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The Ancien Regime Charles Kingsley

Lecture II -- Centralisation

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For, in France at least, the Ancien Regime was no tyranny. The middle and upper classes had individual liberty--it may be, only too much; the liberty of disobeying a Government which they did not respect. "However submissive the French may have been before the Revolution to the will of the king, one sort of obedience was altogether unknown to them. They knew not what it was to bow before an illegitimate and contested power--a power but little honoured, frequently despised, but willingly endured because it may be serviceable, or because it may hurt. To that degrading form of servitude they were ever strangers. The king inspired them with feelings . . . which have become incomprehensible to this generation . . . They loved him with the affection due to a father; they revered him with the respect due to God. In submitting to the most arbitrary of his commands, they yielded less to compulsion than to loyalty; and thus they frequently preserved great freedom of mind, even in the most complete dependence. This liberty, irregular, intermittent," says M. de Tocqueville, "helped to form those vigorous characters, those proud and daring spirits, which were to make the French Revolution at once the object of the admiration and the terror of succeeding generations."

This liberty--too much akin to anarchy, in which indeed it issued for awhile--seems to have asserted itself in continual petty resistance to officials whom they did not respect, and who, in their turn, were more than a little afraid of the very men out of whose ranks they had sprung.

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The French Government--one may say, every Government on the Continent in those days--had the special weakness of all bureaucracies; namely, that want of moral force which compels them to fall back at last on physical force, and transforms the ruler into a bully, and the soldier into a policeman and a gaoler. A Government of parvenus, uncertain of its own position, will be continually trying to assert itself to itself, by vexatious intermeddling and intruding pretensions; and then, when it meets with the resistance of free and rational spirits, will either recoil in awkward cowardice, or fly into a passion, and appeal to the halter and the sword. Such a Government can never take itself for granted, because it knows that it is not taken for granted by the people. It never can possess the quiet assurance, the courteous dignity, without swagger, yet without hesitation, which belongs to hereditary legislators; by which term is to be understood, not merely kings, not merely noblemen, but every citizen of a free nation, however democratic, who has received from his forefathers the right, the duty, and the example of self-government.

Such was the political and social state of the Ancien Regime, not only in France, but if we are to trust (as we must trust) M. de Tocqueville, in almost every nation in Europe, except Britain.

And as for its moral state. We must look for that--if we have need, which happily all have not--in its lighter literature.

I shall not trouble you with criticisms on French memoirs--of which those of Madame de Sevigne are on the whole, the most painful (as witness her comments on the Marquise de Brinvilliers's execution), because written by a woman better and more human than ordinary. Nor with "Menagiana," or other 'ana's--as vain and artificial as they are often foul; nor with novels and poems, long since deservedly forgotten. On the first perusal of this lighter literature, you will be charmed with the ease, grace, lightness with which everything is said. On the second, you will be somewhat cured of your admiration, as you perceive how little there is to say. The head proves to be nothing but a cunning mask, with no brains inside. Especially is this true of a book, which I must beg those who have read it already, to recollect. To read it I recommend no human being. We may consider it, as it was considered in its time, the typical novel of the Ancien Regime. A picture of Spanish society, written by a Frenchman, it was held to be--and doubtless with reason--a picture of the whole European world. Its French editor (of 1836) calls it a grande epopee; "one of the most prodigious efforts of intelligence, exhausting all forms of humanity"--in fact, a second Shakespeare, according to the lights of the year 1715. I mean, of course, "Gil Blas." So picturesque is the book, that it has furnished inexhaustible motifs to the draughtsman. So excellent is its workmanship, that the enthusiastic editor of 1836 tells us-- and doubtless he knows best--that it is the classic model of the French tongue; and that, as Le Sage "had embraced all that belonged to man in his composition, he dared to prescribe to himself to embrace the whole French language in his work." It has been the parent of a whole school of literature--the Bible of tens of thousands, with admiring commentators in plenty; on whose souls may God have mercy!

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The Ancien Regime
Charles Kingsley

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