10 Napoleon Bonaparte Quotes in Context

Having looked at 10 things Napoleon never said, here are 10 Napoleon Bonaparte quotes that are often taken out of context. Considering the circumstances in which Napoleon said them may put a different spin on them. Note that all of these quotes have variants, depending on how the French was translated, and on how the phrases have mutated over the past 200 years.

1. In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter.

Variant: In war, moral power is to physical as three parts out of four.

These words are from Napoleon’s notes entitled “Observations on Spanish Affairs,” which he wrote on August 27, 1808 at the palace of Saint-Cloud. They were intended for his brother Joseph, whom he had recently installed as King of Spain. The Spaniards were opposed to French rule and the war was becoming savage. Napoleon wrote:

We will not discuss here if the line of the Ebro is good…. All these questions are pointless. We will content ourselves with saying that since we have taken the line of the Ebro, the troops can recover and rest, there is at least the advantage that the country is healthier, being more elevated, and we can wait there until the heat has passed. Above all, we must not abandon this line without a specific plan that leaves no uncertainty about subsequent operations. It would be a great misfortune to abandon this line and then later be obliged to retake it.

In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter. (1)

I have Napoleon say a version of this in Napoleon in America.

2. From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.

Variant: There is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Napoleon retreats from Moscow, by Adolf Northen

Napoleon retreats from Moscow, by Adolf Northen

Napoleon said this during his retreat from Russia. On December 5, 1812, at Smorgoni, he left the remains of his straggling army under the command of his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat (who also soon abandoned the troops), and hurried ahead towards Paris. On December 10, his sleigh reached Warsaw, where he was greeted by France’s ambassador to Poland, the Abbé de Pradt. After a short meeting, Napoleon dismissed de Pradt, instructing him to return after dinner with two Polish politicians – Count Stanislas Potocki and the minister of finance. De Pradt recounts:

We rejoined him about three o’clock, he had just risen from table.

‘How long have I been at Warsaw? Eight days. No, only two hours,’ he said, laughing, without other preparation or preamble. ‘From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step. How do you find yourself, Monsieur Stanislas, and you, Sir, the Minister of Finance?’ To the repeated protests of these gentlemen of the satisfaction they felt at seeing him safe and well after so many dangers, [Napoleon said:] ‘Dangers! Not in the least. I live in the midst of agitation: the more I am crossed, the better I am. It is only sluggish kings who grow fat in their palaces: horseback and camps for me. From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step.’ It was clear that he saw himself pursued by the hissing of all Europe, which was to him the greatest possible punishment. (2)

3. You write to me that it is impossible; the word is not French.

Variant: The word impossible is not French. Also misquoted as: The word impossible is not in my dictionary.

This phrase comes from a letter that Napoleon wrote from Dresden on July 9, 1813, to General Jean Le Marois, the governor of Magdeburg, a French stronghold in Germany. Napoleon was in trouble. He had lost a large chunk of the Grande Armée in the Russian campaign. Russia and Prussia had pushed into Germany. The British had liberated most of Spain. Napoleon’s soldiers were exhausted. Desertion was high. Ammunition and supplies were scarce. After winning the bloody Battle of Bautzen in late May, Napoleon on June 2 agreed to a two-month truce with the Russian-Prussian coalition.

You might think the quote had something to do with an attempt to stir men for battle. Instead it’s about the delivery of fodder. Here’s what Napoleon wrote:

I received your letter of 6th July. You have 240,000 bushels of oats at Magdeburg. ‘That is impossible,’ you write to me: that is not French. I am displeased with your letter. Immediately send two boats filled with oats for the horses of the Guard, who are dying. The oats will be replaced by what is happening in the country, by the next harvest, and, finally, by what is sent by the 32nd division. (3)

4. What is the throne? A bit of wood gilded and covered with velvet.

Variants: Four pieces of gilded wood covered with a piece of velvet. This wooden frame covered with velvet.

Napoleon said this to the French Legislative Body on January 1, 1814. After that letter to La Marois, things went from bad to worse. Having won the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, the Allies were ready to carry the war onto French soil. It was no longer a question of trying to save the Empire. Napoleon needed to save his crown. In December he tried to gain political support by convening the Senate and the Council of State with the Chamber of Deputies in a joint session of the legislature. Two committees were elected to study Allied peace proposals, which aimed at cutting France back to its earlier frontiers. On December 28, the Chamber of Deputies presented its report. It criticized Napoleon for continuing the war and for oppressing the French people. Napoleon responded by haranguing the Deputies thus:

Why did you not make your complaints in secret to me? I would have done you justice. We should wash our dirty linen in private, and not drag it out before the world. You call yourselves representatives of the nation. It is not true; you are only deputies of the departments; a small portion of the State, inferior to the Senate, inferior even to the Council of State. The representatives of the people! I am alone the representative of the people. Twice have twenty-four millions of French called me to the throne – which of you durst undertake such a burden? It had already overwhelmed your Assemblies, and your Conventions, your Vergniards and your Guadets, your Jacobins and your Girondins. They are all dead! What, who are you? Nothing – all authority is in the throne; and what is the throne? This wooden frame covered with velvet? No, I am the throne…. France stands more in need of me than I do of France. (4)

Napoleon Bonaparte on board the Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound, by Sir Charles Locke Eastlake, 1815

Napoleon Bonaparte on board the Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound, by Sir Charles Locke Eastlake, 1815

5. Work is the scythe of time.

After Napoleon was defeated by the allies in 1815, he gave himself up to Britain’s Frederick Maitland, the captain of HMS Bellerophon, which was blockading the French port of Rochefort. Maitland ferried Napoleon and his entourage to Plymouth Sound. Napoleon hoped to be allowed to settle in England. On July 31, however, he learned that the British government intended to exile him to St. Helena, a remote island in the middle of the South Atlantic. One of Napoleon’s companions, the Count de Las Cases, reported this conversation on board the Bellerophon on August 2, 1815.

I was again sent for by the Emperor; who, after alluding to different subjects, began to speak of St. Helena, asking me what sort of place it could be? Whether it was possible to exist there? And similar questions. ‘But,’ said he, ‘after all, am I quite sure of going there? Is a man dependent on others, when he wishes that his dependence should cease.’ …

‘My friend,’ continued the Emperor, ‘I have sometimes an idea of quitting you, and this would not be very difficult; it is only necessary to create a little mental excitement, and I shall soon have escaped. All will be over, and you can then tranquilly rejoin your families. This is the more easy, since my internal principles do not oppose any bar to it. I am one of those who conceive that the pains of the other world were only imagined as a counterpoise to those inadequate allurements which are offered to us there. God can never have willed such a contradiction to his infinite goodness, especially for an act of this kind; and what is it after all, but wishing to return to him a little sooner?’

I remonstrated warmly against such notions. Poets and philosophers had said that it was a spectacle worthy of the Divinity, to see men struggling with fortune: reverses and constancy had their glory. Such a great and noble character as his could not descend to the level of vulgar minds; he who had governed us with so much glory, who had excited the admiration, and influenced the destinies of the world, could not end like a desperate gamester or disappointed lover. What would then become of all those who looked up to and placed their hopes in him? Would he thus abandon the field to his enemies? … [W]ho, besides, could tell the secrets of time, or dare assert what the future would produce. What might not the mere change of a ministry, death of a Prince, that of a confidant, the slightest burst of passion, or the most trifling dispute bring about?

‘Some of these suggestions have their weight,’ said the Emperor, ‘but what can we do in that desolate place?’ ‘Sire,’ I replied, ‘we will live on the past: there is enough of it to satisfy us. Do we not enjoy the life of Caesar and that of Alexander? We shall possess still more, you will re-peruse yourself, Sire!’ ‘Be it so!’ rejoined Napoleon; ‘we will write our memoirs. Yes, we must be employed; for occupation is the scythe of time. After all, a man ought to fulfil his destines; this is my grand doctrine: let mine also be accomplished.’ Re-assuming this instant an air of ease and even gaiety, he passed on to subjects totally unconnected with our situation. (5)

6. As to moral courage, I have very rarely met with the two o’clock in the morning kind: I mean unprepared courage.

Once on St. Helena, Napoleon had a lot of time to talk and several people to record his musings. This quote comes from another conversation with Las Cases, on December 4-5, 1815. Murat and Ney are two of Napoleon’s generals who were executed by the Bourbons in 1815.

‘With respect to physical courage,’ the Emperor said, ‘… it was impossible for Murat and Ney not to be brave, but no man ever possessed less judgment; the former in particular.’ ‘As to moral courage,’ observed he, ‘I have very rarely met with the two o’clock in the morning kind. I mean, unprepared courage, that which is necessary on an unexpected occasion, and which, in spite of the most unforeseen events, leaves full freedom of judgment and decision.’ He did not hesitate to declare that he was himself eminently gifted with this two o’clock in the morning courage, and that, in this respect, he had met but with few persons who were at all equal to him. (6)

7. The Mohammedan religion is the finest of all.

Variant: I like the Mohammedan religion best.

Though Napoleon restored the Catholic Church in France, often read the Bible, and had an uncle who was a cardinal, his personal religious beliefs are best described as agnostic. Napoleon often talked about religion, especially when he was on St. Helena. This quote comes from the memoirs of General Gourgaud, who was one of Napoleon’s companions in exile from 1815 to 1818. According to Gourgaud, Napoleon said:

The Mohammedan religion is the finest of all. In Egypt the sheiks greatly embarrassed me by asking what we meant when we said ‘the Son of God.’ If we had three gods, we must be heathen. …

An Italian prince in church one day gave a piece of gold to a Capuchin who was asking alms to buy souls out of purgatory. The monk, enchanted at receiving so large a sum, exclaimed, ‘Ah, Monsignore, I see thirty souls departing from purgatory and entering paradise!’

‘Do you really see them?’

‘Yes, Monsignore.’

‘Then you may give me back my gold piece, for those souls certainly will not return to purgatory.’

That is how men are imposed upon…. Jesus said he was the Son of God, and yet he was descended from David. I like the Mohammedan religion best. It has fewer incredible things in it than ours. The Turks call Christians idolaters. (7)

8. Women are nothing but machines for producing children.

This should perhaps be added to the list of Napoleon misquotes. Secondary sources differ on their attributions: some say Napoleon wrote this in a letter to his brother Joseph in 1795; others say he said it to General Gourgaud on St. Helena in 1817. I haven’t been able to find the original phrase in the English versions of either of the relevant volumes. The closest was this remark to General Gourgaud on St. Helena:

His majesty told us that when he came back to Paris after his campaign in Italy, Madame de Stäel did everything she could to propitiate him. She even came to the Rue Chantereine, but was sent away. She wrote him a great many letters, some from Italy, some in Paris. She also asked him to a ball, but he did not go. At a fête given by Talleyrand, she came and sat down beside him and talked to him for two hours; finally, she suddenly asked him, ‘Who was the most superior woman in antiquity, and who is so at the present day?’ He answered, ‘She who has borne the most children.’ (8)

9. What, then is, generally speaking, the truth of history? A fable agreed upon.

Variant: History is a set of lies agreed upon.

This is another quote from Napoleon’s time on St. Helena, as recorded by the Count de Las Cases on November 20, 1816.

It must be admitted…it is most difficult to obtain absolute certainties for the purposes of history. Fortunately it is, in general, more a matter of mere curiosity than of real importance. … The truth of history, so much in request, to which every body eagerly appeals, is too often but a word. At the time of the events, during the heat of conflicting passions, it cannot exist; and if, at a later period, all parties are agreed respecting it, it is because those persons who were interested in the events, those who might be able to contradict what is asserted, are no more. What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history? A fable agreed upon. As it has been very ingeniously remarked, there are in these matters, two essential points, very distinct from each other: the positive facts, and the moral intentions. With respect to the positive facts, it would seem that they ought to be incontrovertible; yet you will not find two accounts agreeing together in relating the same fact: some have remained contested points to this day, and will ever remain so. With regard to moral intentions, how shall we judge of them, even admitting the candour of those who relate events? And what will be the case if the narrators be not sincere, or if they should be actuated by interest or passions? I have given an order, but who was able to read my thoughts, my real intentions? Yet every one will take up that order, and measure it according to his own scale, or adapt it to his own plans or system…. And then memoirs are digested, memoranda are written, witticisms and anecdotes are circulated; and of such materials is history composed. (9)

10. My maxim was, la carrière est ouverte aux talents, without distinction of birth or fortune.

Variant: My motto has always been a career open to all talents, without distinctions of birth.

On St. Helena, Napoleon consciously strove to define how posterity would remember him. He said this on March 3, 1817 to the British doctor Barry O’Meara, who was sympathetic to him.

In spite of all the libels…I have no fear whatever about my fame. Posterity will do me justice. The truth will be known; and the good which I have done, with the faults which I have committed, will be compared. I am not uneasy for the result. Had I succeeded, I should have died with the reputation of the greatest man that ever existed. As it is, although I have failed, I shall be considered as an extraordinary man: my elevation was unparalleled, because unaccompanied by crime. I have fought fifty pitched battles, almost all of which I have gained. I have framed and carried into effect a code of laws, that will bear my name to the most distant posterity. From nothing I raised myself to be the most powerful monarch in the world. Europe was at my feet. My ambition was great, I admit, but it was of a cold nature…and caused…by events and the opinion of great bodies. I have always been of opinion [sic], that the sovereignty lay in the people. In fact, the imperial government was a kind of republic. Called to the head of it by the voice of the nation, my maxim was, la carrière est ouverte aux talents, (the career is open to talents) without distinction of birth or fortune, and this system of equality is the reason that your oligarchy hate me so much. (10)

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  1. Correspondance de Napoléon Ier publiée par ordre de l’Empereur Napoléon III, Vol. 17 (Paris, 1868), pp. 471-472.
  2. Abbe de Pradt, Histoire de l’Ambassade dans le Grand Duché de Varsovie en 1812 (Paris, 1815), pp. 214-215.
  3. Correspondance de Napoléon Ier publiée par ordre de l’Empereur Napoléon III, Vol. 25 (Paris, 1868), p. 479.
  4. Ida M. Tarbell, ed., Napoleon’s Addresses: Selections from the Proclamations, Speeches and Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte (Boston, 1896), pp. 127-129. There are several recorded variants of this speech, which Tarbell lists as having being given in December 1813, though other sources state January 1, 1814.
  5. Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. 1, Part 1 (Boston, 1823), pp. 36-38.
  6. Ibid., Vol. 1, Part 2, p. 10.
  7. Gaspard Gourgaud, Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud, translated and with notes by Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer (Chicago, 1904), pp. 274, 280. Napoleon also told Gourgaud, “If I had to choose a religion I think I should become a worshipper of the sun. The sun gives to all things life and fertility. It is the true God of the earth.” (p. 273)
  8. Ibid., p. 244.
  9. Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. 4, Part 7 (London, 1823), pp. 250-252.
  10. Barry Edward O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile; or, A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. 1 (New York, 1885), p. 249.

6 commments on “10 Napoleon Bonaparte Quotes in Context”

  • Frank Mucci says:

    Hitler would have best followed the wisdom of this man, notwithstanding the Moscow mis-adventure….thankfully, he did not.

  • William Love says:

    My historical fiction ebook Atrocities (Amazon Kindle & Nook) is built around the notion that Napoleon hid part of his looted treasure. The quote discussed in #9 opens the epilogue and makes the whole story plausible. Excellent treatise!

  • Sheldon says:

    Did Napoleon really say “In this life we are either kings or pawns; emporers or fools.” or did Alexander Dumas write it in the book or the movie made it up?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Good question. I haven’t been able to find an original reference to Napoleon saying this; neither did I see it when leafing through a copy of the Count of Monte Cristo, so my guess is that it was added to the movie script.

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From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.

Napoleon Bonaparte