Reflections on a Visit to the Palace of Versailles
In the early 17th century, a Parisian mob surrounded King Louis XIV’s palace when he was just a boy. (His mother and her advisors managed the boy king’s affairs until he came of age.) The young king was shaken by this experience and decided that when the time came he would move the royal court outside the city. He chose his favorite hunting lodge at Versailles as the seat of royal power.
Normal procedure for the Bourbon dynasty included a yearly round of kingly residences: a summer palace, the hunting lodge, the palace in Paris, and others. The difference now was that Louis intended to make the Versailles palace his primary residence. The king would visit Paris only when necessary; bishops, nobles, and courtiers would attend to him at Versailles. The move helped Louis assert his power as absolute ruler of France, forcing the nobles to come to him. No longer would he be vulnerable to a popular uprising or discontent among the nobility. Furthermore, the new project gave Louis the opportunity to display his greatness to the world.
“I am the state,” Louis said. He intended that the Versailles palace demonstrate the wealth and glory of France—that is, himself. He employed the best architects and designers available and spared no expense. The palace included an opera, a private chapel, interior and exterior fountains, reception rooms, offices, bedrooms, the astonishing hall of mirrors, and many other features. Gold, silver, crystal, inlaid floors, and hundreds of acclaimed paintings graced the building. Outside the chateau, Louis’s designers turned his hunting forest into an enormous formal garden.
Recently, I visited Versailles with a group of students from George Fox University. Some of them remarked on the stark contrast between the opulence of King Louis’s palace and the poverty of 17th century French peasants. Hardly surprising, they said, that the monarchy was eventually toppled by revolution. Versailles pressed me to think about power and powerlessness, wealth and poverty.
Ironically, our enjoyment of Louis’s palace was tempered by the mass of people crowding slowly through the rooms. Too many people! The indoor air became stuffy. After a while I could hardly wait to get outside to the acres and acres of gardens, with refreshing shade and water fountains.
What would Louis have said if he had known that millions of commoners would one day troop through his rooms, gaze at his paintings, and walk through his gardens? More than anything, Louis aimed to establish his rule as absolute monarch; he resented the power of the nobility and worked tirelessly to bend the aristocracy to his will. Commoners? For Louis, ordinary people existed to work, pay taxes, man his ships, and serve in his army.
How the world has changed! The Versailles palace and gardens are now a national treasure, owned by the French republic, maintained for their historical significance and for the pleasure of tourists. The crowds that file through Versailles symbolize a democratic spirit, a revolution in worldview that would have astonished Louis (so I suppose).
I am a child of that democratic spirit, schooled my whole life in republican values. It’s easy for me, when thinking about Louis, to applaud my country for the moral superiority of democracy (and congratulate myself for applauding). It’s easy to condemn the selfishness of a ruling class and an absolute monarch, because my political thinking starts with the moral worth of every person. Louis and his ministers pursued policies aimed explicitly at magnifying Louis’s glory. How could they not see that such vaunting pride was a vice? How could they plan and praise such massive expenditures on one man while peasants died of starvation?
But that’s too easy. We may be proud that republics (such as France or the United States) and other democratic states (such as the United Kingdom) have progressed beyond the injustice of absolute monarchies. But before we congratulate ourselves too much, we should remember how far we have to go. The moral foundation of democracy is the recognition of the value of every person. And yet in our democratic states citizens still starve. Victims of mental illness live under bridges and die of exposure. Children grow up seeing visions of material luxury in entertainment and advertising with the knowledge they and the other children in their neighborhood will never enjoy those things. In a word: inequality is a real and persistent fly in the democratic ointment.
Do we see inequality? Are we troubled by it?
Surely King Louis knew quite well that he had wealth and power far above any other Frenchman. This fact did not trouble him at all. Why should it? In his mind, it was God’s will that he rule France. And: “I am the state.” Without any inconsistency, Louis could be indifferent to the poverty and powerlessness of others.
Citizens of democratic states can’t do that. If we believe in the moral worth of each person, we need to do better.
Don’t misunderstand me. I have said nothing about which public policies we ought to adopt in order to improve our democratic societies, nothing about how to provide for the poor or the powerless. I’m just pointing to the right question. My visit to Versailles reminds me that democratic republics ought always to ask how they will help those who have the least, those who cannot defend themselves. Otherwise, future generations may shuffle through our buildings and wonder, “How could they not see…?”