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


Theophilus, or the Profound Mind

THEOPHILUS was imbued from his youth with the great and praiseworthy curiosity of knowing mankind and the various characters of nations; but, in pursuing that object, he did not neglect the men with whom he had to pass the greatest part of his life, for he did not resemble those who undertake long journeys in order to see, so they say, other manners, and who have never examined those of their own country. Urged by this powerful instinct, and perhaps also by some more secret ambition, he spent his best days in study and travel, and his life, always laborious, was always unquiet. Endowed by nature with extraordinary, profound, and clear penetration, he never speaks without a purpose, and his is no mind to cause weariness; his keen and active intelligence early caused him to apply himself to great affairs and solid eloquence; his words are simple, but bold and forcible; he sometimes speaks with a freedom that cannot do him any hurt, but which turns aside a defiant spirit in others. Nature placed in his heart the desire of insinuating himself and descending into the hearts of men who inspire and teach the hidden seductions of eloquence; yet he seems a man who does not seek to penetrate others, but who follows the vivacity of his humour. When he wishes to make a reserved man speak he contradicts him violently in order to rouse him, and insensibly engages him in talk in which he is obliged to reveal himself; even if he use dissimulation, his dissimulation and his silence have a meaning for Theophilus, who knows the things his interlocutor hides, and profits almost equally by candour and dissimulation, by indiscretion and silence, so difficult is it to escape him. He manipulates and plays a mind, turns over its pages just as we glance through a book we have in our hands, and which we open at a passage that pleases us; and this he does with such an air of innocence, with so little preparation, and so rapidly that those whom he has surprised by his words flatter themselves that they read his most secret thoughts. As he never wastes time in unnecessary talking, nor makes false steps, nor useless preparations, he is able to shorten the most contentious matters, the most difficult negotiations, and his flexible genius lends itself to every kind of character without abandoning his own. He is the affectionate friend, the father, the adviser and confidant of those who surround him. We find in him a man simple, without ostentation, familiar, popular. When we have been talking to him for an hour we think we know him, but his talent is to lay bare the characters of others and to conceal his own. Theophilus is a proof that skilfulness is not solely an art, as false men imagine it to be; a vivid imagination, great sense, an eloquent soul, easily subjugate the most guarded and defiant minds, and a superior intelligence conceals thoughts much more surely than do falsehood and dissimulation, always useless as trickery against prudence.