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The Personality Traits that Led to Napoleon Bonaparte's Epic Downfall

January 4, 2019 in History

By Adam Zamoyski

Sex. Money. Class. You name the inferiority complex, and this thin-skinned and deeply insecure French leader had it.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise and fall are one of the most spectacular in recorded history. The French general and statesman turned self-appointed emperor revolutionized the nation’s military, legal and educational institutions. But after some of his most audacious expansionist campaigns failed, he was forced to abdicate and was ultimately exiled in disgrace.

What propelled Napoleon upward—transcendent genius, vaulting ambition, destiny? What brought him down—power craze, hubris, fate? Or is the answer more prosaic?

A close look behind the heroic portraits and beneath the gorgeous uniforms reveals some surprising things about the great little man. (He was small.) Perhaps most striking? The number of complexes he suffered from, including class inferiority, money insecurity, intellectual envy, sexual anxiety, social awkwardness and, not surprisingly, a persistent hypersensitivity to criticism. Taken in whole, these traits drove his stark ambition, undermined his grandiose endeavors—and ultimately crippled his historic legacy.

READ MORE: 6 Things You Should Know About Napoleon

‘Determined to climb’

Napoleon Bonaparte was born into a family that counted itself among the elite of the port city of Ajaccio in France’s island territory of Corsica. But they were far from rich and lived frugally, crammed into a few rooms in a decrepit house. His father, a crashing snob, managed to obtain noble status and had far-reaching ambitions for his sons. But Napoleon could not help being ashamed of him, later admitting he found him ‘a little too fond of the ridiculous gentility of the times.’

Still, he too was determined to climb.

The Rise of Napoleon (TV-PG; 1:54)

He became brutally aware of social barriers when, at the age of nine, he left home and entered the military academy at Brienne in northern France. His foreign origins, atrocious French (he had grown up speaking a Corsican Italian patois) and dubious noble status laid him open to the taunts of his schoolmates.

Although he did make a few friends—and could be remarkably open with children or simple soldiers and servants—Napoleon continued throughout his life to distance himself from those around him with a prickly defensive arrogance.

The sense of being on his own against the world spurred him to show that he could outsmart others. While working hard to excel in his career as an artillery officer, he read voraciously and even tried his hand (not …read more


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