Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Age of Louis XIV

The Age of Louis XIV
© 1963 Will and Ariel Durant
816 pages


To read Will Durant is to feast from the smorgasbord of human history. Before the reader lies the full scope of human concern, frailty, and accomplishment, like so many varied dishes. The chef is a master: Durant's supple use of the English language seasons even the most mundane of subjects to the point that they sound exotic and entertaining. After positively binging myself by reading The Age of Faith, The Renaissance, The Reformation,  and The Age of Reason Begins during the summer and fall,  I was absolutely stuffed with the heritage of the west. Now after a wintry break, I'm looking forward to digging in again...and did so with The Age of Louis XIV, a tome covering the bloody retreat of religion and the rise of some of Europe's most famous or infamous leaders -- the Sun King in France, Peter the Great in Russia, and Cromwell in England.

Durant opens on France and England, as France emerges as Europe's cultural leader. The bloody religious wars are not over: religion is still quite relevant to the European mind, but happily its desperately violent attempts to hold on to power continue to ruin its credibility among the peoples of the continent. As the power of the church declines, those of the state rise, and no autocrat epitomizes this more than the Sun King, who built Versailles as a monument to the State and himself, and whose example was an inspiration to every other king in the continent. The growing strength of mechanized industry and commerce allow for the consolidation of power: the king's traditional enemy is not his people, but the rest of the aristocracy, and these men who base their strength on agricultural potency are being out-spent by the growing middle class, who for the moment see the king as their route to power. England proves an exception, beheading one king and attempting to institute a commonwealth...only to find itself enduring the regime of a miserable Puritan dictator, then returning to monarchy -- but this time, of a decidedly limited sort. In this work, the English king is losing influence -- and the House of Commons is gaining it. Soon, I suspect, I will be reading not of the Hanoverians but of prime ministers, of Tories and Whigs.

Although religious persecution is alive and well, religious thought is increasingly impotent. Durant is an author generally kind to religion in general, seeing it as an essential part of the fabric that holds societies together, but here the philosophy of the hour is concerned not with theology, but of humanity. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke's works receive the attention formerly given to religious treatises, and Isaac Newton merits his own chapter. Durant curiously underplays Newton, whose work constituted a veritable revolution in the mental landscape,  introducing the idea that the universe is a rational place knit together by laws which can be understood. This is his legacy, not the beliefs of the man himself -- Newton wrote extensively on theology and even dabbled in quackery like alchemy.  For scientifically-minded readers, Louis XIV is a welcome relief from the constant religious debate of previous books.  Like the rest of this series, the book is a comprehensive history which covers not only politics, science, and philosophy, but literature, the arts, and trade as well. Economics doesn't seem to be very well represented here, but Durant may be saving full elaboration  on early industrial economies until the arrival of Adam Smith and his Wealth of Nations.

The Enlightenment is on its way, and I for one am looking forward to what lies ahead. As Alexander Pope wrote in his An Essay on Man -- "Go, wondrous creature; mount where science guides!"

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