Self-Help Lessons from Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, 1800. This episode is often cited in self-help books.

Napoleon crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, 1800

Napoleon has been used as an example in self-help books ever since the genre was invented. Authors of self-help books often misquote Napoleon (see 10 Things Napoleon Never Said) and tend to be vague or inaccurate on historical details. The self-help lessons drawn from Napoleon say as much about the preoccupations of the author, and the age in which he or she is writing, as they do about the former French Emperor.

Power, without beneficence, is fatal

The first self-help book is generally considered to be Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct (1859) by Scottish author Samuel Smiles. Smiles included Napoleon in a chapter on “Energy and Courage,” not as someone to emulate, but as something to avoid.

His life, beyond most others, vividly showed what a powerful and unscrupulous will could accomplish. He threw his whole force of body and mind direct upon his work. Imbecile rulers and the nations they governed went down before him in succession. He was told that the Alps stood in the way of his armies – ‘There shall be no Alps,’ he said, and the road across the Simplon was constructed, through a district formerly almost inaccessible. ‘Impossible,’ said he, ‘is a word only to be found in the dictionary of fools.’ He was a man who toiled terribly; sometimes employing and exhausting four secretaries at a time. He spared no one, not even himself. His influence inspired other men, and put a new life into them. ‘I made my generals out of mud,’ he said. But all was of no avail; for Napoleon’s intense selfishness was his ruin, and the ruin of France which he left a prey to anarchy. His life taught the lesson that power, however energetically wielded, without beneficence, is fatal to its possessor and its subjects; and that knowledge, or knowingness, without goodness, is but the incarnate principle of Evil. (1)

Smiles was far more admiring of Napoleon’s British opponent, the Duke of Wellington, whom he lauded for honesty, punctuality and assiduous attention to detail.

Our own Wellington was a far greater man. Not less resolute, firm, and persistent, but much more self-denying, conscientious, and truly patriotic. Napoleon’s aim was ‘Glory;’ Wellington’s watchword, like Nelson’s, was ‘Duty.’ (2)

Though Smiles was writing in Victorian times, he was born in 1812, three years before the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He remembered the militia occupying the barracks in his small town, and the celebrations that followed Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo: “the bands of the militia, the drums and pipes that paraded the town, and the illuminations that followed [made] a deep impression on the imagination of a child. … The talk by our firesides long continued to be about wars, with remembrances of recent campaigns.” (3) Smiles also recalled the high food prices and the heavy taxation that were among the economic effects of the wars. It’s not surprising he presented Napoleon in a cautionary manner.

Don’t wait for your opportunity – make it

American inspirational author Orison Swett Marden had a sunnier take on Napoleon. His first self-help book, Pushing to the Front or Success Under Difficulties (1894) appeared when there was a resurgence of American interest in the French Emperor. In 1894/95, journalist Ida Tarbell wrote a series of favourable articles about Napoleon for McClure’s Magazine. These became the basis for a popular Napoleonic biography, published in 1895.

Marden frequently cited Napoleon in his book. The first chapter, “The Man and the Opportunity,” includes the example of Napoleon crossing the Alps.

‘Is it POSSIBLE to cross the path?’ asked Napoleon of the engineers who had been sent to explore the dreaded path of St. Bernard. ‘Perhaps,’ was the hesitating reply, ‘it is within the limits of possibility.’ ‘FORWARD THEN,’ said the Little Corporal, without heeding their account of apparently insurmountable difficulties. (4)

The lesson?

Don’t wait for your opportunity…. Make it, as Napoleon made his in a hundred ‘impossible’ situations…. Golden opportunities are nothing to laziness, but industry makes the commonest chances golden. (5)

Napoleon was also held up in a chapter entitled “The Triumph of Promptness.”

Napoleon laid great stress upon that ‘supreme moment,’ that ‘nick of time’ which occurs in every battle, to take advantage of which means victory, and to lose in hesitation means disaster. He said that he beat the Austrians because they did not know the value of five minutes; and it has been said that among the trifles that conspired to defeat him at Waterloo, the loss of a few moments by himself and Grouchy on the fatal morning was the most significant. Blücher was on time, and Grouchy was late. It was enough to send Napoleon to St. Helena, and to change the destiny of millions. (6)

Other lessons Marden drew from Napoleon were the importance of getting up early in the morning, enthusiasm, persistence, and practicality.

A practical man not only sees, but seizes the opportunity. There is a certain getting-on quality difficult to describe, but which is the great winner of the prizes of life. Napoleon could do anything in the art of war with his own hands, even to the making of gunpowder. (7)

Character, not ability, is most important

Marden conceded that Napoleon had his flaws. In a chapter on “Character is Power,” he wrote:

What is this principle that Napoleon and Webster lacked? Is it not a deathless loyalty to the highest ideal which the world has been able to produce up to the present date? This is what we admire and respect in strong men whose roots are deep in the ground and whose character is robust enough to keep them like oaks in their places when all around is whirling. (8)

Men of personality are the last to say die

By the time American actor Douglas Fairbanks published his self-help book, Laugh and Live (1917), the Napoleonic Wars were a distant memory, overshadowed by the Great War (World War I) then in progress. Napoleon appears only once, in a chapter called “Building of a Personality,” in which personality is defined as “the most perfect combination possible of man’s highest attributes.” Fairbanks helped to perpetuate the myth that Napoleon was short.

It is impossible to come into the presence of a personality without becoming immediately aware of it. It is reflected by people of small stature…poor physiques…homely visages, as well as men of the highest physical development. The great Napoleon was just above five feet while Lincoln towered over the six-foot line. Men of personality are the last to say die. Their store of combativeness carries them beyond their real span of existence either in years or achievement. (9)

Sex influence is more powerful than any substitute created by reason

Perhaps the oddest Napoleonic self-help lesson was drawn by Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich, first published in 1937.

The pages of history are filled with the records of great leaders whose achievements may be traced directly to the influence of women who aroused the creative faculties of their minds through the stimulation of sex desire. Napoleon Bonaparte was one of these. When inspired by his first wife, Josephine, he was irresistible and invincible. When his ‘better judgment’ or reasoning faculty prompted him to put Josephine aside, he began to decline. His defeat and St. Helena were not far distant…. Napoleon was not the only man to discover that sex influence, from the right source, is more powerful than any substitute of expediency, which may be created by mere reason. (10)

Think and act cheerfully, and you will feel cheerful

By the mid-20th century, Napoleon was again being used as a cautionary tale, this time in the service of popular psychology. In How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948), Dale Carnegie brought up Napoleon to illustrate his Rule 1, “Think and act cheerfully, and you will feel cheerful.”

Napoleon had everything men usually crave – glory, power, riches – yet he said at Saint Helena, ‘I have never known six happy days in my life.’ (11)

For more self-help lessons from Napoleon, consider what the newspapers said when he died.

You might also enjoy:

Napoleon the Workaholic

Napoleon in Advertising

10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte

10 Myths about Napoleon Bonaparte

10 Napoleon Bonaparte Quotes in Context

Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

One Thing at a Time: 19th-Century Multitasking Advice

How to Make Small Talk in the 19th Century

  1. Samuel Smiles, Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct (London, 1859), pp. 156-157.
  2. Ibid., p. 157.
  3. Samuel Smiles, The Autobiography of Samuel Smiles, edited by Thomas MacKay (New York, 1905), p. 4.
  4. Orison Swett Marden, Pushing to the Front or Success Under Difficulties (New York, 1894), p. 3.
  5. Ibid., p. 26.
  6. Ibid., pp. 140-141.
  7. Ibid., p. 225.
  8. Ibid., p. 253.
  9. Douglas Fairbanks, Laugh and Live (New York, 1917), p. 49.
  10. Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich (Bombay, 1937), p. 271.
  11. Dale Carnegie, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (New York, 1948), p. 96.

9 commments on “Self-Help Lessons from Napoleon Bonaparte”

  • Gerry Cameron says:

    Self-help and Napoleon! What an individual topic. You never disappoint Shannon!

  • John Ada, MD, FSCAI, FACC, FACP says:

    Napoleon started out as a Corsican freedom fighter. He had to run or be killed. So he went to a military school and learned as much as he could. Then he put it into practice and kept getting better until he got mired in the unknown. Adversity ( war) is the mother of invention. Imagine that you get hit with $5,000,000 scam. You may go to a book store, discover Warren Buffet and the MOTLEY FOOL STOCK ADVISOR. Buy good stocks, earn 30% average annual compound interest, or better. Nvidia is up 900% in the last 5 years and 93% this year. Netflix is up 1,000%. This really happened. Check it out and thank Napoleon for finding the way.

  • Irene Hartlmayr says:

    What kind of bunk has been written here about Napoleon as a “Corsican freedom fighter” and him having to “run or be killed” then “went to a military school….”?? The fight for Corsican freedom was ended before Napoleon was born! He was sent to a military school at the age of nine with a scholarship. So what has that to do with being a “freedom fighter” and having to “run or be killed”??? The rest of this mail has nothing to do with Napoleon.
    What a muddle!!

  • Irene Hartlmayr says:

    Concerning the comments of Samuel Smiles, they are a perfect example of the narrow-minded thinking engendered by chauvinism (here exemplified by denigrating Napoleon and lauding Nelson and the Duke of Wellington instead-as if that was the most natural thing in the world!).
    As for the “sex influence” cited by Napoleon Hill, it is more likely that Napoleon’s decline after his divorce from Josephine was due to the loss of some emotional support that she seems to have given him (apart from other reasons that have nothing to do with any “sex influence”!!).

  • Tomohiko.S says:

    Let me ask you a question.

    “The secret of Napoleon’s genius lay in the concentration of his attention at fixed times and on fixed incidents.”
    That’s what Bourrienne said. Do you know the source of that?

    The above sentence is my translation from Japanese, so I don’t think it is correct.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    I don’t know the source, Tomohiko. Bourrienne’s memoirs of Napoleon are available for free on the Internet Archive, if you want to search them for that quote:

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Napoleon had everything men usually crave – glory, power, riches – yet he said at Saint Helena, ‘I have never known six happy days in my life.’

Dale Carnegie