Jean de La Bruyère (1645–1696). Characters. 1885.

Of Personal Merit


(1.)WHAT man is not convinced of his inefficiency, though endowed with the rarest talents and the most extraordinary merit, when he considers that at his death he leaves a world that will not feel his loss, and where so many people are ready to supply his place?

(2.)All the worth of some people lies in their name; upon a closer inspection it dwindles to nothing, but from a distance it deceives us.

(3.)Though I am convinced that those who are selected to fill various offices, every man according to his talents and his profession, perform their duties well, yet I venture to say that perhaps there are many men in this world, known or unknown, who are not employed, and would perform those duties also very well. I am inclined to think so from the marvellous success of certain people, who through chance alone obtained a place, and from whom until then no great things were expected.

How many admirable men, of very great talent, die without ever being talked about! And how many are there living yet of whom one does not speak, nor ever will speak!

(4.)A man without eulogists and without a set of friends, who is unconnected with any clique, stands alone, and has no other recommendations but a good deal of merit, has very great difficulty in emerging from his obscurity and in rising as high as a conceited noodle who has a good deal of influence!

(5.)No one hardly ever thinks of the merit of others, unless it is pointed out to him. Men are too engrossed by themselves to have the leisure of penetrating or discerning character, so that a person of great merit and of greater modesty may languish a long time in obscurity.

(6.)Genius and great talents are often wanting, but sometimes only opportunities. Some people deserve praise for what they have done, and others for what they would have done.

(7.)It is not so uncommon to meet with intelligence as with people who make use of it, or who praise other persons’ intelligence and employ it.

(8.)There are more tools than workmen, and of the latter more bad than good ones. What would you think of a man who would use a plane to saw, and his saw to plane?

(9.)There is no business in this world so troublesome as the pursuit of fame: life is over before you have hardly begun your work.

(10.)What is to be done with Egesippus who solicits some employment? Shall he have a post in the finances or in the army? It does not matter much, and interest alone can decide it, for he is as able to handle money or to make up accounts as to be a soldier. “He is fit for anything,” say his friends, which always means that he has no more talent for one thing than for another, or, in other words, that he is fit for nothing. Thus it is with most men; in their youth they are only occupied with themselves, are spoiled by idleness or pleasure, and then wrongly imagine, when more advanced in years, that it is sufficient for them to be useless or poor for the commonwealth to be obliged to give them a place or to relieve them. They seldom profit by that important maxim, that men ought to employ the first years of their lives in so qualifying themselves by their studies and labour, that the commonwealth itself, needing their industry and their knowledge as necessary materials for its building up, might be induced, for its own benefit, to make their fortune or improve it.

It is our duty to labour in order to make ourselves worthy of filling some office: the rest does not concern us, but is other people’s business.

(11.)To make the most of ourselves through things which do not depend on others but on ourselves alone, or to abandon all ideas of making the most of ourselves, is an inestimable maxim and of infinite advantage when brought into practice, useful to the weak, the virtuous, and the intelligent, whom it renders masters of their fortune or their case; hurtful to the great, as it would diminish the number of their attendants, or rather of their slaves, would abate their pride, and partly their authority, and would almost reduce them to the pleasures of the table and the splendour of their carriages; it would deprive them of the pleasure they feel in being entreated, courted, solicited; of allowing people to dance attendance on them, or of refusing any request; of promising and not performing; it would thwart the disposition they sometimes have of bringing fools forward and of depressing merit when they chance to discern it; it would banish from courts plots, parties, trickery, baseness, flattery, and deceit; it would make a court, full of agitation, bustle, and intrigue, resemble a comedy, or even a tragedy, where the wise are only spectators; it would restore dignity to the several conditions of men, serenity to their looks, enlarge their liberty, and awaken in them their natural talents as well as a habit for work and for exercise; it would excite them to emulation, to a desire for renown, a love for virtue; and instead of vile, restless, useless courtiers, often burdensome to the commonwealth, would make them clever administrators, exemplary heads of families, upright judges or good financiers, great commanders, orators, or philosophers; and all the inconvenience any of them would suffer through this would be, perhaps, to leave to their heirs less treasures, but excellent examples.

(12.)In France a great deal of resolution, as well as a widely cultivated intellect, are required to decline posts and offices, and thus consent to remain in retirement and to do nothing. Almost no one has merit enough to play this part in a dignified manner, or solidity enough to pass their leisure hours without what is vulgarly called “business.” There is, however, nothing wanting to the idleness of a philosopher but a better name, and that meditation, conversation, and reading should be called “work.”

(13.)A man of merit, and in office, is never troublesome through vanity. The post he fills does not elate him much, because he thinks that he deserves a more important one, which he does not occupy, and this mortifies him. He is more inclined to be restless than to be haughty or disdainful; he is only uncomfortable to himself.

(14.)It goes against the grain of a man of merit continually to dance attendance, but for a reason quite the opposite of what some might imagine. His very merits make him modest, so that he is far from thinking that he gives the smallest pleasure by showing himself when the prince passes, by placing himself just before him, and by letting him look at his face; he is more apt to fear being importunate, and he needs many arguments based on custom and duty to persuade himself to make his appearance; while, on the contrary, a man who has a good opinion of himself, and who is usually called a conceited man, likes to show himself, and pays his court with the more confidence as it never enters into his head that the great people by whom he is seen may think otherwise of him than he thinks of himself.

(15.)A gentleman repays himself for the zeal with which he performs his duty by the pleasure he enjoys in acting thus, and does not regret the praise, esteem, and gratitude which he sometimes does not receive.

(16.)If I dared to make a comparison between two conditions of life vastly different, I would say that a courageous soldier applies himself to perform his duty almost in the same manner as a tyler goes about his work; neither the one nor the other seeks to expose his life, nor are diverted by danger, for to them death is an accident of their callings, but never an obstacle. Thus the first is scarcely more proud of having appeared in the trenches, carried some advanced works or forced some intrenchment, than the other of having climbed on some high roof, or on the top of a steeple. Both have but endeavoured to act well, whilst an ostentatious man gives himself endless trouble to have it said that he has acted well.

(17.)Modesty is to merit what shade is to figures in a picture; it gives it strength and makes it stand out. A plain appearance is to ordinary men their proper garb: it suits them and fits them, but it adorns those persons whose lives have been distinguished by grand deeds; I compare them to a beauty who is most charming in négligé.

Some men, satisfied with themselves because their actions or works have been tolerably successful, and having heard that modesty becomes great men, affect the simplicity and the natural air of truly modest people, like those persons of middling size who stoop, when under a doorway, for fear of hurting their heads.

(18.)Your son stammers; do not think of letting him make speeches; your daughter, too, looks as if she were made for the world, so never immure her among the vestals. Xanthus, your freedman, is feeble and timorous; therefore do not delay, but let him instantly leave the army and the soldiers. You say you would promote him, heap wealth on him, overwhelm him with lands, titles, and possessions: make the most of your time, for in the present age they will do him far more credit than virtue. “But this will cost me too much,” you reply. “Ah, Crassus, do you speak seriously? Why, for you to enrich Xanthus, whom you love, is no more than taking a drop of water from the Tiber; and thus you prevent the bad consequences of his having entered a profession for which he was not fit.”

(19.)It is virtue alone which should guide us in the choice of our friends, without any inquiry into their poverty or riches; and as we are resolved not to abandon them in adversity, we may boldly and freely cultivate their friendship even in their greatest prosperity.

(20.)If it be usual to be strongly impressed by things that are scarce, why are we so little impressed by virtue?

(21.)If it be a happiness to be of noble parentage, it is no less so to possess so much merit that nobody inquires whether we are noble or plebeian.

(22.)From time to time have appeared in the world some extraordinary and admirable men, refulgent by their virtues, and whose eminent qualities have shone with prodigious brilliancy, like those uncommon stars of which we do not know why they appear, and know still less what becomes of them after they have disappeared. These men have neither ancestors nor posterity; they alone are their whole race.

(23.)A sensible mind shows us our duty and the obligation we lie under to perform it, and if attended with danger, to perform it in spite of danger; it inspires us with courage or supplies the want of it.

(24.)He who excels in his art, so as to carry it to the utmost height of perfection, goes in some measure beyond it, and becomes the equal of whatever is most noble and most transcendental: thus V… is an artist, C… a musician, and the author of Pyrame a poet; but Mignard is Mignard, Lulli is Lulli, and Corneille is Corneille.

(25). A man who is single and independent, and who has some intelligence, may rise above his fortune, mix with the world, and be considered the equal of the best society, which is not so easily done if encumbered. Marriage seems to place everybody in their proper station of life.

(26.)Next to personal merit, it must be owned that from eminent dignities and lofty titles men derive the greatest distinction and lustre; and thus a man who will never make an Erasmus is right when he thinks of becoming a bishop. Some, to spread their fame, heap up dignities, decorations, bishoprics, become cardinals, and may want the tiara; but what need for Trophime to become a cardinal.

(27.)You tell me that Philemon’s clothes blaze with gold, but that metal also shone when they were in the tailor’s shop. His clothes are made of the finest materials; but are those same materials less fine in the warehouse or in the whole piece? But then the embroidery and trimmings make them still more magnificent. I praise, therefore, the skill of his tailor. Ask him what o’clock it is, and he pulls out a watch, a masterpiece of workmanship; the handle of his sword is an onyx, and on his finger he wears a large diamond which dazzles our eyes and has no flaw. He wants none of all those curious nicknacks which are worn more for show than service, and is as profuse with all kinds of ornaments as a young fellow who has married a wealthy old lady. Well, at last you have excited my curiosity: I should, at least, like to see all this finery: send me Philemon’s clothes and jewels; but I do not wish to see him.

You are mistaken, Philemon, if you think you will be esteemed a whit the more for your showy coach, the large number of rogues who follow you, and those six horses that draw you along; we mentally remove all splendour which is not properly yours, to reach you personally, and find you to be a mere conceited noodle.

Not but that a man is sometimes to be forgiven who, on account of his splendid retinue, his rich clothes, and his magnificent carriage, thinks himself of more noble descent and more intelligent than he really is; for he sees this opinion expressed on the countenances and in the eyes of those who speak to him.

(28.)At court, and often in the city, a man in a long silken cassock or one of very fine cloth, with a broad cincture tied high upon his stomach, shoes of the finest morocco leather, and a little skull-cap of the same material, with well-made and well-starched bands, his hair smoothed down, and with a ruddy complexion; who, besides, remembers some metaphysical distinctions, explains what is the lumen gloriæ, and what it is to behold God face to face, is called a doctor. A man of humble mind, who is immured in his study, who has meditated, searched, compared, collated, read or written all his lifetime, is a man of learning.

(29.)With us a soldier is brave, a lawyer learned; we proceed no farther. Among the Romans a lawyer was brave and a soldier learned; a Roman was a soldier and a lawyer.

(30.)A hero seems to have but one profession, namely, to be a soldier, whilst a great man is of all professions—a lawyer, a soldier, a politician or a courtier; put them both together and they are not worth an honest man.

(31.)In war it is very difficult to make a distinction between a hero and a great man, for both possess military virtues. It seems, however, that the first should be young, daring, unmoved amidst dangers and dauntless, whilst the other should have extraordinary sense, great sagacity, lofty capacities, and a long experience. Perhaps Alexander was but a hero, and Cæsar a great man.

(32.)Æmilius was born with those qualities which the greatest men do not acquire without guidance, long study, and practice. He had nothing to do in his early years but to show himself worthy of his innate talents, and to give himself up to the bent of his genius. He has done and performed deeds before he knew anything; or rather, he knew what was never taught him. I dare say it: many victories were the sport of his childhood. A life attended by great good fortune as well as by long experience, would have gained renown by the mere actions of his youth. He embraced all opportunities of conquest which presented themselves, whilst his courage and his good fortune created those which did not exist; he was admired for what he has done, as well as for what he could have done. He has been looked upon as a man incapable of yielding to an enemy, or giving way to numbers or difficulties; as a superior mind, never wanting in expediency or knowledge, and seeing things which no one else could see; as one who was sure to lead to victory when at the head of an army; and who singly was more valuable than many battalions; as one who was great in prosperity, greater when fortune was against him,—the being compelled to raise a siege or to beat a retreat have gained him more honour than a victory, and they rank before his gaining battles or taking of towns,—as one full of glory and modesty. He has been heard to say, “I fled,” as calmly as he said, “We beat the enemy;” he was a man devoted to the State, to his family, to the head of that family; sincere towards God and men, as great an admirer of merit as if he had not been so well acquainted with it himself; a true, unaffected, and magnanimous man, in whom none but virtues of an inferior kind were wanting.

(33.)The offspring of the gods, if I may express myself so, are beyond the laws of nature, and, as it were, an exception to them. They expect almost nothing from time or age; for merit, in them, precedes years. They are born well informed, and reach manhood before ordinary men abandon infancy.

(34.)Short-sighted men, I mean those whose minds are limited and never extend beyond their own little sphere, cannot understand that universality of talent one sometimes observes in the same person. They allow no one to possess solid qualities when he is agreeable; or, when they think they have perceived in a person some bodily attractions, such as agility, elasticity, and skill, they will not credit him with the possession of those gifts of the mind, perspicacity, judgment, and wisdom; they will not believe what is told in the history of Socrates, that he ever danced.

(35.)There exists scarcely any man so accomplished, or so necessary to his own family, but he has some failing which will diminish their regret at his loss.

(36.)An intelligent man, of a simple and straightforward character, may fall into some snare, for he does not think that anybody would spread one for him or select him in order to deceive him. This assurance makes him less cautious, and he is caught by some rogues through this failing. But the latter will not be so successful when they attempt it a second time; such a man can only be deceived once.

If I am a just man, I will be careful not to offend any one, but above all not to offend an intelligent man, if I have the smallest regard for my own interests.

(37.)There exists nothing so subtle, so simple, and so imperceptible which is not revealed to us by a something in its composition. A blockhead cannot enter a room, nor leave it, nor sit down, nor rise, nor be silent, nor stand on his legs like an intelligent man.

(38.)I made the acquaintance of Mopsus through a visit he made me without knowing me previously; he asks people whom he does not know to present him to others to whom he is equally unknown; he writes to ladies whom he only knows by sight. He introduces himself into a company of highly respectable people, though he is a perfect stranger to them, and without waiting till they address him, or feeling that he interrupts them, he often speaks, and that in an absurd manner. Another time he enters a public meeting, sits down anywhere, without paying any regard to others or to himself; and if removed from a place destined for a Minister of State, he goes and seats himself in the seat of a duke and peer of the realm; he is the laughingstock of the whole company, yet the only person who keeps his countenance. He is like a dog that is driven out of the king’s chair and jumps into the pulpit. He looks with indifference, without any embarrassment or without any shame, upon the world’s opinion; he and a blockhead have the same feelings of modesty.

(39.)Celsus is not of a very high birth, but he is allowed to visit the greatest men in the land; he is not learned, but he is acquainted with some learned men; he has not much merit, but he knows people who have a great deal of it; he has no abilities, but he has a tongue that serves him to be understood, and feet that carry him from one place to another. He is a man made to run backwards and forwards, to listen to proposals and to talk about them, to do this officially, to exceed the duties of his post, and even to be disowned; to reconcile people who fall out the first time they see one another; to succeed in one affair and fail in a thousand; to arrogate all the honour of success to himself, and cast all the blame of a failure on others. He knows all the scandal and the tittle-tattle of the town; he does nothing but only repeats and hears what others do; he is a newsmonger, he is even acquainted with family secrets, and busies himself about the greatest mysteries; he tells you the reason why a certain person was banished and another has been recalled; he knows why and wherefore two brothers have quarrelled, and why two ministers have fallen out. Did he not predict to the former the sad consequences of their misunderstanding? Did he not tell the latter their union would not last long? Was he not present when certain words were spoken? Did he not enter into some kind of negotiation? Would they believe him? Did they mind what he said? To whom do you talk about those things? Who has had a greater share in all court intrigues than Celsus? And if it were not so, or if he had not dreamed or imagined it to be so, would he think of making you believe it? Would he put on the grave and mysterious look of a man newly returned from an embassy?

(40.)Menippus is a bird decked in various feathers which are not his. He neither says nor feels anything, but repeats the feelings and sayings of others; it is so natural for him to make use of other people’s minds that he is the first deceived by it, and often believes he speaks his own mind or expresses his own thoughts when he is but the echo of some man he just parted with. He is bearable for a quarter of an hour, but a moment after he flags, degenerates, loses the little polish his shallow memory gives him, and shows he has nothing more left. He alone ignores how very far he is from the sublime and the heroic; and having no idea of the extent of his intelligence, ingenuously believes that he possesses as much as it is possible for any man to have, and accordingly assumes the air and manners of one who has nothing more to wish for nor to envy any one. He often soliloquises, and so little conceals it, that the passers-by see him and think he is always making up his mind, or is finally deciding some matter or other. If you bow to him at a certain time, you perplex him as to whether he has to return the bow or not; and, whilst he is deliberating, you are already out of his sight. His vanity, which has made him a gentleman, has raised him above himself, and made him what naturally he is not. When you behold him, you can judge he has nothing to do but to survey himself, so that he may perceive everything he wears suits him, and that his dress is not incongruous; he fancies all men’s eyes are upon him, and that people come to look on him one after another.

(41.)A man who has a palace of his own, with apartments for the summer and the winter season, and yet sleeps in an entresol in the Louvre, does not act thus through modesty; another, who, to preserve his elegant shape, abstains from wine and eats but one meal a day, is neither sober nor temperate; whilst it may be said of a third, who, importuned by some poor friend, finally renders him some assistance, that he buys his tranquillity, but by no means that he is liberal. It is the motive alone that gives merit to human actions, and disinterestedness perfects them.

(42.)False greatness is unsociable and inaccessible; as it is sensible of its weakness, it conceals itself, or at least does not show itself openly, and only allows just so much to be seen as will carry on the deceit, so as not to appear what it really is, namely, undoubtedly mean. True greatness, on the contrary, is free, gentle, familiar, and popular; it allows itself to be touched and handled, loses nothing by being seen closely, and is the more admired the better it is known. Out of kindness it stoops to inferiors, and recovers, without effort, its true character; sometimes it unbends, becomes negligent, lays aside all its superiority, yet never loses the power of resuming it and of maintaining it; amidst laughter, gambols, and jocularity it preserves its dignity, and we approach it freely, and yet with some diffidence. It is noble, yet sympathetic, whilst inspiring respect and confidence, and makes us view princes as of lofty, nay, of very lofty rank, without making us feel that we are of inferior condition.

(43.)A wise man is cured of ambition by ambition itself; his aim is so exalted that riches, office, fortune, and favour cannot satisfy him. He sees nothing good and sufficiently efficient in such a poor superiority to engage his affections and to render it deserving of his cares and his desires; he has to use some effort not to despise it too much. The only thing that might tempt him is that kind of honour which should attend a wholly pure and unaffected virtue; but men but rarely grant it, so he does without it.

(44.)A man is good who benefits others: if he suffers for the good he does, he is still better; and if he suffers through those to whom he did good, he has arrived at such a height of perfection that nothing but an increase of his sufferings can add to it; if he dies through them, his virtue cannot stand higher; it is heroic, it is complete.