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The Colbert Report

The Information Master:
Jean-Baptiste Colbert's Secret State Intelligence System

By Jacob Soll

(University of Michigan Press,
277 pp., $65)


That resonant piece of verbal shorthand, TMI--or Too Much Information--would make a fine epigraph for our age. Anyone with an Internet connection today has access to exponentially greater quantities of writing, images, sound, and video than anyone on earth could have imagined just twenty years ago. Small wonder that we have become obsessed with the idea of "information" as an abstract substance independent of its content--something that we accumulate, measure, and "process," rather than ponder and understand. And small wonder that the management and control of information, whether by its "producers," by governments, or by corporations such as Google, has emerged as an increasingly important political concern, and as a subject of scholarship.

This scholarship, in the field of history, has recently taken an intriguingly paradoxical turn. While the extreme availability of information today should presumably have highlighted its relative paucity in earlier periods, historians--most notably Ann Blair--have in fact extended the concept of "information overload" all the way back to the sixteenth century, arguing that while we now associate the phenomenon with the internet, the printing press had a comparable effect. Until its invention, most literate people had access to relatively little written material. They could manage to read literally everything they could get their hands on. After Gutenberg, however, books multiplied rapidly, and soon many libraries became too large for their owners to read more than a small percentage of the texts. It became necessary to devise strategies for dealing with the excess. Scholars invented systems of note-taking, methods of summarizing and skimming, and principles of triage. As Francis Bacon famously remarked: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, with diligence and attention." That is, among other things, a comment about coping.

We cope in the same way; and anyone who identifies Wikipedia with the end of civilization should be reassured to learn that early modern Europeans already possessed an impressive arsenal of intellectual crutches and shortcuts, some of them quite dubious. By the seventeenth century there already existed a large genre of reference works, compendia, and reading guides, so as to lead the uninitiated through the increasingly dense thickets of learning, sometimes at breakneck speed. Some readers made use of little else, with classical compendia particularly prized for the quick simulacra of learning that they provided. As Jonathan Swift advised young critics, "Get scraps of Horace from your friends, / And have them at your fingers' ends." More serious scholars put together their own guides and reference works. Ann Blair has shown that many of the greatest Renaissance thinkers had no compunction about attacking their books with scissors, cutting and pasting what they considered the crucial passages into commonplace books or card files for easy reference. By illuminating all these systems, methods, and reference works, Blair and her fellow scholars are giving us a new vision of Renaissance learning, grounded not simply in our own reading of the texts, but in an attempt to grasp what people at the time actually knew, and how they knew it.

Printed books and periodicals were not the only form of writing to proliferate wildly in early modern Europe. So did reports, memoranda, briefs, circulars, directives, and all the masses of paper that form the crinkly carapaces of modern governments. By the time of the French Revolution, it had become almost impossible for officials to imagine how earlier ages survived without them. "The ministry is a world of paper," wrote Saint-Just at the height of the Terror. "I don't know how Rome and Egypt governed without this resource." Saint-Just also identified the problems that arose as a result: "Government is impossible with too many words . . . the demon of writing makes war on us, and government stops." In short, early modern government needed information management just as much as early modern scholarship did.

The development of state information management might seem a dull subject. Ledgers, account books, and filing systems generally do not make for heroic drama or grand epic. Yet in the hands of Jacob Soll these mundane objects become strangely mesmerizing. A gifted intellectual historian known for a fine book on seventeenth-century French humanism and politics, Soll here shifts his attention to the core of the early modern state, and the attempt by the French monarchy under Louis XIV to establish a new sort of political pre-eminence over its large, diverse, and notoriously fractious nation: what historians today call the project of absolutism. In this process, Soll argues convincingly, officials began consciously to treat the generation, the control, and the management of information as a central instrument of power.

It helps that Soll's story has a genuinely fascinating protagonist. He is Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's chief minister. A ruthless and brilliant parvenu who rose to the commanding heights of French society and became the chief promoter of the economic policies known as mercantilism, Colbert is a well-known historical figure. But Soll reveals a new side of him, casting him as a sort of magnificent obsessive--a practical-minded Casaubon who pursued, throughout his life, an impossible dream of universal knowledge. Colbert, as Soll shows, took inspiration from the humanist scholars who longed to create a usable universal library, but he sought to direct his own information management system toward the single goal of strengthening the French monarchy. He would not collect information in general, but information of use in governing. And instead of making it available to all interested readers, he would hoard it as a valuable commodity, deploying it publicly only when it served the purpose of the state.

In designing this system, Soll argues, Colbert brought together two very different European traditions: not just the forms of information management developed in the humanist Republic of Letters, but also the reporting and accounting systems developed by Europe's great merchant houses. Here one great inspiration came from the Fugger family of Augsburg and its vast sixteenth-century trading empire, which depended on regular news reports from a far-flung network of correspondents (in a very real sense, the first "reporters"), and on sophisticated filing and accounting methods to manage them. Colbert himself came from a mercantile background in eastern France, and had an education appropriate to the milieu, with more attention to calculation and the mysteries of double-entry bookkeeping than to the subtleties of Latin verse.

In his early years, this mercantile background brought Colbert a great deal of scorn, both from the grand aristocrats who dominated the French state and the humanist scholars who advised them. They mocked his vulgar manners, his bourgeois dress (especially his "merchant's collar"), and his literary ignorance. But to Cardinal Mazarin, Richelieu's successor as France's chief minister in the war-torn 1640s, Colbert's talents for managing money spoke more eloquently than the scholars' talent for glossing Tacitus: thanks to him, Mazarin's personal fortune swelled to tens of millions of French pounds, an astonishing sum for the period.

While treating Colbert as a sort of glorified servant, Mazarin nonetheless made him his principal accountant and trusted adviser, and then, most crucially, his librarian. The cardinal possessed the largest and best-kept library in France, which would become the core of the royal library, and thus the direct ancestor of today's Bibliothèque Nationale. Colbert grasped that the position gave him privileged access to precisely the sort of information that Mazarin most needed to protect and strengthen the prerogatives of the monarchy against increasingly sharp challenges from at home and abroad.

To understand Colbert's strategies for collecting and managing information, it is necessary to understand something about the Baroque disaster area that was the early modern French state. Soll rightly calls it "staggeringly arcane--a feudal web of laws and taxes." Since the Middle Ages, the French monarchy had allowed layer after layer of institutions, laws, and practices to accumulate, often in competition with each other, and each possessing their own royally guaranteed privileges and responsibilities. The resulting confusion was a dream for lawyers and a nightmare for almost everyone else. France's provinces had one set of boundaries when it came to the authority of royal governors, another when it came to legal jurisdictions, another when it came to royal tax collecting, and still others for excise taxes, internal tariffs and Catholic dioceses. Enlightenment commentators repeatedly likened the structure to a huge half-ruined mansion, and dreamed of blowing it up and starting again from scratch. (It is small wonder that the first great project of the French Revolutionary state was the literal demolition of that hated symbol of royal power, the Bastille.) But the kings of the Old Regime, however "absolute" their supposed authority, could not simply call in the wrecking ball, because their regime, always skating the edge of bankruptcy, depended on the revenue gleaned from the complex and confusing web of privileges that ambitious subjects remained ever willing to pay for.

In this context, the single most valuable sort of information for the government concerned precedents. What share of its tax revenues did a particular town owe to the central state? How much had it actually turned over in the past? Who had the right to name its aldermen? How much could be charged for the privilege? What right did its courts have to interpret or obstruct royal legislation? What had taken place in previous disputes? If the crown controlled the sources of information on such questions, it could resolve disputes in its own favor without incurring the charges of arbitrary rule and despotism that might destroy confidence in the system altogether.

Mazarin made good use of Colbert's talents in this area, and so did Mazarin's pupil King Louis XIV. When Mazarin died in 1661, the twenty-three-year-old Louis declared he would henceforth manage the government himself. But Colbert became chief minister in all but name, and continued to build his state information system. Most immediately, he worked with the king to stifle challenges to royal authority from the obstreperous sovereign courts (parlements). And this was only the beginning. In the 1660s, he began to train, and send throughout the country, a cadre of "professional state observers" to put together what amounted to a political fact book of France: population numbers; information on land holdings, regulations and laws; sketches of important personalities; data on economic activity. Soon Colbert expanded his ambitions to include neighboring countries as well. When he sent one observer--his son--to Italy, in 1671, he gave him the following instructions. In each state, he said,

look at . . . its situation, its military forces, the number of its peoples, the greatness of the state, the number and size of cities, towns, and villages, the quantity of the peoples that compose the whole; the form of State government, and if it is aristocratic . . . of the names and status of noble families that have taken or will take part in governing the Republic; their different functions; their general and particular councils; who represents the State,
in whom the sovereign power lies and who resolves peace and war, who makes laws; etc . . . the suffrages collected and the results taken and pronounced; the particular councils for the militia, the admiralty, justice, for the city and for the rest of the State; the laws and the customs under which they live; in what consist the militias meant to guard the main square. . . . Visit the public works, maritime and on ground, all the palaces, public houses, and generally all that is remarkable.

The letter itself proves that it is in no way anachronistic to apply terms like "information gathering" and "information management" to the seventeenth century.

The letter also gives evidence of Colbert's mania. He worked feverishly, always collecting, filing, and calculating. Soll calls him "a man apparently never happier than when filling out account ledgers." He reserved his anger above all for his son, whom he trained to take his place but who, predictably, could never live up to expectations. "I will visit every night my table and papers," the son promised Colbert obsequiously in 1671, "and I will expedite, before going to bed, that which I can, or I will put aside and send later, before marking, in my agenda that I will keep exactly on my table, the affairs that I will have sent out." But he repeatedly let down his demanding parent, who scolded him with cold fury in 1676: "You must still take care to look after your papers . . . [as] I asked you to do, and which I still do every day, for you, and which I now find rolled in a desk, in the worst state of filth, in spite of the fact that they contain the quintessence of the spirit of the most accomplished people in the kingdom." Outside the troubled bosom of his family, Colbert showed little emotion, earning the sobriquet of le nord--the north--from Madame de Sévigné.

Not surprisingly, Colbert's long-term goal proved impossible to realize. Soll defines it as the idea that "all knowledge, formal and practical, could be used together in one archival system to understand and master the material world." Colbert could no more complete this system than the Renaissance humanists could complete their ideal universal library.

Indeed, Louis XIV finally concluded that it was better not even to try, lest the attempt end up placing excessive power in hands other than his own. In 1683, after Colbert's sudden death (probably from a kidney stone), the king dismantled the system, and spread the responsibilities of information collecting and management among different ministries. Soll suggests, quite plausibly, that in doing so Louis "hobbled" the French state, making it even less possible to manage and setting it on the path to the mammoth bankruptcy and breakdown that, a century later, would usher in the French Revolution.

Yet Colbert did accomplish a great deal. He bought whole libraries and archives, and by the time of his death, the royal library had tripled in size, housing some 36,000 books and 10,500 manuscripts. His aides produced by far the most systematic and detailed descriptions of the country ever attempted, and for the first time in history the "nation" of France began to come into focus as a social unity that could be managed and transformed by political action. Colbert trained a cadre of talented officials to implement all these projects. He also enlisted some of the most gifted intellectuals of the day to help, including Charles Perrault, the famous author of fairy tales, and the academician Jean Chapelain. And he made excellent use of the information that he harvested, particularly against the principal sources of domestic resistance to the king's absolutist project: the parlements and the Catholic church. In 1682 he deployed his vast erudition to ensure wide support for measures subjecting the church to an unprecedented degree of state control.

Colbert also worked to restrict the public flow of information, and here he set particularly long-lasting precedents. He made secrecy his byword, and insisted that no one outside government had any right to a knowledge of its workings--particularly its financial workings. Soll depicts him at work ensuring that no Paris printer could learn Greek or Latin without official approval, so that potentially seditious classical scholarship would remain under close surveillance. He shows Colbert striving to suppress Richard Simon's pioneering critical treatment of the Old Testament--one of the first attempts to treat Scripture as a historical text--and promoting the idea that "history should serve only to conserve the splendor of the King's enterprises." While Louis XIV abandoned other elements of Colbert's information system, he happily retained all of these.

Soll tells this story in wonderfully lucid prose, and with a great gift for concision. Colbert emerges from his pages not only as the patron saint of modern bureaucrats, but as a forceful--if somewhat repellent--personality, and as another of the great early modern figures who sought to gain unprecedented knowledge of, and mastery over, the material world. What Galileo and Newton strove for in natural science, and Hobbes and Montesquieu in political science, Colbert, we now see, pursued in the less glorious but still vital realm of management and paperwork. In revealing this side to the minister, Soll has made a major contribution to our understanding of early modern history.

The principal criticism to be leveled at the book--a distinctly odd one, for an academic monograph--is that there is not enough of it. Even Soll's talent for concision does not save some chapters from feeling sparse, and Colbert's great enterprise devoid of a thicker and richer context. Soll does give tantalizing glimpses of this context. He knows the precedents for Colbert's projects well--especially those carried out by Italian and Spanish monarchs. He discusses them clearly, if briefly, and shows how Colbert's ambitions outstripped those of his predecessors. He also gives a brief, intriguing sense of how the story continued in the eighteenth century and afterward. But here, particularly, some important issues could have used fuller attention.

Following the French historian Roger Chartier, Soll suggests that the more the absolute monarchy became associated with secrecy, the more its opponents deployed the banner of "publicity" to resist it, seeking to promote both the free circulation of information and free debate about what that information meant. The antithesis of Colbert's philosophy of state secrecy came in the visions of a public sphere of free, rational, critical debate developed in the eighteenth century by writers such as Malesherbes, Condorcet, and Kant. As Soll astutely points out, this dialectical relationship between secrecy and publicity makes the state a much more important actor in the development of the early modern public sphere than most of its historians (who have principally studied the institutions of the sphere itself, such as salons and coffee houses) have recognized.

Soll then gestures toward the modern consequences of the story. "Even for the most open of democracies," he writes, "the culture of state secrecy is necessary and potent, but at the same time, in its very essence, perverse and dangerous." True enough, but while such sentences conjure up images of a malevolent Dick Cheney, the true modern heirs of Colbert's information system did not work in the office of the American vice president, but in Hitler's Chancellery, in Stalin's Kremlin, and in the East German Ministry of State Security, infamously known as the Stasi. It was in the bulging files that the Stasi insanely tried to compile on each and every East German citizen, enlisting a substantial proportion of the population to spy on the rest (and each other), that Colbert's dream of encyclopedic information came closest to realization. Since the collapse of communism, the spirit of Colbertism lingers on in such places as Moscow, Beijing, and Teheran. And it is in such places that dissidents are now deploying the tools of the current information revolution, from e-mail to Facebook to Twitter, to establish a new public sphere in defiance of state secrecy.

What distinguishes democracy from authoritarian rule, on the level of information systems, is that in democracy such systems have the double purpose of informing the state about its citizens and its citizens about the state. What is at stake here is the principle of accountability. In absolutist France, the state's agents were ultimately accountable to no one but the king. Colbert's system, with its accompanying bureaucracy and paperwork, allowed the state to keep watch on civil society, but not the reverse. Democratic societies, however, demand this reversal. As the historian Ben Kafka has recently shown, French revolutionaries in 1789 made public accountability a key demand, and wrote it into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. From now on, Saint-Just's "demon of writing" would provide a public record of the state's doings, and therefore help to protect citizens against the abuses of its agents. Modern bureaucracies remain riven by this tension between the two purposes of "public information."

More broadly, Soll does not engage explicitly enough with the large, fascinating question of how the control of information relates to the control of knowledge. He deals at great length with one of
Colbert's minions, a certain Joseph-Nicolas Foucault, but another Foucault, the philosopher Michel, lurks ineluctably in the background of any book of this sort. Foucault's famous work on knowledge and power mostly investigated very different issues from the kind of information management that Soll explores. It showed the ways that the naming of things, the categorization of knowledge, and the construction of "discourses" can radically shape the field of human action. In his later years, Foucault brought this perspective to bear more closely on questions of governance, looking at how practices of categorization and discipline work through institutions to shape and control individual "subjects" (what he called "governmentality"). But his orientation toward philosophical problems rather than historical ones, and his tendency to see "discourses" and practices as all-encompassing and uniform, make it difficult for his work to explain actual processes of historical change. For this reason, careful historians still tend to shy away from invoking him too sweepingly.

Yet Soll's fine book makes clear that Colbert's ministry represented not only a crucial stage in the development of state information management, but also something new in the broader history of ideas. The mercantile perspective the minister brought to bear on statecraft and scholarship was, despite the mirage of universal knowledge it came bound up with, deeply utilitarian. When trying to understand and to evaluate the information that he so assiduously collected and organized, Colbert applied a single clear criterion: its practical use-value to the French state. In a world of statesmen and scholars obsessed with fame, glory, and eternal salvation, the introduction of such a perspective at the very summit of the state represented a significant change. Colbert may have been a quintessential figure of the Old Regime in his attachment to royal power and noble privilege, but in his utilitarian and empirically minded way of thinking he was nothing less than a precursor of the Enlightenment. Soll notes that the great Encyclopedia of Diderot and d'Alembert made reference to Colbert no less than 143 times.

The path from Colbert to the Enlightenment needs further investigation. So, for that matter, does the path to the Enlightenment from the scholarly forms of information management studied by historians such as Blair. How does our relationship to formal knowledge change when we do not read through a book from start to finish, submitting ourselves to its logic and authority--when we impose our own organizational scheme on it through sophisticated forms of note-taking and the use of reference guides? The suddenness and completeness of the shift from one form of reading to another should not be exaggerated, but the phenomenon still has clear importance to the development of what we call, however imperfectly, modernity. The still more radical challenge to reading posed by the electronic dissemination of texts likewise promises, in the long run, to have profound effects on our broader intellectual universe.

The great irony about Colbert is that the ways of knowing that he championed would ultimately prove incompatible with the social and political values that he defended. He himself, of course, did not see any contradiction between a utilitarian perspective and a system of absolute monarchy grounded in the divine right of kings, brutal religious intolerance, and social privilege; but later generations would see a flagrant contradiction, and act decisively to resolve it. In this sense, the aristocrats and the scholars who saw Colbert as an alien, threatening presence in their midst had things exactly right. It is true, as Jacob Soll claims, that in the short term the French monarchy benefited from Colbert's ministrations, and might have benefited still more if his "system" had persisted after his death. From another perspective, however, he was less the state's servant than one of its gravediggers.