Napoleon Bonaparte needs no introduction. Widely regarded as the greatest general who ever lived, his exploits are almost the stuff of legend. Like many great people, he is a controversial figure, and some historians regard him as having set back the Economic progress of Europe by a generation, though others dispute this.
Clearly, Napoleon was a driven man who aggressively sought power and had a great sense of his own personal ability. Whatever we might think about Napoleon and his legacy, however, he enjoyed enormous success as he built his empire, and much of his thinking has application for us today as we go about the business of building our own lives.
‘A throne is only a bench covered with velvet.’
There is an old fable about an expert archer who could hit the bull’s-eye every time. However, when he entered a competition to win a silver cup, his arm trembled and he almost missed. When he played for a prize of gold coins, he trembled so much that his aim suffered and he lost the match.
A central tenet of Buddhism is that desire leads to suffering. When we desire something too much, we feel emotionally attached to it and our efforts to acquire it can be thwarted. Much of this desire comes from an unrealistic appraisal of the importance of things. Napoleon’s example can be applied to almost anything – when we see things as they really are and don’t give undue importance to surface appearances, we are more detached and so more free. Then, we are in a more powerful position to acquire what we choose.
‘A true man hates no one.’
Hatred is a powerful emotion, and powerful emotions cloud judgement. In going after something, we need to keep a clear head, appraising the situation accurately and making decisions about how to act accordingly. To be blinded by rage, hatred or any other strong emotion is foolish and self-defeating.
‘He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat.’
When Franklin Roosevelt became president in the depths of the great depression, he famously said that the only thing to fear was fear itself, and that America had been through worse, citing the civil war as an example.
Fear is our number one enemy and must be rooted out and destroyed. It will hold you back. It will stop you from getting what you want.
The Bhagavad-Gita contains a wonderful line: ‘Plunge into battle and keep your heart at the lotus feet of the Lord.’ Wonderful advice indeed.
‘One must change one’s tactics every ten years if one wishes to maintain one’s superiority.’
The old Taoists would say that you cannot step into the same river twice. The world is in a constant state of change, and those who cannot – or will not – adapt to it will go to the wall. In Napoleon’s time, things changed fairly slowly so that ten years was a reasonable timeframe for change – now, things are moving so fast that the adaptations necessary for success are incessant.
‘Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.’
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Planning is important, and rash action can cost you dearly. But planning should not go on forever. If you are going to act, then act – don’t delay for too long. Time is never on your side.
‘Victory belongs to the most persevering.’
The fast pace of change in the modern world can encourage us to demand instant results. Companies’ advertising campaigns prey on this desire and offer us shortcuts to success, get-rich-quick schemes and other instant fixes.
The truth is that things take time. Think about any skill you have that you think is worth something, or anything in your life that you truly love. Did you acquire it in a short time? Or did it take years to learn, to perfect, to acquire?
If you are facing in the right direction, all you need do is keep walking and you will cover a great distance. In time.
‘Throw off your worries when you throw off your clothes at night.’
A wise man once wrote that worry is like a rocking chair – it gives you something to do but doesn’t get you anywhere.
Like fear, worry is a counterproductive emotion. Occasionally, fear has a purpose – if we are being physically threatened, for example. But worry never has a practical use, and so the only sensible thing to do with worry is to destroy it completely.
Mark Twain wrote, ‘I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.’ When we see how much energy we waste on worry, it is clear that it needs to go.
Napoleon’s civil code remains the basis for much of the legal and administrative structure of Western Europe, and his tactics are still studied in military academies. His enormous influence reflects his ability to get what he wanted, and there is much to be gleaned from his remarkable life.