Louis XIV: Apogee of Absolutism
[This article is excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available for download.]
For his part, Louis XIV had no trouble fitting the absolutist role. Even more than Colbert, he totally identified his own private interest as monarch with the interests of the state and with the "public good." Whether or not Louis uttered the famous words often attributed to him, "I am the state," he certainly believed and acted upon them, as did his father Louis XIII before him, who had said, "It is not I who speak, it is my state." Statism logically implies that the state owns all the property in the land, and that all who live on or use such property do so only by the sufferance of the "true" owner. And Louis certainly believed that he was the true owner of all property in France. Hence justice was "my justice," and hence he claimed the inherent right to tax all his subjects at will. And why not indeed, if they were all truly existing in his realm only at his, the owner's, pleasure?
Furthermore, virtually everyone, even the king's opponents, believed that he ruled by divine grace and divine right. Previously, Cardinal Richelieu had called kings the images of God. Early in the Sun King's reign, court propagandist Daniel de Priézac, in his Political Discourses (1652, 1666), called monarchical sovereignty a "great light that never sets." Furthermore, that light is a great divine Mystery hidden from mere mortals. As de Priézac put it,
the source of the majesty of kings is so high, its essence so hidden and its force so divine that it should not seem strange that it should make men reverent without their being permitted to understand it, just as is true with celestial things.2
In contrast to the adulatory worshippers at the shrine of the king's quasi divinity were the Montaigne-type sceptics and pessimists about human nature who fed the stream of panegyrics to Louis XIV in their own way. In a set of three Sceptical Discourses (1664), the cynical Samuel Sorbière, admirer and translator of Thomas Hobbes, decried the tendencies of bestial and corrupt modern man in grabbing from the public trough and having no sense of the common good.
But there is, opined Sorbière, a way out: absolute submission to the commands of the (presumably superhuman) king, so that order is established out of perpetual conflict. In that total submission, the people will find their way back to the instinctual child-like simplicity of the state of nature preceding their entry into civil society. As Professor Keohane writes of Sorbière: "as the subjects of an absolute despot, they would live much the same way, he argues, in serene simplicity, totally dependent on the sovereign for their lives and fortunes, protected against the encroachments of their fellows, happy in their slavery"3
King Louis XIV was able to combine both strands into a worshipful blend of absolutist thought. On the one hand, as he makes clear in his private Memoirs, written for the instruction of his son, his view of human nature (at least of the nature of ordinary mortals) was pessimistic and Machiavellian. Individuals are by nature limited, striving always for their own personal ends, and heedless of the reasons why they should be subordinated to the commands of others. The king, on the other hand, is superhuman, a man who is above all and sees all and is the only one working for the "public" good, which is identical with his own. And the Sun King also took unto himself quasi-divine status; for he, Louis XIV, is like the sun,
the noblest of all … which, by virtue of its uniqueness, by the brilliance that surrounds it, by the light it imparts to the other heavenly bodies that seem to pay it court, by its equal and just distribution of this same light to all the various parts of the world, by the good that it does everywhere, constantly producing life, joy, and activity everywhere, by its perpetual yet always imperceptible movement, by never departing or deviating from its steady and invariable course, assuredly makes a most vivid and a most beautiful image for a great monarch.
Professor Keohane justly comments that Louis XIV "is not content to compare himself to God; he compares in such a manner that it is clear that it is God who is the copy."4
The acme of absolutist thought was provided by Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704), bishop of Meaux, court theologian and political theorist under Louis XIV. The whole state, opined the bishop, "is in the person of the prince.… In him is the will of the whole people." The kings identify with the public good, because "God has raised them to a condition where they no longer have anything to desire for themselves." Absolutism is necessary, asserted Bossuet, because any constitutional limits on the prince raise the dread spectre of "anarchy," than which nothing can be worse. The only limits on the power of the sovereign should be those he imposes on himself in his own interest, which must be identical to the public interest whenever the prince "regards the state as his possession, to be cultivated and passed on to his descendants."
Majesty is the image of the grandeur of God in the prince. God is infinite, God is all. The prince, as prince, is not to be considered an individual man: he is the public person, the whole state is included in him.… Just as all perfection and all virtue are united in God, so all the power of the individuals is brought together in the person of the prince. What grandeur, that a single man can contain so much.5
Catholic political thought had come a long way from the Spanish scholastics.
- 2. Quoted in Nannerl O. Keohane, Philosophy and the State in France: The Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 241.
- 3. Ibid., p. 244.
- 4. Passage from the Memoirs quoted in Keohane, op. cit., note 2, p. 251.
- 5. Quoted in Keohane, op. cit., note 2, p. 252.