Monday, August 27, 2018

There is a just God


Crossing the Berezina, 26th-27th November, 1812



The destruction of the Grande Armée in 1812 horrified, fascinated and, you might say, troubled the intellects of all Europeans. How could the great Napoleon, the master of lightning-quick manoeuvres in Lombardy and on the Danube, the greatest of military minds, ... How could he with such rank stupidity engage on so ruinous and futile an expedition as the invasion of Russia? ... Already warned by the example of Charles XII at Pultowa, and so poorly planned, so defiant of advice, so insufficiently motivated? (But it's easy to be wise in hindsight, and perhaps Napoleon's judgement was as sound as ever? Andrew Roberts' recent biography Napoleon the Great seems to list in that direction.)

Tolstoy argued against the "great man" view of history, but his own book undercuts him: it's Tolstoy who elevates Kutuzov to the status of saviour of the fatherland. Tolstoy tried to reframe history as the will of the people, but the idea that the will of the French people demanded the expedition to Moscow is contrary to all evidence.

Much earlier, Scott had thought about it. He rubbishes the idea that the catastrophe arose principally from an early onset of winter. This only exacerbated the sufferings of an army that was already doomed.

Scott proposed an explanation in moral terms. Bonaparte's invasion of a recent ally was unjust, evidence how low his ideas had fallen by continual resort to power politics. His own grotesque pride, moreover, had deranged his judgement; he thought he would triumph just by turning up.

Scott concludes:

Thus a hallucination, for such it may be termed, led this great soldier into a train of conduct, which, as a military critic, he would have been the first to condemn, and which was the natural consequence of his deep moral error. He was hurried by this self-opinion, this ill-founded trust in the predominance of his own personal influence, into a gross neglect of the usual and prescribed rules of war. He put in motion an immense army, too vast in numbers to be supported either by the supplies of the country through which they marched, or by the provisions they could transport along with them. And when, plunging into Russia, he defeated her armies and took her metropolis, he neglected to calculate his line of advance on such an extent of base, as should enable him to consolidate his conquests, and turn to real advantage the victories which he attained. His army was but precariously
connected with Lithuania when he was at Moscow, and all communication was soon afterwards entirely destroyed. Thus, one unjust purpose, strongly and passionately entertained, marred the councils of the wise, and rendered vain the exertions of the brave.

We may read the moral in the words of Claudian.

 “ Jam non ad culmina rerum Injustos circvisse queror; tolluntur in altum, Ut lapsu graviore ruant.” CLAUDIAN, in Rufinum, Lib. i., T. 21.

Life of Buonaparte, Ch LXIII.


The quotation, by the late Latin poet Claudius Claudianus, comes from a poem celebrating the downfall of a corrupt opponent of his patron. It is the last two sentences of this passage:

My mind has often wavered between two opinions: have the gods a care for the world or is there no ruler therein and do mortal things drift as dubious chance dictates? For when I investigated the laws and the ordinances of heaven and observed the sea's appointed limits, the year's fixed cycle and the alternation of light and darkness, then methought everything was ordained according to the direction of a God who had bidden the stars move by fixed laws, plants grow at different seasons, the changing moon fulfil her circle with borrowed light and the sun shine by his own, who spread the shore before the waves and balanced the world in the centre of the firmament. But when I saw the impenetrable mist which surrounds human affairs, the wicked happy and long prosperous and the good discomforted, then in turn my belief in God was weakened and failed, and even against mine own will I embraced the tenets of that other philosophy which teaches that atoms drift in purposeless motion and that new forms throughout the vast void are shaped by chance and not design — that philosophy which believes in God in an ambiguous sense, or holds that there be no gods, or that they are careless of our doings. At 
  last Rufinus' fate has dispelled this uncertainty and freed the gods from this imputation. No longer can I complain that the unrighteous man reaches the highest pinnacle of success. He is raised aloft that he may be hurled down in more headlong ruin. 

But does Napoleon's disastrous campaign really vindicate a just God in the way described by Claudian? Yes, Napoleon lost, it was a bodyblow to his empire. But his expedition led directly to the death of around a million people, none of whom was Napoleon himself. How could it be just that those million people should die?


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