Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIV, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXIV, chapter 7
Whether Bonaparte has left us in renown the equivalent of what he has taken from us by force?



In order not to admit the reduction in territory and power which we owe to Bonaparte, the present generation consoles itself by claiming that what he has taken from us by force, he has given back in glory. ‘Are we not now famous,’ they say, ‘in every corner of the earth? Is not a Frenchman feared, pointed out, known on every shore?’

But were we condemned only to one of those two conditions, immortality without power, or power without immortality? Alexander made the Greek name famous throughout the world; he left Greece no less than four empires in Asia; the language and civilisation of the Hellenes extended from the Nile to Babylon, and from Babylon to the Indus. At his death, his ancestral kingdom of Macedonia, far from being diminished, had increased a hundredfold. Bonaparte spread our fame to every shore; under his command, the French subjugated Europe such that France’s name yet prevails, and the Arc d’Étoile can stand there without seeming a puerile trophy; but before our defeats that monument would have been a witness instead of merely being a chronicle. Yet, had not Dumouriez with his conscripts already dealt the foreigner his first lessons, had not Jourdan won the Battle of Fleurus, Pichegru conquered Belgium and Holland, Hoche crossed the Rhine, Masséna triumphed at Zurich, Moreau at Hohenlinden; all exploits difficult to perform that prepared the way for others? Bonaparte gave unity to those disparate successes; he continued them, he made those victories shine forth: but without those first marvels could he have achieved the last? He rose above all others only when the mind within him was executing the inspirations of the poet.

Our sovereign’s fame cost us a mere two or three hundred thousand men a year; we paid for it with a mere three million of our soldiers; our fellow citizens bought it at the price merely of their sufferings and of fifteen years of their freedom: what do such trifles matter? Are not the generations who come after us resplendent with glory? So much the worse for those who vanished! The disasters which occurred under the Republic ensured the safety of all; our misfortunes under the Empire did much more; they deified Bonaparte! That should suffice us.

It does not suffice me; I refuse to abase myself by hiding my country behind Bonaparte; he did not create France, France created him. No genius, no superiority, will ever induce me to accept a power which can deprive me of my freedom, my home, my friends with a word: if I do not add my wealth and my honour, it’s because one’s wealth does not seem to me worth defending; as for honour, it is immune to tyranny: it is the soul of martyrdom; bonds encompass it but do not enchain it; it pierces prison walls liberating the whole man along with it.

The wrong which a true philosophy will never forgive Bonaparte is that of having accustomed society to passive obedience, thrusting humanity back towards the age of moral degradation, and corrupting the nature of manners, to such a degree perhaps that it is impossible to say when men’s hearts might begin once more to throb with noble feelings. The weakness which has overcome us both in regard to ourselves, and Europe, and our present abasement, are the consequence of Napoleonic slavery: all that remains to us is the ability to bear the yoke. Bonaparte has even disordered the future; it would not astonish me, if, in our sickly impotence we weakened further, barricading ourselves against Europe instead of going out to meet it, giving up our internal freedoms to deliver ourselves from imaginary external dangers, losing ourselves in unworthy precautions, contrary to our genius and the fourteen centuries which have created our national way of life. The atmosphere of despotism Bonaparte left behind him will close around us like a fortress.

The fashion today is to greet liberty with a sardonic smile, to regard it as an old-fashioned concept fallen into disuse, like that of honour. I am unfashionable, I think the world is empty without liberty; it makes life worth living; if I were its last defender, I would never cease to proclaim its rights. To attack Napoleon in the name of past events, to assail him with dead ideas, is to provide him with fresh triumphs. He can be fought only with something greater than himself, namely liberty: he was guilty of offending her and consequently of offending the human race.