The More Things Change….
Having recently had a few dollars of expendable cash for the first time in quite a while, I indulged in my favorite habit – going to the bookstore and buying books which I could check out for free from the public library, were I responsible enough to return them on time or organized enough to get myself to said library during operating hours. The library is only a mile away…but the bookstore is a mere five blocks from home, so it inevitably wins out every time, thanks not only to proximity but to the quirky way in which I choose my reading material, which is by browsing. In the bookstore, things are arranged by what’s new, then by categories such as fiction, non-fiction, history, biography, natural sciences, etc. Much easier to browse than stacks organized according to the Dewey decimal system.
Anyway, one of my selections this time was Passionate Minds by David Bodanis, about Voltaire and his long-time aristocratic mistress Emilie du Chatelet – a love affair animated by shared intellectual passions. du Chatelet was an anomaly for the time – a woman motivated more by intellectual pursuits than fashion or court gossip, in an era where most women of the French aristocracy were uneducated, sometimes to the point of not even being able to write their own names.
Much of du Chatelet’s energy went into finding an appropriate male promoter or sponsor for her intellectual pursuits, which she finally found in Voltaire. He was not her husband, of course, but adultery was the norm for the French aristocracy of the time and du Chatelet’s husband, having his own dalliances on the side, raised no objections.
Her confidence boosted by her association with a man who truly respected her intellect, du Chatelet delved into explorations of Sir Issac Newton’s theory of gravity. du Chatelet translated Newton’s calculations from the geometry he used as mathematical proofs for his theory into the new calculus, both verifying Newton and making his work more accessible to future generations of scientists. She was also the first to theorize, correctly, that different colors of light in the spectrum had different temperatures, and among the first to recognize that light, as a substance, was composed of something other than mass.
What I found most interesting about the account, however, was not du Chatelet’s story, nor Voltaire’s, but the mise en scene in which their relationship played itself out. This was the France of the last Louis’ – XIV, the Sun King; XV, who came to the throne at 5 years of age; and XVI, who left the throne a good foot shorter than when he assumed it.
I learned a few things I never knew, such as how different the aristocratic system was in France than it was in England. This should have been long evident to me, since looking back on it now I was aware that France never had a Magna Carta. As a result, the French aristocracy had both less power and more privilege in some ways than their English counterparts. The king alone had the power to raise someone to the nobility. Working was one of the quickest ways to lose a title; aristocrats were expected to do little or nothing. Dabbling was acceptable, as was high military command, but working for a living was not. Members of the aristocracy were not taxed – at all. Taxes were quite literally, as Leona Helmsley once put it, “for the little people.” Considering that France was during the period almost perpetually at war with other European powers, one can only imagine the tax burden that must have devolved upon those who actually did the work of the nation, and wonder that it took them so long to revolt. Justice was similarly two-tiered; an aristocrat could – and often did – inflict violence upon a commoner without fear of reprisal. The system was set up to make sure the privileged remained so, and the rest kept to their proper place. Fairness entered into the scenario not at all.
If any of that sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s more or less the platform for one of our two major political parties. We already know they’re down with the idea that the privileged shouldn’t be burdened with taxation, that those who actually do the work that produces wealth should also shoulder the burdens of funding government, including the cost of the world’s largest military, and that we have a similar two-tiered system of justice, in which the man who steals billions or sickens thousands escapes punishment, while the man who steals the contents of a cash register serves decades behind bars.
The great irony here is that the party that proposes to restore this old order is the same one that makes a big deal out of disdain for France. Remember “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and “freedom fries”? It turns out that, contrary to Donald Rumsfeld’s dissing of “old Europe,” that’s the version they preferred. It’s not “old Europe” or old France they have a problem with – it’s the new version, the post-revolutionary one, in which ordinary people no longer know and keep to their place as drudges whose only value is generating wealth for a bunch of layabouts.
In an interesting parallel, time-share billionaire David Siegal, who is building a replica of Versailles as his personal residence, just last week sent out a letter to his employees warning of the dire consequences to their future employment prospects should Barack Obama be re-elected. This week, the billionaire Koch brothers followed suit. Just reminding the ordinary folks to remember their place – as drudges whose only value is in making sure that billionaires remain billionaires.
Which leaves me thinking that maybe they should stop exclusively focusing on the France of the ancien regime, and perhaps pay just a bit more attention to what immediately followed it and brought it to an end. As Louis XVI would no doubt tell them, the loss of a bit of your financial stature is nothing compared to the loss of a bit of your physical stature.