This series has seven easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: A Triumph of Commonplace Greatness.
France continued in turmoil after the Religious Wars and the aftermath of the Thirty Years War. The history of France before Louis XIV consisted largely of the French monarch in trouble. Then Louis ascends to the troubled throne. James Cotter Morison takes us from here.
This selection is from an article in The Fortnightly Review, Volume 21 by James Cotter Morison published in 1866. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
James Cotter Morison was an English historian.
Not only was the reign of Louis XIV one of the longest in the world’s history, but it also marked among Western nations the highest development of the purely monarchical principle. Including the time that Louis ruled under the guardianship of his mother and the control of his minister, Cardinal Mazarin, the reign covered more than seventy years (1643-1715).
The sovereign who could say, “I am the state” (“l’État c’est moi“), and see his subjects acquiesce with almost Asiatic humility, while Europe looked on in admiration and fear, may be said to have embodied for modern times the essence of absolutism.
That all things, domestic and foreign, seemed to be in concurrence for giving practical effect to the Grand Monarque’s assumption of supremacy is shown by the fact that his name dominates the whole history of his time. His reign was not only “the Augustan Age of France”; it marked the ascendency of France in Europe.
The reign of Louis XIV was the culminating epoch in the history of the French monarchy. What the age of Pericles was in the history of the Athenian democracy, what the age of the Scipios was in the history of the Roman Republic, that was the reign of Louis XIV in the history of the old monarchy of France. The type of polity which that monarchy embodied, the principles of government on which it reposed or brought into play, in this reign attain their supreme expression and development. Before Louis XIV the French monarchy has evidently not attained its full stature; it is thwarted and limited by other forces in the state. After him, though unresisted from without, it manifests symptoms of decay from within. It rapidly declines, and totally disappears seventy-seven years after his death.
But it is not only the most conspicuous reign in the history of France–it is the most conspicuous reign in the history of monarchy in general. Of the very many kings whom history mentions, who have striven to exalt the monarchical principle, none of them achieved a success remotely comparable to his. His two great predecessors in kingly ambition, Charles V and Philip II, remained far behind him in this respect. They may have ruled over wider dominions, but they never attained the exceptional position of power and prestige which he enjoyed for more than half a century. They never were obeyed so submissively at home nor so dreaded and even respected abroad. For Louis XIV carried off that last reward of complete success, that he for a time silenced even envy, and turned it into admiration. We who can examine with cold scrutiny the make and composition of this colossus of a French monarchy; who can perceive how much the brass and clay in it exceeded the gold; who know how it afterward fell with a resounding ruin, the last echoes of which have scarcely died away, have difficulty in realizing the fascination it exercised upon contemporaries who witnessed its first setting up.
Louis XIV’s reign was the very triumph of commonplace greatness, of external magnificence and success, such as the vulgar among mankind can best and most sincerely appreciate. Had he been a great and profound ruler, had he considered with unselfish meditation the real interests of France, had he with wise insight discerned and followed the remote lines of progress along which the future of Europe was destined to move, it is lamentably probable that he would have been misunderstood in his lifetime and calumniated after his death.
Louis XIV was exposed to no such misconception. His qualities were on the surface, visible and comprehensible to all; and although none of them was brilliant, he had several which have a peculiarly impressive effect when displayed in an exalted station. He was indefatigably industrious; worked on an average eight hours a day for fifty-four years; had great tenacity of will; that kind of solid judgment which comes of slowness of brain, and withal a most majestic port and great dignity of manners. He had also as much kindliness of nature as the very great can be expected to have; his temper was under severe control; and, in his earlier years at least, he had a moral apprehensiveness greater than the limitations of his intellect would have led one to expect.
His conduct toward Molière was throughout truly noble, and the more so that he never intellectually appreciated Molière’s real greatness. But he must have had great original fineness of tact, though it was in the end nearly extinguished by adulation and incense. His court was an extraordinary creation, and the greatest thing he achieved. He made it the microcosm of all that was the most brilliant and prominent in France. Every order of merit was invited there and received courteous welcome. To no circumstance did he so much owe his enduring popularity. By its means he impressed into his service that galaxy of great writers, the first and the last classic authors of France, whose calm and serene lustre will forever illumine the epoch of his existence. It may even be admitted that his share in that lustre was not so accidental and undeserved as certain king-haters have supposed.
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