The Age of Louis XIV
audiobook (Unabridged) ∣ A History of European Civilization in the Period of Pascal, Molière, Cromwell, Milton, Peter the Great, Newton, and Spinoza, 1648–1715 · The Story of Civilization
By Will Durant
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The Age of Louis XIV is the biography of aperiod (1648–1715) that Spengler considered the apex of modern Europeancivilization. "Some centuries hence," Frederick the Great correctly predictedto Voltaire, "they will translate the good authors of the age of Pericles andAugustus." Those authors are lovingly treated here: Pascal, Racine, and Boileau,Madame de Sévigné, Madame de la Fayette, and above all thephilosopher-dramatist Molière, who so memorably exposed the vices andhypocrisies of the age.
Central to the book is the "Sun King" himself, Louis XIV. Louis XIVruled France for over seventy years, longer than almost any European ruler inhistory. He is the subject of a character study that runs through sevenchapters, revealing the flesh and blood beneath the purple and the crown. He isseen at his worst in his struggle with Jansenists and Huguenots, at his best inhis patronage of literature and art, and at his most human in his love affairswith Henrietta Anne of Orléans, Louise de La Vallière, Madame de Montespan, andMadame de Maintenon.
From France the narrative passes to the Netherlands, and after pausingto examine the domestic idylls of Vermeer, shows the Dutch opening their dikesto save their land from Louis XIV and sending William of Orange to become kingof England and a leader of the European alliance against Louis' hegemony.
In England we contemplate the heyday of virtue under the Puritans andstudy the strange character of Cromwell. We see Milton's passionate career aspart of the vain effort to prevent the Stuart Restoration. We find Charles II,the "Merry Monarch," with more manners than morals, attend boisterousRestoration plays; we skim the diaries of Evelyn and Pepys; and we follow JonathanSwift from genius to insanity.
Crossing the North Sea we trace the tragic heroism of Charles XII ofSweden and the attempt of Peter the Great to lead Russia from barbarism tocivilization. We accompany the noble Sobieski of Poland as he rescues Viennafrom the Turks. We visit Italy and Spain. We see the Jews proscribed andimpoverished in Europe but rising to riches in Amsterdam and following SabbataiZevi in a desperate hope of regaining Palestine and freedom.
All this forms the background for the "intellectual adventure" of theEuropean mind in its passage from superstition, mythology, and intolerance toeducation, science, and philosophy, for this was the age when Newton andLeibniz gave simultaneous birth to calculus, when Newton bound the planets andthe stars with a chain of universal gravitation. Toward the end of the volumethe authors revert to their favorite subject, philosophy, and devote a fullchapter, with love and care, to Spinoza.
The book ends with the sunset of Le Roi Soleil: Louis punished for hisaggressions by a swarm of enemies gathering around him; fighting till hispeople are destitute and disillusioned, till his treasury and his heart areempty; dying defeated and repentant, begging his grandson and successor not toimitate his taste for splendor and war; and followed in his funeral by theinsults of the crowd.