‘La France Avant Tout’

Napoleon’s Continental System and His Ultimate Downfall


Introduction

Napoleon Bonaparte was inarguably the most influential world historical figure of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and much has been made of his rise, reign, and ultimate downfall. Of the debates over the Napoleonic regime, none is more heated, complex, or replete with disparate ideas as the argument about the proximate causes of Napoleon’s fall and the rapid collapse of his European Empire. Myriad opinions on the reasons that Napoleon’s regime collapsed exist and many of these have received popular acclaim or widespread agreement. Some have claimed that the end of the Grand Empire was due to the machinations of Napoleon’s Foreign Secretary, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, after Napoleon insulted his pride sometime between 1808 and 1809.[1] Under this theory, Talleyrand “passed information to the Russians and Austrians, among others,”[2] allowing Napoleon’s enemies to have an edge on the ‘Little Corporal’ and outmatch him strategically. Many observers focus more heavily on Napoleon’s personality flaws as contributing to his fall from power. Historian Adam Zamoyski states that “The number of complexes he suffered from, including class inferiority, money insecurity, intellectual envy, sexual anxiety, social awkwardness and, not surprisingly, a persistent hypersensitivity to criticism… drove his stark ambition, undermined his grandiose endeavors—and ultimately crippled his historic legacy.”[3]

Read More »

The History of Art: The Death of Socrates

“Therefore I say to you, men of Athens, either do as Anytus tells you, or not, and either acquit me, or not, knowing that I shall not change my conduct even if I am to die many times over.”

Socrates in Plato’s ‘Apology’[1]

The quote above, from Plato’s Apology, was purportedly spoken by the ancient philosopher-sage Socrates just prior to his condemnation to death by the men of Athens. His crime? According to Plato, Socrates was condemned to death for the unforgivable offense of ‘corrupting the youth’ of the august city-state through his teachings, philosophy, and exhortations to greater self-knowledge. The resolve with which Socrates met his death and the stand he took for his principles have been celebrated throughout the ages as defining examples of political and philosophical courage. One of the historical eras which was typified by its fascination with the ideas and history of the ancient Greco-Roman world was the period of the late Enlightenment just prior to the French Revolution. The story of Socrates and his principled stand in the face of a hostile state was extremely resonant for French intellectuals in this period; one such intellectual was the famed painter Jacques-Louis David, who crafted a masterpiece depicting the moments before Socrates drank the hemlock that would kill him. David’s masterwork, The Death of Socrates[2], is a powerful visual representation of a literary and historical event as well as being an exemplar for an Enlightenment attitude – the value of defending one’s principles even to death – that would resound throughout the French Revolution.

Read More »