I was listening to Zack's podcast on Napoleonic myths and the consensus view proposed by Ed Coss that Napoleon lacked the human characteristic of empathy. Before moving to my question I suppose I need to clarify I am neither a worshiper nor a detractor of the 'great man' - I say great ... not good.
Given the nature of class-based hierarchical societies of the late eighteen and early nineteenth centuries, intricately interwoven with monarchical government and privileged/closed institutions, just how common was empathy at the time? Do we have much evidence of widespread empathy being exhibited amongst Europe's ruling elites in this era?
I'm inclined to favour Ed Coss's proposal but am I wrong in thinking it neither remarkable or unusual a feature within a general or national leader?
Without having listened to the podcast episode, but having - as much as I could bring myself to do without exploding with anger - read the report of this study in "The Sword and the Spirit", I would like to add my thoughts. I am neither a historian, nor a psychologist or any other sort of academic, so I can only go by my very spontaneous and possibly naive understanding.
The story leading to this study, as far as I understood from the e-book: A group of historically interested military psychologists were wondering about Napoleon's possible psychological problems, based on what they had read about him. When trying to find examples for behaviour that fits the criteria for certain mental health problems, they all voted to include a search for behaviour that meets the criteria of narcissistic personality disorder. (Not that there was any bias or anything.) They would address the question by relying on a number of direct statements or actions by Napoleon, and in order to exclude dubious sources, only direct statements by Napoleon were admitted (meaning: from his correspondence, I assume) or statements by people who were in the same room with him.
Setting aside all problems of non-historians trying to assess historical situations, quotations and actions being presented without context and the tunnel vision of people whose work life evolves around a certain set of problems - it is pretty obvious that the value of such a study stands and falls with the sources. So, whom do we get?
- Bourrienne. BOURRIENNE.
Sorry, but you've got to be f'ing kidding me. I'll not even comment on that one. But wait, it gets better.
- Gourgaud. Again with the "I'm not a psychologist" disclaimer: everybody who has read anything about or from this guy knows he was not playing with a full desk.
- Las Cases. Uh... - you can't be serious?
- Caulaincourt. To be expected, I suppose. I'll leave the discussion about his credibility (or lack thereof) to actual historians.
And, not listed among the sources but obviously used a lot, when you look at the footnotes provided:
- Andrew Zamoyski. I guess he also was with Napoleon in the same room...
In addition to that, as the book states, there were some other sources, like Marchand (whom however I have not seen cited much within the study), Miot de Melito, Marmont, Constant, Madame de Rémusat and the other usual suspects. No Laure Junot, no Ida though, as far as I could see, which I did find a little disappointing. They would have fit in well. The existence of Napoleon's correspondence was acknowledged, if rarely used because ... all rather dry and businesslike and utterly un-sensational. (Plus, a LOT of it.) How odd.
I guess the problem here is obvious. Bourrienne's ghost-written memoirs were published during the Restauration, with the clear purpose of slandering Napoleon. On the other hand, Las Cases' publication was at the origin of the "Napoleonic legend", written with the clear purpose of glorifying and aggrandizing the ex-emperor. All these authors had their own agendas, their reasons for writing, their intended audience, their limitations as to what was advisable or not advisable to say during the time they wrote, and with very few exceptions, their memoirs were intended for publication and underwent heavy, heavy editing. But moreover, the memoirs by these authors (or rather their English translations) are also what the psychologists likely (directly or indirectly through secondary sources) had learned about Napoleon in the first place.
Even if all this was not a problem, just look at the time these witnesses cover: We have two people, Las Cases and Gourgaud, who only were in close contact with Napoleon after 1815. We have one (highly doubtful) witness, Bourrienne, for the time between 1795 and 1802 (Bourrienne lost his job as secretary in 1801). And then Caulaincourt for 1812. Did anybody notice the gap between 1802 and 1812? I wonder if anything happened during that time...
There's also a glaring lack of knowledge, if you go by this sentence:
"He had three secretaries, two formal and one informal, who recorded and published his words, and one general and diplomat who accompanied him to Moscow and back during the Russian campaign: Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne; Gaspard Gourgaud; Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné, Comte de Las Cases; Armand-Augustin-Louis de Caulaincourt (Duc de Vicence)."
Gourgaud was never a secretary, and there are at least two more actual "formal" secretaries (Fain and Ménéval) who have written memoirs and who seem to have been neglected because ... the author of the study did not know about them? Or because they did not offer material that was in accordance with what the other sources said?
Also obviously not taken into account: family (though Lucien's memoirs were cited once) and their correspondence (your posthumous patient also was married twice, you know). Joseph has left memoirs, Eugène at least a fragment, Hortense three long volumes. They all are bound to have been "in the same room with him". Or, as the time on Saint Helena seems to be the main focus: Why no Montholon? Why no Bertrand? No Ali Saint-Denis? And if it has to be in English, why no O'Meara?
So, after having successfully set up an echo chamber that would resonate what they expected to hear - guess what these experts found?
I'm not even getting into the interpretation problems that non-historians will always encounter (and about which I'm so well-informed because I am not a historian), something like, for example, evaluating the court etiquette - I mean, gee, could it be that Napoleon was merely getting back to what had existed before the Revolution? And could there be other reasons for that than a personality disorder? - This "study" was doomed from the beginning due to several issues, but the mere choice of sources suffices for me to dismiss it out of hand. Which, by the way, does not mean that I consider a personality disorder in Napoleon's case impossible or even unlikely. But this study is completely unsuitable to prove or disprove it. If Napoleon was suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, well, that I cannot tell. What I dare say is that he on occasion acted around other people like what is commonly referred to as an arsehole.
Just to add, the need to seek for attention - in case it doesn't work, you have to create your own show
To read his article in Swords and the Spirit will help how Ed Coss did come to his conclusion. Eventually I read it - my only main critics is that he quotes and relied too often on Bourienne, there are much better sources around, as for example about his need to seek attention and appoval. Also showing no empathy is only one of the 9 diagnostic criteria to come to the diagnosis of being an narcissist, Susan Howard in the old forum putr together those observations:
Clearly then, I have encountered numerous narcissistic alphas
I would make a difference an alpha would be able to listen, like Frederick when Sydlitz refused to attack when he wanted, a narcissist - no, I experienced quite a few in my post graduate training, and of course they knew everything better. It very much helps to comprehend Boney better to see him affected by his narcissist behaviour disorder.
I am inclined to think of these qualities as 'alpha syndrome' which I consider a psychological condition that broader society can make use of, but which should be regarded with great caution because its usefulness comes at a price, both private and public.
Great man? I would agree - as for today - that a lot of narcisssists are to be found unfortunately in a leading position, most likely in the 18th century as well, but that doesn't make Boney better. For me it is irrelevant if other leading figures of that time were narcissists or not, Boney is one. Wellington shows empathy when he writes letter about human losses and one sees that this is more than lip service. FWIII is deeply affected by the death of his wife. The Russian emperor - after some mistakes - listens to advisors and shows magnitude to France as such when they established a peace in 1814, when Somlensk is burning Napoleon admires the sad spectacle and ejoys it while his entourage sees it as a disaster and they are shocked by the reaction of their master. Napoleon redicules Berthier so he is so offended to shed tears, Odeleben - a Saxon - is shocked by the lack of empathy when French losses are reported, another German officers wonders how on earth Boney was wistling and singing in a battle, when just at his feet people were dying in agony and he did not show any affection. It is also not only the lack of empathy but just being unable to listen to any sound advice, so evident in the Russian campaign where he comes around as a tottering fool who doesn't know what to do. Caulaincourt - who was French ambassador for several years in Russia warned him again and again, like that he shouldn't stay too long in Moscow - and Boney made fun about this advice again, of course being a narcissist he was imune to any advice and was expert in all questions and in case anything did go wrong - it was the fault of the others.
Great man? Realy not great, important - yes.