10 More Napoleon Quotes in Context

Further to my earlier posts about Napoleon quotes and misquotes, here are 10 more quotes by Napoleon Bonaparte, with information about the context in which he wrote or said them.

Napoleon quote: It is better to eat than be eaten

Napoleon in his study in 1807, by Paul Delaroche

1. It is better to eat than be eaten.

Napoleon wrote this on June 1, 1793, when he was a 23-year-old captain in France’s 4th Artillery Regiment. He was on Corsica, the island where he was born, which was in the midst of a civil war. Though Corsica was a French province, most of the island was in the hands of an independence movement led by Pasquale Paoli. Napoleon had initially supported Paoli, but now he was committed to the cause of France. In May, a French attempt to retake the city of Ajaccio failed and the Bonaparte house was ransacked by Paoli’s supporters. Napoleon wrote a memorandum on the political and military situation in which he put forward a plan for reconquering the island. In explaining why some Corsicans supported Paoli, Napoleon wrote:

[Paoli] caresses, he threatens, he burns, he allows looting. At the same time, he persuades people that the Commissioners have been abandoned by France and will receive no help, since the Convention has changed its mind. In any case, he maintains that France is lost and that he will soon have help from England. In such a situation, good men become confused and moan; the doubtful become bad. Moreover, the active and restless spirit natural to the Corsicans is involved. You have to take sides; you might as well be on the one who is winning, on the one who devastates, plunders, burns; in the alternative, it is better to eat than be eaten. (1)

During the night of June 10, the entire Bonaparte family fled from Corsica to Toulon. Napoleon henceforth saw his opportunities as lying in France, rather than in Corsica.

2. All great events hang only by a hair.

Variant: All great events hang by a hair.

This Napoleon quote comes from a letter he wrote to Talleyrand, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, on September 26, 1797. Napoleon – by now a general – was commander-in-chief of France’s Army of Italy. He had conquered northern Italy and pushed into Austria. The Directory (France’s governing body) was pressing him to conclude a treaty with the defeated Austrians and return to France. Napoleon had completed the preliminaries of a peace settlement at Leoben on April 15. However, the final negotiations at Udine were being dragged out by both sides.

In his letter, Napoleon complained that the government was not sending him reinforcements, with which he could threaten Austria. He was also frustrated that the Directory had not ratified the peace treaty France had signed with Piedmont-Sardinia on May 15, 1796. This risked the King of Sardinia becoming a “secret enemy.”

It seems to me that Italy is very poorly seen and very poorly known. As for me, I have always taken care to make things happen according to the interests of the [French] Republic. If one does not believe me, I do not know what to do.

All great events hang always only by a hair. The skillful man takes advantage of everything and neglects nothing that can give him a few more chances; the less skillful man, sometimes by neglecting a single one, loses everything. (2)

Napoleon Bonaparte on the bridge at Arcola, by Antoine-Jean Gros

Napoleon on the bridge at Arcola, by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1796

3. The true conquests, the only ones that cause no regret, are those made over ignorance.

Variant: The only victories which leave no regret are those which are gained over ignorance.

On December 25, 1797, Napoleon was elected to the Institut de France as a member of the Section of Mechanical Arts of the Academy of Sciences, in recognition of his skills as an artillery general. On December 26, he wrote a thank you letter to Armand-Gaston Camus, President of the Institute.

The vote of the distinguished men who make up the Institute honors me. I feel that before becoming their equal I will be their pupil for a long time. If there were a more expressive way to make known to them the esteem I have for them, I would use it.

The true conquests, the only ones that cause no regrets, are those made over ignorance. The most honorable occupation, as well as the most useful for nations, is to contribute to the extension of human ideas. The true power of the French Republic must henceforth consist in not allowing a single new idea to exist that does not belong to it. (3)

In 1800, Napoleon became president of the Academy of Sciences in recognition of the scientific component of his Egyptian expedition.

4. I am the revolution.

According to 19th-century French historian Adolphe Thiers, Napoleon said this in March 1804 when he learned of the death of the Duke d’Enghien. Enghien was a member of the House of Bourbon, the French royal family that had been overthrown during the French Revolution. On March 15, Enghien was kidnapped on Napoleon’s orders and taken to the Château de Vincennes near Paris. There he was sentenced to death on trumped-up charges and executed by a firing squad on March 21. This attack on a royal prince violated international law. René Savary went to the Château de Malmaison to tell Napoleon what had happened.

In the evening some members of the family dined at Malmaison. Their faces were serious and melancholy. No one ventured to speak – none did speak. The first consul [Napoleon] was as silent as the rest. On leaving the table, he broke it himself. M. de Fontanes, having arrived at the same moment, became the only interlocutor with the first consul. He was astounded at the act of which the rumour now filled Paris, but he did not permit himself the avowal of his sentiments in the spot where he then was. He listened a good deal, but rarely replied. The first consul spoke continually, endeavouring to fill up the void left by the silence of the company; he talked of the princes of every age; of the Roman emperors; of the kings of France; of Tacitus, and the opinions of that historian; of the cruelties to which the heads of the empire often lent themselves, when they forced to give way to an inevitable necessity; finally, arriving by a long circuit at the tragic subject of the day, he spake these words: ‘They wish to destroy the revolution in attacking my person; I will defend it because I am the revolution, me myself! They will respect it from this day, because they will know of what we are capable.’ (4)

5. Death is nothing; but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.

Variant: Death is nothing, but to live defeated and without glory is to die every day.

This Napoleon quote comes from a letter the recently-crowned Emperor of the French wrote to General Jacques Lauriston on December 12, 1804. Lauriston was about to embark on an expedition to South America and Martinique with Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. Napoleon planned the voyage as a decoy to lure the British fleet to the West Indies and trick Britain into thinking France would not launch an invasion across the British Channel. Villeneuve was then supposed to hurry back to Brest and take part in such an invasion. Napoleon provided the following advice to Lauriston:

The Ministers of War and of Marine have sent you your instructions. … It is already rather late in the season. Start at once; justify my confidence in you; and hoist my flag on this fine continent. If, when you have established a footing there, you are attacked by the English, and experience vicissitudes of fortune, never forget three things – to keep your forces together, to be up and doing, and to be firmly resolved to die a soldier’s death. These three great principles of the art of war have brought fortune to my side in all my operations. Death is nothing; but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily. Have no fears for your family; devote all your energies to that part of my family to whose conquest you are bound. (5)

Lauriston sailed with Villeneuve from Toulon on January 18, 1805. The expedition returned to port three days later, after being caught in a storm. Villeneuve sailed again at the end of March, but when he reached Martinique in May, he refused to land Lauriston and his men. They did succeed in capturing Diamond Rock, off Martinique, from Britain. Villeneuve then sailed to the Spanish port of Cádiz, where his ships were blockaded by Admiral Nelson’s fleet. When Villeneuve attempted to break out in October, he was defeated at the Battle of Trafalgar. By then the troops had been disembarked and Lauriston had returned to Paris.

Napoleon and General Lauriston

Napoleon and General Lauriston in Moscow, by Vasily Vereshchagin, circa 1899

6. Religion associates heaven with an idea of equality that keeps the rich from being massacred by the poor.

Variant: Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.

According to Joseph Pelet de la Lozère, a member of the Council of State, Napoleon said this during a meeting of the Council on March 4, 1806. Napoleon was talking about burials, and then offered some thoughts on baptism and religion more generally.

At Cairo and in the desert the mosques are, at the same time, inns; six thousand people are sometimes sheltered and fed in them; they even find a fountain and water to bathe in; this is where our ceremony of baptism comes from. It could not originate in our climate, water is not sufficiently precious here; this year we have it over our heads. The Egyptians, lacking water, make baptisms of sand. As for me, I do not see in religion the mystery of the incarnation, but rather the mystery of the social order; it associates heaven with an idea of equality that keeps the rich from being massacred by the poor. Religion is a kind of inoculation or vaccine which, by satisfying our love of the marvelous, guarantees us against quacks and sorcerers: priests are better than the Cagliostros, the Kants and all the dreamers of Germany. (6)

7. Imagination rules the world.

Variant: Imagination governs the world.

In 1815, Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. He abdicated the French throne, gave himself up to the British, and was exiled to the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena. There he had plenty of time to talk and several people to write down what he said. Napoleon’s quote about imagination comes from a conversation Emmanuel de Las Cases recorded on January 7, 1816.

I [Las Cases] was walking one afternoon in the garden with the Emperor, when a sailor…approached us with gestures expressive of eagerness and joy, mingled with apprehension of being perceived from without. He spoke nothing but English, and told me in a hurried manner that he had twice braved the obstacle of sentinels and all the dangers of severe prohibition, to get a close view of the Emperor. He had obtained this good fortune, he said, looking steadfastly at the Emperor, and should die content; that he offered up his prayers to Heaven that Napoleon might enjoy good health, and be one day more happy. … We frequently met with such unequivocal proofs of the good-will of these sailors. Those of the Northumberland [the ship that carried Napoleon to St. Helena]…considered themselves as having formed a connexion with the Emperor. While we were residing at Briars…they often hovered on a Sunday around us, saying they came to take another look at their ship-mate. The day on which we quitted Briars, I was with the Emperor in the garden when one of the sailors presented himself at the gate, asking me if he might step in without giving offence. I asked him of what country he was, and what religion he professed. He answered by making various signs of the cross…. Then looking steadfastly upon the Emperor, before whom he stood, and raising his eyes to Heaven, he began to hold a conversation with himself, by gestures, which his stout jovial figure rendered partly grotesque, and partly sentimental. Nevertheless it would have been difficult to express more naturally admiration, respect, kind wishes, and sympathy; whilst big tears started in his eyes. ‘Tell that dear man,’ said he to me, ‘that I wish him no harm, but all possible happiness. So do most of us. Long life and health to him!’ …

The Emperor could not refrain from evincing some emotion at these two circumstances; so strongly did the countenances, accents, and gestures of these two men bear the stamp of truth. He then said, ‘See the effect of imagination! How powerful is its influence! Here are people who do not know me – who have never seen me; they have only heard me spoken of; and what do they not feel! What would they not do to serve me! And the same caprice is to be found in all countries, in all ages, and in both sexes! This is fanaticism! Yes, imagination rules the world!’ (7)

8. I never was truly my own master but was always controlled by circumstances.

Variant: I never was truly my own master but was always ruled by circumstances.

On St. Helena, Napoleon knew that his words were being recorded for posterity. He was determined to shape his legacy by putting forward his version of events. On November 11, 1816, he told Las Cases:

My enemies always spoke of my love of war, but was I not constantly engaged in self-defence? After every victory I gained, did I not immediately make proposals for peace?

The truth is, I never was master of my own actions. I never was entirely myself. I might have conceived many plans; but I never had it in my power to execute any. I held the helm with a vigorous hand, but the fury of the waves was greater than any force I could exert in resisting them, and I prudently yielded, rather than incur the risk of sinking through stubborn opposition. I never was truly my own master, but was always controlled by circumstances. Thus, at the commencement of my rise, during the Consulate, my sincere friends and warm partisans frequently asked me, with the best intentions, and as a guide for their own conduct, what point was I driving at? and I always answered that I did not know. They were surprised, probably dissatisfied, and yet I spoke the truth. Subsequently during the Empire, when there was less familiarity, many faces seemed to put the same question to me, and I might still have given the same reply. In fact, I was not master of my actions, because I was not fool enough to attempt to twist events into conformity with my system. On the contrary, I moulded my system according to the unforeseen succession of events. This often appeared like unsteadiness and inconsistency, and of these faults I was sometimes unjustly accused. (8)

Napoleon at St. Helena

Napoleon at St. Helena © The Trustees of the British Museum

9. You medical people will have more lives to answer for in the other world than even we generals.

Variant: Doctors will have more lives to answer for in the next world than even we generals.

Napoleon said this to his physician on St. Helena, Irish surgeon Barry O’Meara, on September 29, 1817. According to O’Meara, they were having a “jocular conversation” about patron saints, which turned into a discussion of good and evil. Napoleon recounted how he had once heard an Italian priest preaching about a poor sinner who had departed this life.

[The sinner’s] soul appeared before God, and he was required to give an account of all his actions. The evil and the good were afterwards thrown into opposite scales, in order to see which preponderated. …

Napoleon then began to rally me about my profession. ‘You medical people,’ said he, ‘will have more lives to answer for in the other world than even we generals. What will you say for yourself,’ said he, laughing, ‘when you are called to account for all the souls of poor sailors you have despatched to the other world? Or what will your saint say for you, when the accusing angel proclaims, such a number you sent out of the world, by giving them heating medicines, when you ought to have given cooling ones, and vice versa; so many more, because you mistook their complaints and bled them too much; others because you did not bleed them enough; numbers because they were canaille, and you did not pay them as much attention as you would have done to the captain or the admiral, and because you were over your bottle, or at the theatre, or with a fine girl and did not like to be disturbed, or after drink [in English] when you went and distributed medicines, a dritto ed a torto [right and wrong]. How many because you were not present at the time a change in the complaint took place, when a medicine given at the moment might have saved them? How many others because the provisions were bad, and you would not complain for fear of offending the fournisseurs?’ (9)

I drew on this quote, among others, when writing Napoleon’s conversations with Dr. Formento in Napoleon in America.

10. One must never ask of fortune more than she can grant.

This Napoleon quote also comes from the St. Helena years, in the context of a conversation about his stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais. Eugène was the Viceroy of Italy from 1805 to 1814, and commander of the Army of Italy. Napoleon told General Gaspard Gourgaud:

Prince Eugene committed several faults. The affair at Cremona was a piece of foolishness. One must never ask of fortune more than she can grant. Everything was going well for him. Villeroy was taken, but the removal of two boats out of the bridge made the whole thing fail. The battle of Turin was fought against all rules, but it succeeded and had immense results. Prince Eugene was a great general, higher up the ladder than the rest of them. He fought on the Rhine, in Italy, and in Turkey. (10)

Napoleon died on St. Helena on May 5, 1821, at the age of 51.

If you enjoyed these Napoleon quotes, you might also enjoy:

10 Napoleon Bonaparte Quotes in Context

10 Things Napoleon Never Said

10 Interesting Facts About Napoleon Bonaparte

10 Interesting Facts About Napoleon’s Family

What happened to Napoleon’s body?

  1. “Dans l’alternative, il vaut mieux être mangeur que mangé.” Frédéric Masson and Guido Biagi, Napoléon Inconnu: Papiers inédits (1786-1793), Tome II, Deuxième edition (Paris, 1895), pp. 468-469.
  2. “Tous les grands évenéments ne tiennent jamais qu’à un cheveu.” Correspondance de Napoléon Ier Publiée par ordre de l’Empereur Napoléon III, Tome III (Paris, 1859), p. 342.
  3. “Les varies conquêtes, les seules qui ne donnent aucun regret, sont celles que l’on fait sur l’ignorance.” Ibid., p. 465.
  4. “On veut détruire la Révolution en s’attaquant à ma personne; je la défendrai, car je suis la Révolution, moi, moi.”A. Thiers, Histoire du Consulat et de l’Empire, Tome IV (Paris, 1845), p. 608. English translation from M.A. Thiers, The History of the Consulate & The Empire of France Under Napoleon, (Edinburgh, 1879), p. 535.
  5. “La mort n’est rien; mais vivre vaincu et sans gloire, c’est mourir tous les jours.” Correspondance de Napoléon Ier Publiée par ordre de l’Empereur Napoléon III, Tome X (Paris, 1862) p. 69. English translation from J.M. Thompson, Letters of Napoleon (Oxford, 1934), p. 104.
  6. “[La réligion] rattache au ciel une idée d’égalité qui empêche que le riche ne soit massacré par le pauvre.” Privat Joseph Claramond Pelet de la Lozère, Opinions de Napoléon sur divers sujets de politique et d’administration (Paris, 1833) p. 223.
  7. 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. I, Part 2 (London, 1823), pp. 101-103.
  8. Ibid., Vol. IV, pp. 133-134.
  9. Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile; or, A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. II (London, 1822), pp. 246, 248-249.
  10. Gaspard Gourgaud, Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena, edited and translated by Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer, (Chicago, 1904), p. 213.

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One must never ask of fortune more than she can grant.

Napoleon Bonaparte