Assessing the Views of King Louis XIV as a Model for European Absolutism Directions: Let’s imagine that King Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, gave an interview at the height of his reign, somewhere around the year 1700. Below are quotes from the king, recorded throughout his life, put into a silly, interview format. Read the quotes and then complete the accompanying graphic organizer.
Questioning Interviewer: Your Highness. Your Regency. Your Excellency. Your Solar Deity. A question if you please: What is your philosophy on the toil of daily labor?
King Louis XIV: Well, I must assume you are asking me about how I approach my work day. Well, firstly, I devote six to eight hours daily to work. I desire to be informed about everything, listening to the least of my subjects, knowing at any time the numbers and quality of my troops and the state of my strongholds, unceasingly giving my instructions upon every requirement, dealing directly with ministers from abroad, receiving and reading dispatches, making some of the replies myself, regulating the income and expenditure of my State and keeping my affairs secret as no other man has done before me.
Question: So...if I could be so bold, it appears as if you really like your job?
LXIV: I do not know what other pleasure we would not give up for this one. I feel an enjoyment difficult to express.
Question: We, in the media, like to think of your reign as a “Dictatorship of Work”. Does that title and reference offend you?
LXIV: No. That is why I will often go into minute detail about some matter, without a moment's warning, when a local government minister least expects it, so that he should realize that I might do the same in other contexts at any time.
Question: So, you’re ok with being regarded as a Dictator? Are you afraid that your power will ever be questioned?
LXIV: I have devoted some thought to the position of kings who owe a public accounting for all their actions to all the world and to all centuries. Yet, I am sensitive to reveal all of my “secrets” as I believe kings cannot do so in their own times without violating their greatest interests and revealing the secret of their conduct.
Question: Fair enough. We wouldn’t want you to divulge secrets. But are looking to you to give the rest of us an example for how an “absolutist” should wield power. Let’s start with international conflict. It’s well-known that you and Spain are not always the “best of friends”. How have you subjected King Phillip IV, a Hapsburg, and his son, Phillip V, his great grandson, to your rule?
LXIV: In regards to any threat of disunity or disloyalty, truly they know that I would have taken so just a grievance to the furthest extremes, and even in that evil I would have accounted as good the subject of a legitimate war in which I might acquire honor.
Question: So there is honor in legitimate war? I recall that some months after the conflict with Phillip V, you threatened to send an army into Italy seize the papal state of Avignon. I recall that Alexander VII did not dare even to mention excommunication, whereas his predecessors would not have hesitated. He gave way completely, and you took the opportunity to gain the gratitude of the Dukes of Parma and Modena by having certain lands restored to them.
LXIV: Yes. From then on, Europe knew who was the greatest king in the world.
Question: Let’s move on domestic affairs. I recall a few years ago that France was in the grips of a terrible famine. How did you solve it?
LXIV: I compelled the most prosperous provinces to relieve the others, and private individuals to open their shops and put their provisions on sale at fair prices. I sent out orders in all directions to obtain as much grain as possible by sea from Danzig and other foreign lands; I had it purchased at my own expense and I distributed it free, the greater part to the common people of the towns . . . I had the rest sold to those who could afford it, but at a very modest price, from which the profit, if there was any, went towards the relief of the poor, who by that means derived from the more wealthy a voluntary, natural and tangible assistance.
Question: Wow. Quite an accomplishment. Some might even say that this was “modern socialism”!
LXIV: Call it whatever you want to call it. I also raised money by bonds to the bourgeoisie by paying the same price which [the holder] had paid and deducting from this basic sum whatever he had received in dividends over and above the legitimate interest.
Question: It seems that as a result of this, the state and the towns were relieved of an enormous burden. But was it all successful? You also reduced the direct taxes that were crushing the peasants. The revenue from these taxes fell from fifty-three to thirty-nine million livres, collectors’ commissions were cut, and a special court proceeded ruthlessly against corrupt financiers. The wealth of businessmen, their relations and heirs, was investigated. For the first time since the Duke of Sully and Henry IV, the state finances were put in order, but unlike Henry IV, you did not leave it to a single minister to manage the wealth.
LXIV: I had already subjected myself to signing in person all the warrants that were issued for the smallest expenses of the State. I decided that this was not enough, and chose to take the trouble of writing in a little book which I always kept by me, on one side the monthly income I ought to be receiving, on the other all the sums disbursed on my own orders in that month . . . The weightiest matters are nearly always brought about by means of the most trivial, and what would be baseness in a prince were he acting sheerly out of love of money becomes eminence and loftiness when his ultimate object is the welfare of his subjects, the execution of an infinity of grand designs, and his own splendor and magnificence.
Question: Wow. So, in a sense, you really are the “Sun King”. Just as the Sun shines light over every part of this earth, so do you “shine light” in all aspects of your society. By the way, why did you choose the image of the Sun?
LXIV: I chose to assume the form of the sun, because of the unique quality of the radiance that surrounds it; the light it imparts to the other stars, which compose a kind of court; the fair and equal share of that light that it gives to all the various climates of the world; the good it does in every place, ceaselessly producing joy and activity on every side; the untiring motion in which it yet seems always tranquil; and that constant, invariable course from which it never deviates or diverges - assuredly the most vivid and beautiful image of a great monarch. Those who saw me ruling with a degree of ease, unhampered by the many cares that royalty has to assume, persuaded me to add the globe of the earth, and for a motto Nec Pluribus Impar: by which they meant, agreeably flattering the ambitions of a young king, that, equal in myself to so many things, I would certainly yet be equal to ruling other empires.
Question: Fantastic. Well, your Highness, we have a bit of a surprise here. One of your favorite Court authors, Voltaire, has agreed to join us in this interview. Mr. Voltaire, thank you for joining us. We know that you’re in the process of writing our noble king’s memoires. Do you have anything to add, to further emblazon the legacy of our dear King?
Voltaire: Yes of course. I want to restate what was mentioned at the start of the interview. Louis XIV accustoms himself to labor; He writes the first dispatches himself to his ambassadors. The most important letters are often afterward minuted with his own hand, and there was none written in his name which he did not cause to be read to him.
Question: So, this King is in no way a “figure-head” or “product of the state”. I guess you could say that if absolute rulers want to rule “absolutely”, they must be involved in all aspects of society.
Voltaire: Without a doubt. Almost everything in France was either repaired or created in his time. The reduction of interest on the twentieth denier, on the loans given to the king and particular persons, was a sensible proof of an abundant circulation in 1665. His meaning was, both to enrich and to people France. Marriages in the country were encouraged by an exemption from the tax (taille) during the space of five years, for such as would settle themselves at the age of twenty; and every father of a family who had ten children was exempted all his lifetime, because he gave more to the state by the labor of these than he could possibly have done in paying the taille. This regulation ought to have continued forever, unrepealed.
From 1663 till 1672...the fine cloths, which before had been brought from England and Holland, were manufactured right here in Abbeville. The king advanced to the manufacturer, for each working loom, two thousand livres, besides considerable gratuities. The silk manufactures, when brought to perfection, produced a commerce of above fifty millions currency of that time…
From the year 1666...the carpets of Turkey and Persia were surpassed at Savonnières: the tapestry hangings from Flanders were inferior to those of the Gobelins [Factory]; which vast enclosure was filled at that time with more than eight hundred workmen, and of these three hundred were lodged in it. The best painters had the direction of the work, either from their own designs, or those of the ancient masters of Italy. Besides the tapestry hangings, was made an admirable kind of mosaic, and the art of inlaying was carried to its highest perfection.
Sixteen hundred young girls were employed in lace works, and thirty principal workwomen in this way were brought from Venice, and two hundred out of Flanders, who had thirty-six thousand livres given them for their encouragement.
The manufactory of the cloths of Sedan, and that of the tapestry hangings of Abusson, degenerated and fallen into decay, were re-established. The rich stuffs, in which silk is mixed with gold and silver, were woven at Lyons and Tours, with an industry which had not been seen before. Tin plates, steel, fine delft ware, and Morocco leather, which was always brought from abroad, were made in France.
Paris was then very different from what it is at present; for it wanted light, security, and cleanliness. It was necessary to make provision for the continual cleansing of the streets, for lighting of them, which is done by means of five thousand lamps burning every night, for paving the city quite through, building two new gates, and repairing the old ones, and causing a continual guard on foot and on horseback to keep watch for the security of the citizens.
Louis XIV has a taste for architecture, gardening, and sculpture; and this showed itself in all these to be great and noble...The first necessary work was to finish the Louvre. The king took the whole upon himself, allotting funds for these necessary expenses. In 1667 he created a magistrate solely for taking care of the police. The greater part of the large cities of Europe did not follow these examples till a long time after; and none have equaled them: so that no city is paved like Paris; and Rome itself is not lighted at all.
Question: Amazing. It’s almost as if France had its own version of the Renaissance? I imagine, for a ruler to be truly absolute, he must focus on beautifying the very area over which he or she rules. And speaking of rules, what about “law and order” within the empire?
Voltaire: The king is acquainted with the principal laws; he possesses the spirit of them, and knows how to maintain or mitigate them properly. He often decides the causes of his subjects, not only in the council of the secretaries of state, but in that called the “Conseil des Parties.” The abolition of duels is one of the greatest services which he has done to his country. These combats had been formerly authorized even by the parliament, and by the Church; and though they had been prohibited from the time of Henry IV., yet this fatal custom prevailed more than ever before he abolished them.
Question: A quick point of clarification, if you don’t mind. I find it odd that a king so focused on the pride and tradition of France would outlaw dueling. Isn’t dueling all about defending one’s honor? Perhaps he wasn’t as “war-focused” as we’ve come to believe?
Voltaire: Not at all. He is the legislator both of his people, and of his armies. It is strange, that, before his time, uniforms among the troops was a thing not known. It is he, who in the first year of his administration, ordered that each regiment should be distinguished, either by the color of their clothes, or by different marks; a regulation which was adopted soon after by all nations... The use of the bayonet at the end of the gun is an institution of the king’s. In order to maintain the military discipline, he created inspectors-general, afterward directors, who give an account of the state of the troops; and from their reports it is seen whether or not the commissaries of war have done their duty.
Question: OK. Let’s stay on war for a second. Are there any other “firsts” associated with our King; examples to be followed by other “absolutist” nations?
Voltaire: Before his time, no such strong armies had been seen. His enemies hardly opposed to him any of equal force...He showed what France alone could do; and he had always either great success or great resources. He was the first, who, in time of peace, gave a perfect idea and complete lesson of war. In 1698 he assembled at Compiègne seventy thousand men, where he performed all the operations of a campaign; and this was in order to instruct his three grandsons. But this military academy became a school of luxury. He is quoted as saying, “The king of England and his chancellor may see what my forces are; but they do not see my heart. I regard my honor more than all other things.”
Question: A common theme...the king’s “honor”. It seems as if all absolutist leaders must channel their desires for honor through their country’s success. Any closing remarks?
Voltaire: He does not separate his own glory from the advantage of France, nor look upon the kingdom with the same eye as a lord does upon his lands, from which he draws all he can, that he may live luxuriously. Every king who loves glory, loves the public good... Louis XIV has done more good to his own nation than twenty of his predecessors put together, and yet it falls infinitely short of what might yet be done. The age of Louis XIV will be compared to that of Augustus.