The government of France had become a machine depending upon the action of a single spring.
Continuing Louis XIV Establishes Absolute Monarchy in France,
our selection from an article in The Fortnightly Review, Volume 21 by James Cotter Morison published in 1866. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
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That subtle critic, M. Sainte-Beuve, thinks he can trace a marked rise even in Bossuet’s style from the moment he became a courtier of Louis XIV. The King brought men together, placed them in a position where they were induced and urged to bring their talents to a focus. His court was alternately a high-bred gala and a stately university. If we contrast his life with those of his predecessor and successor, with the dreary existence of Louis XIII and the crapulous lifelong debauch of Louis XV, we become sensible that Louis XIV was distinguished in no common degree; and when we further reflect that much of his home and all of his foreign policy was precisely adapted to flatter, in its deepest self-love, the national spirit of France, it will not be quite impossible to understand the long-continued reverberation of his fame.
But Louis XIV’s reign has better titles than the adulations of courtiers and the eulogies of wits and poets to the attention of posterity. It marks one of the most memorable epochs in the annals of mankind. It stretches across history like a great mountain range, separating ancient France from the France of modern times. On the further slope are Catholicism and feudalism in their various stages of splendor and decay–the France of crusade and chivalry, of St. Louis and Bayard. On the hither side are freethought, industry, and centralization–the France of Voltaire, Turgot, and Condorcet.
When Louis came to the throne the Thirty Years’ War still wanted six years of its end, and the heat of theological strife was at its intensest glow. When he died the religious temperature had cooled nearly to freezing-point, and a new vegetation of science and positive inquiry was overspreading the world. This amounts to saying that his reign covers the greatest epoch of mental transition through which the human mind has hitherto passed, excepting the transition we are witnessing in the day which now is. We need but recall the names of the writers and thinkers who arose during Louis XIV’s reign, and shed their seminal ideas broadcast upon the air, to realize how full a period it was, both of birth and decay; of the passing away of the old and the uprising of the new forms of thought.
To mention only the greatest; the following are among the chiefs who helped to transform the mental fabric of Europe in the age of Louis XIV: Descartes, Newton, Leibnitz, Locke, Boyle. Under these leaders the first firm irreversible advance was made out of the dim twilight of theology into the clear dawn of positive and demonstrative science.
Inferior to these founders of modern knowledge, but holding a high rank as contributors to the mental activity of the age, were Pascal, Malebranche, Spinoza, and Bayle. The result of their efforts was such a stride forward as has no parallel in the history of the human mind. One of the most curious and significant proofs of it was the spontaneous extinction of the belief in witchcraft among the cultivated classes of Europe, as the English historian of rationalism has so judiciously pointed out. The superstition was not much attacked, and it was vigorously defended, yet it died a natural and quiet death from the changed moral climate of the world.
But the chief interest which the reign of Louis XIV offers to the student of history has yet to be mentioned. It was the great turning-point in the history of the French people. The triumph of the monarchical principle was so complete under him, independence and self-reliance were so effectually crushed, both in localities and individuals, that a permanent bent was given to the national mind–a habit of looking to the government for all action and initiative permanently established.
Before the reign of Louis XIV it was a question which might fairly be considered undecided: whether the country would be able or not, willing or not, to coöperate with its rulers in the work of the government and the reform of abuses. On more than one occasion such coöperation did not seem entirely impossible or improbable. The admirable wisdom and moderation shown by the Tiers-État in the States-General of 1614, the divers efforts of the Parliament of Paris to check extravagant expenditure, the vigorous struggles of the provincial assemblies to preserve some relic of their local liberties, seemed to promise that France would continue to advance under the leadership indeed of the monarchy, yet still retaining in large measure the bright, free, independent spirit of old Gaul, the Gaul of Rabelais, Montaigne, and Joinville.
After the reign of Louis XIV such coöperation of the ruler and the ruled became impossible. The government of France had become a machine depending upon the action of a single spring. Spontaneity in the population at large
was extinct, and whatever there was to do must be done by the central authority. As long as the government could correct abuses it was well; if it ceased to be equal to this task, they must go uncorrected. When at last the reform of secular and gigantic abuses presented itself with imperious urgency, the alternative before the monarchy was either to carry the reform with a high hand or perish in the failure to do so. We know how signal the failure was, and could not help being, under the circumstances; and through having placed the monarchy between these alternatives, it is no paradox to say that Louis XIV was one of the most direct ancestors of the “Great Revolution.”
Nothing but special conditions in the politics both of Europe and of France can explain this singular importance and prominence of Louis XIV’s reign. And we find that both France and Europe were indeed in an exceptional position when he ascended the throne. The Continent of Europe, from one end to the other, was still bleeding and prostrate from the effect of the Thirty Years’ War when the young Louis, in the sixteenth year of his age, was anointed king at Rheims. Although France had suffered terribly in that awful struggle, she had probably suffered less than any of the combatants, unless it be Sweden.
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