Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVI, 10

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XVI- Chapter 10
An article in Le Mercure – The change in Bonaparte’s existence

Fortunately, at least, my life was not troubled by anxiety, nor touched by infection, nor lead by others’ example! The satisfaction I feel today regarding what I did then, proves to me that conscience is not an illusion. Happier than all those potentates, than all those nations falling at the feet of the glorious soldier, I re-read with justified pride that page which remains as my sole possession, and which I owe only to myself. In 1807, my heart still stirred by that murder I have spoken of, I wrote these lines; they caused the suppression of Le Mercure and again threatened my liberty.

‘When, in the silence of abjection, the only sound one hears is that of the slave’s chains and the informer’s voice; when all tremble before the tyrant, and it is as dangerous to incur his favour as to merit his censure, the historian appears, entrusted with the wrath of nations. Nero prospers in vain, Tacitus has already been born within the Empire; he grows up unknown beside the ashes of Germanicus, and already a just Providence has delivered the glory of a master of the world into the hands of an obscure child. If the historian’s role is fine, it is often dangerous; but it is altars like that of honour, which, though abandoned, still demand sacrifice; God is not annihilated because the temple is empty. Where there is a chance of success, there is no heroism in attempting it; magnanimous actions are those whose anticipated result is adversity or death. After all what do reverses matter if our name, pronounced by posterity, causes a generous heart to beat two thousand years after our death?’

The death of the Duc d’Enghien, by introducing a new principle into Bonaparte’s conduct, warped his true understanding: he was obliged to adopt, as a shield, rules of conduct whose real application was not at his disposal, since he incessantly bent them to suit his fame and genius. He became an object of suspicion; he created fear; confidence in him and his destiny was lost; he was forced to meet, if not seek out, men he would never have met with before, and who, by his action, thought themselves his equals; the taint of their contagion touched him. He did not dare to reproach them, since he no longer possessed the virtue or freedom to cast blame. His great qualities remained intact, but his good inclinations altered and no longer supported those great qualities; with the corruption represented by that first stain, his character deteriorated. God commanded his angels to disturb the harmony of that universe, to change its laws, to tilt its poles. As Milton wrote:

‘They with labor push’d
Oblique the centric globe… the sun
Was bid turn reins from th’equinoctial road
…rend the woods, and seas upturn.’