Théodore Chassériau, François VI, duc de la Rochefoucauld, 1836, Oil on canvas 

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, the maximum maximist.

Epigrams, aphorisms, apothegms, maxims, there is a small problem of nomenclature here, but scarcely an intolerable one.

The taste for maxims is rather like that for oysters: a taste for something sharp, faintly metallic, a pleasure brief but memorable, leaving an aftertaste (afterthought) and causing a felicitous ping to go off at the back of the throat (head). Epigrams, aphorisms, apothegms, maxims, there is a small problem of nomenclature here, but scarcely an intolerable one. The element common to all is economy of thought, the objective to say more by saying less. The point is to place a few well-chosen words in a perfect order, giving it at once an elegant shape, with sound and sense nicely meshed, paradox highlighted, truthfulness (not quite the same as the truth) reigning, and, with luck, a piquant touch of wisdom emerging.

Maxims are condensed essays, or at any rate each might stand as the last sentence of an excellent essay. They are written in the same grammatical tense in which paintings are painted, in what Richard G. Hodgson, in Falsehood Disguised1, his excellent recent study of La Rochefoucauld, calls “the eternal present.” In the composition of maxims, economy is of the essence; behind each is, or ought to be, the spirit of Hazlitt’s saying that “a thought must tell quickly or not at all.” Meant to give form to the most elusive and often paradoxical of truths, maxims are also meant to endure, which means that they must be pitched at a high level of generality and not be lashed to the time and place of their composition.

Nietzsche, who himself favored the maxim in Human, All Too Human and other works, held La Rochefoucauld’s writing in the highest regard; so, too, did Voltaire, who claimed that no other book did more to form the literary taste of the French than La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes. Schopenhauer, who also wrote maxims, almost always quotes La Rochefoucauld approvingly. Gide thought that he had carried the form to perfection (his italics). Rousseau, it will perhaps surprise no one to learn, felt that La Rochefoucauld was working the wrong vein, with “son triste livre.” But then La Rochefoucauld would have thought Rousseau’s ideas, not least the social contract, overly, if not comically, simplified. The only contract every man has is with himself, as La Rochefoucauld frequently pointed out, and he can usually be relied upon not to keep even that.

The great writers of maxims labor under the reputation of pessimism, if not cynicism. Some have been pessimists and cynics both. The best, as always, evade labels of any kind. Yet there is little doubt that a certain world-weariness attracts people to the writing of maxims. It is an older man’s form—few women have published maxims—probably best not written much before fifty and not read much until after forty, when one has had the chance to test the waters (tepid, salty) of life.

In defense of the dourness of most successful maxims, it could be said that cheerfulness in literature, if not in life, does not travel well. The quickest way for a maxim to become a platitude is for it to attempt to glorify men or women or even hold out some hope for the human race. Consider “Love conquers all,” which began life as a maxim and ended, where it resides today, in the nursing home of clichés. More in the spirit of maxim writing, on the same subject, is E. M. Cioran’s “Love is an agreement on the part of two people to over-estimate each other.”

The Cioran maxim can no more be proved than a statement expressing the opposite sentiment, but it does tantalize in the way maxims, when they succeed, tend to do. Cioran’s maxim may not be the truth, but it contains sufficient truth to provoke further thought on the subject. A successful maxim tells the truth, and nothing but the truth, but it does not, it really cannot, tell the whole truth. The implications of such truth—perhaps revelation is the better word here—as a maxim delivers must be weighed and worked out by the person reading it. Does the maxim fit one’s own case? Have the women who have loved me had to over-estimate me in order to do so, and in precisely what ways? Anyone else here beginning to feel the room getting a bit warm?

Maximists are psychologists not philosophers, anatomists not biologists. They describe rather than prescribe, dissect rather than connect. The word moralist best captures what they are, though not all moralists wrote maxims. No moralizer, the moralist propounds neither an ethics nor a morality, at least not directly. His claims are limited to telling his readers why men and women —and the moralists almost all delighted in the attempt to fathom women—behave as they do. In so doing, he rarely invokes the religious or the metaphysical; instead he is content to peel back false assumptions and asseverations in the hope of revealing true feelings and motives. “Mankind,” wrote La Rochefoucauld, “may be said to be a mere mass of poses.” The moralist’s task is to discover what lies behind them.

Idealism, it all but goes without saying, is no part of the equipment of the moralist. Any impulse toward the romantic in him must be strangled. All illusions must be rooted out, including—here’s the rub—the illusion that we can live without illusions. Illusion is for the human race the spécialité de la maison. Perhaps the greatest of these illusions is that we can steer a steady course of virtue through our lives, with victorious recognition of our goodness arriving at the end. On this illusion alone any moralist worth his vinegar could make a career. If I may be permitted a maxim of my own devising: Most of us think our lives a tragedy for which life will supply a happy ending rather than, what for most of us is much more likely the case, a farce with a tragic ending.

A farce with a tragic ending comes close, I suspect, to the way La Rochefoucauld viewed his own life. From his brilliant beginning there was no clue that it would turn out that way. His gifts, both natural and acquired, were prodigious. He was handsome, gracious, witty. He was a first-born son, and hence first in line for his father’s title and estates. (Until the death of his father, in 1650, he was the Prince de Marsillac.) Like other young aristocrats under the reign of Louis XIII, La Rochefoucauld, though married (as was not uncommon then) at fourteen, observed the breathtaking complexity of status and its ritual at court and, joining in the general skirt chase of the day, attempted, with some success, to sleep above himself. Women were always at the center of his life, except, it seems, for his wife, who bore him seven children and was apparently content to be one of those persons lost in the mists of history.

If there is a pattern in La Rochefoucauld’s early life, it is perhaps to be found in his penchant for beautiful women who themselves had a stronger penchant for intrigue than for him. At the courts of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, intrigue was more thickly in the air than sexual innuendo at a conference of psychoanalysts. A foreign queen, Anne of Austria, unloved by her frivolous husband, Louis XIII, caused the royal court to be divided between her and Cardinal Richelieu, whom the King was all too ready to let rule France while he played games, made jams, and mimicked the grimaces of men on their deathbeds. La Rochefoucauld sided with Queen Anne, which was the wrong, because the losing, side. (And only winning and losing, nothing in the way of principles, seemed really at stake.) He himself took up the Queen’s part chiefly because of his attraction to the Duchesse de Chevreuse, who was one of the Queen’s confidants. In time, of course, the Duchesse de Chevreuse and the Queen would argue, leaving La Rochefoucauld in his accustomed position of odd man out.

Easily the most elegant book written about La Rochefoucauld is Morris Bishop’s The Life and Adventures of La Rochefoucauld (1951). In 273 pages, Bishop provides an account of his subject’s life, while recounting the intricacies of the two French civil wars that went by the name of the Frondes along with other, manifold conspiracies and gracefully interweaving no fewer than 242 of La Rochefoucauld’s maxims into the work. A book in the best scholarly-belletristic tradition, it is immensely useful in taking its readers gently through the maze of French court life and the super-subtle machinations of some of the most delicate operators the world has ever known. Princes ride off to war, their servants carrying gold dishes and hampers filled with exquisite wines and poultry—a man has to eat, after all, and why not elegantly? Men fight and die, but court conspiracies turn out to be of greater consequence than campaigns afield. Three of the shrewdest Cardinals the world has ever known—Richelieu, Mazarin, Retz—take a hand in geopolitical poker, playing with countries for chips. Advancement, self-aggrandizement, acquisition of personal power, these seemed to be the chief points in a dangerous but otherwise pointless game.

A farce with a tragic ending comes close, I suspect, to the way La Rochefoucauld viewed his own life.

His mind muddled by his youthful romanticism, La Rochefoucauld had not the subtlety or perhaps the strength of character to play with these men, though take a hand he did. Cardinal de Retz, with whom at various times he was variously aligned and at loggerheads, wrote in his memoirs of La Rochefoucauld that he could have been “the most polished courtier of his time and the man of the highest principle in regard to public affairs,” but instead he was “ambitious to be mixed up in political intrigues” when he had “no knowledge of affairs of state.” He had, according to Retz, an abundance of common sense, though “he did not display this quality in practical affairs”; and he was irresolute. “A fine soldier, he made no reputation in war. He never succeeded by his own efforts as a courtier… . He was never a successful politician, though he engaged in politics throughout his life.” In short, La Rochefoucauld was a bust-out, a brilliant bust-out to be sure, but still a bust-out. La Rochefoucauld himself, one suspects, would not greatly have disagreed.

No need to rehearse all the endlessly intricate conspiracies through which La Rochefoucauld put himself over a more than twenty-year life of political intriguing. Sufficient, I think, to say that he came out a loser: without the love of the Duchesse de Longueville, sister of the Prince de Condé and the Prince de Conti, the woman he ardently pursued and with whom he shared an illegitimate son, whom he is said to have loved more than his sons by marriage; without his health, which he lost when he took a musket ball full in the face at the age of forty at the battle of Faubourg Saint-Antoine that cost him the loss of one eye and permanent disfigurement; without his estates intact (they were saved only by the perspicacity of a former servant, one M. Gourville, a sensible Sancho Panza to his rather hare-brained Don Quixote, who made wise investments for him); and without, finally, ever satisfying that vast romantic ambition that ended in destroying his body and cankering his soul.

The excellent Professor Bishop describes La Rochefoucauld at the end of the second Fronde, in 1653: “La Rochefoucauld, just turned forty, recognized by his dimmed eyesight, by the gouty pains of his body, that his active life was over.” Ah, but his literary life, which would bring him much greater fame than his political activism at its most successful could ever have done, was just about to begin. He was not a man to take succor in religion, to shore up his ruins in piety. Morris Bishop again: “He was essentially a faithless man, unmystical, unbending to God. The zeal of the pious seemed to him vulgar, even disgusting.” Instead he took to wisdom literature—Seneca & Co.—first to reading it, then to writing it. La Rochefoucauld the dreamer and La Rochefoucauld the intriguer were now done for. “The third La Rochefoucauld,” as Bishop writes, “will be only the spectator, looking at the world with dimmed, wounded eyes.”

It was in writing his memoirs, self-justifying and therefore not very distinguished memoirs, that La Rochefoucauld discovered his pleasure in prose. In a self-portrait, he wrote that, though he possessed “language fairly well, though I have a good memory and can think without confusion, I am still so bound to my sulky humor that I often express badly what I mean.” He added that “the conversation of cultivated people is one of the pleasures I enjoy most.” He might have qualified that by adding that he enjoyed the conversation of intelligent women most of all—“it seems to me that they explain themselves with more acuteness, and they give a more agreeable turn to their words”—and that he was fortunate in finding it in the salons first of Mme. de Rambouillet and then, more decisively, in that of Mme. de Sablé, the latter a confidant of Pascal.

“The third La Rochefoucauld,” as Bishop writes, “will be only the spectator, looking at the world with dimmed, wounded eyes.”

Much has been written about the language games played at these salons, where extreme politesse was professed and no less extreme gossip practiced. At Mme. de Sablé’s what was known as the proverb game was frequently played. In this game, one of the guests set out an observation on human behavior, usually in epigrammatic form, which all the guests then fell to criticizing, honing, and polishing, usually in the direction of ever more concise formulation. Many of these exercises were on La Rochefoucauld’s maximes, as he called them, some of which he himself is said to have rewritten as many as thirty times.

La Rochefoucauld’s maxims were pirated by a Dutch publisher, who in 1665 bound together 316 of them, without putting their author’s name on the title page, though most people who read the slender volume seemed to know his identity. At its first appearance, the book scandalized many. Mme. de La Fayette, who was later to become La Rochefoucauld’s great good friend, upon first reading his maxims reported to Mme. de Sévigné: “Ah, Madame! quelle corruption il faut avoir dans l’espirit et dans le coeur pour être capable d’imaginer tout cela.” It was as if the Misanthrope himself had written Tartuffe, and in fact Sainte-Beuve says that La Rochefoucauld’s Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales, as the book was titled, “delightfully prepared the way for that other Misanthrope,” of Moliére, which was first mounted the following year (1666).

Its readers might have argued about the truth quotient in La Rochefoucauld’s book, but no one disputed its high style. “People read the little volume eagerly,” Voltaire wrote, “it accustomed them to think, and to enclose their thoughts in a lively, precise and delicate form. This was a merit no one had had before him in Europe since the renascence of letters.” Sainte-Beuve adds that La Rochefoucauld “has the clearness and conciseness of phrase that Pascal alone, in that century, had before him.”

The first temptation is to conclude that it is chiefly because of what life had dealt out to him that La Rochefoucauld became the kind of writer he did. “The maxims were the revenge of the Romance,” writes Sainte-Beuve. He takes this a step further, writing that his maxims “please whoever has had his Fronde and a musket-shot between the eyes.” Taken together the two remarks imply that not only does one have to have suffered to have written so darkly as La Rochefoucauld but one has to have suffered one’s share even to enjoy reading him. Suffering perhaps helps, but having kept one’s eyes open helps even more.

Doubtless La Rochefoucauld would not have written as he had if life had turned out other than it did for him. Life dealt him a fine hand, which he overplayed. Still, he earned his worldly wisdom, as he watched all of his illusions sour in the brine of disappointment. But to say that the Maximes are the work of a disappointed man in order to disqualify them is, I think, a great mistake. Quite as great a mistake is it to claim that one has to be disappointed oneself to be enamored of them, though if La Rochefoucauld could be guaranteed a readership of only one percent of those disappointed in life, the Maximes, I think it safe to say, would vastly outsell the Bible.

The test of the worth of La Rochefoucauld is not to be found in his biography, but in ours—in the discovery of just how self-revealing to us his revelations are. A peek here—just a small one—into my own heart, where, perhaps shocking to report, the skies are not sunny all day. A month or so ago, I learned that a man I have not seen for more than thirty years died, of cancer. He was not yet sixty. I scarcely knew him; I dare say, had we met on the street, he would not have recognized me. I might have recognized him, for as a young man he was very handsome, devastatingly so. I was once at a party with him with a woman I loved; she, it was very clear, was attracted to him, as was perhaps every other woman in the room. So far as I know, she did nothing about it; nor did he. I have not seen this woman for nearly thirty years either. Still, when I learned of this man’s death, my first feeling—a fleeting feeling, but, let me assure you, a very real one—was the feeling of pleasure. Why? La Rochefoucauld covers the case. “Jealousy,” he writes, “is born with love, but does not always die with it.”

Let me delve just a bit further here, with La Rochefoucauld as my guide. Why did I take instant pleasure in this man’s death, a man who had caused me no harm, if he even ever thought of me at all. The great moralist would have no difficulty in supplying the answer. Amour-propre was entailed, he would say; amour-propre was behind my jealousy, even over a love about which I no longer cared in the least. This handsome man represented a threat to my amour-propre; in his good looks he held the potential power to humiliate me, or at any rate once held such power. Better, my amour-propre tells me, that this man should be dead. Stupid, horrible, vile, but, alas, there it is.

The test of the worth of La Rochefoucauld is not to be found in his biography, but in ours—in the discovery of just how self-revealing to us his revelations are.

The notion (idea? discovery?) of amour-propre is central to La Rochefoucauld’s thought. In the richness of its possibilities, amour-propre makes our old buddy the ego seem a piker indeed. To define amour-propre is only to describe it, but not truly to account for the insidiousness and grandeur of its powers. Amour-propre has been variously defined as self-regard, self-love, self-interest, self-respect. In the first of his supplementary maxims, La Rochefoucauld describes it, in part, thus:

Amour-propre is the love of oneself and of all other things for one’s own sake; it makes men idolize themselves and would cause them to tyrannize over their neighbors had they the opportunity… . Nothing equals the impetuosity of its desires, the depths of its schemes, or the ingenuity of its methods… . It is impossible to fathom the depths or pierce the gloom of the abyss in which it dwells… . There it conceives, breeds, and rears, unknowingly, a vast number of appetites and dislikes—some of so monstrous a shape that it fails to recognize them when exposed to the light of day, or cannot bring itself to own them. Out of the night that covers it are born the absurd ideas it entertains of itself; thence come its errors, its ignorance, its clumsiness, and its fatuous beliefs about itself—its notion that its feelings are dead when they are but asleep, that it has lost its activity when once it is at rest, and that it has got rid of the appetites it has for the moment appeased.

For La Rochefoucauld, amour-propre was not some intellectual construct, as the ego is for Freud, but a psycho-biological fact. To be human is to have amour-propre; to have amour-propre is to be imprisoned by it; yet to understand that one is in fact imprisoned does not ever quite set one free. In one of his maxims, La Rochefoucauld wrote: “Amour-propre is responsible for more cruelty than natural ferocity.” Yet, he also suggested that amour-propre, in its devious way, was responsible for much of the good men accomplish.

In its subtlety, amour-propre makes Freudianism and Marxism seem the intellectual equivalent of small change. With his emphasis on sex, Freud makes the world seem so much chasing after the brief spasm at the end of sexual conquest, though who exactly has conquered whom in this scheme is in actual practice never all that clear; with his emphasis on economics, Marx makes the world seem so much chasing after gold, which doesn’t make for much of a story, especially after one has piled up a vast quantity of it and finds one is still unhappy. But what is behind both pursuits, and many others into the bargain, La Rochefoucauld would say, is that strange, restless, perverse imp-villain-hero, amour-propre.

Straight out of the gate, in Maxim 1, La Rochefoucauld reports that, in the ethical realm, appearances and realities generally are not what they seem: “What we take for virtues are often merely a collection of different acts and personal interests pieced together by chance or our own ingenuity and it is not always because of valor or chastity that men are valiant or women chaste.” Nothing is pure; most acts are a mélange of motives in which virtue and vice mix, so that “vices are ingredients of virtue, just as poisons are ingredients of medicine.” What is more: “We should often blush for our noblest deeds if the world could see all the motives which underlay them.” Selflessness and disinterest dissolve before the elusive genius of amour-propre. “Self-interest speaks all manner of tongues and plays all manner of parts, even that of disinterest.” Amour-propre, as La Rochefoucauld notes, is like “the eye that can see everything but itself.”

La Rochefoucauld would not have been much of a hit at the Hallmark Cards company in Kansas City, Missouri. “All human life is sunk deep in untruth,” said Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human, and La Rochefoucauld took it as his job to show just how deep the untruth goes. In his study, Professor Hodgson writes: “The task of the moralist, as La Rochefoucauld conceived and practiced it, is to look behind the veil of appearances, to unmask the passions and prejudices being disguised as positive moral values. A whole range of attitudes and qualities traditionally associated with a strong sense of morality … are revealed in the Maximes as mere cover or camouflage for much baser instincts.”

La Rochefoucauld’s tendency is to find those infected spots in our moral constitution—vanity, pride, cowardice, envy, self-congratulation—and, with the sharp prick of a maxim, let the pus out of them. Whatever one prides oneself upon—loyalty, humility, courage, magnanimity—La Rochefoucauld can show that not very far beneath the surface of these professions lies self-love and personal ambition. Even civility— “Civility to others arises from a desire to receive it in return, and be accounted well-bred”—is suspect. Pity is not much better: “Pity is often a sense of personal calamity aroused by the calamities of others. It is a subtle insurance against possible adversity.” As for generosity, it is “generally mere pride of giving, which we value more than the thing we give.” And of course no profession is more to be distrusted than love: “In none of the passions does selfishness play so great a part as in love; we are always ready to sacrifice the comfort of those we love rather than our own,” and “In the pursuit of women nothing plays a smaller part than love.”

Life in society—ours no less than La Rochefoucauld’s—is predicated on most people seeming to be what they are not.

In Randall Jarrell’s novel Pictures at an Institution, one of the principal characters is accused of hypocrisy, to which the novel’s narrator responds by saying that he cannot be accused of hypocrisy since he hasn’t as yet reached the stage of moral development to know right from wrong. Just so in La Rochefoucauld, where most of us sleepwalk through life, with our grand attitudes and high principles, which we like to think we can retain through the knocks life so generously hands out. It is not that we are hypocrites; it is that where we are not blinded by amour-propre, our passions and the forceful, often brutal, coercions of fortune kick in. W. G. Moore, who has written perhaps the best book on La Rochefoucauld’s thought2, remarks that in his pages man is “seen as a creature more impotent than wicked, as impotent to do good rather than intent to do evil.” For La Rochefoucauld, inconstancy is perhaps the only constant in human existence.

Moore maintains that La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes “speak less of false virtue than of mixed virtue,” for “as amour-propre is insatiable, so is it incalculable.” This it is that makes La Rochefoucauld no simple cynic, but something richer, deeper. He is the first writer to have a true respect for the role of chance and timing in human affairs. Nor does he forget the role that simple laziness plays in our fate, especially mental laziness: “The mind is more indolent than the body.” His taste for paradox, which runs through the maxims, is very strong: “Nothing makes it so difficult to be natural as the desire to be so.” Everywhere he finds the spectacle of people acting against their professions, against their interests, against all logic—yes, finally, even against their sense of what they believe to be their own amour-propre. In the end, “Our enemies’ opinion of us is nearer the truth than our own.”

A Mme. de Shomberg, in a letter to Mme. de Sablé after reading La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes, wrote: “In this work there is a great deal of wit, very little goodness, and many truths of which I would have been ignorant all my life had I not been made to see them.” But is it so that La Rochefoucauld’s book contains “very little goodness”? I don’t believe it is, even though the preponderance of his maxims are devoted to unmaskings: of false motives, false feeling, false virtues. Beneath the flash of penetration into human pretension, apart from the portrayal of human absurdity, there is in the Maximes an attempt to discover what is authentic, and hence dignified and serious, in human beings. Because of the organization of the book, which sometimes presents maxims back-to-back as if in argument, but more often spreads maxims on the same subject thirty and forty pages apart, the search for the authentic that is at the heart of La Rochefoucauld’s book goes astray.

Authenticity in La Rochefoucauld, Professor Hodgson remarks, is a “combination of lucidity, sincerity, and internal harmony” and “is a rare phenomenon indeed.” La Rochefoucauld’s views on authenticity are discovered in a handful of maxims and through latching onto the reverse of those qualities he chooses to mock. Professor Hodgson notes that “l’être vrai is thus an ideal toward which we must all strive, but one which most of us will never attain, given the illusory nature of the world around us, the unpredictability of human nature, and the elusive character of truth itself.” This être vrai, or true being or genuine person, is someone who attains as much lucidity about his own motives and those of people he deals with as possible—no easy achievement when everything in society encourages the perpetuation of falsehoods, the exchange of lies, and the proliferation of illusions. Life in society—ours no less than La Rochefoucauld’s—is predicated on most people seeming to be what they are not.

As Maxim 62 has it, “Sincerity comes directly from the heart. One finds it in very few people; what one usually finds is but a deft pretense designed to gain the confidence of others.” L’être vrai combines in La Rochefoucauld with l’honnête homme, the true gentleman, who lives without pretension. Such a man has no need for pretension. “It is a sign of true goodness to be willing to live always in the sight of good men”—just as “the truly honest man is without conceit” and “lives in public as he does in private.” Still, make no mistake, to live with such lucidity and in such harmony is all but impossible.

Given our talent for self-deception—and self-deception is the true theme of the Maximes—what chance has any of us to live less than clownishly?

What with the maelstrom of self-love and self-interest in which we live, the added force of the passions that addle our minds, the banging about that the winds of fortune subject us to—“The world is ruled by chance and caprice”—nothing is more difficult, in La Rochefoucauld’s view, than correct judgment. Our youth is “une ivresse perpetuelle”; yet we arrive at each successive stage of life “tout nouveaux.” It was La Rochefoucauld who, in Maxim 444, invented that by now oldest of truisms, which has almost the status of folk wisdom, “There is no fool like an old fool.” As for the cool wisdom of old age, it was La Rochefoucauld who wrote that “we do not desert our appetites, it is our appetites that desert us.”

Given our talent for self-deception—and self-deception is the true theme of the Maximes—what chance has any of us to live less than clownishly? La Rochefoucauld posits two possibilities: the rare hope that one can win one’s way through to good judgment and the hope, against all hope, that one can find peace in one’s heart. “The greatest of all gifts is the power to estimate things at their true worth,” he wrote. Yet here the trap is that one can just as easily be too clever, too subtle: “The chief fault of the penetrative mind is not failure to go deep enough, but going too deep,” and “It is of the subtlest wisdom that the subtlest folly is begotten.” As for living in peace, “If a man cannot find peace in his heart, it is useless to seek it elsewhere.” Leave it to La Rochefoucauld to hold out a slender thread of hope, then withdraw it.

All this might be made simpler if we could just assume the worst about ourselves, and play on through from here. But, alas, even this is not so. Good and evil, like vice and virtue, are mixed and admixed. Even “selfishness, which we blame for all our crimes, often deserves to be praised for our good deeds.” Meanwhile, amour-propre works its devious way, “joins forces with those who attack it, takes part in their schemes, and, marvelous though it may appear, shares their hatred of itself, conspires for its own defeat, and labors for its own ruin; in a word, it cares only to exist, and, provided it exists, is content to be its own enemy.” In short and in sum: “Imagination cannot conceive such a medley of inconsistencies as nature has planted in every heart.”

In The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly writes: “Those who are consumed with curiosity about other people but who do not love them should write maxims, for no one can become a novelist who does not love his fellow-man.” Tell it, one is tempted to say in response to this statement, to Céline. Yet, such is the richness and complexity of La Rochefoucauld’s view of mankind, that it is to the great novelists that one most readily compares him. With his requirement for lucidity and judgment as the only, if always slight, hope for mankind, he is reminiscent of no one so much as Henry James with his invocation to try to be someone on “whom nothing is lost.” La Rochefoucauld wrote that “it is easier to understand mankind in general than any individual man,” to which James, across the centuries, responds in agreement: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” With his grasp of the contradictions that reside in the human heart, as the brilliant anatomist of love, jealousy, and envy, La Rochefoucauld is the proper predecessor of Proust, whose vast novel often reads like nothing quite so much as La Rochefoucauld’s 123 pages fleshed out in more than three thousand.

The only contract every man has is with himself, as La Rochefoucauld frequently pointed out, and he can usually be relied upon not to keep even that.

But especially do the Maximes seem to anticipate Joseph Conrad who, in Lord Jim, has Marlow remark that “it is my belief no man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge.” It is Conrad who, in a letter to Edward Garnett, wrote that “when once the truth is grasped that one’s own personality is only a ridiculous and aimless masquerade of something hopelessly unknown, the attainment of serenity is not very far off.” In Victory, Conrad has his protagonist Alex Heyst aver that he is finished with the moralists, but of course Heyst, wrong about his hope of living without illusions, is wrong about this, too.

Although the moralist would seem to present his readers with what Roland Barthes, writing about La Rochefoucauld, calls “a nightmare of truth,” there is something revivifying about reading him. If the drama of human life is to be found in the struggle between egotism and altruism— and La Rochefoucauld, let it be said, is light on the side of exploring the mysteries of the latter—he is nonetheless impressive in his own search for understanding. A man standing up to speak for truth is always a grand spectacle. And when he does so with consummate style, as La Rochefoucauld unfailingly does, it is all the grander.

“The mark of the maxim is form,” as W.G. Moore noted, adding that “by form we mean obvious and pleasing shape, a recurrence of sounds and a harmonious grouping of syllables.” Moore also points out that most of La Rochefoucauld’s maxims convey neither a fact nor an opinion but a relation and that very few of the maxims make absolute statements. Many are aptly qualified: such words as “sometimes,” “often,” and “most people” crop up time and again; La Rochefoucauld is master of the ne … que formulation. His metaphors are few, deft, and never draw attention from the main thought. The artfulness in the Maximes is both in their economy and the wide range of meaning their few words provoke. Even his ambiguities—the precise meanings of his use of such words as honnête, esprit, merité, coeur, and others—seem to work in his favor, causing Nietzsche, for example, to admire the combination of precision and suggestiveness in La Rochefoucauld, the two nicely blended by an overlay of paradox.

If one wanted to display a not merely characteristic but perfect La Rochefoucauld maxim, one could do worse than choose Maxim 26: “La soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder fixment.” (“Neither the sun nor death can be looked upon steadily.”) “This is,” as Odette De Mourgues writes in Two French Moralists (La Bruyère is the other in this study), “perfect communication.” And so it is: it has lovely sound, good sense, a touch of poetry, an air of paradox, and—an additional bonus—truthfulness of a revelatory kind and of a very high quotient.

La Rochefoucauld on death is appealing for its author’s utter absence of softening nonsense. In his self-portrait, he tells us that he is “not apprehensive, and has absolutely no fear of death.” But in Maxim 504, which is nearly as lengthy as his maxim on amour-propre, his tells another, more persuasive story. Here he reports on “the unreality of the contempt for death.” Although some meet death bravely, no one, he believes, ever despises death, at least not genuinely so. It is “the greatest of all calamities,” and “any man who sees it in its true aspect knows how terrifying it is.” If we think our reason will stand us in good stead as death approaches, we do better to think again, for “on the contrary, it is reason which generally betrays us, and instead of inspiring contempt for death, reveals to us all its most terrifying horrors.”

The man who would be famous for mocking the purity of love had, it seems, himself found it in its purest form.

Before La Rochefoucauld had to face this most democratic of terrors, he found the greatest peace and pleasure he would ever know in his life in the company of Mme. de La Fayette. She was a woman nineteen years younger than he—he was fifty-two, she thirty-three when they joined forces—and described by Boileau as “the woman of the most mind in France and the best writer.” She was the author of Princesse de Cléves, on which La Rochefoucauld is said to have worked with her. In later years, she remarked of their partnership: “M. de La Rochefoucauld gave me a mind, but I have reformed his heart.” Each in his and her poor health fell back upon the other for support—and found it, to the highest degree. “Their ill health,” Mme. de Sévigné wrote to her daughter, “made them necessary to each other, and … gave them leisure to taste their good qualities, which is not the case in other liaisons… . I believe that no passion can exceed in strength such an intimacy.” The man who would be famous for mocking the purity of love had, it seems, himself found it in its purest form.

It is good to learn that, with his full cognizance of the terror of death, he proved among those who faced it bravely. Mme. de Sévigné reports of La Rochefoucauld on his deathbed that “it is not in vain my daughter that he did so much thinking all his life; approaching his last hours on earth in the same manner, they held nothing strange for him.” After his death, Mme. de Sévigné asked her daughter, “Where will Mme. de La Fayette find another such friend, such society, such gentleness, pleasantness, confidence, and consideration for her and her son?”

La Rochefoucauld’s Maxim 473 reads: “True love may be rare, but true friendship is rarer still.” In the same woman, La Rochefoucauld, fortunate man, found both. He wrote, too, that “the only thing that should astonish us is that we are still capable of being astonished.” Yet apart from his work on the Maximes, La Rochefoucauld’s own life was a pure farce with a relatively happy ending. Life, in its richness, does have its astonishments and seems, it is pleasing to report, to have outwitted him in the end.

  1.  Falsehood Disguised: Unmasking the Truth in La Rochefoucauld, by Richard G. Hodgson; Purdue University Press, 176 pages, $29.95.
  2.  See Moore’s 1969 study, La Rochefoucauld: His Mind and Art (Oxford University Press).

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 10, on page 15
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