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All Power Must Be Limited: Guizot’s Final Lecture

Our author concludes with a sobering analysis of the French Revolution, and the declaration that all power is dangerous and demanding of limitation.

Editor’s Note

Once again, in his final lecture, Guizot adopts a tense combination of conservative regard for established and orderly institutions and a liberal yearning for toleration and change. Having described the origins of spiritual and temporal absolutism and of their respective demises during the Reformation and English “Revolution,” Guizot turns to illustrating the triumph of divided order. He begins with a point perhaps not taken so well by his learned French audience: the division of authority which is the primary marker of western civilization was more apparent and effective in England than anywhere else in Europe, and “On the Continent the march of civilization had been less complex and complete.” In England, a grand diversity of institutions and orders proliferated alongside one another, whereas in greater Europe they succeeded one another. As a result, England entered modernity on a much healthier footing than France. The Tudors, Stuarts, and Hanoverians were able to offload great portions of their ruling responsibilities on a new class of corporate capitalists, reaping the monetary rewards of empire and fueling militaries to defend the new mushroom kingdoms. The growing power of English monarchs was thus both bolstered and offset by the corresponding growth in power from below. In France, by contrast, simple and humble “feudal aristocracy” prevailed until the practically revolutionary regime of Louis XIV. Louis introduced such a great deal of centralization and nationalism into his government of France that “this government had no other principle than absolute power, and rested entirely on this basis.” Louis’ most absolute of western absolutism cleanly swept away most of the old socio-political order such that the country was left with a severe deficit of “institutions [and] political powers, which were independent and self-existent, capable, in short, of spontaneous action and resistance.” Rather than replace old institutions with new ones that would outlast his own personal rule—for, such creatures “would have constrained him, and he did not choose constraint”—Louis established no authorities greater than his own will. While peasants celebrated his death, the Sun King left his successors without the means to effectively govern such a massive amount of territory and people.

Into Louis’ place—gradually, though surely—there stepped a stream of philosophers, scientists, artists, inventors, scholars, and reformers who remade French society while the monarchy stood paralyzed from overexertion. The eighteenth century’s Enlightenment provided to France what the Dissenting tradition had given to England in the seventeenth century—a lush diversity of moral authorities promoting a variety of opinions about the proper role of temporal authority. Finally, the medieval preference for tradition at all costs evaporated in the light of reason and it seemed that intellectual space had opened for the final triumph of liberal principles. Yet, ever knowledgeable of the “revolutionary excesses” which guillotined his father in 1794, Guizot concludes with stern words of warning: “It is the danger, the evil, the insurmountable vice of absolute power, wheresoever it may exist, whatsoever name it may bear, and for whatever object it may be exercised” that we should truly fear and fight against. Westerners have enjoyed peculiar circumstances in history and their modern conceptions of liberty are but one significant result. Yet as the revolutionaries demonstrated throughout the 1790s, anti-absolutists, when left to their own devices and entrusted with political power, can easily become their own version of absolutists. And it is absolutism, in the end, which stifles a civilization’s ability to adapt its constitution to suit changing circumstances. Our author dismisses his audience, therefore, with the claim that “It is the duty, and will be, I believe, the peculiar event of our time, to acknowledge that all power, whether intellectual or temporal, whether belonging to governments or people, to philosophers or ministers, in whatever cause it may be exercised—that all human power, I say, bears within itself a natural vice, a principle of feebleness and abuse, which renders it necessary that it should be limited.”

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

The History of Civilization in Europe (Excerpts)

By Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot

New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1896.


It is true that between the civilization of England, and that of the continental states, there has been a material difference which it is important that we should rightly understand. You have already had a glimpse of it in the course of these lectures. The development of the different principles, the different elements of society, took place, in some measure, at the same time, at least much more simultaneously than upon the Continent. When I endeavored to determine the complexion of European civilization as compared with the civilization of ancient and Asiatic nations, I showed that the former was varied, rich, and complex, and that it had never fallen under the influence of any exclusive principle; that, in it, the different elements of the social state had combined, contended with, and modified each other, and had continually been obliged to come to an accommodation, and to subsist together. This fact, which forms the general character of European civilization, has in an especial manner been that of the civilization of England; it is in that country that it has appeared most evidently and uninterruptedly; it is there that the civil and religious orders, aristocracy, democracy, monarchy, local and central institutions, moral and political development, have proceeded and grown up together, if not with equal rapidity, at least but at a little distance from each other. Under the reign of the Tudors, for example, in the midst of the most remarkable progress of pure monarchy, we have seen the democratic principle, the popular power, make its way and gain strength almost at the same time. The revolution of the seventeenth century broke out; it was at the same time religious and political. The feudal aristocracy appeared in it in a very enfeebled state, and with all the symptoms of decay; it was, however, still in a condition to preserve its place in this revolution, and to have some share in its results. The same thing has been the case in the whole course of English history; no ancient element has ever entirely perished, nor any new element gained a total ascendancy; no particular principle has ever obtained an exclusive influence. There has always been a simultaneous development of the different forces, and a sort of negotiation or compromise between their pretensions and interests.

On the Continent the march of civilization had been less complex and complete. The different elements of society, the civil and religious orders, monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, have developed themselves, not together, and abreast, as it were, but successively. Every principle, every system, has in some measure had its turn. One age, for example, has belonged, I shall not say exclusively, but with a decided predominance, to the feudal aristocracy; another to the principle of monarchy; another to the principle of democracy…Monarchy triumphed in England under Elizabeth, as in France under Louis XIV; but what precautions it was constrained to take! how many restrictions, sometimes aristocratic, sometimes democratic, it was obliged to submit to! In England every system, every principle, has had its time of strength and success; but never so completely and exclusively as on the Continent: the conqueror has always been constrained to tolerate the presence of his rivals, and to leave them a certain share of influence…

The principle of pure and absolute monarchy had predominated in Spain, under Charles V and Philip II, before its development in France under Louis XIV. In like manner the principle of free inquiry had reigned in England in the seventeenth century, before its development in France in the eighteenth. Pure monarchy, however, did not go forth from Spain, nor free inquiry from England, to make the conquest of Europe. The two principles or systems remained, in some sort, confined within the countries in which they sprang up. They required to pass through France to extend their dominion; pure monarchy and liberty of inquiry were compelled to become French before they could become European…

Whenever the government of Louis XIV is spoken of, whenever we attempt to appreciate the causes of his power and influence in Europe, we have little to consider beyond his splendor, his conquests, his magnificence, and the literary glory of his time. We must resort to exterior causes in order to account for the preponderance of the French government in Europe.

But this preponderance, in my opinion, was derived from causes more deeply seated, from motives of a more serious kind. We must not believe that it was entirely by means of victories, festivals, or even master-pieces of genius, that Louis XIV and his government played, at that period, the part which no one can deny them…

I shall first speak of the wars of Louis XIV. European wars were originally (as you know, and as I have several times had occasion to remind you) great popular movements; impelled by want, by some fancy, or any other cause, whole populations, sometimes numerous, sometimes consisting of mere bands, passed from one territory to another. This was the general character of European wars, till after the Crusades, at the end of the thirteenth century.

After this another kind of war arose, but almost equally different from the wars of modern times: these were distant wars, undertaken, not by nations, but by their governing powers, who went, at the head of their armies, to seek, at a distance, states and adventures. They quitted their country, abandoned their own territory, and penetrated, some into Germany, others into Italy, and others into Africa, with no other motive save their individual fancy. Almost all the wars of the fifteenth, and even a part of the sixteenth century, are of this character. What interest—and I do not speak of a legitimate interest—but what motive had France for wishing that Charles VIII should possess the kingdom of Naples? It was evidently a war dictated by no political considerations; the king thought he had personal claims on the kingdom of Naples; and, for this personal object, to satisfy his own personal desire, he undertook the conquest of a distant country, which was by no means adapted to the territorial conveniences of his kingdom, but which, on the contrary, only endangered his power abroad and his repose at home. Such, again, was the case with regard to the expedition of Charles V into Africa. The last war of this kind was the expedition of Charles XII against Russia.

The wars of Louis XIV were not of this description; they were the wars of a regular government—a government fixed in the center of its dominions, endeavoring to extend its conquests around, to increase or consolidate its territory; in short, they were political wars. They may have been just or unjust, they may have cost France too dear;—they may be objected to on many grounds—on the score of morality or excess; but, in fact, they were of a much more rational character than the wars which preceded them; they were no longer fanciful adventures; they were dictated by serious motives; their objects were to reach some natural boundary, some population who spoke the same language, and might be annexed to the kingdom, some point of defence against a neighboring power. Personal ambition, no doubt, had a share in them; but examine the wars of Louis XIV, one after the other, especially those of the early part of his reign, and you will find that their motives were really political; you will see that they were conceived with a view to the power and safety of France.

This fact has been proved by results. France, at the present day, in many respects, is what the wars of Louis XIV made her. The provinces which he conquered, Franche-Comté, Flanders, and Alsace, have remained incorporated with France. There are rational conquests as well as foolish ones: those of Louis XIV were rational; his enterprises have not that unreasonable, capricious character, till then so general; their policy was able, if not always just and prudent.

If I pass from the wars of Louis XIV to his relations with foreign states, to his diplomacy properly so called, I find an analogous result. I have already spoken of the origin of diplomacy at the end of the fifteenth century. I have endeavored to show how the mutual relations of governments and states, previously accidental, rare, and transient, had at that period become more regular and permanent, how they had assumed a character of great public interest; how, in short, at the end of the fifteenth and during the first half of the sixteenth century, diplomacy had begun to perform a part of immense importance in the course of events. Still, however, it was not till the seventeenth century that it became really systematic; before then, it had not brought about long alliances, great combinations, and especially combinations of a durable nature, directed by fixed principles, with a steady object, and with that spirit of consistency which forms the true character of established governments…

Let us now turn our eyes to the interior of France, and the administration and legislation of Louis XIV; we shall everywhere find new explanations of the strength and splendor of his government.

It is difficult to determine precisely what ought to be understood by administration in the government of a state. Still, when we endeavor to come to a distinct understanding on this subject, we acknowledge, I believe, that, under the most general point of view, administration consists in an assemblage of means destined to transmit, as speedily and surely as possible, the will of the central power into all departments of society, and, under the same conditions, to make the powers of society return to the central power, either in men or money. This, if I am not mistaken, is the true object, the prevailing character, of administration. From this we may perceive that, in times where it is especially necessary to establish union and order in society, administration is the great means of accomplishing it,—of bringing together, cementing, and uniting scattered and incoherent elements. Such, in fact, was the work of the administration of Louis XIV. Till his time, nothing had been more difficult, in France as well as in the rest of Europe, than to cause the action of the central power to penetrate into all the parts of society, and to concentrate into the heart of the central power the means of strength possessed by the society at large. This was the object of Louis’s endeavors, and he succeeded in it to a certain extent, incomparably better, at least, than preceding governments had done. I cannot enter into any details; but take a survey of every kind of public service, the taxes, the highways, industry, the military administration, and the various establishments which belong to any branch of administration whatever; there is hardly any of them which you will not find to have either been originated, developed, or greatly meliorated, under the reign of Louis XIV. It was as administrators that the greatest men of his time, such as Colbert and Louvois, displayed their genius and exercised their ministerial functions; it was thus that his government acquired a comprehensiveness, a decision, and a consistency, which were wanting in all the European governments around him.

The same fact holds with respect to this government, as regards its legislative capacity. I will again refer to the comparison I made in the outset to the legislative activity of the Consular government, and its prodigious labor in revising and remodelling the laws. A labor of the same kind was undertaken under Louis XIV. The great ordinances which he passed and promulgated,—the ordinances on the criminal law, on forms of procedure, on commerce, on the navy, on waters and forests,—are real codes of law, which were constructed in the same manner as our codes…If we had to consider it simply in itself, we should have a great deal to say against the legislation of Louis XIV. It is full of faults which are now evident, and which nobody can dispute; it was not conceived in the spirit of justice and true liberty, but with a view to public order, and to give regularity and stability to the laws. But even that alone was a great progress; and it cannot be doubted that the legislative acts of Louis XIV, very superior to the previous state of legislation, powerfully contributed to the advancement of French society in the career of civilization.

Under whatever point of view, then, we regard this government, we can at once discover the means of its strength and influence. It was, in truth, the first government which presented itself to the eyes of Europe as a power sure of its position, which had not to dispute for its existence with domestic enemies, which was tranquil in regard to its territory and its people, and had nothing to think of but the care of governing. Till then, all the European governments had been incessantly plunged into wars which deprived them of security as well as leisure, or so assailed by parties and enemies at home, that they passed their time in fighting for their existence. The government of Louis XIV appeared to be the first that was engaged solely in managing its affairs like a power at once definitive and progressive, which was not afraid of making innovations, because it reckoned upon the future. In fact, few governments have been more given to innovation. Compare it with a government of the same nature, with the pure monarchy of Philip II in Spain, which was more absolute than that of Louis XIV, and yet was less regular and tranquil. How did Philip II succeed in establishing absolute power in Spain? By stifling every kind of activity in the country; by refusing his sanction to every kind of improvement, and thus rendering the state of Spain completely stationary. The government of Louis XIV, on the contrary, was active in every kind of innovation, and favorable to the progress of letters, arts, riches—favorable, in a word, to civilization. These were the true causes of its preponderance in Europe—a preponderance so great, that it was, on the Continent, during the seventeenth century, not only for sovereigns, but even for nations, the type and model of governments.

…It is here that we discover the incorrigible vice and infallible effect of absolute power. I shall not enter into any detail respecting the faults of the government of Louis XIV; and there were great ones…I will admit that, probably, there never was an absolute power more completely acknowledged by its age and nation, or which has rendered more real services to the civilization of its country as well as to Europe in general. It followed, indeed, from the single circumstance, that this government had no other principle than absolute power, and rested entirely on this basis, that its decay was so sudden and deserved. What was essentially wanting to France in Louis XIV’s time were institutions, political powers, which were independent and self-existent, capable, in short, of spontaneous action and resistance. The ancient  French institutions, if they deserve the name, no longer subsisted; Louis XIV completed their destruction. He took care not to replace them by new institutions; they would have constrained him, and he did not choose constraint. The will and action of the central power were all that appeared with splendor at that epoch. The government of Louis XIV is a great fact, a powerful and brilliant fact, but it was built upon sand. Free institutions are a guarantee, not only for the prudence of governments, but also for their stability. No system can endure otherwise than by institutions. Wherever absolute power has been permanent, it has been based upon, and supported by, real institutions; sometimes by the division of society into castes, distinctly separated, and sometimes by a system of religious institutions. Under the reign of Louis XIV, power, as well as liberty, needed institutions. There was nothing in France, at that time, to protect either the country from the illegitimate action of the government, or the government itself against the inevitable action of time. Thus, we behold the government assisting its own decay. It was not Louis XIV only who grew old, and became feeble, at the end of his reign; it was the whole system of absolute power. Pure monarchy was as much worn out in 1712, as the monarch himself…

It is hardly necessary for me to remark that a great movement of the human mind, that a spirit of free inquiry, was the predominant feature, the essential fact of the eighteenth century. You have already heard from this chair a great deal on this topic; you have already heard this momentous period characterized, by the voices of a philosophic orator and an eloquent philosopher. I cannot pretend, in the small space of time which remains to me, to follow all the phases of the great revolution which was then accomplished; neither, however, can I leave you without calling your attention to some of its features which perhaps have been too little remarked.

The first, which occurs to me in the outset, and which, indeed, I have already pointed out, is the almost entire disappearance (so to speak) of the government in the course of the eighteenth century, and the appearance of the human mind as the principal and almost sole actor. Excepting in what concerned foreign relations…there perhaps never was a government so inactive, apathetic, and inert, as the French government of that time. In place of the ambitious and active government of Louis XIV, which was everywhere, and at the head of everything, you have a power whose only endeavor, so much did it tremble for its own safety, was to slink from public view—to hide itself from danger. It was the nation which, by its intellectual movement, interfered with everything, and alone possessed moral authority, the only real authority.

A second characteristic which strikes me in the state of the human mind in the eighteenth century, is the universality of the spirit of free inquiry. Till then, and particularly in the sixteenth century, free inquiry had been exercised in a very limited field; its object had been sometimes religious questions, and sometimes religious and political questions conjoined; but its pretensions did not extend much further. In the eighteenth century, on the contrary, free inquiry became universal in its character and objects: religion, politics, pure philosophy, man and society, moral and physical science—everything became, at once, the subject of study, doubt, and system; the ancient sciences were overturned; new sciences sprang up. It was a movement which proceeded in every direction, though emanating from one and the same impulse.

This movement, moreover, had one peculiarity, which perhaps can be met with at no other time in the history of the world; that of being purely speculative. Until that time, in all great human revolutions, action had promptly mingled itself with speculation. Thus, in the sixteenth century, the religious revolution had begun by ideas and discussions purely intellectual; but it had, almost immediately, led to events. The leaders of the intellectual parties had very speedily become leaders of political parties; the realities of life had mingled with the workings of the intellect…There never was a period in which the government of facts, and external realities, was so completely distinct from the government of thought. The separation of spiritual from temporal affairs has never been real in Europe, except in the eighteenth century. For the first time, perhaps, the spirtual world developed itself quite separately from the temporal world; a fact of the greatest importance, and which had a great influence on the course of events. It gave a singular character of pride and inexperience to the mode of thinking of the time: philosophy was never more ambitious of governing the world, and never more completely failed in its object. This necessarily led to results; the intellectual movement necessarily gave, at last, an impulse to external events; and, as they had been totally separated, their meeting was so much the more difficult, and their collision so much the more violent.

We can hardly now be surprised at another character of the human mind at this epoch, I mean its extreme boldness. Prior to this, its greatest activity had always been restrained by certain barriers; man had lived in the midst of facts, some of which inspired him with caution, and repressed, to a certain degree, his tendency to movement. In the eighteenth century, I should really be at a loss to say what external facts were respected by the human mind, or exercised any influence over it; it entertained nothing but hatred or contempt for the whole social system; it considered itself called upon to reform all things; it looked upon itself as a sort of creator; institutions, opinions, manners, society, even man himself,—all seemed to require to be remodelled, and human reason undertook the task. Whenever, before, had the human mind displayed such daring boldness?

Such, then, was the power which, in the course of the eighteenth century, was confronted with what remained of the government of Louis XIV. It is clear to us all that a collision between these two unequal forces was unavoidable. The leading fact of the English revolution, the struggle between free inquiry and pure monarchy, was therefore sure to be repeated in France. The differences between the two cases, undoubtedly, were great, and necessarily perpetuated themselves in the results of each; but, at bottom, the general situation of both was similar, and the event itself must be explained in the same manner.

I by no means intend to exhibit the infinite consequences of this collision in France. I am drawing towards the close of this course of lectures, and must hasten to conclude. I wish, however, before leaving you, to call your attention to the gravest, and, in my opinion, the most instructive fact which this great spectacle has revealed to us. It is the danger, the evil, the insurmountable vice of absolute power, wheresoever it may exist, whatsoever name it may bear, and for whatever object it may be exercised. We have seen that the government of Louis XIV perished almost from this single cause. The power which succeeded it, the human mind, the real sovereign of the eighteenth century, underwent the same fate; in its turn, it possessed almost absolute power; in its turn its confidence in itself became excessive. Its movement was noble, good, and useful; and, were it necessary for me to give a general opinion on the subject, I should readily say that the eighteenth century appears to me one of the grandest epochs in the history of the world, that perhaps which has done the greatest service to mankind, and has produced the greatest and most general improvement. If I were called upon to pass judgment upon its ministry (if I may use such an expression), I should pronounce sentence in its favor. It is not the less true, however, that the absolute power exercised at this period by the human mind corrupted it, and that it entertained an illegitimate aversion to the subsisting state of things, and to all opinions which differed from the prevailing one;—an aversion which led to error and tyranny. The proportion of error and tyranny, indeed, which mingled itself in the triumph of human reason at the end of the century…this infusion of error and tyranny, I say, was a consequence of the delusion into which the human mind was led at that period by the extent of its power. It is the duty, and will be, I believe, the peculiar event of our time, to acknowledge that all power, whether intellectual or temporal, whether belonging to governments or people, to philosophers or ministers, in whatever cause it may be exercised—that all human power, I say, bears within itself a natural vice, a principle of feebleness and abuse, which renders it necessary that it should be limited. Now, there is nothing but the general freedom of every right, interest, and opinion, the free manifestation and legal existence of all these forces—there is nothing, I say, but a system which ensures all this, can restrain every particular force or power within its legitimate bounds, and prevent it from encroaching on the others, so as to produce the real and beneficial subsistence of free inquiry. For us, this is the great result, the great moral of the struggle which took place at the close of the eighteenth century, between what may be called temporal absolute power and spiritual absolute power…


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