Ah, Napoleon. People can’t get enough of this guy. The man. The myth. The legend. Actually scratch that first part. Was Napoleon really a man? You might think that’s a crazy question.
It’s taken for granted that Napoleon existed. But this very circumstance draws attention away from the credibility question. We often are likely to accept insufficient evidence and ignore flaws in the evidence when things go unquestioned. Flaws in supposedly uncontroversial ideas have been overlooked in the past, such as flaws in the idea that the Earth is flat. History books may tell us one thing, but increasing numbers of independent researchers are questioning whether Napoleon existed at all. Yes, you heard that right. Let that sink in.
Who was Napoleon?
So what do the history books tell us about Napoleon? Time doesn’t allow for me to get into the so-called miraculous military exploits of this “average for his height for the time” commander. There are dozens of other websites and videos spreading the traditional propaganda found on YouTube and so-called history channels. But here’s his bio in a nutshell:
Napoleon Bonaparte was a French general and emperor during the early 19th century. While serving in the French army during the French Revolution, Napoleon ascended rapidly through the ranks. In 1804 he crowned himself emperor after seizing political power in France in a coup d’état in 1799.
Napoleon was an ambitious, skilled, and shrewd military strategist who waged war quickly and successfully against various coalitions of European nations and expanded his empire. Napoleon abdicated the throne, however, two years after a disastrous French invasion of Russia in 1812. After being exiled to Elba, he managed to easily escape and regain control of France again, practically miraculously. During his Hundred Days campaign in 1815, he briefly regained power. After being crushed at Waterloo, he was exiled to the remote island of Saint Helena, where he died aged 51. Some say it was from being poisoned, although others have said it was stomach cancer. No one on the planet has actually seen his body, though.
The Incredible Shrinking Napoleon
Why do more researchers doubt the existence of the so-called most amazing military mind in French history? Well, here we go:
A large majority of contemporaries who are convinced of Napoleon’s existence have never actually seen him. Their convictions are based solely on hearsay. (People who claimed to have seen Napoleon in Portsmouth, onboard the ship that was to leave him on St Helena, can’t be sure they saw him; they only saw a person at a distance, wearing a funny hat.)
Napoleon and his fantastic exploits are completely unbelievable. Many people who said they have met him or know him said things like “If I had not witnessed it, I wouldn’t have believed it.” Then why should we believe them?
Most stories about Napoleon’s exploits originate in newspapers, which are notoriously unreliable (you read retractions and corrections of past articles almost daily). If it is hard to trust the news now, how much more over a couple of hundred years ago? On top of that, the accounts didn’t even come from eyewitnesses, but from “anonymous correspondents”. Seems legit.
There’s also the whole telephone game problem: The stories about Napoleon’s exploits that the “anonymous correspondents” transmitted, had normally passed through a whole chain of people, from the original “eyewitness” to another person, then to yet another, and so on until it was finally told to the “anonymous correspondent”. An account, as told by one person, maybe 90% correct. But if it is passed through a chain of 20 people (each time with a 90% probability, just to be generous, of being correct), then, the probability of the last account being correct is less than an eighth! I wouldn’t bet on that, would you?
Let’s look back at newspapers from those days. Compared to today, they weren’t much different. They were just as much of a business back then as they are now. The goal of their reporting is to attract eyeballs, not to report facts objectively. What the papers told us about Napoleon are what we would call today clickbait. An epic story attracts readers and sells copies. Especially when it can’t be verified as we can with cameras now. Let’s be real, the fact that the stories are true or false wouldn’t matter all that much to newspaper reporters back then.
That’s just the newspapers, let’s think about the government. For the British government, Napoleon was a bogeyman for raising taxes, securing funds, and ramrodding its proposals through Parliament. Both Whigs and Tories both had a vested interest in spreading the Napoleon legend during this period when different parties held power.
A world of contradictions
Finally, Napoleon’s exploits are riddled with contradictions. According to some, Napoleon led the celebrated charge over the bridge of Lodi in person, whereas others say Augereau did it. Well, it can’t be both! Similarly, the French cavalry charge at Waterloo is described in contradictory ways. Various accounts even differ by four hours regarding the hour of battle. Paradoxically, both sides claimed Borodino to be a victory. Depending on which version you read, you get a different story every time!
Worse still, different observers describe Napoleon’s character in very different ways. Some see him as a kind, gentle hero, while others see him as a cruel monster. He is liked by some because he is a military and political genius, while others think he is a lunatic. Therefore, it seems more likely that Napoleon represents a mythological composite of several actual individuals, such as many mythological heroes in Greek and Roman mythology.
In fact, King Louis XVIII, the French king of 1819, was a Bourbon king and says he ruled France for 23 years! Do the math! France and England have fought many battles during this period. The figure “Napoleon” probably is also a mythological composite of many different French heroes from various conflicts between England and France in the past. And the story of Napoleon going into exile on an island not only once but TWICE is clearly an example of a “doublet”. The island is symbolism for England, Napoleon’s enemy, while his escape represents the mythical trope of the hero escaping the realm of the dead.
So what does the physical evidence about the NAPOLEON tell us? Well, as far as I’m aware, there is NO PHYSICAL EVIDENCE. There’s only a story and testimonials. Testimonials about “hey, so-and-so saw this” or “this is what happened.” If THE NAPOLEONIC WARS are true, then it must be the single most important fact in the history of France. And for that fact, we have nothing but HEARSAY!
So there you have it, folks. There was probably no Napoleon. It’s vastly more reasonable to believe Pedro was class president than to believe an epic person like Napoleon ever ruled France.
THINK FOR YOURSELVES. SPREAD THE WORD. DON’T LET HISTORY EVER REPEAT ITSELF!
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Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.