Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Empirical History and the Transformation of Political Criticism in France from Bodin to Bayle

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Empirical History and the Transformation of Political Criticism in France from Bodin to Bayle

Article excerpt

In 1668 Francois-Eudes de Mezeray published the last volume of his Abrege chronique de l'Histoire de France. A member of the Academie Francaise, a royal historiographer, and a libertine, Mez&ay made a serious professional error. His study of the royal tax administration did not shed a favorable light on the origins of royal government. In the early years of building the great French administration Louis XIV's famous minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, was furious that a man on his payroll would write a history that revealed unflattering aspects of the crown.1 Royal historians were supposed to praise the new state, not analyze it.2 Four years later, Mezeray discovered how hazardous it was to write critical history during the reign of Louis XIV; he lost his pension, the biggest paid to any royal historiographer.3

Today it is hard to see what angered Colbert in the work of Mezeray. His History of France (1643) is hardly critical. In fact his preface describes how he intends to write a history according to the classical rules of rhetoric.4 Mezeray was no revolutionary philosophe, and yet he had to measure every word he wrote. At the end of the seventeenth century, the crown perceived critical history as a serious menace to absolutism.5 The first great propagandist of the modern era, Louis XIV knew that to build absolute power he also needed to control historical truth. Actively creating a state apparatus of culture Colbert sought to harness a literary form of history subservient to his political interests. He gave extravagant pensions to the great literary geniuses of his age to write glorious histories of his reign. Figures such as the playwright Jean Racine were not in. the least ashamed of comparing Louis to Alexander in exchange for gold.6 The Sun King needed to be sure that history was defined in his terms. In an age of dynastic authority and feudal privilege historical documents translated into political power and legitimacy. In 1440, Lorenzo Valla exposed the Donation of Constantine as a forgery, with one philological stroke undermining the Papacy's claim to have granted dominion over Western Christendom to the Holy Roman Emperor.7 Louis could not afford an unchecked Lorenzo Valla of his own, assaulting France's dynastic claims on the Netherlands and Savoy. The stakes could be very high indeed.

Yet Louis's quest to suppress the critical historical tradition was tinged with a certain irony, for at the end of the sixteenth century his predecessors-- Valois and Bourbon-had themselves turned to law and historical studies to consolidate political legitimacy.8 Examining documentary evidence and the history of political constitutions, absolutist thinkers sought to create a pragmatic political science based on historical analysis.9 Now, one hundred years later, with Louis firmly on the throne, he and his ministers no longer saw the need for royal critical history. They wanted only panegyric. How would they control the old tradition of historical criticism in the arena of seventeenth-century politics?10

By the end of the seventeenth century Louis managed to force critical history underground. Mezeray lost his pension, and Pierre Bayle fled to Holland. Only after the death of Louis in the early part of the eighteenth century did the tradition of accurate political history resurface, most spectacularly in 1748, when Montesquieu published his De l'Esprit des Loix. Although the Vatican and the Sorbonne quickly banned this work, it was too late. Critical history had survived the dose of royal repression and evolved into the even more virulent strains of critical political philosophy and parliamentary remonstrance.11 Montesquieu was not an erudite scholar, but he did wield historical facts to construct his philosophy of political liberty. History had broken loose, undermining absolutist authority in its wake. How did this extraordinary transformation take place? How and why did the critical, erudite tradition evolve from the basis of absolutist thought to that of its counter-movement within the Enlightenment? …

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