THE BALANCE OF POWER
IN FRANCE ON THE OTHER HAND THE ``DIVINE RIGHT OF KINGS'' CONTINUED WITH GREATER POMP AND SPLENDOUR THAN EVER BEFORE AND THE AMBITION OF THE RULER WAS ONLY TEMPERED BY THE NEWLY INVENTED LAW OF THE ``BALANCE OF POWER''
As a contrast to the previous chapter, let me tell you what happened in France during the years when the English people were fighting for their liberty. The happy combination of the right man in the right country at the right moment is very rare in History. Louis XIV was a realisation of this ideal, as far as France was concerned, but the rest of Europe would have been happier without him.
The country over which the young king was called to rule was the most populous and the most brilliant nation of that day. Louis came to the throne when Mazarin and Richelieu, the two great Cardinals, had just hammered the ancient French Kingdom into the most strongly centralised state of the seventeenth century. He was himself a man of extraordinary ability. We, the people of the twentieth century, are still surrounded by the memories of the glorious age of the Sun King. Our social life is based upon the perfection of manners and the elegance of expression attained at the court of Louis. In international and diplomatic relations, French is still the official language of diplomacy and international gatherings because two centuries ago it reached a polished elegance and a purity of expression which no other tongue had as yet been able to equal. The theatre of King Louis still teaches us lessons which we are only too slow in learning. During his reign the French Academy (an invention of Richelieu) came to occupy a position in the world of letters which other countries have flattered by their imitation. We might continue this list for many pages. It is no matter of mere chance that our modern bill-of-fare is printed in French. The very difficult art of decent cooking, one of the highest expressions of civilisation, was first practiced for the benefit of the great Monarch. The age of Louis XIV was a time of splendour and grace which can still teach us a lot.
Unfortunately this brilliant picture has another side which was far less encouraging. Glory abroad too often means misery at home, and France was no exception to this rule Louis XIV succeeded his father in the year 1643. He died in the year 1715. That means that the government of France was in the hands of one single man for seventy-two years, almost two whole generations.
It will be well to get a firm grasp of this idea, ``one single man.'' Louis was the first of a long list of monarchs who in many countries established that particular form of highly efficient autocracy which we call ``enlightened despotism.'' He did not like kings who merely played at being rulers and turned official affairs into a pleasant picnic. The Kings of that enlightened age worked harder than any of their subjects. They got up earlier and went to bed later than anybody else, and felt their ``divine responsibility'' quite as strongly as their ``divine right'' which allowed them to rule without consulting their subjects.
Of course, the king could not attend to everything in person. He was obliged to surround himself with a few helpers and councillors. One or two generals, some experts upon foreign politics, a few clever financiers and economists would do for this purpose. But these dignitaries could act only through their Sovereign. They had no individual existence. To the mass of the people, the Sovereign actually represented in his own sacred person the government of their country. The glory of the common fatherland became the glory of a single dynasty. It meant the exact opposite of our own American ideal. France was ruled of and by and for the House of Bourbon.
The disadvantages of such a system are clear. The King grew to be everything. Everybody else grew to be nothing at all. The old and useful nobility was gradually forced to give up its former shares in the government of the provinces. A little Royal bureaucrat, his fingers splashed with ink, sitting behind the greenish windows of a government building in faraway Paris, now performed the task which a hundred years before had been the duty of the feudal Lord. The feudal Lord, deprived of all work, moved to Paris to amuse himself as best he could at the court. Soon his estates began to suffer from that very dangerous economic sickness, known as ``Absentee Landlordism.'' Within a single generation, the industrious and useful feudal administrators had become the well-mannered but quite useless loafers of the court of Versailles.