Updated: Oct 30
In the annals of cinematic history, few directors rival the influence of Ridley Scott, the visionary auteur behind epoch-making films such as "Blade Runner," "Alien," and "Gladiator." Scott is poised to once again set the silver screen ablaze with his forthcoming historical epic, "Napoleon," slated for a November 22, 2023, release in the United States and the United Kingdom via Sony Pictures Releasing. Subsequently, the film will make its digital transition to Apple TV+.
But what animates the frenzy surrounding this celluloid reimagining is not mere Hollywood glamour. The film arrives as a timely cultural event, coinciding with the centennial retrospectives on the French Revolution—a juncture in history famously coined as a "dual revolution" by renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm. In this context, Scott's "Napoleon" offers a sweeping chronicle, beginning with the Corsican upstart's meteoric rise and culminating in his fateful defeat at Waterloo at the hands of the Duke of Wellington, a paragon of defensive military strategy. It's a narrative arc that promises to captivate, inform, and perhaps even redefine our collective understanding of one of history's most enigmatic figures.
The Dual Revolution
While it was Eric Hobsbawm who coined the term "dual revolution," it's worth noting that the seeds were first sown in England. The advent of key innovations like James Watt's steam engine fundamentally reconfigured the landscape of British industry, particularly textiles. But the mere invention of machinery was just the tip of the iceberg; the true transformation lay in the migration of textile production from the home to the factory. This shift necessitated novel modes of social organization, typified by distinctions such as Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, as articulated by Arnold Toynbee and later adopted by Max Weber. The German concept of "Landflucht," or the migration from villages to cities, further fueled the burgeoning capitalist ethos.
However, England wasn't the only European epicenter of upheaval. Across the Channel, another storm was brewing in France. As vividly portrayed by Charles Dickens in "A Tale of Two Cities," the French Revolution shattered the nation's ancien régime, toppling the four estates and the monarchy. Far from stabilizing, France veered into the turbulent Reign of Terror. Yet, out of this chaos emerged an event of even greater magnitude: the Napoleonic era, which saw the expansion of the French empire across much of Europe and created a rift between the continental and British colonial systems.
Notably, this period was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the nation-state formations of both Germany and Italy, entities that were virtually nonexistent before this seismic shift. Thus, the ripple effects of this dual revolution went beyond mere industrial and political transformations; they redefined the very geography of European power.
The World Spirit
In the autumnal haze of 1806, when Napoleon Bonaparte clinched victory at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, another kind of conquest was underway: that of the intellectual realm. The eminent Prussian philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was in a frenetic rush to finalize his magnum opus, "Phenomenology of Spirit." As Napoleon inspected his Grande Armée and surveyed the captured city on horseback, Hegel looked on, feeling as though he was witnessing the "world spirit" in flesh and blood. Despite the logistical challenges—Jena was enveloped by the French military—Hegel managed to send off the last portions of his manuscript for publication in Bamberg, via a messenger navigating the perilous environment.
Napoleon at Battle of Jena
This situation was more than just a matter of academic urgency; it marked Hegel's intellectual departure from his former mentor and friend, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. Contrary to the popular perception that Hegel was simply an acolyte of Schelling, Jena served as a crucible for Hegel's intellectual independence. Unlike Schelling, who emphasized the unity of opposites and a kind of pre-established harmony between the real and ideal, as well as Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who concentrated on subjectivity and the self as the ultimate reality, Hegel incorporated these disparate ideas into a dynamic, dialectical framework. This approach enabled him to synthesize elements from both Fichte and Schelling while also surpassing them in his quest for a system aiming at totality and absolute knowledge. At the core of this independence was his concept of the master-slave dialectic, a cornerstone that elucidated the evolving dynamics of power and dependency. For Hegel, the "city" represented the stage at which this dialectic could reach its "Aufhebung" (sublation), a state of reconciliation that affords equal dignity to its citizens.
Hegel's ideas didn't simply rest within the philosophical annals. Alexandre Kojève would later draw from Hegel's concepts to formulate his theory on the "end of history," arguing that a mature liberal democratic society represents the ultimate reconciliation of modern human rights—essentially echoing Hegel's notion of equal dignity.
Aux Armes Citoyens!
As previously delineated, Napoleon Bonaparte's triumph at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt wasn't merely a military coup; it symbolized a tectonic shift in the world order. Hobsbawm's narrative of a "dual revolution," with the steam engine and capitalism redefining Britain, found its continental echo in the French Grande Armée. Besieged by monarchies that viewed the French Revolution as a malignant contagion, France retooled itself—both legally and militarily. Gone were the days of feudal armies operating as fiefdoms under separate nobles; in their place, a new model of military conscription emerged, fueling a nascent sense of nationalism.
This patriotic fervor played a crucial role, emboldening young men to venture into battle—despite the very real risks of injury or death. Within this milieu, the Grande Armée's corporals acted as indispensable cogs, deftly executing strategies and leading legions in the front lines. Their valor, propelled by nationalism, often proved decisive in battle.
This historical pivot offers an instructive lens for our own era—specifically, the rise of Generative AI. In much the same way that Napoleon's corporals acted as the linchpins of a new kind of army, today's Adaptive Team Strategists (ATS) are set to become the key players in AI-Driven, Agile Organizations (AD-AOs). Just as the corporals brought strategies to life on the battlefield, ATS leaders will lead organizations into the next frontier, driving corporate strategies with a nimbleness that only advanced AI can facilitate.
Napoleon's Pyrrhic Victory
Amidst the kaleidoscope of colors from the Grande Armée's uniforms, enveloped in a heady patriotism and an exhilarating spirit of adventure, the romantic allure of war appears indomitable. Further heightened by the intoxicating fragrance of victory and an aura of invincibility, the scene seems to epitomize martial glory at its finest. As Leo Tolstoy masterfully illustrates in "War and Peace," the brutal truths of warfare shatter any illusions of glory. Napoleon achieved his pinnacle of success at the Battle of the Three Emperors, commonly known as the Battle of Austerlitz. Yet, he would later confront a Tolstoyan reckoning at the Battle of Borodino, facing the raw brutality and existential futility of war—a moment that resonates with the experiences of his literary analogue, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.
Napoleon's Pyrrhic victory, juxtaposed against Russia's scorched-earth tactics and the fall of Moscow, illuminates a cornerstone of geopolitical strategy. As outlined by Ludwig August von Rochau in "Grundsätze der Realpolitik," the advent of nationalism significantly altered the essence of statecraft. Johan Rudolf Kjellén later expanded this notion, suggesting that a nation-state, much like an organic entity, needs a heart. Yet Russia defied this archetype: despite the capture of Moscow, its lifeforce remained intact, biding time for winter to incapacitate Napoleon's army.
This very resilience has come to define Russia's geopolitical DNA—a reliance on scorched-earth and attritional warfare, amplified by the strategic depth offered by its vast landscape and brutal winters. It's a formula that proved effective again in World War II during the cataclysmic clashes with Nazi Germany. And it's a playbook that may well be deeply embedded in Vladimir Putin's strategic calculus, as witnessed in the protracted and attritional conflict with Ukraine.
The Final Show Down
After the humbling retreat from Russia and a period of exile on Elba, Napoleon found himself once more at the helm of France's destiny, albeit with the clock ticking inexorably against him. Waterloo was not just another battle; it was a crucible where mettle, strategy, and fate would coalesce, either to resurrect an empire or to bring down an epoch.
Napoleon's artillery, led by the Gribeauval and Year XI system cannons (the artillery technologies and logistical practices observed during the War of 1812 bore the unmistakable imprint of Napoleonic innovations) capable of firing devastating canister shots, were among the best. Yet, even the "God of War" couldn't escape certain realities. Across the field was the Duke of Wellington, a master of defensive strategy, whose troops were fortifying a robust defensive line, a bulwark that would make any attacker pay dearly.
The French Emperor was racing against time. Prussian reinforcements under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher were en route, threatening to tilt the scale decisively in Wellington's favor. Against this looming deadline, Napoleon's past triumphs whispered into his ear, perhaps drowning out the counsel of caution. Overconfidence, an intoxicating yet perilous brew, was setting in.
Weather further complicated the already fraught calculus. The heavy rains had turned the battlefield into a quagmire, bogging down infantry and artillery alike. But for Napoleon, retreat was not an option. He believed—perhaps too zealously—in his army's ability to prevail against British defenses. After all, had they not vanquished foes across the continent?
Yet, underestimation of the enemy is the first chapter in the annals of defeat. Wellington's British and allied troops were no pushovers. They were disciplined, well-led, and fortified by their defensive positions. Napoleon's tactical choices on that fateful day, including a delayed offensive, failed to break the British line or to adequately counter Wellington's artillery, which mercilessly punished the advancing French columns with canister shots. Prussian forces were inching closer, and each tick of the clock diminished Napoleon's chance for victory.
Moreover, the French cavalry, often the Emperor's trump card, found themselves ensnared in a labyrinth of complications. The muddy terrain impaired their famed speed and maneuverability. The British squares, hastily but effectively formed, stood like islands in a torrent, repelling French cavalry with disciplined fire. Here again, historians point out the isolation of the French cavalry—unsupported by coordinated infantry and artillery—which undermined their impact.
In the final analysis, it wasn't just superior firepower or strategic positioning that determined the outcome at Waterloo, but a confluence of factors: strategic imperatives colliding with tactical blunders, seasoned audacity undone by overconfidence, and perhaps above all, the unforgiving march of time that waited for neither emperor nor duke. Napoleon had wagered everything on this "risky bet" and lost. Not merely a battle was lost that day, but an era was concluded, and the pages of history turned inexorably forward.
In the annals of military history, the late deployment of Napoleon's elite Imperial Guard at Waterloo stands as a tantalizing "what if?" A revered unit, undefeated and symbolic of the French Empire, it represented Napoleon's last resort. Had the Emperor unleashed this formidable force earlier, in coordination with an artillery barrage and the initial infantry assault, history could have veered off its known course. Marshal Ney's cavalry charges on the British flanks might have acted as a potent hammer, smashing against the anvil formed by the Imperial Guard.
Yet, Napoleon's cautious approach allowed Wellington's troops to entrench themselves further, particularly at key strongpoints like Hougoumont and Papelotte. Such defensive positions could have thwarted a more concerted French offensive, reflecting a meticulous calculation that might be deemed emblematic of British "analytic philosophy," triumphing over a sort of Hegelian "spiritual" determinism.
Why Napoleon held back his Imperial Guard is a subject of endless speculation. Was this unit so dear to him, as emotionally intertwined with his fate as Empress Josephine, that he hesitated to risk it? The conjecture aligns intriguingly with philosophical ruminations on the nature of love by Hegel, who himself dedicated significant portions of his work to the topic. Was Hegel attempting to unravel the paradox of a religion like Christianity, which preached love but committed atrocities during the medieval witch hunts? Or was he captivated by the complex life of Napoleon, a figure who embodied both war and love?
As philosopher Alain Badiou, influenced by Hegelian thought, asserts, real love is never without risk. In a strange irony, love becomes most genuine when it confronts the possibility of its own absence. Just as love risks non-love to attain its truest form, so too did Napoleon risk his most cherished Imperial Guard, and by extension, his empire. Whether it was a calculated gamble or a hesitant misstep, the decision echoes through history, leaving us to ponder not just the outcomes, but also the intricate human emotions that influenced them.