by stephenpalmersf

This piece was first written in the mid 1990’s. It is presented here in edited form.


1. Biography

Born on 15 August 1769 in the Corsican town of Ajaccio, Napoleone Buonaparte was the second son of Carlo-Maria and Letizia Buonaparte. At that time, Corsica, which had Italian language, culture and history, had been ceded to France, risen in a war of independence and been put down again. The end of the war came just before Letizia gave birth. Carlo-Maria, who had fought in the war of independence and even been a leader in that conflict, was afterwards a retiring man, devoted to writing and books. He was ambitious in public life and even managed to meet French royalty; at this stage his affected manners and sugary charm became irritating to some. Little time was spent with his children, but when he was present he was rather indulgent.

Letizia was the real head of the house, a beautiful, imposing woman of great physical and moral power, whose influence could be discerned everywhere. In Napoleon and His Parents Dorothy Carrington writes:

{Letizia} was formidable in her role. Loved, respected and above all feared, she watched over her children with an inquisitorial eye, punishing the least fault, for this was her way of loving; her tenderness, said Napoleon, was “severe.”

Letizia, following Corsican custom, allowed what was a natural liking for authority to run unchecked. The relationship between her and Napoleone was troubled, a tie through which she strove to mould his character according to her own values. Dorothy Carrington comments that upon reading Letizia and Napoleone’s reminiscences of one another she felt “the impression of a constant duel between them.”

Napoleone was a strange youth. He displayed excessive narcissism even for a child (all of whom are narcissistic to some extent as an aspect of normal mental development). He was only concerned with himself, exhibiting great egotism, aggression, mischief, love of quarrelling and talent at lying. He continually bullied Giuseppe, his elder brother, and with other children would not be content with anything other than complete domination. His will was formidable and assertive. If denied, he would explode into sudden violence.

These qualities had the effect of confirming to Napoleone that he was the centre of the world. By controlling others, either through nostril-flared tantrums or by force of ‘will’ (here I mean a refusal to have things any other way than his own, a quality inaccurately refered to as ‘strength’ by many), he could continue to live in the world that he had created rather than the real one which did not conform to his fantasies – fantasies which were defences for his fragmented mind. Brother Giuseppe related a tale in which, at a school enactment of the Romans’ defeat of Carthage, he and Napoleone had been placed on opposing sides, with himself under the Roman banner. Napoleone could not rest until he had been transfered to the winning side and Giuseppe made a Carthaginian. At school he could not bear to be in any place other than top of the class.

Napoleone’s disconnection from reality had other symptoms. Letizia described how he would go out into the streets in the evening and absent-mindedly wander about, his clothes in a dishevelled state. The young Napoleone was often introspective, studying alone in a room specially constructed for him. A precocious gift for mathematics had already become apparent. Yet he was rather a solitary child.

When Napoleone was nine Carlo-Maria decided to move his sons to France. Giuseppe and Napoleone were placed on 1 January 1779 in Autun College, where they were to spend three months preparing for priesthood and for a place at Champagne’s ecole militaire respectively. The ecole militaire gave a basic education to noblemen’s sons, preparing them for the equivalent school in Paris; it was a grim establishment run by monks of the Order of St. Benedict, a place of harsh life, no comforts, long days, and constant taunting from the other boys. Napoleone had the disadvantages of being obviously Corsican, fiercely patriotic, egotistical and alone, all of which conspired to turn him against both religion and his colleagues.

Napoleone’s fellow inmates met a gloomy and savage boy, introverted, a solitary misfit, forever shut away with some book; Napoleone was a voracious reader. He could be violent when irritated and took on an aloof, taciturn manner. When his younger brother came to the ecole militaire in 1784 he discovered a hard, withdrawn Napoleone with no human tenderness.

In late 1784 Napoleone moved to the Ecole Militaire in Paris, where he wanted to join the Navy. However, it transpired that his mathematical excellence had already procured him a free place as a ‘gentleman cadet’, which he accepted. The military atmosphere was very different to that of the school in Champagne – uniforms everywhere, with military drums and martial music; and Napoleone could be sure he was receiving an education fit for a possible future officer. He revelled in his new school. In September 1785 he passed the examinations necessary for him to be posted into an artillery regiment at Valence in the Dauphine. In Valence he found lodgings and began his duties as a gunner.

His father had died two years earlier. When Napoleone was seventeen he was given leave to visit Corsica for the first time in eight years. He spent the last year before the Revolution in solitary study at Auxonne, Burgundy, where his regiment had been stationed.

The French Revolution was for him a time of change. His Corsican fervour was soon exchanged for Revolutionary fervour. He became a rebel leader in Corsica, then a Jacobin agitator and an enemy of noble society. Joining the Auxonne republican club he dominated its members and made himself secretary and librarian. By now he had taken over family affairs too, meddling in every detail, bossing his brothers and relatives, accepting no criticism or change of plan. For Napoleone, everything he thought or did was automatically correct; any opposition trodden down. But by now it was apparent to some that personal ambition, in the direction of any handy government, was his only urge…

By 1792 Napoleone’s continued absences from his regiment – despite various documents from the Corsican authorities and his elevation to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel – were enough to have his soldier’s pay stopped. Poverty forced him back to Paris. There he found chaos; the National Assembly was in turmoil, the streets were frequently convulsed with mobs and there was an atmosphere of panic. Rejoining his regiment he became involved in various actions and minor political affairs. Politicking in Corsica had now been dropped as a possible career, and instead he envisaged himself as a rising military leader. All that mattered was power.

In 1793 a chance cropped up. Now a Captain, Napoleone found himself involved in the recapture of France’s naval base at Toulon. Luck was with him, for not only were there no other officers around to dim the glory, he had a ramshackle army to deal with, thus allowing him to display his talents at analysis, organisation and attack. In addition he was able to use personal influence to force events leading up to the operation his way. After the successful recapture, army officers were ecstatic about “this rare officer’s virtues.”

It was now December 1793. At the age of twenty four, Napoleone was named a Brigadier. Two years of obscurity and stagnation followed in which Napoleone found no avenue for advancement, but in 1795 he was picked to become part of the bureau topographique, effectively a planning and intelligence network advising the by now highly unstable government. He took the opportunity to make friends whom he might later use for personal advancement. Soon a new Parisian uprising gave Napoleone a chance to prove his merit, success allowing him to be appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Interior.

France was now governed by the Directory, a body in which one Paul Barras sat: patron of Napoleone. Napoleone had acquired real power at last. Later he would become commander of the Army of Italy, would find success against the Austrian army (exaggerated accounts were sent to Paris in order that his own legend might be created), and would astonish everyone with his victories and subsequent overtures of peace. Other adventures were not so fortunate, such as that in Egypt.

At the turn of the century France remained in chaos, with the Directory discredited and bankrupt. Napoleone was chosen to lead the interior army in a new government which was to take power by coup de etat. But the instigator of the affair, Sieyes, had not allowed for Napoleone’s driving ambition. With the army behind him, and with his formidable skill at manipulating people, Napoleone managed to have the new constitution written so that there was one First Consul rather than three equal ones. He had at last found the top job.

In 1807 France’s Code Civil was changed to the Code Napoleon and a new type of society was described therein – one of Napoleone’s own construction. Only three years earlier he had crowned himself Emperor…

2. Napoleon’s Narcissism

Erich Fromm wrote of narcissism:

 The narcissistic orientation is one in which a person experiences as real only that which exists within themself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous.

The clearest aspect of Napoleon’s character was his narcissism, which was intense right from the beginning. Its chief manifestation was his insatiable lust for power and dominance – he exhibited a driving need to impose his will on others. His narcissism meant the world was not a real place with existence of its own, rather it was a mental construction, a place he had created from twisted and distorted perceptions of reality. Because of this, other people, with needs, desires and lives of their own, could not be accepted. Napoleon had to dominate them so as to keep the real world in accordance with the one he had created. If he let dominance slip, the self he had created would fall to pieces; he would annihilate himself. Thus, Napoleon’s ruthless acquisition of power was essential if he was to live with sanity. The domination of others, by which his fantasy world (which of course seemed perfectly real to him) could be validated, was central to his survival as a human being. And the particular conditions of society at the time – patriarchal, hierarchical and militaristic – allowed him vast scope for domination.

By cultivating contacts, making friends, lying and acting, he took the opportunist route into power. His personal career took precedence over all other considerations. On more than one occasion he effectively abandoned his army in bad situations to return home with a sheaf of excuses; this happened at the end of the Egyptian debacle. Notions of duty were considered only within the framework of whatever situation he happened to be in, the final arbiter of action being his own safety and career.

But in 1799, during Sieyes’ coup de etat when Napoleon insisted there be a single First Consul, he was unable to hide the real reasons for his actions. At this point dictatorship was only a breath away. Instead of lying and manipulating, the lure of dominion was so close it made him desperate enough to reveal his real reasons for creating a First Consul. He threatened parliament that if he did not get his own way there would be bloodshed up to their knees…

A sense of omnipotence and omniscience stayed with him in various measures throughout his life. As a child he would throw tantrums and boss other children, success in these operations confirming that he was the master of his world. But as he grew, his mental model of reality became increasingly distorted in order to keep him placed centrally, controlling and seeing all around him. Yet in his teens, when it was still apparent that he might not be the centre of all things, he took the easy route away from recognising the obvious; he withdrew from reality into an isolating world of books.

When events in Paris conspired to push him into power he became convinced that a ‘lucky star’ was guiding him, one which would guarantee him dominion in the near future. This invented notion of the lucky star, through which he explained to himself the fact that he was doing so well, was a device intended to create personal meaning from real events. The lucky star, the Destiny which he had felt even as a child, was a symbol of the overwhelming importance which he had given himself, a selfish manifestation applying meaning to reality without acknowledging that reality operates by chance. In this way, Napoleon continued to think that reality revolved around him.

Later the sense of omnipotence was deepened by his military victories, and in the end by becoming First Consul and then Emperor. By this time mere conquest could not appease the lust for power; what seemed a lack of human fallibility was metamorphosed into a belief that he was a deity. Part of the Imperial Catechism ran:

Q. Why are we bound to show these duties {love, obedience, fidelity, service, &c.} to the Emperor?

A. Because God has established him as our Sovereign, and has rendered him His image here on earth, overwhelming him with gifts in peace and war. To honour and serve our Emperor is, therefore, to honour and serve God himself…

That Napoleon created a unique mental world of his own rather than developing an authentic self within reality (the independent reality which most people sense) left him with no authentic character. This meant he faced impossible identity problems, with the inability to form an authentic identity having many symptoms. When young he was a fervent Corsican patriot; the framework of patriotism allowed him to use Corsica-ness as if it were Napoleon-ness. Later, when that was useless, he became a obsessive revolutionary for precisely the same reason. At length French-ness was the essence of Napoleon. At no time did he draw on inner resources to form a sense of identity, since there were almost no such resources. His younger brother Lucien remarked on how he discerned a void in Napoloeon where human character and integrity should have been.

This emptiness meant sincerity was unknown to Napoleon. He lied, except in situations where he had no need to lie. In addition he was a superb actor, able to put on any mask to serve his needs. Wearing a mask was an essential part of his life, a symbol of his fundamental insincerity, and it came naturally to him. As a schoolboy in Corsica he would shamelessly manipulate the teaching nuns to get what he wanted, his acting good enough to convince them of his merit.

Much of Napoleon’s restlessness came from this inner void. When in exile at Elba, the commissioner Sir Neil Campbell noted his “restless perseverence” and “pleasure in perpetual movement.” In Bonaparte Correlli Barnett writes:

Action disguised the essential emptiness of his existence, the void in the heart.

Then again, action provided an answer to the most haunting of questions, that of identity: “I act, therefore I am.”

Napoleon also used others to create his identity. Domination not only served to make people do what he wanted, they confirmed to him an equivalence – other people in some way were him. Thus Napoleon could not bear the slightest intimation of independence in his minions. His secretary Meneval wrote that the price of Napoleon’s favour was high, even to the extent of self-negation.

Napoleon’s attitude to the real world was typical of the narcissist. He forged it into the shape he wanted yet remained divorced from it, since, to him, it had no independent existence. When he was in power society was transformed into the shape he desired, and so was the apparatus of government, the army, even of political and moral thought amongst his subjects. Becoming First Consul allowed him to indulge his most profound wishes without denial, increasing the horizons of domination until every aspect of the world was twisted according to his personal views. Eventually the internal world he had created became alike to the real one, closing the reality gap which had so driven him, to the enormous detriment of the real world… But this sense of self had to coincide with what existed in the external world, else the numerous defences and constructions of his mind collapse, and he with it. And thus do all narcissists operate, like malignant sculptors.

Napoleon’s lack of realism was sometimes gross. His campaigns were often hastily prepared and ill-timed, and he took risks on many occasions. When these risks came off they confirmed his sense of infallibility; when they failed he ignored them, or ran away from them into his romantic, fantasy world. There was slapdash under-estimation of potential difficulties. When Napoleon considered some problem he simply ignored anything which might thwart him, assuming that the operation would succeed. Excluding the unknown was standard procedure. In considering the operation to attack England, he simply assumed that the British Navy would not fight him and that he would sail through – it did not occur to him that they might want to stop his advance. In battle he similarly operated in a world of his own. The standard Bonaparte ploy was to swoop, fight one quick and decisive battle, make peace on his own terms then return to Parisian glory. It never occurred to him during the planning of the Russian campaign that such a ploy was pure fantasy. Actual considerations of terrain, geography and logistics were alien to his method of planning, which, although often brilliant, were brilliant only on their own terms.

When reality finally did intrude into Napoleon’s world there were two distinct responses. Usually he would slip away from the scene of the disaster and pretend to himself and to others that it had never happened, or that some force other than himself had been responsible. On other occasions he would retreat into his fantasy world and simply ignore what was happening.

But on at least three occasions the convergence of reality and fantasy was so intense that Napoleon’s inner world – his laboriously constructed self – was placed in jeopardy. When Napoleon was at the Champagne ecole militaire he was punished for an offence by being forced to eat his dinner upon his knees at the door of the refectory. The power wielded over him and the humiliation were so intense that he suffered a kind of fit; reality and his internal world became violently incompatible. A similar occurence took place in the weeks before Napoleon’s creation of the First Consul. Sieyes’ coup de etat involved much chicanery, and at one point the parliamentary opposition became heated, questioning Napoleon about the army surrounding Paris and the general state of leadership. Questions about personal ambitions and current events Napoleon deflected, but at one point the opposition’s hatred of him became obvious, and it seemed the plan might fail. Then Napoleon panicked: he stuttered answers, his face white, his powers of manipulation and self-deception departed. A third occasion was the Battle of Waterloo. When it became obvious that Wellington and Blucher were going to take the day Napoleon did not stay to see the result, instead riding from the scene weeping, terrified and speechless.

Napoleon’s sense of confidence was central to his character. He addressed the Palestinians in 1799:

It is well that you realise that all human efforts are useless against me, because everything I undertake must succeed.

Only at the end of his reign, after abdication, the subsequent escape from custody on Elba and attempted hijacking of French government, and then the Battle of Waterloo, did he consider failure, and even then, as he fretted in exile, he re-wrote his own past and his predicament, so that he was not at fault and never had been.

Another aspect of Napoleon’s narcissism was his thirst for revenge. In Corsica the vendetta had been an institution – one closely followed by him. Revenge for any slight was a way of retaining his sense of self-worth, which was desperately fragile. Revenge was a kind of therapy for any damage done to his over-inflated sense of self-importance. Like all narcissists, Napoleon was acutely sensitive to personal ridicule, and could not bear to be made a fool of. Summary shooting, imprisonment without trial and deportation were all forms of revenge, pursued with no regard for rights of liberty, equality or fraternity.

Napoleon also exhibited two other important, and related, narcissistic symptoms: self-sufficiency and atrophied emotions. The human connection which could have been his through emotion was denied even more than is usual for men; only on exceptional occasions, as when defeat at Wateroo shattered his illusions, did he weep. On almost all occasions he repressed emotion, though there remained the bursts of infantile anger. Self-sufficiency was also a characteristic, dependence hateful to him since that would mean relying on some other person.

Narcissism too powered his need for glory and worship, these being ways of convincing himself that he was wonderful and the centre of the world. As Emperor, his sense of grandiosity reached absurd dimensions, in coins, statues, buildings, in every kind of abject worship. He propagated his own legend wherever he could, in painting, report, book and rumour. His vanity was immeasurable. It was not enough merely to be Emperor, he had to have constant proof of his glory, and thus constant expansion. Sheer numbers had a heady effect upon him in whatever context. He wrote, “What is grand is always beautiful.”

And Napoleon, like all irredeemable narcissists, was also destructive. This was apparent at a very young age, and it stayed with him until death. Unable to find any sort of human creativity, he was led inexorably to destruction. As a youngster he wanted to be a soldier; war attracted him. But because he felt so separated from the world the only available response – a response he had to find because of the human need for meaning – was destruction. He could never act creatively in union within the world because of his intense narcissism, and so his only option was to destroy it, since it was usually so hateful to him. Destruction became his personal meaning. In his late teens he wrote with enormous perception:

Life is a burden to me because I feel no pleasure and because everything is affliction to me. It is a burden to me because the men with whom I have to live and will probably always live have ways as different from mine as the light of the moon from that of the sun. I cannot then pursue the only manner of living which could enable me to put up with existence, whence follows a disgust for everything.

Correlli Barnett quotes the memoirs of Marshal Marmont:

I have never understood his curiosity to see the dead and dying so cover the ground. He stopped in front of one officer grievously wounded in the knee, and had the strange idea of having the amputation performed before him by his surgeon Yvan.

Thus war was essential to the destructive and voyeuristic Bonaparte. When in conflict with other nations he rarely talked of surrender; more of perishing. No grey existed between the white of total victory and the black of total annihilation.

Yet even his very self was an object of possible destruction, which would have to go if the world could not:

What madness makes me desire my own destruction? Without doubt the problem of what to do in this world.


Always alone among other men, I come home to dream by myself and to give myself over to all the force of my melancholy. In what direction is it bent today? Towards death? If I must die, would it not be as well to kill myself?

Suicide was contemplated at those times when reality and fantasy were in their most severe conflict – in his teens at the Champagne ecole militaire, when he was penniless and rejected at the age of twenty-six, and after Waterloo (as reported by the government official Caulaincourt) on two separate occasions. He took poison, a substance he had kept on his person ever since the disaster in Russia. It failed – but the idea had been considered and executed.

“Weakness alone is inhumanity,” Napoleon declared. By this he meant that living in the world through the laws of nature was impossible for him, since they were not his laws. Only domination or destruction was acceptable.

3. Narcissism & Autistic Memory

Baron Meneval, Napoleon’s secretary, wrote in his memoirs that Napoleon’s memory was described as “astonishing.” Various biographers describe his memory as “very retentive,” “near-photographic,” “prodigious” and “phenomenal.” This memory was particularly keen on statistics.

Napoleon’s thinking too had a particular character. As a child he was outstanding at mathematics, and in youth was a voracious reader, but for Napoleon it was facts which were delightful – and only facts. He was able to take in immense amounts of detail, particularly in the field of mathematics, science, and military logistics, then remember and use them all. He thrived on the rational application of his knowledge.

When young he had the particular gift of summarising detail, a gift which made him a brilliant though unrealistic tactician. Rationality and logic were deeply attractive to him. But this type of thinking had the disadvantage of atrophied imagination. General ideas, theories and relationships were on the whole alien to him. Intuition was impossible. But it was Napoleon himself who gave the most significant insight into the workings of his own mind. He wrote:

Different subjects and different affairs are arranged in my head as in a cupboard. When I wish to interrupt one train of thought, I shut that drawer and open another. Do I wish to sleep? I simply close all the drawers, and there I am – asleep.

Here Napoleon describes the quality of unconnected detail which characterised his mind. Napoleon could never have been a holist. All things were separate entities, lacking connection, considered alone and in the abstract. But because his memory also had this quality there exists a tantalising link to the comment of Extraordinary People author Darold Treffert, that the inability to forget is crucial in the understanding of the autistic mind. If Napoleon found his myriad of individual memories hard to ignore he simply ‘closed all the drawers’ as a last resort, thereby turning his back on his own mind. Neurophysician Alexander Luria, treating his patient ‘S’, described a procedure of striking similarity. To take himself away from his world, which was dominated by perfectly remembered visual imagery, ‘S’ would bring to mind the image of a white wall which he had not seen, to which he could for a while turn away. Similarly Jorge Luis Borges’ fictional character Ireneo Funes found it very difficult to sleep, since he could not turn his back on the world; he tried to imagine a series of homogenous, black houses which he had never seen in order to escape his perfectly remembered world; or he tried to imagine himself rocked by the current at the bottom of a river.

Society Napoleon envisaged as a machine, constructed with perfectly rational precision and founded on absolute data. For Napoleon, society had no organic feel, no sense of relationship, no real groups other than a few clans in the Corsican mode. Within it he imagined a huge number of solitary competing egos – “there is no such thing as society,” to use Thatcher’s phrase. Napoleon’s view of society was deadly rational, blinkered, and lacking any sense of a connected whole.

Significant also was Napoleon’s ability to concentrate. Some autistic people have this ability. In Colin Blakemore’s The Mind Machine, Eddie, an autistic man who cycles to locations found on his maps in strict alphabetic order, is able to concentrate totally on the construction of a bike. Nothing distracts him. The autistic inability to synthesize brings about an over-concentration on isolated details. Similarly, Napoleon (like Thatcher) was able to concentrate on some problem or detail with total conviction.

There is another clue to some variety of autism in Napoleon, and that is his behaviour when it came to experiencing feelings. He himself felt few, and they only appeared on desperate or momentous occasions – iron self-control and dead emotionality are typical of the narcissistic person. Napoleon’s incomprehension of feelings and emotion was a significant symptom; he either ignored emotions or was baffled by them, as though (like many autistic people) he simply had no conceptual framework with which to deal with them. In Bonaparte Correlli Barnett writes of Napoleon in Paris:

{Josephine} hastened back to the capital and laid siege to him with tears and entreaties, supplementing her own with those of her childen. Bonaparte, always vulnerable to a woman’s tears, indeed flummoxed by any violent display of human feeling (was he, as his early writings suggest, afraid of it?) succumbed, {and} forgave.

4. Addendum

Both Adolf Hitler and Margaret Thatcher exhibited the above symptoms of a kind of autistic narcissisism. Hitler exhibited all the characteristics of an intensely narcissistic man, and his memory was phenomenal. In his groundbreaking work The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness Erich Fromm quotes biographer P. E. Schramm:

One capacity that astounded everybody again and again – including those who were not under his spell – was his stupendous memory; a memory that could exactly retain even unimportant details, like the characters in Karl May’s novels, the authors of books he had once read, even the make of the bicycle he had ridden in 1915. He remembered exactly the dates in his political career, the inns he had been to, the streets he had driven on.

Hitler was easily able to recall exact calibres of guns, the locations of military units, or of submarine positions. His memory was not the general, imaginative variety developed by the normal person, rather that perfect system of recall which characterises the autistic or savant mind, and which had profound effects on his thinking. For him, remembering was automatic, precise and absolute.

Hitler, like Napoleon, had a gift for simplifying vast amounts of data into what seemed like logical arguments, which he would string together when making speeches or decisions. (Also like Napoleon, he was a voracious reader, a gleaner of facts which he stored without error.) All these characteristics also apply to Thatcher, as revealed variously by her colleagues and by her biographers.