As we reflected on the Scientific Revolution as a whole, we saw how people’s view of their experience in the world changed. Newton and others gave us a universe of order and balance — a somewhat reductionistic world of cause and effect. One could argue that a subtle shift occurred between the Reformation/Counter-Reformation era of the ‘inner’ man, the world of faith, etc., and a new focus on what can been seen and measured.
The reign of Louis XIV in some ways embodied these new principles. Symmetry and order were key concepts of his reign, and they both were abundantly evident in the architecture of his royal residence in Versailles. Many may tend to think of absolute monarchies existing in the Medieval period, but this is far from the case. The era of absolutism might be dated between 1600-1750, and the Reformation certainly may have impacted this. With the political power of the Church as a separate entity broken, that power would have to land somewhere. For many, the most convenient and obvious place for that power to reside was in the person of the king. And, if a neat house, for example, reflects to our eye a well-run house, than the order and symmetry in the architecture surely reflected back on Louis himself.
Perhaps most striking aspect of Louis’s reign, however, was how he controlled the nobility. Like many nations France’s nobles had a tumultuous relationship with the crown, with a variety of wars and compromises as the result. Louis changed the dynamic by changing methods. He created an elaborate system of ritual and custom. Violating these rules of ‘polite’ society meant ostracism, which meant loss of influence. What the nobles apparently did not notice, however, was that under Louis’s system they had no influence. Louis had them immersed in a bizarre system of etiquette. Things like discussing politics or deep questions of life were not against the law, but frowned upon. It was ‘not done.’ Thus, their lives became almost ridiculously trivial and inconsequential, with literally hours taken up in deciding who could sit where, who should stand for who, and so on. Ask your children if you are interested about some of the specifics of this etiquette involving door knocking and chair sitting, among other things. The French Revolution would reveal some of the consequences of this development.
To control others, Louis did not use force. Instead he dazzled, charmed, and confused the nobility. To function all states need to establish some kind of order and control. Louis, of course, had bigger fish to fry. He did not want the status quo so much as he wanted a political revolution, a more centralized state. To accomplish this most might have resorted to force, a “1984” style of authoritarian rule. Louis was not known for his book learning but he must have had a keen “street-smarts,” for he chose a different path, the “Brave New World” path to control. This path controls others not directly, but indirectly. It creates a scenario whereby you, the individual, gladly give up some measure of political liberty to gain something you think is better. Those who have seen the movie Matchstick Men might recall the line where the main character Roy defends himself by saying,
I’m not a criminal. I’m a con-man. [The difference being], I don’t take people’s money–people give me their money.
There’ more than one way to skin a cat.
We can say that Versailles was many things. It was a social hot-spot. It was a place of elegance and beauty, or at least, a certain idea of beauty. But it was also a piece of political propaganda. Louis was known as the ‘Sun King,’ and this statue of Apollo on his chariot dragging the sun up stood in a prominent place:
Louis masterfully tried to have image morph into reality. Apollo, for example not only had the power to move the sun, he also was the god of music and culture. In using Apollo, Louis claimed not just preeminence of power but also of taste, a place the French have enjoyed for centuries since. Yet, for my money, while I would readily call Versailles impressive, I don’t think I would call it beautiful. Louis wanted to subtly scream “Authority!” which did, I think, create a chilling effect.
Next week we will look more deeply into the policies and practices of Louis’ France. In this update I have painted perhaps too black a picture of Louis. He was certainly far from an overtly evil or cruel man. He had many endearing qualities. But the changes he began did have significant consequences.