Was Napoleon great?

British historian Andrew Roberts argues in his excellent book on the man: yes. Adam Zamoyski, in a tightly argued book, says: no.

Was Napoleon great, because the immensity of what he did reflected innate qualities in him…qualities that add up to greatness? Or was he great because what he did was, in itself, great? Is greatness the result of actions that transcend the ordinary, surpass what most would consider normal? Or is greatness more personal than that?: the aggregation of the characteristics, way of life, perhaps convictions of a person…an aggregation that makes a person great, irrespective of the results of his/her work?

Some historians dispense with the idea of ‘greatness’ altogether. Zamoyski, for example, shows us Napoleon when he was petty, provincial, and a novice in the art of living. Zamoyski wants to strip the emperor who had subjugated Europe, from the military uniform and the ermine coat. He wants to show us Napoleon’s ‘smallness’ - not because he, particularly, dislikes Napoleon, as much as because he does not buy into the notion of ‘greatness’.

Other historians insist that ‘greatness’ is key to understanding history. Some, intentionally or not, subscribe to Thomas Carlyle’s view of “the hero”: the man who, with the sheer power of his will, achieves that which others can only dream of. And in so doing, that man (or woman) attracts to himself both: the aspirations of the masses, and their consent to be led. With time (in this view), that man comes to, not only represent the aspirations of his people, but also to personify a meaning of their collective existence. In this school of thought, that rare breed - “heroes” - have shaped the trajectory of human history.

But there is a problem with this view.

One of the most influential schools of psychology (Carl Jung’s), makes it abundantly clear that there is deep infantilism in “heroes”. Often, what seems to be self-sacrifice and impressive courage stem from major inner voids. And though in some cases, the result of “heroic actions” could be good, generally, they originate from, and are harbingers of, energies of need and lack, whose enduring manifestations are damaging to the collective-communities “the heroes” supposedly serve.

This is why this school of thought – and particularly Jung’s later writings – emphasise that wisdom, the true route to greatness, is about – and through – filling the inner voids, evolving them into persistent sustainable service to others, as opposed to cherishing the internal voids, dramatising them, and ultimately exporting them externally in dramatic acts of momentary significance.

Shakespeare makes a similar point, when he distinguishes between heroism and greatness – though it’s not clear how he defines the latter. He said: “some achieve greatness; some have greatness thrust upon them”. The first part implies the primacy of the person – which is hardly surprising, given that Shakespeare’s oeuvre is, essentially, a dive into the human psyche. But the second part of the sentence shifts our attention to circumstances and results.

Daniel Bliss, the founder of the American University of Beirut, has a sentence I find particularly interesting: “I am anxious to lay the foundations upon which greatness could be built.” I like two words here: “foundations” and “could”.

“Foundations” means that in the vast majority of the cases when greatness could be invoked, what we are seeing is the result of an effort, a structure in the making.…a journey whose destination is that which many find extraordinary. That journey is both within and without.

“Could” emphasises the crucial role of the will. One, who strives for greatness, or whom situations place where his/her actions could transcend the ordinary, has an opportunity to realise that which is extraordinary. It is his/her choice to use that opportunity. “Could” means he might rise to the potential of his innate powers; yet he might succumb to his worst; he might fail to grab the potentialities. Greatness here is the fruit of will-power.

“Could” also implies another form of relatively - concerning the results. As much as the effort, the strive, the journey, are attempts at greatness, the results, also, are subject to interpretations of what greatness is. Both are far from determinism.

This makes us see the arguments of Andrew Roberts and Adam Zamoyski differently. What Napoleon achieved is, by Roberts’ standards, “great”. Zamoyski’s conception of the extraordinary is different. In addition, Roberts sees “great” results and traces them to a man who, by the virtue of what he achieved, must be great. Zamoyski sees a “small” man and thus searches for, and finds, circumstances surrounding his results that reduce those results to ‘ordinary’.

This kind of relativity is far superior to absolutist invocation of utter greatness – whether resulting from the unfolding of innate qualities or the rise to confront challenges or realise opportunities. This is because this relativity imbues the study of history and social sciences with humanism, with the richness of human subjectivity, and - as the Islamic scholar Imam el-Shafei once put it - with the humility of assuming one’s view to be correct, yet sustaining the probability that it might be wrong.