Visionary and strategist of genius for some, tyrannical and egocentric leader for others, Napoleon Bonaparte is undoubtedly one of history’s most polarizing heads of state.
With the release of the film Napoleon, we thought it would be interesting to delve into his philosophical legacy to better understand the man behind the leader.
Let’s discover 12 Napoleon Bonaparte quotes that speak volumes about the man and his values.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s Impact on French society
In addition to the great Napoleonic conquests that earned him the reputation he enjoys today, Napoléon was also responsible for many changes in French society.
To better understand the quotations that follow, it is important to briefly recall Napoleon’s greatest contributions to French society:
- Civil Code (1804): Napoléon introduced the Civil Code, a legal system that served as a model for modern civil codes around the world.
- Educational reforms (1802-1806): Napoléon reorganized the French education system, creating, among other things, the University of France and widening access to higher education.
- Economic stabilization: Napoléon introduced economic reforms to stabilize the French economy, notably by reorganizing public finances and creating the Banque de France.
- Prefecture system: Napoléon reorganized local administration by introducing the prefecture system (how the French counties are organized), which still exists in France over 200 years later.
- Infrastructure upgrades: Napoléon encouraged the construction of roads, canals, and bridges to facilitate trade.
12 of the Best-Known Napoléon Bonaparte Quotes
“Le moyen le plus sûr de rester pauvre est d’être honnête homme.”Napoléon Bonaparte
English translation: “The surest way to stay poor is to be honest.”
Meaning: This statement by Napoléon Bonaparte suggests that a man of integrity is more likely to remain poor than someone more dishonest or venal. It also reflects the mores of the time, particularly in politics, where cunning and manipulation were among the surest means to an end.
“Si vous voulez qu’une chose soit bien faite, faites la vous-même.”Napoléon Bonaparte
English translation: “If you want something done well, do it yourself.”
Meaning: Here, Napoléon emphasizes the importance of having total control over a project to ensure its successful completion. The phrase also highlights Napoléon’s authoritarian approach to military and political command. He was directly involved in the planning and execution of his major military and societal conquests.
“La religion, c’est ce qui retient le pauvre de tuer le riche.”Napoléon Bonaparte
English translation: “Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.”
Meaning: With this statement, Napoléon Bonaparte suggests that religion acts as a common ground in society, discouraging tension and conflict between different social classes.
“Le sot a un grand avantage sur l’homme d’esprit : il est toujours content de lui-même.”Napoléon Bonaparte
English translation: “The fool has one great advantage over a man of sense: he’s always satisfied with himself.”
Meaning: Napoléon starts from the premise that someone who is more limited intellectually will have lower expectations of himself than someone intelligent. In a way, he underlined what would later be discussed by certain psychology researchers: the correlation between IQ and an individual’s degree of overall satisfaction.
“La bonne politique est de faire croire aux peuples qu’ils sont libres.”Napoléon Bonaparte
English translation: “Good politics is making people believe they’re free.”
Meaning: With this quote, Napoléon Bonaparte once again underlines the importance of perception in politics. He refers to the demagogic rhetoric used by many governments throughout history, to gain power and maintain the status quo.
“Le meilleur moyen de tenir sa parole est de ne jamais la donner.”Napoléon Bonaparte
English translation: “The best way to keep one’s word is not to give it.”
Meaning: Napoléon gives us a real lesson in life. According to him, human beings only have one word, and giving it is a commitment not to be taken lightly. To make sure you don’t lose face if you can’t keep your promise, it’s best to give it as little as possible, if at all.
“L’imagination gouverne le monde.”Napoléon Bonaparte
English translation: “Imagination rules the world.”
Meaning: It may seem surprising coming from one of the greatest conquerors mankind has ever known, but Napoléon used his imagination on many occasions outside the battlefield. He helped overhaul the French banking, economic, and educational systems, and left a legacy that is still relevant today, in the form of the Civil Code.
“L’amour est une sottise faite à deux.”Napoléon Bonaparte
English translation: “Love is foolishness shared between two people.”
Meaning: With several great relationships in his life, Napoléon was no stranger to the mysteries of love. In this quotation, he shows us a certain cynicism towards love, comparing it to madness, while highlighting its irrationality.
“Le mensonge n’est bon à rien, puisqu’il ne trompe qu’une fois.”Napoléon Bonaparte
English translation: “Lying is worthless because it only works once.”
Meaning: Napoléon emphasizes the futility of lying in the long term. He considers that the initial benefit of a lie is not sustainable in the long term, since once the truth is known, the other person will know that he or she cannot trust us.
“Impossible n’est pas français.”Napoléon Bonaparte
English translation: “Impossible isn’t French.”
Meaning: This phrase reflects Napoléon’s confidence and determination as he led France on its great conquests. It underlines that, because of their history, the French people are endowed with a great resilience that drives them to achieve great things, even those that seem most insurmountable.
Today, you can hear often this quote in French media before France is facing another country in sports.
“L’histoire est une suite de mensonges sur lesquels on est d’accord.”Napoléon Bonaparte
English translation: “History is a set of lies agreed upon.”
Meaning: Here, Napoléon questions the objectivity of history, suggesting that some historical facts should be taken with a grain of salt since they can vary according to biased interpretations and perspectives.
“La victoire appartient au plus persévérant.”Napoléon Bonaparte
English translation: “Victory belongs to the most persevering.”
Meaning: With this quotation, Napoleon Bonaparte highlights some of the qualities he considered most important: perseverance, tenacity, and self-sacrifice. It’s by never giving up that you can achieve your goals and “win”, whether in life or on the battlefield.
Your favorite Napoleon Bonaparte quote isn’t on this list? Share it in the comments so that everyone can enjoy it! And if you’re passionate about History with a capital H, we highly recommend you take a look at our section dedicated to French culture.
Translated into English by Sacha