War And Peace

CHAPTER XVIII

Chinese

ONE MIGHT have supposed that the historians, who ascribe the actions of the masses to the will of one man, would have found it impossible to explain the retreat of the French on their theory, considering that they did everything possible during this period of the campaign to bring about their own ruin, and that not a single movement of that rabble of men, from their turning into the Kaluga road up to the flight of the commander from his army, showed the slightest trace of design.

But no! Mountains of volumes have been written by historians upon this campaign, and in all of them we find accounts of Napoleon's masterly arrangements and deeply considered plans; of the strategy with which the soldiers were led, and the military genius showed by the marshals.

The retreat from Maley Yaroslavets, when nothing hindered Napoleon from passing through a country abundantly furnished with supplies, and the parallel road was open to him, along which Kutuzov afterwards pursued him—this wholly unnecessary return by a road through devastated country is explained to us as due to various sagacious considerations. Similar reasons are given us for Napoleon's retreat from Smolensk to Orsha. Then we have a description of his heroism at Krasnoe, when he is reported to have prepared to give battle, and to take the command, and coming forward with a birch stick in his hand, to have said:

“Long enough I have been an emperor, it is time now to be a general!”

Yet in spite of this, he runs away immediately afterwards, abandoning the divided army in the rear to the hazards of destiny.

Then we have descriptions of the greatness of some of the marshals, especially of Ney—a greatness of soul that culminated in his taking a circuitous route by the forests across the Dnieper, and fleeing without his flags, his artillery, and nine-tenths of his men into Orsha.

And lastly, the final departure of the great Emperor from his heroic army is represented by the historians as something great—a stroke of genius.

Even that final act of running away—which in homely language would be described as the lowest depth of baseness, such as every child is taught to feel ashamed of—even that act finds justification in the language of the historians.

When it is impossible to stretch the elastic thread of historical argument further, when an action is plainly opposed to what all humanity is agreed in calling right and justice, the historians take refuge in the conception of greatness. Greatness would appear to exclude all possibility of applying standards of right and wrong. For the great man—nothing is wrong. There is no atrocity which could be made a ground for blaming a great man.

C'est grand!” cry the historians; and at that word good and bad have ceased to be, and there are only “grand” and not “grand.” “Grand” is equivalent to good, and not “grand” to bad. To be grand is to their notions the characteristic of certain exceptional creatures, called by them heroes. And Napoleon, wrapping himself in his warm fur cloak and hurrying home away from men, who were not only his comrades, but (in his belief) brought there by his doing, feels que c'est grand; and his soul is content.

Du sublime au ridicule il n'y a qu'un pas,” he says (he sees something grand in himself). And the whole world has gone on for fifty years repeating: Sublime! Grand! Napoleon the Great.

Du sublime au ridicule il n'y a qu'un pas.”

And it never enters any one's head that to admit a greatness, immeasurable by the rule of right and wrong, is but to accept one's own nothingness and immeasurable littleness.

For us, with the rule of right and wrong given us by Christ, there is nothing for which we have no standard. And there is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth.

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