The Eagle Falters: Napoleon’s Psychological Burdens

By Ed Coss

Our recent From Reason to Revolution title The Sword and the Spirit, edited by Zack White, is based on papers given at the 2019 BCMH ‘War and Peace in the Age of Napoleon’ conference. In one of the keynote papers at the conference, and in the opening chapter of the book, historian Dr Ed Coss outlined the findings of a collaborative psychological analysis of Napoleon Bonaparte. In this blog post, Dr Coss outlines the methodology that the team pursued and gives an outline of the conclusions drawn.

Napoleon Bonaparte is presumed to be, and almost always presented historically as, a stable genius, somehow unfettered by personal quirks and nearly immune to the psychological trauma of nearly two consecutive decades at war. A careful examination of his words, and those who heard and recorded them, by five trained American Army psychologists casts serious doubt on this portrayal. Their independent appraisals were surprisingly aligned. These mental health professionals agreed that Napoleon seemed to exhibit behaviours consistent with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Depression (possibly bi-polar), and maladies possibly related to Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).    

This exploration began as a series of conversations among mental health clinicians who also happened to be my students in military history. As we examined Napoleon’s behaviors and decisions, particularly in Spain and Russia, the psychologists began to wonder whether or not Napoleon had been impacted by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We initially assumed that this was the case. We resolved to put a team together and begin an appraisal.

For this study, it was decided to allow the five trained psychologists to read and independently interpret primary source historical material that I gathered. A decision was made to limit this research to either Napoleon’s words or those of the men who were in the room with him. As the psychologists investigated and appraised the available first-person accounts, consistent behavioral indicators appeared to emerge. Napoleon, as it turned out, met only 3 of 24 standards for PTSD, according to the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Napoleon seems to have had few to none of the dreams, flashbacks, or distress when presented certain stimuli related to the battlefield. Napoleon gave the impression that he was free of almost all relevant symptoms. This surprised the team. Upon reflection, however, what we had overlooked was that his near-total lack of empathy acted to shield Napoleon from the kinds of sadness, regret, and guilt that most soldiers experience. This human failing, this inability, according to Psychology Today, to ‘experience another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own’ and which is ‘crucial for establishing relationships and behaving compassionately’ protected Napoleon’s psyche. Thus, we were wrong in our initial diagnosis.

Any clinical assessment of Napoleon without actually conversing with him and so many years removed from his era has limitations, of course. The American Psychological Association, in fact, explicitly warns mental health professionals that it is unethical to offer public psychological assessments of anyone not in their care (or for any patient). The exception is when analyzing historical figures, and those examinations have guidelines. This ethical challenge needs be acknowledged at the outset, so as to allay concerns that the methods used herein to examine the psychology of the historical figure of Napoleon were questionable, whimsical in nature, or that the psychologists and the author have in any way attempted to bypass mental health or historical standards in the commission of this work.

As the psychologists independently read and assessed the more than 400 historical comments or personal interactions related to Napoleon, the team unanimously concluded that he strongly exhibited behaviours consistent with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, meeting the criteria in seven of nine categories, two more than the DSM-5 requires for identifying someone with this disorder. This conclusion came only after sharing assessments, careful debate, and the recognition of the limits of this study, acknowledging that the team members were never in the room with Napoleon and that the appraisal could never be definitive. Still, the names of his seven qualifying categories capture clearly the kinds of telling behaviours that are part and parcel of this disorder and were, most likely, exhibited nearly every day by Napoleon: Grandiose; Fantasies of unlimited success, love…; Believes he/she is special; Has a sense of entitlement; Interpersonally exploitative; Lack Empathy; Arrogant.

Moreover, the clinicians all believed that Napoleon’s behaviours appeared to align with someone struggling with Major Depression.  Because all these behavioural episodes seem to align with those delineated in the DSM-5 for bipolar-depression or Major Depressive Disorder, it would be fair to speculate that Napoleon may have struggled with one or both of these mental illnesses for much of his adult life. Thus, Napoleon may have experienced a series of unpredictable emotional highs and lows, alternating manic episodes of varying degrees with depressive experiences and self doubt.

The team was also surprised that Napoleon’s two instances of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), the result of two accidents involving horses, have not been considered by scholar’s assessing Napoleon’s decision making and conduct. This is especially true of Napoleon’s coup of 18 Brumaire, which saw Napoleon overthrow the Directory, but only barely and after serious missteps; the coup occurred just ten days after Napoleon’s first TBI incident. The APA’s guidelines state that in addition to ‘neurocognitive deficits, there may be associated neurophysiological, emotional, and behavioural complications.’

Altogether, these mental health disorders impacted Napoleon every day of his adult life. It would seem that these individual and collective debilitations likely inhibited Napoleon to a greater degree than has been surmised. This is a matter of no small import to readers examining Napoleon’s behaviours on the 200th anniversary of his death. It is hoped that the chapter will give the reader pause and cause him/her to reconsider Napoleon’s mental health and its impact on his words and actions.

Dr Ed Coss is emeritus professor of military history, United States Army Command and General Staff College. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Army’s Civilian Educator of the Year in 2010. Coss is a Member of the British Commission for Military History and the Society of Military History. He is also a Trustee of the Napoleonic and Revolutionary War Graves Charity. He is the author of All for the King’s Shilling: The British Soldier under Wellington, 1808–1814 (2010) and contributing author to The Context of Military Environments: An Agenda for Basic Research on Social and Organizational Factors Relevant to Small Units (2014); European Armies of the French Revolution, 1789–1802 (2015); and Technology, Violence, and War (2019).

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