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


“Admonere voluimus, non mordere; prodesse, non lædere; consulere moribus hominum, non officere.”
THE SUBJECT-MATTER of this work being borrowed from the public, I now give back to it what it lent me; it is but right that having finished the whole work throughout with the utmost regard to truth I am capable of, and which it deserves from me, I should make restitution of it. The world may view at leisure its picture drawn from life, and may correct any of the faults I have touched upon, if conscious of them. This is the only goal a man ought to propose to himself in writing, though he must not in the least expect to be successful; however, as long as men are not disgusted with vice we should also never tire of admonishing them; they would perhaps grow worse were it not for censure or reproof, and hence the need of preaching and writing. Neither orators nor authors can conceal the joy they feel on being applauded, whereas they ought to blush if they aim at nothing more than praise in their speeches or writings; besides, the surest and least doubtful approbation is a change and regeneration in the morals of their readers and hearers. We should neither write nor speak but to instruct; yet, if we happen to please, we should not be sorry for it, since by those means we render those instructive truths more palatable and acceptable. When, therefore, any thoughts or reflections have slipped into a book which are neither so spirited, well written, nor vivid as others, though they seem to have been inserted for the sake of variety, as a relaxation to the mind, or to draw its attention to what is to follow, the reader should reject and the author delete them, unless they are attractive, familiar, instructive, and adapted to the capacity of ordinary people, whom we must by no means neglect.

This is one way of settling things; there is another which my own interest trusts may be adopted; and that is, not to lose sight of my title, and always to bear in mind, as often as this book is read, that I describe “The Characters or Manners of the Age;” for though I frequently take them from the court of France and from men of my own nation, yet they cannot be confined to any one court or country, without greatly impairing the compass and utility of my book, and departing from the design of the work, which is to paint mankind in general, as well as from the reasons for the order of my chapters, and even from a certain gradual connection between the reflections in each of those chapters. After this so necessary precaution, the consequences of which are obvious enough, I think I may protest against all resentment, complaint, malicious interpretation, false application and censure, against insipid railers and cantankerous readers. People ought to know how to read and then hold their tongues, unless able to relate what they have read, and neither more nor less than what they have read, which they sometimes can do; but this is not sufficient—they must also be willing to do it. Without these conditions, which a careful and scrupulous author has a right to demand from some people, as the sole reward of his labour, I question whether he ought to continue writing, if at least he prefers his private satisfaction to the public good and to his zeal for truth. I confess, moreover, that since the year MDCLXXXX, and before publishing the fifth edition, I was divided between an impatience to cast my book into a fuller and better shape by adding new Characters, and a fear lest some people should say: “Will there never be an end to these Characters, and shall we never see anything else from this author?” On the one hand several persons of sound common-sense told me: “The subject-matter is solid, useful, pleasant, inexhaustible; may you live for a long time, and treat it without interruption as long as you live! what can you do better? The follies of mankind will ensure you a volume every year.” Others, again, with a good deal of reason, made me dread the fickleness of the multitude and the instability of the public, with whom, however, I have good cause to be satisfied; they were always suggesting to me that for the last thirty years, few persons read except for the pleasure of reading, and not to improve themselves, and that, to amuse mankind, fresh chapters and a new title were needed; that this sluggishness had filled the shops and crowded the world with dull and tedious books, written in a bad style and without any intelligence, order, or the least correctness, against all morality or decency, written in a hurry, and read in the same way, and then only for the sake of novelty; and that if I could do nothing else but enlarge a sensible book, it would be much better for me to take a rest. I adopted something of both those advices, though they were at variance with one another, and observed an impartiality which clashed with neither. I did not hesitate to add some fresh remarks to those which already had doubled the bulk of the first edition of my book; but, in order not to oblige the public to read again what had been printed before, to get at new material, and to let them immediately find out what they only desired to read, I took care to distinguish those second additions by a peculiar mark ((¶)); I also thought it would not be useless to distinguish the first augmentations by another and simpler mark (¶), to show the progress of my “Characters,” as well as to guide the reader in the choice he might be willing to make. And lest he be afraid I should never have done with those additions, I added to all this care a sincere promise to venture on nothing more of the kind. If any one accuses me of breaking my word, because I inserted in the three last editions a goodly number of new remarks, he may perceive at least that by adding new ones to old, and by completely suppressing those differences pointed out in the margin, I did not so much endeavour to entertain the world with novelties, as perhaps to leave to posterity a book of morals more complete, more finished, and more regular. To conclude, I did not wish to write any maxims, for they are like moral laws, and I acknowledge that I possess neither sufficient authority nor genius for a legislator. I also know I have transgressed the ordinary standard of maxims, which, like oracles, should be short and concise. Some of my remarks are so, others are more diffuse; we do not always think of things in the same way, and we describe them in as different a manner by a sentence, an argument, a metaphor, or some other figure; by a parallel or a simple comparison; by a story, by a single feature, by a description, or a picture; which is the cause of the length or brevity of my reflections. Finally, those who write maxims would be thought infallible; I, on the contrary, allow any one to say that my remarks are not always correct, provided he himself will make better ones.