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Napoleon Essay: Napoleon And The Enlightenment
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During his time as a leader of France, Napoleon appeared in some respects to be an enlightened ruler, but many of actions contradicted that appearance.
His goal was to make the the citizens of France believe he was doing everything in his power to help them, and he was successful. That allowed him to increase his popularity throughout France. The people believed he was doing everything he could to improve their living conditions. His motto was “order, security, and efficiency,” and that motto determined the way he managed warfare, politics, and economic problems. Napoleon was a brilliant, successful general who took care of his soldiers and personally led them in battle.
The Enlightenment began in the 1700’s, in the latter part of the Absolute Era. It began in France but it spread across Europe as well. It was an era in which philosophers used the methods of new science to solve the problems of society. Napoleon adopted the Enlightenment approach to problems. He made transportation easier by creating infrastructure. Like Voltaire, a great Enlightenment thinker, Napoleon was interested in education, and funded the construction of new schools in France. He also was committed to the Enlightenment support of reason and logic, and its distaste for superstition and myth.
The Enlightenment came about in part in reaction to religious wars, but it was also influenced by Europe's increased exposure to world cultures. Of course it was also a philosophical movement, and thinkers like Hobbes and Locke were important political thinkers who had an impact on the conflicting ideologies during the French Revolution and Napoleon's rise to power. Napoleon had many views that reflected Enlightenment ideas and values. In 1802, however, Napoleon issued a plebiscite which essentially gave him indefinite sovereign power. Napoleon issued the plebiscite to increase his legitimacy and gain approval from the people in France. The people supported it overwhelmingly, and Napoleon became known as the “Consul for Life.” In 1804, he became known as the emperor, and he created the first French empire.
Although Napoleon issued the 1802 plebiscite to gain approval and to increase his power, he did involve the people of France, which leaders before the Enlightenment would typically not have done.
If only in this respect, Napoleon's attitude reflected that of Rousseau. Rousseau believed that the general will should be expressed for the good of society and that all opinions should be heard. In theory, the plebiscite was supposed to accomplish something like that, although of course it meant Napoleon was thence free to act without public support.
Napoleon believed in people being promoted based on merit, on hard work and dedication, rather than inheritance. He believed that earning your position in society was important and that an economy based on hard-working people creating wealth was better than one based on the inheritance of wealth.
Napoleon improved industries and created a new currency. Both of these ideas were for the good of the economy and were in line with new thinking. In the concordat of 1801, an agreement that granted Catholics freedom to practice their religion was made. Even though the church was kept under state control, the religious practices of Catholics were tolerated. Revolutionaries who opposed the Church denounced the agreement, but the Catholics welcomed it. Napoleon won the support of the Pope and the Catholic Church in this agreement, and it was crucial to his initial success. Religion did not play a role in his life, but he was rationally pragmatic about the people's need to have something to live for, and he was tolerant of other people's religious beliefs.
Napoleon created the Napoleonic code in France in 1804. It was a unified legal code which abolished feudalism and allowed religious tolerance. It was effective in reducing internal conflict; it was another reflection of his Enlightenment-inspired motto: “order, security, and efficiency.”
He improved the school system as well which, as I mentioned above, was in line with the thinking of Voltaire. Voltaire believed people were born basically good but needed to be educated, and Napoleon may have shared that belief.
Napoleon believed in many ideas and policies that were for the good of the country and made many people happy with the reforms that he carried out, but he was also a dictator who undertook actions detrimental to the well-being of the state and the people. Voltaire battled corruption, injustice and inequality and strongly defended freedom of speech. But Napoleon shut down 60 of the 75 domestic newspapers because he did not agree with what they were saying about him. He also helped relations achieve positions of power in Europe, ignoring the principles of the meritocracy which he had earlier championed. He disagreed with Adam smith and the policy of Laissez Faire. He controlled prices which contradicted many principles of economics that came out of the Enlightenment. Despite seeking popular approval, he ultimately agreed with Hobbes' endorsement of absolute sovereignty as against the more democratic and enlightened principles advanced by John Locke. Locke had an optimistic view of human nature while Hobbes had a very pessimistic view. Hobbes thought that humans are are naturally cruel, greedy, and selfish.
Early in Napoleons’ campaign he stated that he supported the equality of citizens in France, but in 1802 he created the Legion of Honor. It was a new status in society which granted members special privileges. The legion was a "superior" group, similar to nobility, but Napoleon of course never called it that because he wanted to convince the general public that the idea of equality was still relevant.
It seems, in sum, that Napoleon, though influenced early in his career by Enlightenment principles, moved steadily away from them as he consolidated his power. It has been rightly said that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
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