"L'Etat, c'est moi!" is a slogan ascribed to Louis XIV, a French monarch of the seventeenth century who had the distinction of the longest reign in European history, ruling between 1643 and 1715. Louis saw a great deal of change during his long reign and was driven to this particular exclamation because of changing theories of political power and sovereignty which came into being around this time, theories that would eventually develop into our modern notions of authority and the role of the state. As such, a brief understanding of what exactly Louis meant serves to encapsulate the difference between how political authority worked in his day and how it works now.
Louis was a great believer in something called the divine right of kings, which in French was called la grâce de Dieu. His belief in it is hardly surprising, because it suited him very well. According to this widely-accepted idea, kings ruled their realms according to the grace of God, and they were ultimately responsible for their actions to no-one but Him. Kings were hence the ultimate source of authority on Earth, and it was the duty of subjects to endure whatever evils the king saw fit to inflict. Monarchies thus-understood tended to be absolute, with the king under no legal or constitutional obligation to anyone and exercising complete control over their subjects' lives in theory, even if in practice they usually acted according to accepted custom.
This theory was widespread around Europe for a long time, but it also had its critics. Some of the earliest were pre-Renaissance Italian writers, who used translations of ancient Roman and Greek political works to develop new theories about the basis of authority and power. Resurrecting a tradition of republicanism, they claimed that authority ultimately derived from the governed and was invested in a sovereign only for so long as the sovereign could promote the general good of the people he governed. The doctrine waxed and waned but began to become particularly popular again in the run-up to the English Civil War of 1641 - 51, which was conceived by the opponents of the Stuart monarchy as a battle to reclaim sovereignty from a king who had ceased to exercise it with reference to the people he governed. The rebellious Roundheads claimed that they had the right to depossess the king of his power because it ultimately derived from the people, whereas the loyalist Cavaliers said that consent had nothing to do with it.
However, this battle over the ultimate source of authority was not the only revolutionary factor in political thought that was sweeping Europe at this time. The other was the idea of the state. States are now such an unavoidable part of our life that it is hard to imagine a world without them, much less a world that lacks even the idea of them. However, the idea of the state is a modern invention which we can trace with a high degree of historical accuracy. The word state used to connote the actual state (as in the status) of a commonwealth: how prosperous it was, how big it was, and the like. And it could also denote the peculiar quality of royality or nobility, the "state of grace" which attended a noble and which he supposedly exuded. However, gradually, theorists who opposed the divine right of kings and who were looking for new ways to legitimize political authority began to grope towards a new meaning of the word.
The civic republicans had stressed that there was a distinction between the laws and governing institutions of a city or country and the people who discharged these laws, but they had considered the authority of the governing institutions to be identical with the authority of the people. They were hence, in a sense, proponents of direct or "actual" democracy. They had come up with the idea of something called the "state" as an alternative source of authority to the divine right of kings. But although they began to use the word "state" to denote the political institutions of a city or country, they never made a conceptual distinction between these institutions and the people they governed; just as, in turn, the theorists of the divine right of kings had never managed - or wanted - to make a conceptual distinction between the people who ruled and the institutions by which they did it.
It was Thomas Hobbes, in his famous book Leviathan of 1651, who made the final conceptual leap to give us the modern idea of the state. Hobbes viewed the state as an artificial set of institutions created by a group of people to rule over them, and which in itself exercised absolute sovereignty: hence, authority no longer rested with the people who held public office, or with the people governed by that office, but in the office itself. Hobbes was the first writer to suggest the existence of an abstract legal entity known as "the state" which was in itself the seat of sovereignty, and hence the first writer to detail the idea of the state that is prevalent in the modern world.
In Hobbes' conception, people came together and created a state but at that point they surrendered all right to sovereignty themselves, having transferred it to the "Leviathan" of the state. Although his ideas are easily misrepresented as totalitarian, Hobbes had only stipulated that absolute loyalty was due to the state once it was established; he had not said that this state should be totalitarian. He actually had a very limited idea of what the role of the state should be, limiting it to the prevention of violence and the enforcement of contracts between people. This was a huge affront to the idea of the divine right of kings because it denied that God was the ultimate source of authority, denied that the king held that authority, and reduced the people who actually exercised authority to mere servants of an abstract legal entity called "the state".
All of these various developments of an idea of "the state" befitted the increased participation in political life that was accompanying the rise of the bourgeoisie and the development of more modern societies in Europe. The ideas were, in a sense, a weapon to be wielded by new social classes who wanted to assert their right to political power against the claims of monarchs who viewed countries as their private property. "The state" was supposed to embody a fair set of laws and institutions that would rule equitably - it would be, as we say today, a government of laws and not of men. The contrast with the absolutism and self-seeking behaviour of monarchs could hardly have been greater. And so, when it was suggested to Louis XIV that there might exist some source of authority exterior to himself called "the state", and that this authority might have some responsibility to the people it governed, he could only reply: L'Etat, c'est moi! L'Etat, c'est moi! It was a claim that would ring increasingly hollow.