Great man's shoes stepping , and how to avoid it


When Louis XIV died, in 1715, after a glorious fifty-five-year reign, all eyes
focused on his great-grandson and chosen successor, the future Louis Xv.
Would the boy, only five at the time, prove as great a leader as the Sun
King? Louis XIV had transformed a country on the verge of civil war into
the preeminent power in Europe. The last years of his reign had been difficuIt-he had been old and tired-but it was hoped that the child would develop into the kind of strong mler who would reinvigorate the land and
add to the firm foundation that Louis XIV had laid.
To this end the child was given the best minds of France as his tutors,
men who would instruct hirn in the arts of statecraft, in the methods that
the Sun King had perfected. Nothing was neglected in his education. But
when Louis XV came to the throne, in 1726, 

a sudden change came over
hirn: He no longer had to study or please others or prove hirnself. He stood
alone at the top of a great country, with wealth and power at his command.
He could do as he wished.
In the first years of his reign, Louis gave hirns elf over to pleasure, leaving the government in the hands of a trusted minister, Andre-Hercule de
Fleury. This caused little concern, for he was a young man who needed to
sow his wild oats, and de Fleury was a good minister. But it slowly became
clear that this was more than a passing phase. Louis had no interest in governing. His main worry was not France's finances, or a possible war with
Spain, but boredom. He could not stand being bored, and when he was not
hunting deer, or chasing young girls, he whiled away bis time at the gambling tables, losing huge sums in a single night.
The court, as usual, reflected the tastes of the mler. Gambling and lavish parties became the obsession. The courtiers had no concern with the future of France-they poured their energies into charming the king, angling
for tides that would bring them life pensions, and for cabinet positions demanding litde work but paying huge salaries. Parasites flocked to the court,
and the state's debts swelled.
In 1745 Louis fell in love with Madame de Pompadour, a woman of
middle-class origin who had managed to rise through her charms, her intelligence, and a good marriage. 

Madame de Pompadour became the official
royal mistress; she also became France's arbiter of taste and fashion. But
the Madame had political ambitions as weIl, and she eventually emerged
as the country's unofficial prime minister-it was she, not Louis, who
wielded hiring-and-firing power over France's most important ministers.
As he grew older Louis only needed more diversion. On the grounds
of Versailles he built a brothel, Parc aux Cerfs, which housed some of the
prettiest young girls of France. Underground passages and hidden staircases gave Louis access at all hours. Mter Madame de Pompadour died, in
1764, she was succeeded as royal mistress by Madame du Barry, who soon
came to dominate the court, and who, like de Pompadour before her,
began to meddle in affairs of state. If a minister did not please her he would
find himselffired. All ofEurope was aghast when du Barry, the daughter of
a baker, managed to arrange the firing of Etienne de Choiseul,

 the foreign
minister and France's most able diplomat. He had shown her too litde respect. As time went by, swindlers and charlatans made their nests in Versailles, and enticed Louis's interest in astrology, the occult, and fraudulent
business deals. The young and pampered teenager who had taken over
France years before had only grown worse with age.
The motto that became attached to Louis's reign was ''Apres moi, le
deluge'!.-"After me the flood," or, Let France rot after I am gone. And indeed when Louis did go, in 1774, worn out by debauchery, his country and
his own finances were in horrible disarray. His grandson Louis XVI inherited a realm in desperate need of reform and a strong leader. But Louis
XVI was even weaker than his grandfather, and could only watch as the
country descended into revolution. In 1792 the republic introduced by the
French Revolution declared the end of the monarchy, and gave the king a
new name, "Louis the Last." A few months later he kneeled on the guillotine, his about-to-be-severed head stripped of all the radiance and power
that the Sun King had invested in the crown.
From a country that had descended into civil war in the late 1640s, Louis
XIV forged the mightiest realm in Europe. Great generals would tremble
in his presence. A cook once made a mistake in preparing a dish and committed suicide rather than face the king's wrath. Louis XIV had many mistresses, but their power ended in the bedroom. He filled his court with the
most brilliant minds of the age. The symbol of his power was Versailles:
Refusing to accept the palace of his forefathers, the Louvre, he built his
own palace in what was then the middle of nowhere, symbolizing that this
was a new order he had founded, one without precedent. He made Versailles the centerpiece of his reign, a place that all the powernd of Europe
envied and visited with a sense of awe. In essence, Louis took a great
void-the decaying monarchy of France-and filled it with his own symbols and radiant power.
Louis XV, on the other hand, symbolizes the fate of all those who inherit something large or who follow in a great man's footsteps. It would
seem easy for a son or successor to build on the grand foundation left for
them, but in the realm of power the opposite is true. The pampered, indulged son almost always squanders the inheritance, for he does not start
with the father's need to fill a void. As Machiavelli states, necessity is what
impels men to take action, and once the necessity is gone, only rot and
decay are left. Having no need to increase his store of power, Louis XV inevitably succumbed to inertia. Under him, Versailles, the symbol of the
Sun King's authority, became a pleasure palace of incomparable banality,

 a kind of Las Vegas of the Bourbon monarchy. It came to represent all that
the oppressed peasantry of France hated about their king, and during the
Revolution they looted it with glee.
Louis XV had only one way out of the trap awaiting the son or successor of a man like the Sun King: to psychologically begin from nothing, to
As a young man Perieies was ineiined to
shrink from facing the
people. One reason for
this was that he was
considered to bear a
distinct resemblance to
the tyrant Pisistratus,
and when men who
were weil on in years
remarked on the charm
of Perieies ' voice and
the smoothness and
fluency of his speech,

 they were astonished at
the resemblance
between the two. The
fact that he was rich
and that he came of a
distinguished family
and possessed exceedingly powerful friends
made the fear of
ostracism very real to
him, and at the beginning of his career he
took no part in politics
but devoted himself to
soldiering, in wh ich he
showed great daring
and enterprise.
However, the time came
when Aristides was
dead, Themistoeies in
exile, and Cimon
frequently absent on
distant campaigns.
Then at last Pericles
decided to at/ach
himselfto the people 's
party and to take up
the cause of the poor
and the many instead
ofthat ofthe rich and
the few, in spite of the
fact that this was quite
contrary to his own
temperament, wh ich
was thoroughly aristocratic. He was afraid,
apparently, of being
suspected of aiming at
a dictatorship; so that
when he saw that
LAW 41 349
Cimon 's sympathie.l'
were strongly wilh the
nobles and that Cimon
was the idol ofthe aristocratic party, Pericle,l'
began to ingratiate
himself with the people,
partly for selrpreservation and partly by way
ofsecuring power
against his rival.
He now entered upon
a new mode of Iife.
He was never to be
seen walking in any
street except the one
wh ich led to the
market-plaee and the
council chamber.
c. A.D. 46�120
TIII': LI!'F O!' 1'1 1<:'1'110
(', l -l.')()- l 

How beneficial poverty
may sometimes be to
those wilh talent, and
how it may serve as a
powerful goad to make
them perfeet or exeellent in whatever occupation they might
choose, can be seen
very clearly in the
actions of Pietro
Perugino. Wishing by
means of his ability to
attain some respectable
rank, after leaving
disastrous calamilies
behind in Perugia and
coming to Florenee, he
remained there many
months in poverty,
sleeping in a ehesI,
since he had no olher
bed; he turned nighl
into day, and wilh the
greatest zeal continually applied himsel!, to
350 LAW 41
denigrate the past and his inheritance, and to move in a totally new direction, creating his own world. Assuming you have the choice, it would be
better to avoid the situation altogether, to place yourself where there is a
vacuum of power, where you can be the one to bring order out of chaos
without having to compete with another star in the sky. Power depends on
appearing larger than other people, and when you are lost in the shadow of
the father, the king, the great predecessor, you cannot possibly project such
a presence.
But when they began to make sovereignty hereditary, the children quickly
degenerated from their fathers; and, so far Jrom trying to equal their father's
virtues, they considered that a prince had nothing else to do than to excel
alt the rest in idleness, indulgence, and every other variety of pleasure.
Niccolo Machiavelli, J 46 9�152 7

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