To What Heights May I Not Climb?
The parable of Fouquet’s fête
Every little Frenchman’s favorite history lesson is that of the “Vase de Soisson”. Similarly imposed in the collective memory of the French is the story of Nicolas Fouquet’s fête at Vaux le Vicomte. Fouquet [1615–1680] was the French finance minister in the early years of the reign of Louis XIV. Ambitious and astute, his motto was “Quo Non Ascendet” (“To What Heights May I Not Climb?”). On 17 August 1661, Fouquet, then (allegedly) 46, organized a sumptuous fête in the newly completed Castle of Vaux-Le-Vicomte adorned by exquisite gardens (designed by Le Notre of course). Vaux, considered one of the most sumptuous castles in France, is still there, next to Orly and I recommend a visit. The party was to be the fête to end all fêtes. It included a lavish meal served on gold and silver plates for hundreds of members of the court; fireworks, the première of a play by Moliere, ballet — the story does not say if he danced — and light shows. As the New York Times once wrote much late: “As corporate entertainment goes it has never been surpassed in splendor or tactlessness”. Fouquet was known for his generosity with his patrons although it was always self-serving. Yet, this time the King was astounded by this display of luxury. He also immediately understood that Fouquet was not only prodigal he was also … problematic and suspected he had unduly enriched himself at the expense of the Crown. The King had him arrested three weeks later. The disgraced minister barely escaped the death penalty and was eventually taken to a remote fortress. He spent the 20 years thinking about his fête in a tiny cell there till his death in 1680.
It is difficult to understand the reason Fouquet did not foresee that the fête would be the straw that broke the camel’s back (possibly because Grand Duke Ferdinand II only introduced Arabian camels a year later in Europe). In fact it feels like it was an act of defiance: Fouquet was convinced he was bullet-proof. Contrary to his predecessors, “old money” potentates Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin, Fouquet did not come from wealth and might have been blinded by his gains and felt his ascension was ineluctable. He also clearly forgot that his guest, the King, was also his financier. It might just have been the lethal combination of narcissism and hubris which affects so many corporate leaders. As the Harvard Business Review once put it: “Since it is well known that “Heavy rests the head that wears the crown,” never hold coronation ceremonies at your business, and if a star insists on self-anointment, let him know that he is not engendering admiration in others but, rather, making himself a target.” Winston Churchill wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Therefore, my gift to you is this timely reminder of the tragic downfall of Nicolas Fouquet.