Front Page Titles (by Subject) LECTURE XIV.: THE FRENCH REVOLUTION. * - General History of Civilization in Europe
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
LECTURE XIV.: THE FRENCH REVOLUTION. * - François Guizot, General History of Civilization in Europe 
General History of Civilization in Europe by François Pierre Guillaume Guizot, edited, with critical and supplementary notes, by George Wells Knight (New York: D Appleton and Co., 1896).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.*
I endeavored, at our last meeting, to ascertain the true character and political object of the English revolution. We have seen that it was the first collision of the two great facts to which, in the course of the sixteenth century, all the civilization of primitive Europe tended,—monarchy on the one hand, and free inquiry on the other. These two powers came to blows, if I may use the expression, for the first time in England. It has been attempted, from this circumstance, to reduce a radical difference between the social state of England and that of the Continent; it has been contended that no comparison could be made between countries so differently situated; and it has been affirmed, that the English people had lived in a sort of moral separation from the rest of Europe, analogous to its physical isolation.
It is true that between the civilization of England, and that of the continental states, there has been a material difference which it is important that we should rightly understand. You have already had a glimpse of it in the course of these lectures. The development of the different principles, the different elements of society, took place, in some measure, at the same time, at least much more simultaneously than upon the Continent. When I endeavored to determine the complexion of European civilization as compared with the civilization of ancient and Asiatic nations, I showed that the former was varied, rich, and complex, and that it had never fallen under the influence of any exclusive principle;* that, in it, the different elements of the social state had combined, contended with, and modified each other, and had continually been obliged to come to an accommodation, and to subsist together. This fact, which forms the general character of European civilization, has in an especial manner been that of the civilization of England; it is in that country that it has appeared most evidently and uninterruptedly; it is there that the civil and religious orders, aristocracy, democracy, monarchy, local and central institutions, moral and political development, have proceeded and grown up together, if not with equal rapidity, at least but at a little distance from each other. Under the reign of the Tudors, for example, in the midst of the most remarkable progress of pure monarchy, we have seen the democratic principle, the popular power, make its way and gain strength almost at the same time. The revolution of the seventeenth century broke out; it was at the same time religious and political. The feudal aristocracy appeared in it in a very enfeebled state, and with all the symptoms of decay; it was, however, still in a condition to preserve its place in this revolution, and to have some share in its results. The same thing has been the case in the whole course of English history; no ancient element has ever entirely perished, nor any new element gained a total ascendancy; no particular principle has ever obtained an exclusive influence. There has always been a simultaneous development of the different forces, and a sort of negotiation or compromise between their pretensions and interests.
On the Continent the march of civilization had been less complex and complete. The different elements of society, the civil and religious orders, monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, have developed themselves, not together, and abreast, as it were, but successively.* Every principle, every system, has in some measure had its turn. One age, for example, has belonged, I shall not say exclusively, but with a decided predominance, to the feudal aristocracy; another to the principle of monarchy; another to the principle of democracy. Compare the middle ages in France, with the middle ages in England; the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries of our history with the corresponding centuries on the other side of the channel; you will find in France, at that epoch, feudalism in a state of almost absolute sovereignty, while monarchy and the democratic principle scarcely had an existence.† But turn to England, and you will find, that although the feudal aristocracy greatly predominated, monarchy and democracy possessed, at the same time, strength and importance. Monarchy triumphed in England under Elizabeth, as in France under Louis XIV; but what precautions it was constrained to take! how many restrictions, sometimes aristocratic, sometimes democratic, it was obliged to submit to! In England every system, every principle, has had its time of strength and success; but never so completely and exclusively as on the Continent:‡ the conqueror has always been constrained to tolerate the presence of his rivals, and to leave them a certain share of influence.
To this difference in the march of these two civilizations there are attached advantages and inconveniences which are apparent in the history of the two countries. There is no doubt, for example, that the simultaneous development of the different social elements has greatly contributed to make England arrive more quickly than any of the continental states, at the end and aim of all society, that is to say, the establishment of a government at once regular and free. It is the very nature of a government to respect all the interests, all the powers of the state, to conciliate them and make them live and prosper in common: now such was, beforehand, and by the concurrence of a multitude of causes, the despotism and mutual relation of the different elements of English society; and, therefore, a general and somewhat regular government had the less difficulty in establishing itself. In like manner the essence of liberty is the simultaneous manifestation and action of every interest, every kind of right, every force, every social element. England, therefore, had made a nearer approach to liberty than most other states. From the same causes, national good sense and intelligence of public affairs must have formed themselves more quickly than elsewhere; political good sense consists in understanding and appreciating every fact, and in assigning to each its proper part; in England it has been a necessary consequence of the state of society, a natural result of the course of civilization.
In the states of the Continent, on the contrary, every system, every principle, having had its turn, and having had a more complete and exclusive ascendency, the development took place on a larger scale, and with more striking circumstances. Monarchy and feudal aristocracy, for example, appeared on the continental stage with more boldness, extent, and freedom. Every political experiment, so to speak, was broader and more complete.* The result was, that political ideas—I speak of general ideas, and not of good sense applied to the conduct of affairs; that political ideas and doctrines took a greater elevation, and displayed themselves with much greater rational vigor. Every system having, in some sort, presented itself singly, and having remained a long time on the stage people could contemplate it in its general aspect, ascend to its first principles, pursue it into its remotest consequences, and lay bare its entire theory. Whoever observes with some degree of attention the genius of the English nation, will be struck with a double fact; on the one hand, its steady good sense and practical ability; on the other, its want of general ideas, and of elevation of thought upon theoretical questions. Whether we open an English work on history, jurisprudence, or any other subject, we rarely find the great and fundamental reason of things.† In every subject, and especially in the political sciences, pure philosophical doctrines—science properly so called—have prospered much more on the Continent, than in England; their flights, at least, have been bolder and more vigorous. Indeed, it cannot be doubted that the different character of the development of civilization in the two countries has greatly contributed to this result.
At all events, whatever may be thought of the inconveniences or advantages which have been produced by this difference, it is a real and incontestable fact, and that which most essentially distinguishes England from the Continent. But, though the different principles, the different social elements, have developed themselves more simultaneously there, and more successively in France, it does not follow that, at bottom, the road and the goal have not been the same. Considered generally, the Continent and England have gone through the same great phases of civilization; events have followed the same course; similar causes have led to similar effects. You may have convinced yourselves of this by the view I have given you of civilization down to the sixteenth century; you will remark it no less in studying the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The development of free inquiry, and that of pure monarchy, almost simultaneous in England, were accomplished on the Continent at pretty long intervals; but they were accomplished; and these two powers, after having successively exercised a decided predominance, came also into collision. The general march of society, then, on the whole, has been the same; and, though the differences are real, the resemblance is still greater. A rapid sketch of modern times will leave you no doubt on this subject.
The moment we cast our eyes on the history of Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we cannot fail to perceive that France marches at the head of European civilization. At the beginning of this course, I strongly affirmed this fact, and endeavored to point out its cause. We shall now find it more strikingly displayed than it has ever been before.
The principle of pure and absolute monarchy had predominated in Spain, under Charles V and Philip II, before its development in France under Louis XIV. In like manner the principle of free inquiry had reigned in England in the seventeenth century, before its development in France in the eighteenth. Pure monarchy, however, did not go forth from Spain, nor free inquiry from England,* to make the conquest of Europe. The two principles or systems remained, in some sort, confined within the countries in which they sprang up. They required to pass through France to extend their dominion; pure monarchy and liberty of inquiry were compelled to become French before they could become European.† That communicative character of French civilization, that social genius of France, which has displayed itself at every period, was peculiarly conspicuous at the period which now engages our attention. I shall not dwell upon this fact; it has been expounded to you, with equal force of argument and brilliancy, in the lectures in which your attention has been directed to the influence of the literature and philosophy of France in the eighteenth century.‡ You have seen how the philosophy of France had, in regard to liberty, more influence on Europe than the liberty of England. You have seen how French civilization showed itself much more active and contagious than that of any other country. I have no occasion, therefore, to dwell upon the details of this fact; I avail myself of it only in order to make it my ground for using French civilization as the picture of modern European civilization. There were, no doubt, between French civilization at this period, and that of the other states of Europe, differences on which I ought to lay great stress, if it were my intention at present to enter fully into this subject; but I must proceed so rapidly that I am obliged to pass over whole nations, and whole ages. I think it better to confine your attention to the course of French civilization, as being an image, though an imperfect one, of the general course of things in Europe.
The influence of France in Europe, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, appears under very different aspects. In the first of these centuries, it was the French government which acted upon Europe, and took the lead in the march of general civilization. In the second, it was no longer to the French government, but to the French society, to France herself, that the preponderance belonged. It was at first Louis XIV and his court, and then France herself, and her public opinion, that attracted the attention, and swayed the minds of the rest of Europe. There were, in the seventeenth century, nations, who, as such, made a more prominent appearance on the stage, and took a greater share in the course of events, than the French nation. Thus, during the Thirty Years’ War, the German nation, and during the revolution in England, the English nation played, within their respective spheres, a much greater part than the French nation, at that period, played within theirs. In the eighteenth century, in like manner, there were stronger, more respected, and more formidable governments than that of France. There is no doubt that Frederick II and Maria Theresa had more activity and weight in Europe than Louis XV. Still, at both of these periods, France was at the head of European civilization, first through her government, and afterwards through herself; at one time through the political action of her rulers, at another through her own intellectual development. To understand thoroughly the predominant influence on the course of civilization in France, and consequently in Europe, we must therefore study, in the seventeenth century, the French government, and in the eighteenth, the French nation. We must change our ground and our objects of view, according as time changes the scene and the actors.
Whenever the government of Louis XIV is spoken of, whenever we attempt to appreciate the causes of his power and influence in Europe, we have little to consider beyond his splendor, his conquests, his magnificence, and the literary glory of his time. We must resort to exterior causes in order to account for the preponderance of the French government in Europe.
But this preponderance, in my opinion, was derived from causes more deeply seated, from motives of a more serious kind. We must not believe that it was entirely by means of victories, festivals, or even master-pieces of genius, that Louis XIV and his government played, at that period, the part which no one can deny them.
Many of you may remember, and all of you have heard of the effect which, twenty-nine years ago, was produced by the Consular government in France, and the state in which it found our country.* Abroad, foreign invasion impending, and continual disasters in our armies; at home, the elements of government and society in a state of dissolution; no revenues, no public order; in short, a people beaten, humbled, and disorganized—such was France at the accession of the consular government. Who is there that does not remember the prodigious and successful activity of that government, an activity which, in a short time, secured the independence of our territory, revived our national honor, reorganized the administration of government, remodelled our legislation, in short, gave society, as it were, a new life under the hand of power?
Well—the government of Louis XIV, when it began, did something of the same kind for France; with great differences of times, of proceedings, and of forms, it prosecuted and attained very nearly the same results.
Remember the state into which France had fallen after the government of Cardinal Richelieu, and during the minority of Louis XIV:* the Spanish armies always on the frontiers, and sometimes in the interior; continual danger of invasion; internal dissensions carried to the extremity of civil war, the government weak, and decried both at home and abroad. There never was a more miserable policy, more despised in Europe, or more powerless in France, than that of Cardinal Mazarin. In a word, society was in a state, less violent perhaps, but very analogous to ours before the 18th of Brumaire. It was from that state that the government of Louis XIV delivered France. His earliest victories had the effect of the victory of Marengo;* they secured the French territory and revived the national honor. I am going to consider this government under its various aspects, in its wars, its foreign relations, its administration, and its legislation; and you will see, I believe, that the comparison which I speak of, and to which I do not wish to attach a puerile importance (for I care very little about historical comparisons), you will see, I say, that this comparison has a real foundation, and that I am fully justified in making it.
I shall first speak of the wars of Louis XIV. European wars were originally (as you know, and as I have several times had occasion to remind you) great popular movements; impelled by want, by some fancy, or any other cause, whole populations, sometimes numerous, sometimes consisting of mere bands, passed from one territory to another. This was the general character of European wars, till after the Crusades, at the end of the thirteenth century.
After this another kind of war arose, but almost equally different from the wars of modern times: these were distant wars, undertaken, not by nations, but by their governing powers, who went, at the head of their armies, to seek, at a distance, states and adventures. They quitted their country, abandoned their own territory, and penetrated, some into Germany, others into Italy, and others into Africa, with no other motive save their individual fancy. Almost all the wars of the fifteenth, and even a part of the sixteenth century, are of this character. What interest—and I do not speak of a legitimate interest—but what motive had France for wishing that Charles VIII should possess the kingdom of Naples?* It was evidently a war dictated by no political considerations; the king thought he had personal claims on the kingdom of Naples; and, for this personal object, to satisfy his own personal desire, he undertook the conquest of a distant country, which was by no means adapted to the territorial conveniences of his kingdom, but which, on the contrary, only endangered his power abroad and his repose at home. Such, again, was the case with regard to the expedition of Charles V into Africa.† The last war of this kind was the expedition of Charles XII against Russia.
The wars of Louis XIV were not of this description; they were the wars of a regular government—a government fixed in the center of its dominions, endeavoring to extend its conquests around, to increase or consolidate its territory; in short, they were political wars. They may have been just or unjust, they may have cost France too dear;—they may be objected to on many grounds—on the score of morality or excess; but, in fact, they were of a much more rational character than the wars which preceded them; they were no longer fanciful adventures; they were dictated by serious motives; their objects were to reach some natural boundary, some population who spoke the same language, and might be annexed to the kingdom, some point of defence against a neighboring power. Personal ambition, no doubt, had a share in them; but examine the wars of Louis XIV, one after the other, especially those of the early part of his reign, and you will find that their motives were really political; you will see that they were conceived with a view to the power and safety of France.
This fact has been proved by results. France, at the present day, in many respects, is what the wars of Louis XIV made her. The provinces which he conquered, Franche-Comté, Flanders, and Alsace, have remained incorporated with France.* There are rational conquests as well as foolish ones: those of Louis XIV were rational; his enterprises have not that unreasonable, capricious character, till then so general; their policy was able, if not always just and prudent.
If I pass from the wars of Louis XIV to his relations with foreign states, to his diplomacy properly so called, I find an analogous result. I have already spoken of the origin of diplomacy at the end of the fifteenth century. I have endeavored to show how the mutual relations of governments and states, previously accidental, rare, and transient, had at that period become more regular and permanent, how they had assumed a character of great public interest; how, in short, at the end of the fifteenth and during the first half of the sixteenth century, diplomacy had begun to perform a part of immense importance in the course of events. Still, however, it was not till the seventeenth century that it became really systematic; before then, it had not brought about long alliances, great combinations, and especially combinations of a durable nature, directed by fixed principles, with a steady object, and with that spirit of consistency which forms the true character of established governments. During the course of the religious revolution, the foreign relations of states had been almost completely under the influence of religious interests; the Protestant and Catholic leagues had divided Europe between them. It was in the seventeenth century, under the influence of the government of Louis XIV, that diplomacy changed its character. On the one hand, it got rid of the exclusive influence of the religious principle; alliances and political combinations took place from other considerations. At the same time it became much more systematic and regular, and was always directed towards a certain object, according to permanent principles. The regular birth of the system of the balance of power in Europe, took place at this period. It was under the government of Louis XIV that this system, with all the considerations attached to it, really took possession of the politics of Europe. When we inquire what was, on this subject, the general idea, or ruling principle of the policy of Louis XIV, the following seems to be the result.
I have spoken of the great struggle which took place in Europe between the pure monarchy of Louis XIV, pretending to establish itself as the universal system of monarchy, and civil and religious liberty, and the independence of states, under the command of the Prince of Orange, William III.* You have seen that the great European fact, at that epoch, was the division of the powers of Europe under these two banners. But this fact was not then understood as I now explain it; it was hidden, and unknown even to those by whom it was accomplished. The repression of the system of pure monarchy, and the consecration of civil and religious liberty, was necessarily, at bottom, the result of the resistance of Holland and her allies to Louis XIV; but the question between absolute power and liberty was not then thus absolutely laid down. It has been frequently said that the propagation of absolute power was the ruling principle in the diplomacy of Louis XIV. I do not think so. It was at a late period, and in his old age, that this consideration assumed a great part in his policy. The power of France, her preponderance in Europe, the depression of rival powers,—in short, the political interest and strength of the state, was the object which Louis XIV always had in view, whether he was contending against Spain, the Emperor of Germany, or England. He was much less actuated by a wish for the propagation of absolute power than by a desire for the aggrandizement of France and his own government. Among many other proofs of this, there is one which emanates from Louis XIV himself. We find in his Memoirs, for the year 1666, if I remember rightly, a note conceived nearly in these terms:—
“This morning I had a conversation with Mr. Sidney,* an English gentleman, who spoke to me of the possibility of reviving the republican party in England. Mr. Sidney asked me for £400,000 for this purpose. I told him I could not give him more than £200,000. He prevailed on me to send to Switzerland for another English gentleman, called Mr. Ludlow,† that I might converse with him upon the same subject.”
We find accordingly, in Ludlow’s Memoirs, about the same date, a paragraph to the following import:—
“I have received from the French government an invitation to go to Paris, to have some discussion on the affairs of my country; but I distrust this government.”
And, in fact, Ludlow did remain in Switzerland.
You see that the object of Louis XIV at that time was to weaken the royal power of England. He fomented internal dissensions, he labored to revive the republican party, in order to hinder Charles II from becoming too powerful in his own country. In the course of Barillon’s embassy to England,* the same fact is constantly apparent. As often as the authority of Charles II seems to be gaining the ascendancy, and the national party on the point of being overpowered, the French ambassador turns his influence in that direction, gives money to the leaders of the opposition, and, in short, contends against absolute power, as soon as that becomes the means of weakening a rival of France. Whenever we attentively examine the conduct of foreign relations under Louis XIV, this is the fact which we are struck with.
We are also surprised at the capacity and ability of the French diplomacy at this period. The names of Torcy, d’Avaux, and de Bonrepos, are known to all well-informed persons. When we compare the despatches, the memorials, the skill, the management of these counsellors of Louis XIV, with those of the Spanish, Portuguese, and German negotiators, we are struck with the superiority of the French ministers; not only with their serious activity and application to business, but with their freedom of thought. These courtiers of an absolute king judge of foreign events, of parties, of the demands for freedom, and of popular revolutions, much more soundly than the greater part of the English themselves of that period. There is no diplomacy in Europe in the seventeenth century which appears equal to the diplomacy of France, except perhaps that of Holland. The ministers of John De Witt and William of Orange, those illustrious leaders of the party of civil and religious liberty, are the only ones who appear to have been in a condition to contend with the servants of the great absolute king.
You see, that, whether we consider the wars of Louis XIV, or his diplomatic relations, we arrive at the same results. We can easily conceive how a government which conducted in such a manner its wars and negotiations, must have acquired great solidity in Europe, and assumed not only a formidable, but an able and imposing aspect.
Let us now turn our eyes to the interior of France, and the administration and legislation of Louis XIV; we shall everywhere find new explanations of the strength and splendor of his government.
It is difficult to determine precisely what ought to be understood by administration in the government of a state. Still, when we endeavor to come to a distinct understanding on this subject, we acknowledge, I believe, that, under the most general point of view, administration consists in an assemblage of means destined to transmit, as speedily and surely as possible, the will of the central power into all departments of society, and, under the same conditions, to make the powers of society return to the central power, either in men or money. This, if I am not mistaken, is the true object, the prevailing character, of administration. From this we may perceive that, in times where it is especially necessary to establish union and order in society, administration is the great means of accomplishing it,—of bringing together, cementing, and uniting scattered and incoherent elements. Such, in fact, was the work of the administration of Louis XIV. Till his time, nothing had been more difficult, in France as well as in the rest of Europe, than to cause the action of the central power to penetrate into all the parts of society, and to concentrate into the heart of the central power the means of strength possessed by the society at large. This was the object of Louis’s endeavors, and he succeeded in it to a certain extent, incomparably better, at least, than preceding governments had done. I cannot enter into any details; but take a survey of every kind of public service, the taxes, the highways, industry, the military administration, and the various establishments which belong to any branch of administration whatever; there is hardly any of them which you will not find to have either been originated, developed, or greatly meliorated, under the reign of Louis XIV.* It was as administrators that the greatest men of his time, such as Colbert and Louvois,† displayed their genius and exercised their ministerial functions; it was thus that his government acquired a comprehensiveness, a decision, and a consistency, which were wanting in all the European governments around him.
The same fact holds with respect to this government, as regards its legislative capacity. I will again refer to the comparison I made in the outset to the legislative activity of the Consular government, and its prodigious labor in revising and remodelling the laws. A labor of the same kind was undertaken under Louis XIV. The great ordinances which he passed and promulgated,—the ordinances on the criminal law, on forms of procedure, on commerce, on the navy, on waters and forests,—are real codes of law, which were constructed in the same manner as our codes, having been discussed in the Council of State, sometimes under the presidency of Lamoignon. There are men whose glory it is to have taken a share in this labor and those discussions,—M. Pussort, for example. If we had to consider it simply in itself, we should have a great deal to say against the legislation of Louis XIV. It is full of faults which are now evident, and which nobody can dispute; it was not conceived in the spirit of justice and true liberty, but with a view to public order, and to give regularity and stability to the laws. But even that alone was a great progress; and it cannot be doubted that the legislative acts of Louis XIV, very superior to the previous state of legislation, powerfully contributed to the advancement of French society in the career of civilization.*
Under whatever point of view, then, we regard this government, we can at once discover the means of its strength and influence. It was, in truth, the first government which presented itself to the eyes of Europe as a power sure of its position, which had not to dispute for its existence with domestic enemies, which was tranquil in regard to its territory and its people, and had nothing to think of but the care of governing. Till then, all the European governments had been incessantly plunged into wars which deprived them of security as well as leisure, or so assailed by parties and enemies at home, that they passed their time in fighting for their existence. The government of Louis XIV appeared to be the first that was engaged solely in managing its affairs like a power at once definitive and progressive, which was not afraid of making innovations, because it reckoned upon the future. In fact, few governents have been more given to innovation. Compare it with a government of the same nature, with the pure monarchy of Philip II in Spain, which was more absolute than that of Louis XIV, and yet was less regular and tranquil. How did Philip II succeed in establishing absolute power in Spain? By stifling every kind of activity in the country; by refusing his sanction to every kind of improvement, and thus rendering the state of Spain completely stationary.* The government of Louis XIV, on the contrary, was active in every kind of innovation, and favorable to the progress of letters, arts, riches—favorable, in a word, to civilization. These were the true causes of its preponderance in Europe—a preponderance so great, that it was, on the Continent, during the seventeenth century, not only for sovereigns, but even for nations, the type and model of governments.
It is frequently asked, and it is impossible to avoid asking, how a power so splendid and well established—to judge from the circumstances I have pointed out to you, should have fallen so quickly into a state of decay? how, after having played so great a part in Europe, it became in the following century so inconsiderable, so weak, and so little respected? The fact is undeniable: in the seventeenth century, the French government stood at the head of European civilization. In the eighteenth century it disappeared; it was the society of France, separated from its government, and often in a hostile position towards it, which led the way and guided the progress of the European world.
It is here that we discover the incorrigible vice and infallible effect of absolute power. I shall not enter into any detail respecting the faults of the government of Louis XIV; and there were great ones. I shall not speak either of the war of the succession in Spain,* or the revocation of the edict of Nantes, or the excessive expenditure, or many other fatal measures which affected its character. I will take the merits of the government, such as I have described them. I will admit that, probably, there never was an absolute power more completely acknowledged by its age and nation, or which has rendered more real services to the civilization of its country as well as to Europe in general. It followed, indeed, from the single circumstance, that this government had no other principle than absolute power, and rested entirely on this basis, that its decay was so sudden and deserved. What was essentially wanting to France in Louis XIV’s time were institutions, political powers, which were independent and self-existent, capable, in short, of spontaneous action and resistance. The ancient French institutions, if they deserve the name, no longer subsisted; Louis XIV completed their destruction. He took care not to replace them by new institutions; they would have constrained him, and he did not choose constraint. The will and action of the central power were all that appeared with splendor at that epoch. The government of Louis XIV is a great fact, a powerful and brilliant fact, but it was built upon sand. Free institutions are a guarantee, not only for the prudence of governments, but also for their stability. No system can endure otherwise than by institutions. Wherever absolute power has been permanent, it has been based upon, and supported by, real institutions; sometimes by the division of society into castes, distinctly separated, and sometimes by a system of religious institutions. Under the reign of Louis XIV, power, as well as liberty, needed institutions. There was nothing in France, at that time, to protect either the country from the illegitimate action of the government, or the government itself against the inevitable action of time. Thus, we behold the government assisting its own decay. It was not Louis XIV only who grew old, and became feeble, at the end of his reign; it was the whole system of absolute power. Pure monarchy was as much worn out in 1712, as the monarch himself. And the evil was so much the more serious, in that Louis XIV had destroyed political habits as well as political institutions. There can be no political habits without independence. He only who feels that he is strong in himself, is always capable either of serving the ruling power, or of contending with it. Energetic characters disappear along with independent situations, and a free and high spirit arises from the security of rights.
We may, then, describe in the following terms the state in which the French nation and the power of the government were left by Louis XIV: in society there was a great development of wealth, strength, and intellectual activity of every kind; and, along with this progressive society, there was a government essentially stationary, and without means to adapt itself to the movement of the people; devoted, after half a century of great splendor, to immobility and weakness, and already fallen, even in the lifetime of its founder, into a decay almost resembling dissolution. Such was the situation of France at the expiration of the seventeenth century, and which impressed upon the subsequent period so different a direction and character.
It is hardly necessary for me to remark that a great movement of the human mind, that a spirit of free inquiry, was the predominant feature, the essential fact of the eighteenth century. You have already heard from this chair a great deal on this topic; you have already heard this momentous period characterized, by the voices of a philosophic orator and an eloquent philosopher.* I cannot pretend, in the small space of time which remains to me, to follow all the phases of the great revolution which was then accomplished; neither, however, can I leave you without calling your attention to some of its features which perhaps have been too little remarked.
The first, which occurs to me in the outset, and which, indeed, I have already pointed out, is the almost entire disappearance (so to speak) of the government in the course of the eighteenth century, and the appearance of the human mind as the principal and almost sole actor. Excepting in what concerned foreign relations, under the ministry of the Duke de Choiseul, and in some great concessions made to the general bent of the public mind, in the American war, for example;—excepting, I say, in some events of this kind, there perhaps never was a government so inactive, apathetic, and inert, as the French government of that time. In place of the ambitious and active government of Louis XIV, which was everywhere, and at the head of everything, you have a power whose only endeavor, so much did it tremble for its own safety, was to slink from public view—to hide itself from danger. It was the nation which, by its intellectual movement, interfered with everything, and alone possessed moral authority, the only real authority.
A second characteristic which strikes me in the state of the human mind in the eighteenth century, is the universality of the spirit of free inquiry. Till then, and particularly in the sixteenth century, free inquiry had been exercised in a very limited field; its object had been sometimes religious questions, and sometimes religious and political questions conjoined; but its pretensions did not extend much further. In the eighteenth century, on the contrary, free inquiry became universal in its character and objects: religion, politics, pure philosophy, man and society, moral and physical science—everything became, at once, the subject of study, doubt, and system; the ancient sciences were overturned; new sciences sprang up. It was a movement which proceeded in every direction, though emanating from one and the same impulse.
This movement, moreover, had one peculiarity, which perhaps can be met with at no other time in the history of the world; that of being purely speculative. Until that time, in all great human revolutions, action had promptly mingled itself with speculation. Thus, in the sixteenth century, the religious revolution had begun by ideas and discussions purely intellectual;* but it had, almost immediately, led to events. The leaders of the intellectual parties had very speedily become leaders of political parties; the realities of life had mingled with the workings of the intellect. The same thing had been the case, in the seventeenth century, in the English revolution. In France, in the eighteenth century, we see the human mind exercising itself upon all subjects,—upon ideas which, from their connection with the real interests of life, necessarily had the most prompt and powerful influence upon events. And yet the promoters of, and partakers in, these great discussions, continued to be strangers to every kind of practical activity, pure speculators, who observed, judged, and spoke without ever proceeding to practice.* There never was a period in which the government of facts, and external realities, was so completely distinct from the government of thought. The separation of spiritual from temporal affairs has never been real in Europe, except in the eighteenth century. For the first time, perhaps, the spirtual world developed itself quite separately from the temporal world; a fact of the greatest importance, and which had a great influence on the course of events. It gave a singular character of pride and inexperience to the mode of thinking of the time: philosophy was never more ambitious of governing the world, and never more completely failed in its object. This necessarily led to results; the intellectual movement necessarily gave, at last, an impulse to external events; and, as they had been totally separated, their meeting was so much the more difficult, and their collision so much the more violent.
We can hardly now be surprised at another character of the human mind at this epoch, I mean its extreme boldness. Prior to this, its greatest activity had always been restrained by certain barriers; man had lived in the midst of facts, some of which inspired him with caution, and repressed, to a certain degree, his tendency to movement. In the eighteenth century, I should really be at a loss to say what external facts were respected by the human mind, or exercised any influence over it; it entertained nothing but hatred or contempt for the whole social system; it considered itself called upon to reform all things; it looked upon itself as a sort of creator; institutions, opinions, manners, society, even man himself,—all seemed to require to be remodelled, and human reason undertook the task. Whenever, before, had the human mind displayed such daring boldness?
Such, then, was the power which, in the course of the eighteenth century, was confronted with what remained of the government of Louis XIV. It is clear to us all that a collision between these two unequal forces was unavoidable. The leading fact of the English revolution, the struggle between free inquiry and pure monarchy, was therefore sure to be repeated in France. The differences between the two cases, undoubtedly, were great, and necessarily perpetuated themselves in the results of each; but, at bottom, the general situation of both was similar, and the event itself must be explained in the same manner.
I by no means intend to exhibit the infinite consequences of this collision in France. I am drawing towards the close of this course of lectures, and must hasten to conclude. I wish, however, before leaving you, to call your attention to the gravest, and, in my opinion, the most instructive fact which this great spectacle has revealed to us. It is the danger, the evil, the insurmountable vice of absolute power, wheresoever it may exist, whatsoever name it may bear, and for whatever object it may be exercised. We have seen that the government of Louis XIV perished almost from this single cause. The power which succeeded it, the human mind, the real sovereign of the eighteenth century, underwent the same fate; in its turn, it possessed almost absolute power; in its turn its confidence in itself became excessive. Its movement was noble, good, and useful; and, were it necessary for me to give a general opinion on the subject, I should readily say that the eighteenth century appears to me one of the grandest epochs in the history of the world, that perhaps which has done the greatest service to mankind, and has produced the greatest and most general improvement. If I were called upon to pass judgment upon its ministry (if I may use such an expression), I should pronounce sentence in its favor. It is not the less true, however, that the absolute power exercised at this period by the human mind corrupted it, and that it entertained an illegitimate aversion to the subsisting state of things, and to all opinions which differed from the prevailing one;—an aversion which led to error and tyranny. The proportion of error and tyranny, indeed, which mingled itself in the triumph of human reason at the end of the century—a proportion, the greatness of which cannot be dissembled, and which ought to be exposed instead of being passed over—this infusion of error and tyranny, I say, was a consequence of the delusion into which the human mind was led at that period by the extent of its power. It is the duty, and will be, I believe, the peculiar event of our time, to acknowledge that all power, whether intellectual or temporal, whether belonging to governments or people, to philosophers or ministers, in whatever cause it may be exercised—that all human power, I say, bears within itself a natural vice, a principle of feebleness and abuse, which renders it necessary that it should be limited. Now, there is nothing but the general freedom of every right, interest, and opinion, the free manifestation and legal existence of all these forces—there is nothing, I say, but a system which ensures all this, can restrain every particular force or power within its legitimate bounds, and prevent it from encroaching on the others, so as to produce the real and beneficial subsistence of free inquiry. For us, this is the great result, the great moral of the struggle which took place at the close of the eighteenth century, between what may be called temporal absolute power and spiritual absolute power.
I have now arrived at the end of the task which I undertook. You will remember, that, in beginning this course, I stated that my object was to give you a general view of the development of European civilization, from the fall of the Roman empire to the present time. I have passed very rapidly over this long career; so rapidly that it has been quite out of my power even to touch upon everything of importance, or to bring proofs of those facts to which I have drawn your attention. I hope, however, that I have attained my end, which was to mark the great epochs of the development of modern society. Allow me to add a word more. I endeavored, at the outset, to define civilization, to describe the fact which bears that name. Civilization appeared to me to consist of two principal facts, the development of human society and that of man himself; on the one hand, his political and social, and on the other, his internal and moral, advancement. This year I have confined myself to the history of society. I have exhibited civilization only in its social point of view. I have said nothing of the development of man himself. I have made no attempt to give you the history of opinions,—of the moral progress of human nature. I intend, when we meet again here, next season, to confine myself especially to France; to study with you the history of French civilization, but to study it in detail and under its various aspects. I shall try to make you acquainted not only with the history of society in France, but also with that of man; to follow, along with you, the progress of institutions, opinions, and intellectual labors of every sort, and thus to arrive at a comprehension of what has been, in the most complete and general sense, the development of our glorious country.* In the past, as well as in the future, she has a right to our warmest affections.†
[* ] This lecture might perhaps with greater appropriateness be termed either Absolute Monarchy in France or The Philosophical Revolution.
The following works will help the student more fully to comprehend the lecture: Kitchin, History of France; Duruy, History of France; Perkins, France under Richelieu and Mazarin; Perkins, France under the Regency; Buckle, History of Civilization in England, chap. viii-xiv.
[* ] See Lecture II.
[* ] Such development, when clearly successive, is usually revolutionary. The contemporaneous growth of varying elements in the same general society indicates a more steady form of progress.
[† ] One must not forget that the communes and free cities of France had, by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, made a decided break in the feudal system and an encroachment upon the sway of feudalism.
[‡ ] This is one of the author’s sweeping statements on a point where there is room for difference of opinion.
[* ] One notable exception to this is England’s experiment in constitutional monarchy. A liberal view would assert that this began with the reign of Edward I (1272), and, with the exception of the period of the Tudors (1485-1603), when a relapse occurred, has been continuous to our time. The more conservative view would show constitutional monarchy, broad and substantially complete, from the seventeenth century.
[† ] It may be doubted whether such names as those of John Locke (1632-1704) in political philosophy, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) in mathematics, or Edward Gibbon (1734-1794) in history (to whom M. Guizot is largely indebted), will not always be ranked with those of the great continental writers.
[* ] Comparing the statement in the text with what the author says on page 392, one is led to think that England in the latter half of the sixteenth century had attained as influential a spirit of free inquiry as France in the early part of the seventeenth century. The influence of Locke in political and Bacon in speculative philosophy made the advance of French philosophy in Europe possible.
[† ] The cause for this is, in part, the language. French having taken the place of Latin as the common language of courts and schools, it was but natural that it should become a medium for science and philosophy. The fact that Louis XIV was a great patron of arts and letters also accounts for much. This does not, however, necessarily denote the leadership of French thought in Europe.
[‡ ] The lectures of M. Cousin on philosophy, and of M. Villemain on French literature, delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, at the same time with the lectures of M. Guizot, constituting the present volume.
[* ] From 1795 to 1799 the government of the Directory was in power in France, but during its later years became weak and inefficient. On the 9th of October, 1799, Bonaparte returned unannounced from Egypt. On the 16th he was in Paris; on the 22d his brother Lucien was elected President of the Council of Five Hundred; and on the 9th of November (18th Brumaire), by a coup d’état, the execution of which was left to Bonaparte, the government of the Directory was swept away, and Bonaparte was master of the situation. A provisional government of three consuls was agreed upon. A committee, headed by Sieyès, was appointed to draw up a constitution, which, after important modification by Bonaparte, was accepted by the people of France by a vote of 3,011,107 to 1,567. The Consulate was proclaimed on the 24th of December, with Bonaparte as First Consul. The internal policy of the Consulate was (1) one of general reconciliation of all the warring elements under the Directory; (2) general amnesty and freedom for those who had emigrated during the previous years; (3) enforcement of the Constitution; (4) restoration of credit; (5) the codification of the law. The external policy was (1) war with Austria; (2) feigned friendship with Russia. The effect of both policies was magical in restoring confidence and order.
[* ] The death of Richelieu occurred in 1642, six months before that of his sovereign, Louis XIII (1643). Louis XIV was but five years of age. His mother, Anne of Austria, became Regent, and appointed Cardinal Mazarin as her prime minister. Abroad, Mazarin showed unmistakable signs of genius; at home, his political dishonesty clouded every good he accomplished. Spain, an hereditary enemy, encouraged uprisings in the provinces and formed alliances with ambitious generals, like Prince Condé. The uprising of the Fronde disturbed the country; the Parliament of Paris, though primarily a judicial body, undertook to turn back the tide flowing towards centralized monarchy, and finally, in 1652, the king, then barely fifteen, declared he “forbade the assumption by Parliament hereafter of any cognizance of the general affairs of the state and of the direction of the finances.” Thus Louis, at the age of fifteen, was on the high road to absolutism.
[* ] Battle of Marengo, fought against the Austrians June 14, 1800, is one of Bonaparte’s most brilliant successes. In the short space of five weeks, it is said, he transported thirty-five thousand men, with artillery and baggage, across the Alps, defeated the enemy, restored French supremacy in northern Italy, and returned to Paris.
[* ] The states of Italy were, during the years 1494 to 1516, the prey of France and Spain. Charles VIII, as a member of the house of Anjou, revived its claims to the throne of Naples. The time was ripe. The other European powers were otherwise engaged. Turin, Genoa, Pavia, Florence, and Rome opened thir gates as if to a deliverer. Ferdinand II, king of Naples, was defeated. Charles was crowned king. Possession of the kingdom was soon lost; was regained by his son Louis XII in 1501, and again finally lost in the same year.
[† ] Charles V’s expeditions to Africa (1535 and 1541) were rather expeditions sent against pirates in the pay of the Porte; and since Charles was at war with the Sultan, these expeditions seemed as necessary as they were unsuccessful.
[* ] The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-’71 restored Alsace to Germany.
[* ] See page 362.
[* ] Algernon Sidney, beheaded for conspiracy in 1683.
[† ] Ludlow was one of the few who were not pardoned by the Act of Grace of William III (1690).
[* ] He was ambassador to England during the reign of James II, and was ordered to leave by William of Orange.
[* ] “The dominating trait of the government of Louis XIV was an immense effort to bring back into the hands of the prince all the forces of the country, doubtless to dispose of them in the interest of the country, but more especially for the interest of the king. Hence, that excessive centralization which enveloped the commerce, the industry, the political life, even the moral life, of France; and the thousand bonds of a minute regulation, so that the initiation of the ministers was almost universally substituted for individual and communal action.”—Duruy, History of Modern Times, p. 330.
[† ] Without Colbert and Louvois, Louis XIV would probably have lacked the two essential elements on which he relied, namely, money and arms. Colbert’s fame rests on his administration of finances. He created the budget, and shifted 22,000,000 francs from the shoulders of the peasantry to the privileged nobility, and increased the revenues by 27,000,000; instituted a protective system (1667), drained marshes, built roads, encouraged manufactures of wood, tin, crockery, etc.; established councils of arbitration and boards of trade; encouraged commerce by granting privileges to five great trading companies; built up a vast merchant marine and a navy; expanded the colonial power by settling old and acquiring new colonies. France to-day enjoys the fruits of Colbert’s great work. Louvois was almost equally great in military administration. He created corps of engineers, schools of artillery, cadet schools; reformed the army throughout; introduced a regular order of promotion; published new tactics; and established hospitals, notably the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris.
[* ] “These ordinances are the greatest work of codification which was executed, from Justinian’s time to Napoleon’s. A portion of them are still in force; the ordinance of the marine composes almost all the second book of the present French code of commerce.”—Duruy, History of France, Translation, p. 429.
[* ] Sometimes the character of a sovereign colors a reign and defines its history. The character of Philip II stands in strong contrast to that of Louis XIV. The former was phlegmatic, melancholy, and mastered by a fatalistic passivity; the latter was full of restless activity.
[* ] In the war of the Spanish Succession (1701—1714) the aim of Louis was to secure for his grandson Philip, Duke of Anjou, the throne of Spain. Charles II of Spain died without issue, leaving the throne of Spain vacant. Leopold I of Austria, cousin of Charles, claimed it; while Louis, by right of his wife, the eldest sister of Charles II, claimed it for his grandson Philip. Charles, just before he died, made a will, naming Philip as his heir. Leopold would not consent, and war was inevitable. England, the Netherlands, Prussia, and Portugal were drawn in against France for reasons connected mainly with the maintenance of the balance of power, and the Grand Alliance was formed against Louis. France was thoroughly humiliated and weakened in the war, but by the treaty of Utrecht (1713) Philip was permitted to ascend the throne of Spain.
[* ] The lectures of Villemain and Cousin are meant.
[* ] See page 339, note.
[* ] Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot, D’Alembert, Condillac, Helvetius, Mably, Condorcet, etc., are the great philosophic speculators of the eighteenth century in France.
[* ] This expectation was fulfilled. Consult the author’s History of Civilization in france.
[† ] The author stood, perhaps, too near the eighteenth century to judge correctly the relative influence of French and English civilization. Duruy, in his Modern History, takes an opposite view. He leaves the impression that the “free mind” of the period arose in England. Voltaire himself said, “I went to England to learn how to think,” and he brought back to France the ideas of Locke, Newton, and Shakespere. Diderot freely acknowledges his obligation to Bacon, as Condorcet does to Locke.