the Glorious Revolution of 1689. Moreover, it was Ango-Saxon liberalism as represented by John Locke that inspired many of the French Enlightenment liberals. While many of Napoleon’s opponents had curtailed some the liberal reforms in response to the French Revolution, it would be fallacious to suggest they were not as much part of the Enlightenment as Napoleon was. Furthermore, on one crucial issue Napoleon was absolutely illiberal, namely his rejection of liberal capitalism.
Napoleon recognized the utility of state credit. In a state credit system the government prints its own money and uses it to buy goods, or loans it to producers at a minimal interest. He repudiated the monetary policies of the French Revolution, where the government paid interest to private financiers who bankrolled the state. Under Napoleon the Bank of France was put under government control and it limited the involvement of private bondholders. During a period of economic crisis 1806 to 1807, the French government used state credit to advance low interest loans to the industries of the nation. Moreover, industrial disputes were settled by government boards rather than the hand of the market. Essentially, Napoleon advocated an autarkic, dirigiste economy, in many respects like the Third Position corporatists of the 20th century. His rejection of the international financial system earned him the enmity of the London based Jewish financier Nathan Rothschild, who gave significant loans to the British and Prussian governments to fund their fight against the Napoleonic Empire. Furthermore, Rothschild used his banking connections on the continent to funnel information to military and government leaders who fought against France. This was certainly not done out of any sense of patriotism or duty, but pure greed. A victory for Napoleon would have destroyed his multinational banking empire. This economic warfare against Napoleon had very important geopolitical consequences.
To counter the English blockade and the English financing of his enemies on the continent, Napoleon developed the Continental System. Under the Continental System, the nations of Europe, including the Austrian Empire, the German States, Russia, the Italian States, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Spain were forced to cut off trade with England. Essentially, Europe as a bloc, was forbidden from the British market starting from 1806. This system was not particularly effective and Russia’s withdrawal in 1810 eventually lead to Napoleon’s disastrous invasion two years later. Yet, ideologically, this was the beginning of a Pan-European ideology. His dynastic ambitions were clearly so, as he placed his relatives on the thrones of Naples, Spain, and Westphalia. In many ways Napoleon saw his Empire as the successor the Roman Empire, through the heritage of Charlemagne. Under him the petty nationalism that kept the peoples divided would be swept away and replaced by a grand European empire. He stated, “I wished to found a European system, a European Code of Laws, a European judiciary; there would be but one people in Europe.”
In this sense we can consider Napoleon the grandfather of Thiriart’s Great Europe, one and indivisible from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Thiriart would articulate the form of a unified Europe in the years following the Second World War until his death in 1992. He wrote, echoing Napoleon’s vision of the Code Napoleon as the unitary law of Europe, “The concept of a uniform legislation is one of fundamental principles of this Empire. Civil laws, criminal laws, labor laws and commercial laws are uniform. Interpretation and application of the law are identical everywhere.” In the area of economics, Napoleon’s Continental System can be seen as a predecessor of Thiriart’s “autarky of great spaces” where Europe would be protected by tariffs from foreign competition and pursue a self-sufficient economic policy. Thiriart viewed the unification of Europe as the result of a historical evolution from city states to nation states to empire. Napoleon lived that idea, unifying petty fiefdoms and then incorporating them into his empire. Even in defeat, Napoleon drove this historical evolution, inspiring much of the later nationalism that unified the various disparate feudal states of Germany and Italy. His Confederation of the Rhine was the blueprint for the unification of Germany. Though his Empire was perhaps too ahead of its time, it drove the creation of nations from city states, and thus turned the wheel of time towards the future grand empire of Europe.
The Emperor Napoleon stands at a great crossroads of European history: he was the last Roman, and the first European. His electrifying reign transformed Europe, giving it a consciousness of itself, beyond the historical divisions that divided its peoples. His vision spread across the ages, recapitulating the whole of European history from Greece and Rome to his own accession to power, and forging it into the dream of a truly European future, stripped of the tired regional resentments of the past, free from the hand of finance, striving for Honneur et Patrie. This dream did not come to fruition in his lifetime, it is now the responsibility of his spiritual heirs to take up his struggle against the forces of greed and small-mindedness and realize the glory of the Great Europe he envisioned.