Vauvenargues (1715–1747). Selections from the Characters, Reflexions and Maxims. 1903.

Introductory Note


  • “Courage is the light of adversity.”—Vauvenargues.
  • “Vauvenargues was one of the most admirable of men; and certainly of all the great sages the most unfortunate. Whenever his fortune hangs in the balance, he is attacked and prostrated by cruel disease; and notwithstanding the efforts of his genius, his bravery, his moral beauty, day after day he is wantonly betrayed, or falls victim to gratuitous injustice; and at the age of thirty-two he dies, at the very moment when recognition is at last awaiting his work.”—Maeterlinck.

  • LUC DE CLAPIERS, MARQUIS DE VAUVENARGUES, was born at Aix, in Provence, 6 August, 1715, of an ancient and honourable but poor family. His father, Joseph de Clapiers, Seigneur de Vauvenargues, was created marquis by royal letters patent in 1722, partly in recognition of the devotion which he had shown two years previously, when alone among the magistrates of the city he remained at his post in Aix during the terrible plague of 1720. Of Vauvenargues’s early youth and education we know little beyond the fact that his studies were interrupted by the weak health that pursued him as long as he lived. About the age of sixteen he came across Plutarch’s Lives, and, as with so many boys, the book thoroughly impressed his imagination. Years afterwards he wrote in a letter to a friend:—“I wept for joy when I read Plutarch’s Lives; there was no evening that I did not converse with Alcibiades, Agesilaus and others. I went down into the Roman forum to discuss with the Gracchi, to defend Cato from the stones thrown at him. Do you remember how Cæsar, wishing to pass a law too greatly in favour of the people, that same Cato, desiring to keep him from proposing it, put his hand on his mouth to prevent him speaking? Such methods, so contrary to ours, made a great impression on me. At the same period a Seneca fell into my hands, by what chance I know not; then the letters of Brutus to Cicero when he was in Greece after the death of Cæsar. Those letters are so full of dignity, elevation of soul, passion and courage that it was impossible to read them and preserve my coolness. I mingled the three books and was so moved by them that I only contained what they put into me.” He must have read his classics in translations, for he does not seem to have known either Latin or Greek.

    At that period the only professions considered worthy the attention of a young man of good family were the church and the army. From his earliest boyhood Vauvenargues had a passion for military glory, and at the age of eighteen he entered the army as sub-lieutenant in an infantry corps. In 1733 he accompanied Marshal Villars into Lombardy. He returned to France in 1736 to a monotonous garrison life, to much idleness, and some dissipation. Now and again he would isolate himself from his companions for the purposes of study and reflexion. His comrades evidently liked him and recognized his superior parts, for, young as he was, they were in the habit of styling him père.

    The first, perhaps, to discover Vauvenargues’s originality was the Marquis de Mirabeau, father of the famous Mirabeau of the Revolution. The young men were about the same age, and their correspondence, which extends from July, 1737, to August, 1740, serves as a history of Vauvenargues’s intellectual development. Mirabeau urged Vauvenargues to go to Paris and to take up the profession of letters. As yet, however, the profession of arms seemed to him the most noble and desirable, and he held no high opinion of men of letters. The following passages from the correspondence will best illustrate his attitude of mind at this period:—“You will easily understand that it is not from choice that I spend my youth among persons who do not touch my heart, whom I have no desire to please, who drive me from society by the little taste and interest I find in intercourse with them. You would like me, compelled to live in solitude, to attempt to fill it with literature, to cultivate my reason, being unable to follow my heart, and to steep myself in writing for lack of conversation, so as to keep myself in the world by that road at least, and to communicate my soul. That is a good thought, nothing could be better said; but I know myself, I know how to do myself justice, and to prove that I do not boast, I will not hide from you that I have neither the health, the genius, nor the taste necessary for writing, that the public does not want to know what I think, and that if I told them, it would be without either effect or profit…. There is neither proportion nor propriety between my strength and my desires, between my reason and my heart, between my heart and my circumstances…. But although I am not happy, I stand by my inclinations and cannot renounce them, I make it a point of honour to protect their weakness. I only consult my heart. I do not wish it to be the slave of the philosophers’ maxims nor of my circumstances. I do not make vain efforts to compel them to conform with my fortune, I wish rather to form my fortune on them. Doubtless that will not fulfil my desires; everything that would please me is a thousand leagues away, but I will not put myself under compulsion, I would rather yield my life! It is only on those conditions that I preserve it, and I suffer less from the griefs that my passions bring me than I do from the trouble of continually crossing them. I am not ignorant of the advantages of pleasant intercourse; I have always greatly desired it, and I do not hide in solitude. But I set less store by men of letters than you do. I only judge by their works; for I confess I have no acquaintance among authors, but I say frankly that, with the exception of a few great geniuses and a few original men whose names I respect, the others do not impress me. I begin to see that the greater part of them only know what others have thought, that they do not feel, that they have no soul, that their criticism only reflects the taste of the age or of those in authority; for they do not penetrate into the heart of things. They have no principles of their own, or if they have, so much the worse; they oppose conventional prejudices with false, useless, or tiresome knowledge, and a mind dulled with toil, and therefore I imagine that it is not their genius that made them turn to knowledge, but their incapacity for affairs, the rebuffs which they have encountered in the world, jealousy, ambition, education, chance. So that to live with such men you need a great stock of knowledge that satisfies neither heart nor mind, and which fills up the greater part of one’s youth.” As a matter of fact Vauvenargues never became a man of letters in the professional sense of the term. With him a life of action was ever superior to a life of thought, and he only entered on the second when the first became impossible.

    Another of Vauvenargues’s correspondents was Fauris de Saint-Vincens, a scholar and an antiquary, three years his junior. The letters written by him are deeply interesting, and touch on all subjects likely to be discussed between young men of a thoughtful turn of mind. They extend from 1739 to 1747, and give a fairly full history of Vauvenargues’s active and spiritual life. They contain, perhaps, his most intimate utterances on religion, faith, and friendship. A few passages will suffice to prove their interest and value. Saint-Vincens had been dangerously ill, and Vauvenargues writes thus to him concerning the uses of religion and faith at such a time:—

  • Aug. 8, 1739.
    “I am not surprised at the security with which you regarded the approach of death; yet it is very sad to die in the flower of one’s youth! but religion, as you say, provides great resources; it is fortunate at such a moment to possess perfect faith. By the side of Eternity, life seems but a moment, and human happiness but a dream; and to speak frankly, it is not only against death that the forces of Faith are to be arrayed; there are no misfortunes that it does not mitigate, no tears that it does not dry, no losses that it does not make good; it affords consolation for contempt, poverty, misfortune, lack of health—the hardest of all the afflictions that can try men—and there is none so humiliated, so forsaken who, in his despair and distress does not find in it support, hope, courage; but this same Faith, which is the consolation of the wretched, is the torture of the happy; it poisons their pleasures, troubles their present joy, causes them to regret the past and fear the future; indeed, it tyrannizes over their passions, and aims at depriving them of the two sources whence nature causes our good and evil fortune to flow, self-love and pleasure, that is to say the pleasures of the senses and all the joys of the heart.”
  • Oct. 10, 1739.
    “No more poignant picture could be traced than that you draw of a dying man who lived amid pleasures, persuaded of their innocence by the liberty, duration or sweetness of their usage, and who is suddenly recalled to the prejudices of his education, and brought back to Faith by the sentiment of his end, by the terror of the future, by the danger of scepticism, by the tears which are shed over him, and last by the impressions of all who surround him. With most men of the world it is the heart which doubts; when the heart is converted all is done, it carries them along; the mind follows the heart’s impulses by custom and by reason. I have never been against; but there are unbelievers whose error lies deeper; their too curious intellect has spoiled their emotions.”
  • Vauvenargues never wholly gave up religion. His attitude towards it is perhaps best indicated in the expressions that he had never been against it, and that he thought it possible to be a Christian “without being a Capuchin.”

    Another time he has something to say on friendship:—

  • Nov. 3, 1740.
    “Truly, my dear Saint-Vincens, nothing is perfect without friendship, nothing is whole, nothing sensible.
  • “I pity those who neglect it, and who seek their happiness only in themselves. There are moments of strength, moments of elevation, passion and enthusiasm in which the soul may suffice for itself and disdain all help, intoxicated with its own greatness…. The fire of pride, of glory, consumes itself very soon if it derives no nourishment from without. It falls, it perishes, it is extinguished, and then, man suffers pain…. Men make one society: the entire Universe is only one whole. In the whole of Nature there is only one soul, one body. He who cuts himself off from that body causes the life in him to perish. He withers, he is consumed in a terrible languor, he is worthy of compassion.”
  • These letters, too, give us a poignant picture of the manner in which Vauvenargues was, throughout his life, hampered by poverty. We learn the expedients to which he was reduced, the borrowings and the makeshifts, the debts he was forced to contract in order to keep up his position in the army. In a passage that has a sort of ironical humour, he tells Saint-Vincens that a man of whom he seeks to borrow money has daughters, and that if he will lend him the desired sum, it occurs to him he might promise to marry one of them in two years’ time, with a reasonable dowry!

    Vauvenargues took part in the war of the Austrian Succession, and in 1742 was in the terrible retreat from Prague to Egra, compared by Voltaire to the retreat of the Ten Thousand. The cold was intense and the army suffered horrible tortures. Vauvenargues, constitutionally weak, never properly recovered from the privations endured on the march. His friend, Paul Hippolyte Emmanuel de Seytres, the young man for whom he wrote the “Conseils à un jeune homme,” died at the age of eighteen, during the siege of Prague. In his memory Vauvenargues wrote an “Éloge Funébre.” Its eloquence was evidently inspired by Fénelon, and although it will not rank high among compositions of the kind, or among Vauvenargues’s works, we are told that he set more store by it than by any other of his productions, and that he was continually retouching it. The most interesting passages are those that reveal De Seytres’s personality, the most illuminating of which is, perhaps, the brief sentence, “he was insensible to the pleasure of talking about himself, the bond of feeble friendships.”

    At length the state of Vauvenargues’s health rendered it necessary for him to renounce the military life. He had traversed great perils and had won no glory, but still eager for a life of action, he turned his thoughts to diplomacy. He sent letters asking for employment to the King and to Amelot, the minister for foreign affairs, but even a second application brought no result. About this time, Vauvenargues wrote to Voltaire touching a question of criticism concerning the genius of Corneille and Racine. The great man, fully alive to his young correspondent’s ability and originality, replied, and sent Vauvenargues a copy of his works. Thus began a friendship ended only by death. Voltaire obtained from Amelot the promise of a post for Vauvenargues in the diplomatic service. But unluckily he was attacked by small-pox of the most malignant type; the little health he still possessed was completely ruined; the disease left him almost blind, it was impossible that he should avail himself of the minister’s offer.

    Everything now pointed to the literary life, and accordingly, in 1745, acting under the advice of Voltaire and Mirabeau, Vauvenargues went to Paris. The difficulty of the step was enhanced by his poverty; he was forced to live in modest lodgings and to lead a very retired life.

    Notwithstanding his dislike for the professional man of letters, Vauvenargues had, in his leisure moments, found time to record his thoughts in writing, and in February, 1746, published anonymously a duodecimo volume of less than 400 pages, containing an “Introduction to the knowledge of the human mind; Reflexions on various subjects; Advice to a young man; Critical reflexions on various poets; Fragments on the orators and on La Bruyère; Meditation on faith; Paradoxes mingled with reflexions and maxims.” A few days after its publication Voltaire wrote to the author giving it the very highest praise. He characterized it as one of the best books “we have had in our language.” It had, however, no success with the public, yet acting always under Voltaire’s advice, Vauvenargues issued a second edition in 1747. He corrected in it faults of style that had been pointed out to him, suppressed over two hundred of the maxims as too obscure, too commonplace, or useless, changed the order of the maxims he retained, developed some, added others. Meanwhile he was dying in slow agony and dire poverty, yet heroic to the end, Voltaire could say of him: “I saw him the most unfortunate and the most serene of men.” His whole life may be read in his “characters”—Clazomenes and Pherecides. “When fortune seemed to tire of persecuting him, when a too tardy hope began to alleviate his misery, death confronted him.”

    Vauvenargues died 28 May, 1747. He had not completed his thirty-second year. For half a century the work he left behind him remained unnoticed. In 1797, a new edition in two volumes appeared, quickly followed by another in 1806. Since, there have been many others, the best critical edition being that edited in two volumes by Gilbert in 1857.


  • “The essence of aphorism is the compression of a mass of thought into a single saying … it is good sense brought to a point.”—John Morley.
  • Philosophy, like art and poetry, must have its source in the clear comprehension of the universe…. Men’s actions depend in equal measure on both head and heart…. Philosophy is not an algebra sum. Vauvenargues is quite right when he says “Great thoughts come from the heart.”—Schopenhauer.

  • Rare indeed are the cases in which a man escapes the influences of his time. Vauvenargues was strangely little touched by them. The scepticism of the first half of the eighteenth century, its contempt for the past, its frivolous society, a society without dignity or conviction, produced on him little or no effect. We look in vain in Vauvenargues’s writings for the keen cynicism and delicate satire of “>La Rochefoucauld, or for the more brutal methods of Chamfort or. Rivarol. Vauvenargues had no desire to display the vices of men; his aim was to show of what their virtues made them capable. Were it not for an occasional reference to some custom essentially belonging to the France of his time, there would be little to mark internally the period to which his work belongs.

    The maxims form the most interesting part of Vauvenargues’s writings, but it is not wise to ignore or underrate other portions of them, especially the Characters. His method of painting character differs considerably from that of La Bruyère. Vauvenargues has himself described it. He disapproved of the unwritten law that forced writers who drew “characters” to limit themselves to the manners of their time or their country; a little more liberty was advisable, and authors should be permitted to leave their age on condition that they never left nature. He did not seek to describe men of the world, nor the absurdities of the great. He preferred to render, so far as he could, rather what fitted all men than what was only applicable to a few, and was more touched by the picture of a single virtue than by the numberless little defects so pleasing to superficial minds. Vauvenargues’s characters are full of himself. As we said above, Clazomenes and Pherecides sum up his life. The characters that follow take us through different phases of it. There are portraits of military men, and of active, firm, ambitious characters having insight into human character and so able to lead men. These would seem to point to his experiences in the army, and to his attempts to enter diplomacy. By contrast he draws a few characters of vain, weak, inconsequential persons, and, lastly, portraits of insipid or frivolous authors represent his literary period.

    The enthusiastic student of Vauvenargues will of course read all that he has written, but those who, without so much study, wish to gain a clear idea of his philosophy and teaching may confine themselves to the maxims after they have once become acquainted with the personality of the man through his correspondence and the Characters. As writers of maxims and aphorisms the French stand easily first; no one disputes their supremacy. No other of the world’s great literatures can point to the long line of authors, among whom we may name at random Pascal, La Bruyère, La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort, Rivarol, De Bonald, Joubert, who have excelled in that form of composition. The reason is not far to seek. The marvellous clarity and terseness of the French language, the ready wit of the Frenchman, and his capacity for handling words with lightness and dexterity, for expressing much in small compass, are just the qualifications that make for perfection in maxim writing. It is the Frenchman who has made conversation a fine art, and who has studied anxiously and lovingly the art of expressing in words delicate shades of thought and feeling. The French excel in the conte or short tale for similar reasons. Even Goethe with all his genius, and wisdom, and knowledge of men cannot be said to have written maxims that are successful as maxims.

    Regarded solely from the standpoint of literary style Vauvenargues’s maxims often fall short of perfection. He was not a man of letters by profession, and understood the art of writing, as an art, scarcely at all. His criticism of other authors is all but valueless. He judged them entirely by their effect on himself, and forgot that the first duty of a critic is to have preferences and no exclusions. He considered that Molière chose sujets trop bas, and praised Boileau with enthusiasm. Some of his criticisms, however, contain certain general views that are universally true. For example, he infers from the number of worthless books that cannot possibly live, issued from the presses of his day, that the taste of the majority is not correct. The mass of bad books is caused by the fact that writers do not follow the maxim—“Before you can write you must have thought; before you can excite emotion in others you must have felt it yourself; before you can convince you must know with certainty. Every effort made to seem what you are not, only serves to prove more clearly what you are.” He declared that “all fiction that does not paint nature is insipid,” and that what people so eagerly seek in novels is “the image of a living and passionate truth.”

    As Vauvenargues was no man of letters by profession, so was he no philosopher by profession, observing at leisure and making that, and that alone, the business of his life. He was a man who had suffered and had thought, and his sufferings and reflexions led him to certain conceptions of life and conduct which he embodied in his maxims. His main article of faith was that man should be guided by his passions equally with his reason; that only by such means could right action be possible; only by such means could a harmonious existence be assured. He even thought that our passions, wisely developed and followed, might be more likely to lead us on the right road than if we listened to reason alone. Regarding the passions as the principle of all moral activity, as the very life of the soul, he writes to Mirabeau—“We are generally masters of our actions, but scarcely ever of our passions. It is foolish to struggle against them when there is nothing vicious in them, and even unjust to complain of them. For life without passions resembles death, and I compare a man without passions to a book of logic; he is only of use to those who read him. He has no life in him, he does not feel, he enjoys nothing, not even his thoughts.” Although it is true that suppression of real, sincere feeling may prove as harmful to character as a too great readiness to yield to it, the doctrine would scarcely be a safe one for weak men. What Vauvenargues really meant was that a man’s character should be developed on every side. He believed in the importance of character, much as thoughtful men who have the welfare and progress of the human race at heart are beginning to believe in it now.

    Vauvenargues saw clearly the faults and vices of men, but was full of that large toleration for weakness that is ever the hallmark of a superior mind. He believed in human goodness, that in all men lies something of good which should be cherished and developed. This point of view made him sympathize with ordinary mortals, their hopes and fears, their weakness and their strength, and we contend that if only Vauvenargues’s Maxims were better known, more widely spread abroad, there is no philosophy that would more appeal to the average human being than that which they contain. A long line of moralists before him had written of the duties of men. He was no mere preaching moralist; it was his chief aim to spread clearness and light over the difficulty of attaining to virtue, of resisting temptation to sin. The first impulse of the human heart when brought face to face with weakness is to pity, it is the second impulse that moves us to condemn; second thoughts are not always best. Yet Vauvenargues’s tenderness of heart has no resemblance to the sentimentalism of the Richardsonian period, or to the philanthropy of our own. The professional philosopher in all ages, and rightly, is more interested in the destiny of the human race than in that of the individual; Vauvenargues, without altogether losing sight of the species, is more interested in the lot of the individual. Some find Vauvenargues’s classic prototype in Voltaire; we are inclined to regard him as a disciple to a great extent of Pascal and Fénelon. However that may be, Rousseau is undoubtedly his intellectual successor. Like La Bruyère, Vauvenargues seems to have loved and observed external nature; a number of beautiful similes from nature are to be found in the maxims. He compares an old man’s advice to winter sunshine, and the sudden end of a long and prosperous career to the dissipation of summer heat by one stormy day, and further shows his feeling for nature in such sentences as “The tempests of youth are mingled with days of brilliant sunshine”; “The days of early spring have less beauty than the budding virtue of a youth”; “The light of dawn is not so sweet as the first glimpses of glory.” Delille was nine years old when Vauvenargues died, and the Nouvelle Héloïse, in which Rousseau was the first to draw his countrymen’s attention to the beauty and influence of natural scenery, did not appear until the end of 1760.

    While La Bruyère paints a picture of humanity and draws from it no conclusions; while Pascal suffers from, and is irritated by humanity, although he continues to esteem it, and his maxims are often perverted by his systematic views on religion; while La Rochefoucauld’s maxims, true as they are of all selfish persons, and of all persons in proportion as they are selfish, succeed in slandering mankind; Vauvenargues’s maxims act like a strengthening tonic. He restores to humanity its virtues, puts the spur where others put the curb, preaches liberality even to extravagance, boldness even to rashness, advocates all that makes life strong and beautiful. His own life was certainly a restless striving for glory, but not for glory that should aggrandize himself, but for the glory born of valiant service to his country. Maybe that his sympathy with the imperfections of humanity, his serenity under a cruel destiny, his earnest desire to discover the good in men, give him a more enduring place in the “choir invisible” than the more active kind of glory he so ardently sought.