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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By François, duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680)

THE ‘MAXIMS’ of La Rochefoucauld are perhaps most clearly understood in the light of his life. He was a gentleman, a soldier, a courtier, a cavalier, a lover, in one of the most picturesque periods of French history,—one which afforded the man of affairs unique opportunities for the study of human nature, especially of those weaknesses of human nature which the atmosphere of courts seems to foster. The ‘Maxims’ are the very essence of a luminous and seductive worldliness. They are the conclusions drawn by a man whose intellect was always guided by his judgment; they exhibit tact which amounts to genius. They might serve as rules alike for courtiers and Christians.

La Rochefoucauld was born in Paris in 1613, in the reign of Louis XIII. His family was ancient and noble; his father enjoyed the royal favor. He himself, as Prince de Marcillac, became early a prominent figure in the army and at court. Throughout his long life he was peculiarly susceptible to the influence of women: it was through his attachment to Madame de Chevreuse that he became the devoted champion of the Queen, Anne of Austria, the neglected wife of Louis; infusing into his devotion to her that romanticism which is sometimes discoverable in the ‘Maxims,’ under their brilliant world-wisdom. Caballings against Richelieu engaged him until the great statesman’s death in 1642. He was then prominent in effecting a reconcilement between the Queen and Condé, that they might league together against Gaston of Orléans. Cardinal Mazarin, however, was to thwart his plans as Richelieu had done.

From 1642 to 1652 his life was one of confusion and of intrigue, with nothing better to steady it and to direct it than the fascinations of the Duchesse de Longueville, for whose sake he became a Frondeur. At the battle of the Faubourg St. Antoine in 1652, he was shot in the head; this misfortune in his military career proved to be of most happy significance in his career as a man of letters, for it forced him into that semi-retirement from which issued his famous ‘Maxims’ and ‘Memoirs.’ The remainder of his life was spent chiefly in Paris, in that brilliant and cultured society of which glimpses are obtained in the letters of Madame de Sévigné, whose intimate friend he was. La Rochefoucauld—the passionate soldier, the restless gallant, the suave lover—became in his old age the polished ornament of the most exclusive and exacting of Parisian salons. His friendship for Madame de Sévigné, for Madame de Sablé, for Madame de La Fayette, mellowed his declining years. He died in 1680.

In his Memoirs’ he says of himself, “I have talent, marred by melancholy;” and again, “I extremely approve of exalted passion: it shows a grandeur of soul. I who know all the delicacy and strength of the lofty sentiments of love—if I ever love, it will assuredly be after this fashion; but such as I am, I do not believe that this knowledge which I have would ever pass from my head to my heart.”

The key to Rochefoucauld’s character and to his writings may perhaps be found in these passages. The melancholy of which he speaks was genuine. It lurks in many of the ‘Maxims,’ as the natural sorrow of one disillusioned by his contact with the world, forced to acknowledge the gulf between the ideal and the actual, and to bow to the power of expediency. La Rochefoucauld has been accused of supremest egotism; of teaching a mode of life which is little else than the essence of selfishness. If so, it is a selfishness disguised in a constant effort to put the world at its ease,—to infuse all society with the golden atmosphere of courts, in which everybody and everything is assumed to be perfect. The ‘Maxims’ show, indeed, how nearly the wisdom of the children of the world approaches the wisdom of the children of light. Their author knew the world as few men have the opportunity to know it; and once for all, he gave to worldly knowledge perfect literary embodiment. His loves for many women gave to him likewise an almost perfect insight into woman nature. “In their first love women love the lover; in the others they love love.” The ‘Maxims’ are faultless in style and form: brief complete sayings, forming doorways neither too strait nor too broad into the House of Life, whose many chambers La Rochefoucauld had explored.

His ‘Memoirs’ are equally famous, taking first rank in their class. His letters are vistas into the highly colored picturesque life of the time. He himself seems less a great figure in French literature than a great figure in old French life. What he wrote has more the character of an afterthought than of a supreme intention,—the reflections of one concerning the world after that world had ceased to be of vital importance to him.