The Age of Louis XIV is the biography of a
period (1648–1715) that Spengler considered the apex of modern European
civilization. “Some centuries hence,” Frederick the Great correctly predicted
to Voltaire, “they will translate the good authors of the age of Pericles and
Augustus.” Those authors are lovingly treated here: Pascal, Racine, and Boileau,
Madame de Sévigné, Madame de la Fayette, and above all the
philosopher-dramatist Molière, who so memorably exposed the vices and
hypocrisies of the age.
Central to the book is the “Sun King” himself, Louis XIV. Louis XIV
ruled France for over seventy years, longer than almost any European ruler in
history. He is the subject of a character study that runs through seven
chapters, revealing the flesh and blood beneath the purple and the crown. He is
seen at his worst in his struggle with Jansenists and Huguenots, at his best in
his patronage of literature and art, and at his most human in his love affairs
with Henrietta Anne of Orléans, Louise de La Vallière, Madame de Montespan, and
Madame de Maintenon.
From France the narrative passes to the Netherlands, and after pausing
to examine the domestic idylls of Vermeer, shows the Dutch opening their dikes
to save their land from Louis XIV and sending William of Orange to become king
of England and a leader of the European alliance against Louis’ hegemony.
In England we contemplate the heyday of virtue under the Puritans and
study the strange character of Cromwell. We see Milton’s passionate career as
part of the vain effort to prevent the Stuart Restoration. We find Charles II,
the “Merry Monarch,” with more manners than morals, attend boisterous
Restoration plays; we skim the diaries of Evelyn and Pepys; and we follow Jonathan
Swift from genius to insanity.
Crossing the North Sea we trace the tragic heroism of Charles XII of
Sweden and the attempt of Peter the Great to lead Russia from barbarism to
civilization. We accompany the noble Sobieski of Poland as he rescues Vienna
from the Turks. We visit Italy and Spain. We see the Jews proscribed and
impoverished in Europe but rising to riches in Amsterdam and following Sabbatai
Zevi in a desperate hope of regaining Palestine and freedom.
All this forms the background for the “intellectual adventure” of the
European mind in its passage from superstition, mythology, and intolerance to
education, science, and philosophy, for this was the age when Newton and
Leibniz gave simultaneous birth to calculus, when Newton bound the planets and
the stars with a chain of universal gravitation. Toward the end of the volume
the authors revert to their favorite subject, philosophy, and devote a full
chapter, with love and care, to Spinoza.
The book ends with the sunset of Le Roi Soleil: Louis punished for his
aggressions by a swarm of enemies gathering around him; fighting till his
people are destitute and disillusioned, till his treasury and his heart are
empty; dying defeated and repentant, begging his grandson and successor not to
imitate his taste for splendor and war; and followed in his funeral by the
insults of the crowd.
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