We know, lucky beneficiaries of history, that Napoleon is about to make a grievous error. His invasion of Russia will — SPOILER ALERT! — end in disaster. Entering Russia in command of 685,000 troops, his Grande Armée will be reduced to a mere 27,000 healthy soldiers by the time he crosses the Berezina River in retreat mere months later. At least part of this debacle is due to Napoleon’s striking narcissism, on full display in today’s chapter as he meets again with Balashov.
Narcissus, you’ll remember, was the beautiful young man of ancient Greek lore who, having scorned love, was cursed by Nemesis to love only himself. This self-love was strong. So strong, in fact, that one day while walking through the woods he came upon a pool of water and, bending down to take a drink from it, he saw his reflection and decided the image of his body was so lovely he would never stop looking at it. Then he wasted away and died.
For Napoleon the whole globe is his pool in the woods. Everything seems to justify his superiority to others. Everyone must love him just as he loves himself. “It was evident,” writes Tolstoy, “that he had long been convinced that it was impossible for him to make a mistake, and that in his perception whatever he did was right, not because it harmonized with any idea of right and wrong, but because he did it.”
When Napoleon realizes that Balashov does not share this high appraisal of himself he becomes angry. He informs Balashov that all of Alexander’s requests have been denied.
War is on.
What Napoleon doesn’t know is that he is not Narcissus gazing into the pool in the woods. He’s actually Narcissus taking one last look at his reflection in the waters of the River Styx as he passes into Hades.
What can we do to avoid a similar fate? The first step is probably to be a little less self-involved and a little more self-aware.
You must catch yourself at fault before you can correct yourself.
Seneca, Letter on Travel