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Thursday, April 14, 2016

“Louis XIV: A Royal Life”, by Olivier Bernier

373 pages, Doubleday, ISBN-13: 978-0385197854

It might be said that, generally speaking, absolutist systems tend to produce executives who are unsuited to wield the plenitude of power that system bestows upon them; for the most part they grow up in sheltered, luxurious, ritual-intensive circumstances, and as a result this is pretty much all they know about the world. They might be timid, violent, cruel, fanatical, bewildered, indifferent to politics, or for any other number of reasons unsuited for command. One thinks of Claudius and Nero, Charles I and II, Nicholas II, Louis XV, XVI, and XVIII, etc. etc. etc. Louis XIV, however, who seems to have been one of those rare individuals, like Constantine or Fredrick the Great, who was both temperamentally suited and intellectually equipped to make an absolutist system work, and Olivier Bernier in Louis XIV: A Royal Life shows us just how this happened. To start with, the Sun King more often than not managed to choose wise ministers, knew how to delegate, and knew how to play the long game in politics. He unified the French state (kinda), solidified the power of the monarchy, and brought the nobility to heel in his great palace at Versailles where he forced them to squander their fortunes on lavish living and tempted them to expend their best energies in petty rivalries with one another rather than by challenging Louis.

However, like many other absolutist rulers, the universal deference shown to him seems to have given him some unrealistic notions about the scope of his own power. Constantine reasoned that, having conquered an Empire, he could surely get a few quarreling bishops to agree on minor points of doctrine – only to frustrated time and again by their petty quarreling. Fredrick the Great pursued aggressive wars of expansion which eventually provoked the ire of mighty Russia against the small and isolated state of Prussia (he was only saved from utter ruin by the timely death of the Russian Czarina Elizabeth). Louis, for his part, squandered the wealth of the nation in the war of Spanish succession, which failed in its object of uniting the French and Spanish monarchies, and cost the French important overseas colonies. He also persecuted the Protestants who had put the house of Bourbon on the throne. Since Protestantism was mostly a phenomena of the towns, of merchants and industrialists, this meant the senseless waste of human resources in the name of religious intolerance. Toward the end of his life he was worn out, disillusioned, and utterly isolated by power.

Bernier, by relying heavily on primary sources (and so showing he has a good feel for 17th Century France), vividly displays just how Louis XIV came to so completely dominate his epoch. For generations French became the language of culture and diplomacy throughout Europe, and every potentate of any pretension whatever felt compelled to build a miniature replica of Versailles. When Louis began to go bald, he started wearing wigs – so for the next century all respectable Europeans did so, as well. All together these developments amply illustrate the awesome prestige that this man and his regime commanded in his own time. An admirable book presenting Louis XIV as intelligent and hardworking, sincerely interested in the welfare of his people and basically moderate in his foreign policy.

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