Louis XIV was King of France and Navarre from 1643 to 1715. His reign was the longest in European history and he presided over a period of immense transformation. Under him, France emerged as the leading power in Europe, and not just in military or political affairs, but in the arts and culture as well. He bent the nobility to his will. The great nobles who had once participated in the Fronde and their heirs had been reduced from being lords of vast estates to quarreling with one another over who had the right to hand Louis his clothing in the morning. Louis’ territorial gains were immense, and he forever ended the threat of an aggressive Spain by placing his grandson on the Spanish throne in 1700, successfully defending that claim (admittedly not without great cost).
Throughout his long life, Louis was motivated by an insatiable desire for glory and the attaining of magnificence. Unbeknownst to most, however, is that Louis left behind a significant collection of memoirs and letters. These were eventually coalesced into a book. It is not widely read today, but I was pleasantly surprised to be able to find the work online.
It is a long read and admittedly can get tedious at times. However, there are a large number of extremely relevant passages within its pages that teach invaluable lessons on being a great man – leadership, the wielding of power, the psychology and motivation to win, and how to live a fulfilling life. I’ve collected what I thought were some of the most relevant lessons that Louis has to teach us and present them below:
1. Be Informed, Learn From History, and Follow the Examples of Other Great Men
Poor information will lead to poor decision-making, as Louis writes:
“Whoever is poorly informed cannot avoid poor thinking.”
“A sovereign should take the greatest care to be informed of his own times, for if a man is fully informed he will always do what he should.”
Louis was no stranger to history. He knew that he needed to learn the valuable lessons that other men could teach and pass on. Just as we are now learning from him, he learned from others:
“The example of illustrious men provides very useful perspectives for war and peace, so that a naturally great and generous soul, contemplating these actions, would be inspired by them and ensure that the lessons of history can inspire others as well.”
“I have heard it said that all the great heroes of the past were conversant with literature and that part of their greatness was due to their literary study. Particularly I found the study of the past to be very useful in becoming wise in the art of war…”
“It is not sufficient for a prince who wishes to distinguish himself from others merely to know what is passing in his own time, but that he ought also to inform himself of every remarkable circumstance which took place at a more remote period. I considered that the knowledge of those great events which have taken place in different centuries, when meditated upon by a solid and active mind, would tend to fortify his reason in all important deliberations; that the example of those illustrious men and singular achievements which antiquity furnishes us with, would supply with useful hints either for war or peace, and that a generous and enlightened mind, intent on the ideas of those glowing virtues, would ever find a stimulus to the practice of great actions.”
2. Shut the Fuck Up
It is wiser to say less than it is to say more:
One of the best experiences to practice is to listen oftener than to speak; for it is a difficult matter for persons who are fond of speaking to refrain from saying something too much.
Admittedly, I still have much practicing to do in this area.
Although Louis did not write this himself, the notes at the end of the first volume reveal this bit of information from a contemporary, Madame de Calyus:
He carefully examined the respective dispositions and thoughts of his hearers: he was extremely prudent: he knew how every word which a monarch utters is canvassed over in public, and he often kept to himself those discoveries which his penetration had enabled him to make. If important affairs were the subject in question, the most learned and enlightened persons were astonished at the knowledge he displayed; they saw that he was more thoroughly conversant with the matter than they, and were charmed with the manner in which he expressed his thoughts.
The abbe de Choicy also said of Louis:
His unprepared and least studied answers outdid the most carefully digested speeches of others.
3. Regulate Your Conduct Wisely
As Louis found it wise and necessary to regulate his speech wisely, he says the same regarding one’s overall conduct and moral character:
“A bloody and ferocious temper is despicable in a man, and beneath the dignity of a king.”
“On every occasion declare yourself to be on the side of virtue and against vice.”
“The greater the merit and virtue of the prince, the harder the envious will try to dim his brilliance. Therefore some faults will be attributed to him which he is entirely innocent. Therefore a sovereign cannot live too wisely or too innocently. It is not enough to provide for general affairs, but you must regulate your own morals.”
4. Make Decisions with Conviction
What ultimately separates the successful from the unsuccessful in life is the ability to make good decisions. Louis knew intimately that all avenues of thought must be considered, but that holding off too long will only create timidity or worse. In this vital area of life he has this to say:
“There are often troublesome occasions which may cause you to hesitate in making a decision, but once you do, and think you have seen the best course, you must take it.”
“Uncertainty will sometimes make a prince pass very painful moments; but when a reasonable time has been bestowed on the examination of an affair, he must take a determination according to his best judgment, without protracting that state of suspense any longer.”
However, Louis warned the Dauphin not to make decisions too hastily either:
Better to conclude our business somewhat late than to ruin it by using too much precipitancy. Our impatience only tends to delay that which we eagerly wished to forward.
5. Get off Your Ass
Louis XIV did not simply cultivate France as the leading power in Europe by engaging in idle hedonism. He in fact astonished the country when he said that he would rule without a prime minister after the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661. He was determined to do the work himself and devoted himself to his work so much that on the very same day that he had an operation for an anal fistula in 1686 (an extremely serious condition at the time), he still attended his council meeting later. On the subject of working hard he notes:
“You will always find in me the same perseverance in labor, the same firmness of resolution, the same love for my people, the same passion for the prosperity of my state, and the same ardor for true glory.”
“Two things were without doubt necessary: very hard work on my part, and a wise choice of persons capable of seconding it.”
A typical day for him might have gone like this:
The morning, as usual, was taken up with the different councils of justice, commerce, finances, and dispatches; the afternoon, with the current affairs of the state, and in the evening, instead of following any diversion, as I had been accustomed to, I reentered my closet in order to business, either to talk about the war with Luvois, who had that department, or on other affairs which I had resolved to examine myself; and if after that I had any time left, I employed it in writing these Memoirs which you are now reading.
Louis in fact made it a rule to work twice a day with various other people aside from the hours he worked alone or devoted to extraordinary affairs. He notes:
I cannot tell you what fruits I immediately gathered from this decision. I could feel my spirits and my courage rising. I was a different person. I discovered something new about myself and joyfully wondered how I could have ignored it for so long. That first shyness, which always comes with good sense and which was especially disturbing when I had to speak at some length in public, vanished in less than no time. I knew then that I was king and born for it.
The biggest impediment to glory is sitting around and doing nothing. This is a sort of suicide by stasis, and I know this intimately because that’s how I used to be. Louis notes in great detail just these dangers:
Nothing is more taxing than prolonged idleness. You will be disenchanted first with affairs, next with pleasures, and third with idleness itself. You will seek everywhere in vain for what cannot be found. That is the problem with rest and leisure without some labor to precede it.
6. Have No Favorites
Louis XIV, in consolidating absolute power in the monarchy, made sure to elevate himself above anyone else. He clearly understood the danger of placing too much esteem in a single person, even his own family, as such attachments could prove dangerous:
“Have no attachment ever to anyone.”
“My brother, who, without doubt, in the state things were in, could not have very urgent business, and who from his own inclination did not think proper to occupy his time with anything that was useful or agreeable, had at his leisure hours resolved to demand that his wife when in the presence of the Queen might be allowed an arm chair. In consequence of the friendship which I entertained for him I could have wished never to deny him anything, but aware of the consequence this encroachment might be, I let him know, immediately, with all possible delicacy, that I could not grant his request; that I was willing to do everything to elevate him beyond my other subjects, and would always do it with pleasure; but that such demands which seemed to interfere with my own dignity, I thought it my duty to refuse. In short, I begged him to never indulge in any such thoughts, and endeavored to convince him by good reasoning how necessary it was that I should respect the rank which I held, how much his own pretensions were ill-founded, and how useless it would be for him to persist in them.”
7. Your True Friends Are Never Yes Men
In his instructions to his grandson, the Duke of Anjou, who was soon to become Phillip V of Spain, he remarked:
Love all people attached to you, do not give preference to those who flatter you most, and hold in high esteem those who for a good cause venture to displease you. They are your real friends.
In the main memoirs to his son the Dauphin, he wrote this about the nature of courtiers and their flattery:
Praise is of a very delicate texture, and we should be very careful how we are caught by its dazzling appearance, as it requires much penetration to discern truly our flatterers from our real admirers.
But however obscure the intentions of our courtiers may be, there is nevertheless, a certain mode by which we may turn everything they say to our advantage; which is simply, to examine ourselves closely on the subject of praise which others have bestowed on us; for when we hear certain encomiums which we ourselves are unconscious of deserving, it will immediately lead us to reflect on them (according to the temper of those who bestowed them) either as a malignant reproach for some error, which we, in consequence, should immediately endeavor to correct, or as a secret exhortation to a virtue to which we have hitherto been insensible.
Supposing even that we conceive ourselves really deserving of that which is spoken in our favor, instead of simply contenting ourselves with the praises which we have received, they ought rather to serve us as a stronger stimulus to merit new encomiums; for this assuredly is one of those mediums whereby the elevated mind may be distinguished from those who never rise beyond mediocrity; to behold the latter charmed with the empty noise of applause which is incessantly flattering their ears, abandoning themselves to inactivity and indolence, eager to persuade themselves that they have done enough; while the former, continually burning with an equal ardor, seem never fully satisfied, as if everything which is lavished to allay that fire with which they seem to burn only to increase its violence.
It is only after this manner, my son, that glory becomes amiable; the thirst for which it inspires is not a weak passion which becomes cloyed with possession; it is never obtained but by strong efforts, and never becomes satiating; and he who can rest contended without seeking new favors is unworthy even of those which he has already received.
8. Maintain The Frame of the Master
Louis was a firm believer in his divine right to rule. This seeped into his internal psychology from the time he was a small child. It became his standard programming and he acted in that part without fail throughout his life. When it comes to maintaining this frame, Louis has much to say throughout the memoirs:
“The mistakes I have made, and which have caused me infinite trouble, have been caused by kindness, and by allowing myself to surrender too heedlessly to the advice of others.”
“If you must punish people who you are naturally disposed to, do it, as the interests of the state must come first.”
“Treat your servants well, but do not allow them too much familiarity, and trust them still less. Use them when they are well behaved. Dismiss them on the least fault.”
“Divide the execution of your confidence. Do not entirely trust it to anyone. Assign various persons various functions in keeping with their talents. This is perhaps the foremost talent of princes.”
“Men are always tempted to use the power they have. No one shares in your work without participating in your power. Leave only as much of it to others as you must, for however careful you are, you will always lose much more of it than you should.”
“Take particular care to avoid granting favors to those persons who have their way with offering bribes. Be bountiful yourself, and time your liberalities as well as you can, but receive no presents, excepting very insignificant ones. If it should so happen that, on certain occasions, you cannot refuse accepting some, do not fail to make more valuable ones in return, as soon after as you conveniently can.”
“Never allow yourself to be ruled. Have no favorites or prime minister. Listen to and consult with your council, but decide yourself.”
“Nothing is so dangerous as weakness, of whatever kind it be. To command others, one must raise oneself above them; and after having heard all sides one must decide on the judgment one may come to with an open mind, always keeping in view to order or do nothing unworthy of oneself, of the character one bears, or of the greatness of the State.”
“When we behold a prince busily employed in looking after every thing which is done for the good of the service; when we see that nothing can escape his sight; that he discerns every thing, weighs every thing, and that sooner or later he punishes or rewards every person; it is impossible that but he must be better obeyed, and better esteemed.”
Louis also understood the psychology of crowds and the arrogance of the mob mentality. In this day and age especially, the advice he gives is very sage:
In a popular assembly, the more you assent to, the more they grasp after: the more you caress them, the more they will despise you; and that which they are once put in possession of is retained by so many hands that you cannot deprive them of it but by extreme violence.
Of so many persons who compose those numerous assemblies, the most ignorant are those who often take the greatest liberties; and if you pay any deference to their opinion on any one occasion, they pretend to the right ever after to regulate your projects according to their own fancy; and the continued necessity you will find yourself under to guard against their attempts will be more troublesome to you than all the other interests of your crown; for which reason the Prince who is desirous that his people should enjoy a durable tranquility, and that his dignity should descend entire to his successors, cannot be too careful in suppressing such audacious assemblies.
9. Be Very Watchful of Advice From Women
Louis XIV had many mistresses during his reign (or rather, during the early part of it – his string of mistresses lasted from the late 1650’s to the early 1680’s). This, combined with his astute mastery of social dynamics, and the maintenance of power, meant he was speaking from very extensive experience. On matters of the heart, he has this to say:
While we abandon our heart we should remain masters of our own mind. We should separate the tenderness of the lover from the resolutions of the sovereign, and the beauty in whose possession we rejoice should never be allowed the right of speaking to us on business, or interfering about the persons we employ.
In the same manner as a fortified place is attacked, so is the heart of a prince. The first step is to take possession of every post or avenue leading to it: an artful woman at first sets about removing all those who are not in her own interests; she inspires us with suspicions against some and excites our displeasure against others, in order that she herself and her own friends alone may be listened to; and unless we are well on our guard against these practices, we are exposed to the necessity of giving offense to every person in order to gratify her alone.
From the instant that you allow a woman the liberty of speaking to you on affairs of importance, it is impossible but what she must mislead you. This predilection we feel for her, induces us to approve of arguments that are bad in themselves, hurries us insensibly into her way of thinking, and her own weakness, causing her to prefer frivolous interests to more solid considerations, she infallibly adopts ill-timed and pernicious resolutions.
Women are eloquent in their expressions, pressing in their requests, obstinate in their notions; and all this is often found merely on some aversion against some individual, some wish to promote another, or some promise imprudently given. No secret can be safe in their keeping for they may, from mere simplicity and ignorance, discover what should be concealed, or if they possess wit and knowledge, they seldom fail to form secret intrigues and connections; they have them a certain set of counselors, who are to advise them how to preserve or promote their own greatness, to whom they never fail to impart everything which they know, with a view merely to those advantages which they may derive from the circumstance.
It is in these councils that they in every instance deliberate about what course they shall take, what means they shall adopt to accomplish what they have undertaken, to rid themselves of those who may have hurt them, to advance their friends, to entangle us still closer in their fetters; while we all along have no other means left to escape than to forbid their speaking about any subjects, save those of pleasure and amusement, and make up our minds not to believe any one of their suggestions concerning matters of business and our confidential servants.
I will candidly confess, however, that a prince whose heart is strongly possessed by love, being at the same time disposed to esteem her whom he loves, will find it hard to observe these precautions; but the more painful the trial the brighter our virtue appears; besides it is certain that these precautions are most indispensable and that it is for want of their being attended to that we behold in history so many fatal instances of royal houses extinct, thrones destroyed, provinces laid waste, and empires overturned.
Any woman engaging in these behaviors with you is not to be trusted and you must not take her advice. Do not allow yourself to be manipulated because of your feelings. You should never allow your feelings for any woman to privilege her point of view against your better judgments.
10. You Alone are Responsible for Your Fortune
Most people are keen to blame other people or circumstances for the misfortunes that they are suffering. This is in fact a form of narcissism, because it holds the implicit belief that you are essentially infallible. We’ve all fallen into this trap, and modern society only encourages this innate narcissism far further than it should go. Louis admonishes this mindset:
“The greater part of mankind are accustomed to regulate their conduct by their humor more than by their reason, and very often have nothing to guide them in their designs but their honor and their passions, that disposition of theirs, which always remains the same, always keeps them in the same route; so that in any disorders which they see in their affairs, or any misfortunes which happen to them, they have not the good sense to seek the cause in their conduct, but they impute every evil to the simple caprices of Fortune, and do not consider that if after they had felt her first blows they had adopted a new method of acting with her, they would most assuredly have secured themselves from greater evils; for it is certain that one of the safest remedies against the changes of Fortune is to know how to change with her, and you ought not to think my son, that the firmness of which I spoke to you at other times is at all opposed to the maxim which I have established for your guidance here, as that virtue does not consist in always doing the same thing, but in doing the thing which tends to the same end.”
“Habit is the most safe and most convenient mistress to render all things easy to us; the most arduous labor in itself insensibly becomes easy to those who are inured to it for a long time, and such dangers as at first astonish the multitude have so little effect upon those who are accustomed to them that they behold them undismayed.”
“The surest way of acquiring glory is always to follow the dictates of reason.”
“Those who have enough merit to succeed often find a certain greatness in recognizing their errors.”
“Time, action itself, and the aid of heaven usually break a thousand paths and uncover a thousand unexpected solutions.”
There is much more wisdom to be gleaned from the pages of these memoirs, and brevity requires that I cut the entry off here. If you want to learn more I suggest reading them yourself. You can find the full book here. There are also some valuable excerpts here and here.
A more condensed version of this post be found at Return of Kings.