Casting doubts on the indubitable

Probable non-existence of Napoleon is the subject of a pamphlet written in 1819 by Richard Whately (1787 – 1863). Whatley was a renowned English logician and theologian, later to become Anglican Archbishop of Dublin. The wording in the heading above is actually not the original title of the pamphlet. Rather, it’s a re-translation of the title of a foreign-language translation of Whately’s pamphlet. The original English title of Richard Whatley’s pamphlet was Historic Doubts relative to Napoleon Buonaparte. But the main idea remains the same, irrespective of its wording.

Whately’s text (25-odd pages) represents a masterful feat in the art of casting doubt on something that almost everybody considers as an indubitable fact.

Whatley’s argumentation is similar to the reasoning of present-day Holocaust deniers. The analogy is compelling, considering that Napoleon was still alive on St Helena when the pamphlet was written in 1819, and that today many first-hand witnesses of the Holocaust still live in the midst of our societies.

An anaemic list from an entertaining pamphlet

At base bottom, Richard Whately had a different axe to grind than refuting Napoleon's existence (more of this later). But he did a jolly good job of demonstrating Napoleon's non-existence nevertheless. Below I have listed some of his arguments in condensed form. Such a list is unfortunately bound to look rather anaemic and lacklustre – you'll have to imagine how the arguments were elaborated in the pamphlet, with all of the considerable rhetorical skill that the future Archbishop of Dublin possessed. Whatley’s pamphlet should be required reading for all conspiracy-theorists, current and future.

Scepticism galore

So here are some of Richard Whately's historic doubts relative to the existence of Napoleon :

  • Napoleon's existence is taken for granted, without controversy. But this very circumstance draws off attention from the matter of its credibility. It becomes more likely that insufficient evidence is accepted and flaws in the evidence are overlooked. There are many examples of how flaws in supposedly uncontroversial ideas were overlooked in the past, e.g. flaws in the idea that the Earth was flat.
  • Most people who are convinced of Napoleon's existence have never seen him. They base their convictions on mere hearsay. (Those who say that they saw Napoleon in Portsmouth, on board the Royal Navy ship that was to despatch him to St Helena, can not positively say that they saw Napoleon – they only saw a person at a distance, with a special hat.)
  • The entire story of Napoleon and his fantastic exploits is completely unbelievable. People who say that they have met him or have been personally involved with him seem to be aware of this. They usually introduce their improbable account by phrases like "I would not have believed such a thing, if I had not seen it." Then why should we believe it?
  • Most of the stories about the exploits of Napoleon emanate from newspapers, which are chronically unreliable (you read retractions and corrections of past articles almost every day). On top of that they were not even eye-witness accounts, but came from "private correspondents".
  • The stories about Napoleon's exploits that the "private correspondents" transmitted, had normally passed through a whole chain of people, from the original "eye witness" to another person, then to yet another, and so on, until it was finally told to the "private correspondent". An account, as told by one person, may be 90 % correct. But if it is passed through a chain of 20 people (each time with a 0.9 probability of being correct), then, the probability of the last account being correct is less than one eighth (according to La Place: Essai Philosophique sur les Probabilités, to which Whately refers).
  • The achievements of Napoleon Buonaparte, as told by the papers, are truly wonderful and exciting. Wonderful stories attract many readers and sell many copies. Hence it is hardly in the interest of the newspapers to care whether the stories are true or false.
  • For the British government the idea of a threatening Napoleon-figure served as a politically potent instrument for raising taxes, obtaining funds, and getting its proposals smoothly through Parliament. The period was long enough for different parties to head the government, so it was in the interest of both parties to perpetuate the Napoleon legend.
  • There are overwhelming amounts of factual discrepancies in the stories of Napoleon's exploits. Some say that Napoleon led the celebrated charge over the bridge of Lodi in person, others that this was done by Augereau. The charge of the French cavalry at Waterloo is likewise described in contradictory ways. Here even the different accounts of the hour of the battle disagree by as much as four hours. The battle of Borodino is paradoxically claimed as a victory by both sides. Etc., etc.
  • The character of Napoleon is described in very different terms by different observers. To some he is a wise, humane hero, to others a monster of cruelty. Some see him as a military and political genius, others as a madman. This may point to the figure of Napoleon being a mythological composite of several actual individuals, like many of the ancient Greek and Roman mythological heroes.
  • The French king in 1819, King Louis XVIII, is a Bourbon king and claims to have been king of France for 23 years. During this time France and England have fought many battles. This makes it quite probable that the figure "Napoleon" is actually a mythological composite of many different French heroes from many different contemporary battles between England and France.

Argument against theological revisionism

In Richard Whatley's pamphlet there is much more, all of it cleverly elaborated and highly entertaining, and all of it pointing to the conclusion that Napoleon Bonaparte (whom Whatley prefers to call by the Emperor's Corsican surname Buonaparte) never existed.

However, Whatley's purpose was hardly to prove the non-existence of Napoleon Bonaparte. His pamphlet is rather an argument of sorts in a theological debate that was going on in England at the time. David Hume’s philosophical scepticism had carried over to theology and in the early 1800’s a book, Historic Doubts Relative to Jesus of Nazareth, was published, featuring a "refutation" of the historical existence of Jesus. Richard Whatley's intention with his "proof of the non-existence of Napoleon" was simply to demonstrate the absurdity of sceptical argumentation in absurdum.

It could be that some Holocaust "revisionists" might benefit by reading Whatley's pamphlet. But to my mind, most of them unfortunately seem to be beyond all reasonable hope of ever becoming reasonable.


Note: A recent (attempted) posting of a Holocaust-denying cut & paste writeup in the Holocaust node (and corresponding chatterbox comments) has inspired this writeup.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.