Today I learned something new about Napoleon. Apparently he was the first person to use the term “idéologue” pejoratively to describe his opponents – the French politically liberal intellectuals such as Benjamin Constant, Pierre Jean George Cabanis and Madame de Staël. The idéologues longed for an idealized France. They believed whole-heartedly in the values of the Revolution. Napoleon, on the other hand, was a pragmatist. While he also believed in the general values of liberty and equality, he also believed that people needed to be lead and that the first decade of the Revolution had been a disaster. He knew that France desired and needed some political and economic stability. This, of course, was his ideology.
According to William Safire writing in the NY Times:
“The historian Helen Williams wrote in 1815 that the Corsican left “the idéologues of his council to arrange what he calls their revolutionary rubbish, such as sovereign people, equal rights, etc.”.”
Helen Maria Williams was an English-born, French-living poet and translator who supported the French Revolution, was imprisoned during the Reign Of Terror, and who wasn’t a big fan of the Emperor Napoleon, who, it must be noted, allowed her to live and work in Paris while she freely criticised him.
According to Andreas Möllenkamp:
After his return to Paris from the disaster in Russia in 1812, Napoleon blamed the idéologues for the catastrophe into which his own despotism had plunged the country:
“It is to the doctrinaire of the idéologues – to this diffuse metaphysics, which in a contrived manner seeks to find the primary causes and on this foundation would erect the legislation of peoples, instead of adapting the laws to a knowledge of the human heart and of the lessons of history – to which one must attribute all the misfortunes which have befallen our beautiful France.”
(cited in Williams, Raymond (1983): Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana Press).
In his view, the only realistic way to run the country was by making an alliance with the Church.
Staum (Staum, Martin S. (1980): Cabanis: Enlightenment and medical philosophy in the French Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.) puts it thus:
“The regime found the Church a more effective control on wayward consciences than the pale natural morality associated with Ideology.”
According to J. Christopher Herold’s “The Age of Napoleon”, Napoleon considered the ideologues to be “babbling fools”. His opinion was that human nature didn’t change – “men are moved by two levers only: fear and self interest ” – and that the way to bring stability to France after the horrors of Robespierre and the constant attacks of the united Monarchs of Europe was to resume some of the old means of pacification of the masses – the Catholic Church and social order.
So the next time you hear someone on TV talk about political ideology as being a bad thing – thank Napoleon.