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Age of Absolutism

The Age of Absolutism

It's difficult to determine exactly when the Enlightenment begins. Since the Enlightenment is primarily about changes in the world view of European culture, the process cannot really be said to have a beginning, for when a world view changes it essentially draws on previous shifts in world view. The Enlightenment is commonly dated to the middle of the eighteenth century and the activity of a group called the philosophes. This was the name for the French rationalist philosophers who clearly stated the importance and consequences of Enlightenment thought.However, the Enlightenment is more convincingly dated to the new natural science of Isaac Newton, the social and political theories of thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, and of John Locke; and the philosohies of Blaise Pascal and RenÚ Descartes. All of these thinkers and innovations have clear beginings. Newtonian thought came from the thought and science of Francis Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, and ultimately, Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century. The social and political theories of Hobbes can be traced back to the Northern Renaissance, and the thought of Locke has its origins in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Finally, the philosophies of Pascal and Descartes are in a long line of thought dating back to the fourteenth century and clearly stated in the philosphical skepticism of Michel de Montaigne in the middle of the sixteenth century.

European history throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries took a variety of contradictory turns. England saw the complete overthrow of the monarchy in the middle of the seventeenth century and its replacement first by a republic and then by a weakened monarchy later in the century; finally, at the end of the seventeenth century England would see the revolutionary erosion of the monarch's powers in England's "Glorious Revolution." For all this drama, however, the rest of Europe saw an astonishing growth in the power of monarchs over their states. The two centuries that include the Enlightenment saw the development of absolute monarchies and more tightly-centralized national governments; the growth of the absolute monarchy is regarded by many historians as the origin of the modern state. Europe consequently saw the slow breakdown of local power and control and the rise of national power and large central government. Because this growth in absolute and centralized power of the national government and the monarchy, this age in European history is generally called the Age of Absolutism (1660-1789). It begins in the reign of Louis XIV and ends with the French Revolution.

The Age of Absolutism

Absolutism came about as a result of the crises and tragedies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Reformation had led to a series of violent and cruel wars of religions; states erupted into civil war and thousands of innocent people died in the name of national religions. Absolute monarchies were originally brought forth as a solution to these violent disorders, and Europeans were more than willing to have local control taken away in exchange for peace and safety.

In order to achieve this stability, absolutists claimed that in practical affairs several key elements of the national government should be solely in the hands of the monarch: 1) the military, 2)tax collection, and 3)the judicial system. These were powers normally held by the aristocracy and local gentry; the national control of these meant the formation of a national civil bureaucracy whose officials were answerable only to the king. This bureaucracy had to stand against the most powerful institutional forces opposed to the king: the nobility, the church, representative legislative bodies, and self governing regions. So the absolutists faced the problem that in order to centralize the administration of the state, the government had to somehow take political authority out of the hands of the nobility and others who were not especially interested in giving that authority up.

In Europe absolute monarchs could not completely break the power of the nobility, so they brought them into their new bureaucratic institutions. The church, however, was a different matter. Most absolutist monarchs tried to get around the church by nationalizing it, that is, by imitating the actions of England's Henry VIII in the early sixteenth century. While Henry had himself named head of the church of England, the absolute monarchs in Europe only managed to gain some administrative and judicial control over the clergy. The most difficult battles, however, would be with representative legislative bodies; it was just such a battle that brought about the French Revolution.

Jacques-Benigne Bossuet

Medieval political theory justified kingship by arguing that the king ruled by the will of God. Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704) adapted the medieval concept of kingship in his theory of the Divine Right of Kings, which argued that the king ruled absolutely by will of God, and that to oppose the king in effect meant rebellion against God. God's purpose in instituting absolute monarchy was to protect and guide society.Bossuet spelled out his arguments in the treatise Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Scripture in 1709; most of these theories he developed for Louis XIV in France. In this work, Bossuet argues that God institutes monarchy for the welfare of the people; for that reason, absolute rule is not arbitrary rule. The monarch cannot do as he pleases, but must rather consistently act in the best interests of society. As a political theorist attached to Louis XIV, he helped Louis establish the first and fullest absolute monarchy in Europe.


Louis XIV


 This monarch who fully embodied absolutist principles&emdash;Louis XIV, the Sun King&emdash;ruled France from 1643 to 1715. In many ways, Louis was the embodiment of the modern age for the whole of Europe. Many countries and monarchs turned to him as a model for the new, modern government, while some countries, such as England, reacted against this model. Historians like to consider the reign of Louis XIV as the beginning of the modern state. Most of the practices of the modern state were more or less instituted in the France of Louis XIV: centralized government, a centralized civil bureaucracy, national legislation, a national judiciary that controlled most judicial activity, a large, standing military under the direct, rather than indirect, control of national authorities, and a national tax collection mechanism in which taxes went straight to the national government rather than passing through the hands of regional nobility.

   Historians also credit Louis with inventing the "theater" of national government. This claim, though compelling in some ways, is not entirely true. Earlier monarchs had, since the beginning of the sixteenth century, largely thought of the monarchy as theater, as show, and as display. The purpose of this theater was to demonstrate both the power and the benevolence of the individual monarch; such a display was integral to the legitimation of the monarch's authority and the dedication of the monarch's subject to the state itself. Louis, however, elevated the "theater of power" to unprecedented heights and clearly thought that every public aspect of the monarch should contribute to this theater of power.


 Fundamental to Louis's theater of power was the display of monarchical wealth, power, and largesse. To this end, he moved the monarchical residence out of the center of Paris to a suburb in Versailles. There he built the single most opulent palace ever built for a king of Europe: the palace of Versailles. It was an awe-inspiring structure and was built as a stage on which to perform the public rituals and to display monarchical power. The building itself was a little over a third of a mile long; the outside was surrounded by magnificent gardens and over 1400 fountains employing the newest hydraulic technologies. The inside was an altar to French military might, room after room decorated with paintings, tapestries, and statues celebrating French military victories, heroes, and, especially, French kings.

   Louis required every noble to spend some time at the palace at Versailles. There he would stage elaborate performances and rituals designed to show the nobility both his power and his benevolence. In these displays of monarchical power he assumed the role of "Sun King." Neoplatonic philosophers of the Renaissance and seventeenth century argued that the sun, as the source of light, was the proper symbol for god and wisdom. Louis adopted the Neoplatonic symbol for God to symbolize his own role as God's monarchical representative.

The power and the benevolence that Louis put on display was to some measure real power and real benevolence. In order to secure his power, Louis had to centralize the military, take control of national taxes, reign in independent territories such as Brittany and Languedoc, break up the legislative assemblies, and impose a religious unity on the country

   Until Louis XIV, the military in France had been largely a private affair. Individual regions raised and paid for their own armies; when the king required military help, the army came from these semi-private sources. Louis began to build a state army of professional soldiers and began to bleed the military power from these individual regions. This new centralized military would owe allegiance only to the king; the danger of factionalism and rebellion subsequently declined.

   In order to pay for his new military as well as his expensive theater of power, Louis seized control of national taxes. Until Louis's time, taxes throughout Europe were collected largely by individual nobility on a region by region basis. Nobles had been required to submit a certain amount of taxes to the crown, but they were free to collect whatever they pleased and keep the excess. In all the states in Europe, this was a massively inefficient affair, at least from a monarch's perspective. When Louis assumed power, only 30 percent or so of the taxes due to the monarch actually got paid.


Louis effectively cut out the middlemen. Rather than charging nobility to collect taxes, Louis set up a bureaucracy to collect taxes directly from the peasantry (the tax burden did not fall on the nobility at all). By the end of his reign, Louis was collecting over eighty percent of the taxes due to the monarchy. But Louis did not spend this money only on himself: he and his finance minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), used much of this money to expand and improve roads and to invest in national industry. In fact, historians usually credit Colbert as creating the first modern state in terms of financial management: collecting taxes and then reinvesting those taxes in the infrastructure and industries of the country.

   Louis broke regional independence by dividing the country into thirty-six generalitÚs ; each generalitÚ was administered by an intendant, who was generally appointed from the upper middle classes rather than the nobility. No intendant was ever appointed to a region that he lived in; in this way, corruption would be kept to a minimum. These intendants were appointed by the king and answerable only to the king. For the most part, this bureaucracy functioned to collect taxes. In the most autonomous regions, such as Languedoc and Brittany, Louis ruthlessly imposed obedience to the crown.


In the matter of legislative assemblies, Louis had no patience whatsoever. The parlements of France were largely regional in nature rather than national. Not only did these parlements represent a diffusion of power from the king to the populace, they also represented a diffusion of power from the king to separate regions. Louis solved the problem of the parlements directly and simply: if any parlement vetoed monarchical legislation, all the members of that parlement would be exiled from France. Simple as that. The national legislative assembly, called the Estates General, was never called into session by Louis; in fact, it would not be called until 1789 at the heart of the crisis that precipitated the French Revolution.


  Finally, decades of bloodshed over religion made it obvious that political unity would only be a dream unless religious unity were achieved first. To that end, Louis, a Roman Catholic, actively worked to get rid of heterodox religious groups: the Protestant Huguenots, the Quietists (mystical Christians), and the Jansenists, whose beliefs were a combination of Calvinism and Catholicism. The greatest threat to religious unity, as Louis saw it, were the Protestant Huguenots. He destroyed their churches and burned their schools and forced Protestants, under pain of imprisonment or death, to convert to Catholicism. Finally, he overturned the Edict of Nantes and declared Protestantism to be a crime against the state. All Protestant clergy were exiled from France. Most French Protestants chose to leave France rather than convert; the latter half of the seventeenth century saw the expansion of French culture throughout Europe as middle-class French Huguenots brought their culture, language, and artisanal skills to countries all over Europe.

  In all the documents that we can find, it seems that Louis conceived his role as absolute monarch in terms of benevolence. His reign, he argued, was primarily about benefitting the people of France materially, spiritually, and militarily. He saw the political and religious unification of France as a means of protecting his French subjects from the ravages of political unrest and religious civil war. The collecting of taxes made this possible, and the reinvesting of taxes in infrastructure and industry were seen as means of increasing the general national wealth of the country.