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INTRODUCTION TO THE AGE OF LOUIS XIV. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XII (Age of Louis XIV) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XII.
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INTRODUCTION TO THE AGE OF LOUIS XIV.
It is not only the life of Louis XIV. that we propose to write; we have a greater object in view. We mean to set before posterity not only the portrait of one man’s actions but that of the spirit of mankind in general, in the most enlightened of all ages.
Every age has produced heroes and politicians; all nations have experienced revolutions, and all histories are nearly alike to those who seek only to furnish their memories with facts; but whosoever thinks, or, what is still more rare, whosoever has taste, will find but four ages in the history of the world. These four happy ages are those in which the arts were carried to perfection, and which, by serving as the era of the greatness of the human mind, are examples for posterity.
The first of these ages to which true glory is annexed is that of Philip and Alexander, or that of a Pericles, a Demosthenes, an Aristotle, a Plato, an Apelles, a Phidias, and a Praxiteles; and this honor has been confined within the limits of ancient Greece; the rest of the known world was then in a state of barbarism.
The second age is that of Cæsar and Augustus, distinguished by the names of Lucretius, Cicero, Titus, Livius, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Varro, and Vitruvius.
The third is that which followed the taking of Constantinople by Mahomet II. Then a family of private citizens was seen to do that which the kings of Europe should have undertaken. The Medici invited to Florence the learned, who had been driven out of Greece by the Turks; this was the age of Italy’s glory. The polite arts had already recovered a new life in that country; the Italians honored them with the title of “Vertu,” as the first Greeks had distinguished them by the name of Wisdom. Everything tended toward perfection; a Michelangelo, a Raphael, a Titian, a Tasso, and an Ariosto flourished. The art of engraving was invented; elegant architecture appeared again as admirable as in the most triumphant ages of Rome; and the Gothic barbarism, which had disfigured Europe in every kind of production, was driven from Italy to make way for good taste.
The arts, always transplanted from Greece to Italy, found themselves in a favorable soil, where they instantly produced fruit. France, England, Germany, and Spain aimed in their turn to gather these fruits; but either they could not live in those climates, or else they degenerated very rapidly.
Francis I. encouraged learned men, but such as were merely learned men; he had architects, but he had no Michelangelo, nor Palladio; he endeavored in vain to establish schools for painting; the Italian masters, whom he invited to France, raised no pupils there. Some epigrams and a few loose tales made the whole of our poetry. Rabelais was the only prose writer in vogue in the time of Henry II.
In a word, the Italians were in possession of everything that was beautiful, excepting music, which was then in but a rude state, and experimental philosophy, which was everywhere equally unknown.
Lastly, the fourth age is that known by the name of the age of Louis XIV., and is perhaps that which approaches the nearest to perfection of all the four; enriched by the discoveries of the three former ones, it has done greater things in certain kinds than those three together. All the arts indeed were not carried farther than under the Medici, Augustus, and Alexander; but human reason in general was more improved. In this age we first became acquainted with sound philosophy; it may truly be said that from the last years of Cardinal Richelieu’s administration, till those which followed the death of Louis XIV. there has happened such a general revolution in our arts, our genius, our manners, and even in our government, as will serve as an immortal mark to the true glory of our country. This happy influence has not been confined to France; it has communicated itself to England, where it has stirred up an emulation, which that ingenious and deeply learned nation stood in need of at that time; it has introduced taste into Germany, and the sciences into Russia; it has even re-animated Italy, which was languishing; and Europe is indebted for its politeness and spirit of society to the court of Louis XIV.
Before this time the Italians called all the people on this side of the Alps by the name of Barbarians; it must be owned that the French in some degree deserved this reproachful epithet. Our forefathers joined the romantic gallantry of the Moors with the Gothic rudeness: they had hardly any of the agreeable arts among them, which is a proof that the useful arts were likewise neglected; for when once the things of use are carried to perfection, the transition is quickly made to the elegant and agreeable; and it is not at all astonishing that painting, sculpture, poetry, eloquence, and philosophy should be in a manner unknown to a nation who, though possessed of harbors on the Western Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea, were without ships; and who, though fond of luxury to an excess, were hardly provided with the most common manufactures.
The Jews, the Genoese, the Venetians, the Portuguese, the Flemish, the Dutch, and the English carried on in their turn the trade of France, which was ignorant even of the first principles of commerce. Louis XIII., on his accession to the crown, had not a single ship; the city of Paris contained not quite four hundred thousand men, and had not above four fine public edifices; the other cities of the kingdom resembled those pitiful villages which we see on the other side of the Loire. The nobility, who were all stationed in the country, in dungeons surrounded with deep ditches, oppressed the peasants who cultivated the land. The high roads were almost impassable; the towns were destitute of police, and the government had hardly ever any credit among foreign nations.
We must acknowledge that, ever since the decline of the Carlovingian family, France had languished more or less in this infirm state, merely for want of the benefit of a good administration.
For a state to be powerful, the people must either enjoy a liberty founded upon laws, or the royal authority must be fixed beyond all opposition. In France the people were slaves till the reign of Philip Augustus; the noblemen were tyrants till Louis XI., and the kings, always employed in maintaining their authority against their vassals, had neither leisure to think about the happiness of their subjects nor the power of making them happy.
Louis XI. did a great deal for the regal power, but nothing for the happiness or the glory of the nation. Francis I. gave birth to trade, navigation, and all the arts; but he was too unfortunate to make them take root in the nation during his time, so that they all perished with him. Henry the Great was on the point of raising France from the calamities and barbarisms in which she had been plunged by thirty years of discord, when he was assassinated in his capital in the midst of a people whom he had begun to make happy. The cardinal de Richelieu, busied in humbling the house of Austria, the Calvinists, and the grandees, did not enjoy a power sufficiently undisturbed to reform the nation; but he had at least the honor of beginning this happy work.
Thus, for the space of nine hundred years, our genius has been almost always restrained under a Gothic government, in the midst of divisions and civil wars; destitute of any laws or fixed customs; changing every second century a language which still continued rude and unformed; the nobles were without discipline, and strangers to everything but war and idleness. The clergy lived in disorder and ignorance, and the common people without industry, and stupefied in their wretchedness. The French had no share either in the great discoveries or admirable inventions of other nations: they have no title to the discoveries of painting, gunpowder, glasses, the telescope, the sector, compass, the air-pump, or the true system of the universe; they were making tournaments while the Portuguese and Spaniards were discovering and conquering new countries from the east to the west of the known world. Charles V. had already scattered the treasures of Mexico over Europe, before the subjects of Francis I. had discovered the uncultivated country of Canada; but, by the little which the French did in the beginning of the sixteenth century, we may see what they are capable of when properly conducted.
I propose in this place to show what they have been under Louis XIV., and it is to be wished that the posterity of this monarch, and that of his subjects, equally animated with a happy emulation, may use their endeavors to surpass their ancestors.
It must not be expected to meet here with a minute detail of the wars carried on in this age: this would be an endless task; we are obliged to leave to the compilers of annals the care of collecting, with exactness, all these small facts, which would only serve to divert the attention from the principal object. It is their province to point out the marches and countermarches of armies, and the particular days on which the trenches were opened before towns which were taken and retaken again by force of arms, or ceded and restored by treaties. A thousand circumstances which are interesting to those who live at the time are lost to the eyes of posterity, and disappear, to make room for the great events which have determined the fate of empires. Every transaction is not worthy of being committed to writing. In this history we shall confine ourselves only to what is deserving of the attention of all ages, what paints the genius and manners of mankind, contributes to instruction, and prompts to the love of virtue, of the arts, and of our country.
We have already seen what France and the other kingdoms of Europe were, before the birth of Louis XIV.; we shall now describe the great political and military events of his reign. The interior government of the kingdom, as being an object of more importance to the people, shall be treated of by itself. The private life of Louis XIV. and the particular anecdotes of his court and reign shall hold a principal place in this account. There shall be other articles for the arts and sciences, and for the progress of the human mind in this age. Lastly we shall speak of the Church, which has been so long connected with the government, has sometimes disturbed its peace, and at others been its defence; and which, though instituted for the inculcating of morality, too frequently gives itself up to politics and the impulse of the human passions.