Olivares vs. Richelieu, lesson in Modesty

In his book, Olivares and Richelieu (Cambridge University Press, 1984), Elliott compares the figures that practically ruled over two of the strongest, most influential empires in the world (at their time), France and Spain. Richelieu as the Cardinal, prime minister to the king Luis XIII and his friend-rival-foe Count-Duke of Olivares, valido of the king of Spain, Phillipe IV[1].

The differences between the two were many and well known yet one that is not that clear is about the way they saw themselves, or in other words, modesty. While Olivares only spoke highly of his precious king, in Richelieu’s words there always seemed to have a double meaning, a non-dit, which made his enemies both fear and despise him. In one occasion in 1628, the Cardinal wrote of himself: “I was zero and I am the same zero [next to the king]”. This phase is a solid example to the differences in character between the two heads of state. The false modesty is recognizable by the use of radical self disdain on the first person in singular. For a person with a law self-esteem will not repeat twice a auto referential pronoun.  And beside, it is very unlikely that one will be in a power position and really think of himself as “zero”. This tactic is merely the recognition of the power hierarchy, nothing more. On the other hand, our good, large boned Count-Duke had never (at least for my knowledge so far) referred to himself in such a way. In different occasion we can read about his complains yet never demonstrating but sincere affection for his king.

Nevertheless, being sure of oneself can bring to greatness in other aspects where social skills are less needed. For example, as the principal minister, both Richelieu as his nemesis, Olivares, were after a better form of education. The two chiefs of state recognized the power of good education together with the right use of tools such as language and eloquence; skills that can fortify the nobility along with the capacity to solve conflicts (other than the battle field that is). Yet while the Count Duke was seeking to bring moral into the young nobles via Catholicism, Richelieu was busy founding the first Académie Française (1635, only to be followed by the Spanish some 78 years later[2]). The French Cardinal was always thought of himself as more capable, maybe because his pride, maybe because his wealth, his political scheming capacity, probably because all of the above.

And yet, when it comes of matters of War, it seems that neither modesty nor sobriety makes any difference. The role that had France in Europe according to Richelieu was perfectly illustrated in Europe, a comedy which the Cardinal himself provided the inspiration and plot. The comedy (which according to Elliott is an excruciatingly bad play) was never showed because of the death or Richelieu (1642). Grosso modo, the message of the comedy is that it is better to perish than to be enslaves and that it is preferable to be driven to war, ‘not by ambition, but by necessity’.

Thus, in order to block the advance of the Spanish forces, the French sent troops to the borders. The good Spaniards, on their side, saw the French troops advancing towards their borders and replied it as a call for war. In this way, as always, it seems that Fear is, and for ever will be the greatest motivation for war.


[1] Another interesting source is the series Vidas Cruzadas (Crossed Lives) made by the Spanish Minister of Cultural; the 12th chapter (out of 13) is dedicated to the rivalry between the two prime ministers (if anybody wishes to see it and is in my proximity, I happen to have it, as well as all the other chapters).

[2] Which on the other hand, is not that much if we take under consideration that the French have their official language since the year 967.

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