THE AGE OF NAPOLEON: A History of European Civilization from 1789 to 1815 by Will & Ariel Durant

THE AGE OF NAPOLEON: A History of European Civilization from 1789 to 1815

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KIRKUS REVIEW

This uncorseted installment of the Durants' Story of Civilization ranges across Europe from the French Revolution to its counterparts in German critical philosophy, with Napoleon himself just one giant among many. The book's account of the Revolution is its finest accomplishment; men, forces and stages are clearly delineated, and despite the authors' fatuous sympathy for the royal family, the Terror is justly presented as a necessity of war. The Durants' hero is Couthon of Clermont-Ferrand, a middle-class revolutionary who administered wisely without executions and melted the Church silver. The Durants' explanation of Thermidor--""the bourgeoisie triumphed because it had more money and brains than either the aristocrats or the plebs""--exemplifies the general flavor of the book. We learn about Louis XVI's foreskin, Napoleon's dog bite at the moment of first marital climax, Beethoven's liver problems, and the hemorrhoids of Byron's mistress. More integrated aspects of personality are not neglected, and people like Talleyrand and Madame de Stael are especially well suited to the Durants' ironies; on the other hand Shelley and Goethe remain uncaptured. The Durants convey a sense of how Napoleon constructed a social and political framework suited to capitalist development, and identify the highlights of European science during this period. The ""intellectual history"" per se remains weak, for example when Fichte's 1800 treatise, The Closed Commercial State, is tagged ""socialist,"" and a precis of Jane Austen's novels leads to the mystifying conclusion that ""she perceives the fundamental"" truth of ""the repeated, unconscious effort of youth to mature and be used and consumed."" Apart from the tantalizing sops to the idle intellect, it may well spur further reading on the subject, a merit not to be dismissed.

Pub Date: Nov. 3rd, 1975
Publisher: Simon & Schuster