François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680) did not invent the form known as the maxim, but instead, fairly early in its history, merely perfected it. Defying any notion of progress in the arts, nobody has come along in more than three centuries who has done it better; he remains unsurpassed. “We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others,” he wrote, and later, not gilding but crushing the lily, he added: “We are easily consoled for the misfortunes of our friends, if they afford us an opportunity of displaying our affection.” He also wrote that “hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue” and that “however much good we hear of ourselves, we never learn anything new.” Bull’s-eyes, all of them, but then La Rochefoucauld hits the target more than any other writer of maxims in the history of the form, making him, beyond all argument, t ...