Voltaire called the France of Louis XIV, along with Periclean Greece, Augustan Rome, and Renaissance Florence, one of the regimes under which the excellence of thought and taste flourished as nowhere else. In the new issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here), Algis Valiunas examines the memoirs of Duc de Saint-Simon, one of Louis’s courtiers. His memoirs are among the most famous ever written and — at nearly 15,000 pages — among the most voluminous.
Honor was the Duc’s raison d’etre, and in this he was a true aristocrat. He was also the ideal historian of his time, possessing clear-sightedness and an insatiable curiosity about the nature of those around him. “His truest insight,” Valiunas writes, “is that history is the story of great men, and the great women who influenced them; his is the history of an aristocratic society, and he shows both its grandeur and its flaws.” In the age of kings, the private caprices of these aristocrats color high politics, and the characteristics of the court determine the course of the nation.
Saint-Simon’s memoirs are “full of highborn fools and miscreants, men who have done nothing to deserve their fortune, and a great deal to deserve the contempt of good men.” Valiuanas observes that Saint-Simon doesn’t make one want to return to the age of kings, but he does make one wish for a similar chronicler of our own age.