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


Phocas, or False Eccentricity

ALL that is false displeases and wounds us in whatever shape it presents itself. Since men, compliant by preference and intention, embrace without selection the ideas of everybody, who would believe that others exist who pride themselves in not thinking like any one else thinks, and in not borrowing their opinions from any one? Never speak of eloquence to Phocas, or, if you wish to please him, do not mention Cicero, for he will immediately eulogize Abdallah, Abutaleb and Mahomet, and assure you that nothing equals the sublimity of the Arabs. If some old comedy, the author of which is long since forgotten, is revived on the stage, it is that piece which he admires and prefers before all; he finds the plot ingenious, and the poetry and the situations inimitable. If war is the topic, you must not speak to him of Turenne or the great Condé; he places far above them certain ancient generals about whom only their names and one or two disputed battles are known. In fact, on every occasion, if you mention two great men, be sure that he will always choose the least famous for his hero. In all respects one of the most mediocre of men, he stupidly thinks to make himself original by means of affectation and he aims at nothing more. He avoids agreeing with anybody, and disdains to speak to the point, provided he speaks differently from the rest. He studies in puerile fashion to be incoherent in his talk like a man who only thinks and speaks by sudden inspirations and flashes. Tell him seriously a serious thing, he will reply by a jest; speak to him of frivolous things, he will begin a serious discourse. He disdains to contradict, but he continually interrupts, and often, instead of answering you, turns away his eyes like a man in profound thought; he has an absent-minded far-away air, and a disdainful expression of countenance. His part is to appear dominated by his imagination, and to pay no heed to the intelligence of others. He wishes to make you understand that nothing you can say has any interest for him because he is too far above your ideas. His conversation, his manners, his love, even his silence, warn you that you can say nothing that is new to a man who thinks and feels as he does. He is a feeble-minded man who, disbelieving that merit can advance him, thinks to impress humanity by his affectations, and to be taken for an original merely by throwing aside reason.