Jean de La Bruyère (1645–1696). Characters. 1885.
Of the Court
(1.)THE MOST honourable thing we can say of a man is, that he does not understand the court; there is scarcely a virtue which we do not imply when saying this.
(2.)A perfect courtier can command his gestures, his eyes, and his countenance; he is profound and impenetrable; he seems to overlook every injury; he smiles on his enemies, controls his temper, disguises his passions, belies his inclinations, and both speaks and acts against his opinions. Such a quintessence of refinement is usually called “falsehood,” and is, after all, sometimes of no more use to a courtier’s success than frankness, sincerity, and virtue.
(3.)A court is like certain changeable colours, which vary according to the different lights they are exposed in. He who can define these colours can define the court.
(4.)A man who leaves the court for a single moment renounces it for ever; the courtier who was there in the morning must be there at night, and know it again next day, in order that he himself may be known there.
(5.)A man must appear small at court, and let him be never so vain, it is impossible to prevent it; but it is the common lot, and the highest nobles themselves are there of no consequence.
(6.)People who live in the provinces consider the court admirable; but if they visit it, its beauties diminish, like those of a fine drawing of perspective viewed too closely.
(7.)It is difficult to get accustomed to the spending of our lives in ante-chambers, courtyards, or on staircases.
(8.)The court does not satisfy a man, but it prevents him from being satisfied with anything else.
(9.)A cultured gentleman should have some experience of the court; as soon as he enters it he will discover a new world, as it were, wholly unknown to him, where vice and politeness have equal sway, and where good and evil alike may be of use to him.
(10.)The court is like a marble structure, for the courtiers are very polished and very hard.
(11.)Sometimes people go to court only to come back again, so that, on their return, they may be taken notice of by the nobility of their county or by the bishops of their diocese.
(12.)There would be no use for embroiderers and confectioners, and they would open their shops in vain, if all the people were modest and temperate; courts would be deserts and kings almost left alone, if every one was void of vanity and self-interest. Men are willing to be slaves in one place if they can only lord it in another. It seems that at court a proud, imperious, and commanding mien is delivered wholesale to the great for them to retail in the country; they do exactly what is done unto them, and are the true apes of royalty.
(13.)Nothing disparages some courtiers so much as the presence of a prince; their faces are scarcely to be recognised; their features are altered and their looks debased; the more proud and haughty they are, the greater is the change in them, because they have suffered a greater loss; whilst a gentlemanly and modest man bears it much better, as there is nothing in him to alter.
(14.)Courtly manners are contagious; they are caught at Versailles, as the Norman accent is at Rouen and Falaise; we partly find them amongst quartermasters, superintendents, and confectioners; a man with no very great intellect may become proficient in them; one with a lofty genius and of solid worth does not sufficiently value such accomplishments to make it his principal business to study and acquire them; he contracts them imperceptibly, and does not trouble himself to get rid of them.
(15.)N…, in a great flutter, comes up to the king’s chamber, turns everybody aside, and clears the way; he scratches at the door, nay, almost raps; he gives his name, and the people around him recover now their breath; after some time he is admitted, but it is with the crowd.
(16.)Courts are haunted by certain bold adventurers, of free-and-easy manners, who introduce themselves, pretend to possess greater abilities than others in their profession, and are believed on their sole assertion. In the meanwhile they take advantage of this general belief, or of the fondness of some men for novelty; they make their way through the crowd, and reach the ear of the prince, with whom the courtier sees them talking, whilst he thinks himself happy if he only obtains a glance. It is not difficult for great people to get rid of them, for as they are only admitted on sufferance, and are of no consequence, their dismissal is of no importance: then they disappear, at once rich and out of favour; and the very men who so lately were deceived by them are ready to be deceived by others.
(17.)Some men, on entering a room, make but a slight bow, stretch their shoulders and thrust out their chests like women; they ask you a question, look another way, and speak in a loud tone, to show that they think themselves above every one present; they stop, and everybody gathers around them; they do all the talking, and seem to take the lead. This ridiculous and simulated haughtiness continues until some really great person makes his appearance, when they shrink away at once, and are reduced to their natural level, for which they are all the better.
(18.)Courts cannot exist without a class of courtiers who can flatter, are complaisant, insinuating, devoted to the ladies, whose pleasures they direct, whose weaknesses they study, and whose passions they flatter; they whisper some naughty words to them, speak of their husbands and lovers in a proper manner, conjecture when they are sad, ill, or expect a baby; they head the fashions, refine on luxury and extravagance, and teach the fair to spend in a short time large sums on clothes, furniture, and carriages; they wear nothing themselves but what shows good taste and riches, and will not live in an old palace till it be repaired and embellished; they eat delicately and thoughtfully; there is no pleasure they have not tried and of which they cannot tell you something; they owe their position to themselves, and they keep it with the same ability they made it. Disdainful and proud, they no longer accost their former equals, and scarcely bow to them; they speak when every one else is silent; enter, and at inconvenient hours thrust themselves into places where men of the highest rank dare not intrude; and when such men, after long services, their bodies covered with wounds, filling great posts or occupying high official positions, do not look so confident, and seem embarrassed. Princes listen to what these courtiers have to say, who share all their pleasures and entertainments, and never stir out of the Louvre or the Castle, where they behave themselves as if quite at home and in their own house; they seem to be in a thousand different places at one and the same time; their countenances are sure always to attract the notice of any novice at court; they embrace and are embraced, they laugh, talk loud, are funny, tell stories, and are of an easy disposition; they are agreeable, rich, lend money, but, after all, are of no importance.
(19.)Would any person not think that to Cimon and Clitandre alone are intrusted all the details of the State, and that they alone are answerable for them? The one manages at least everything concerning agriculture and land, and the other is at the head of the navy. Whoever will give a sketch of them must express bustle, restlessness, curiosity, activity, and paint Hurry itself. We never see them sitting, standing, or stopping; no one has ever seen them walk; for they are always running, and they speak whilst running, and do not wait for an answer; they never come from any place, or go anywhere, but are always passing to and fro. Stop them not in their hurried course, for you would break their machinery; do not ask them any questions, or, if you do, give them at least time to breathe and to remember that they have nothing to do, can stay with you long, and follow you wherever you are pleased to lead them. They do not, like Jupiter’s satellites, crowd round and encompass their prince, but precede him and give notice of his coming: they rush with impetuosity through the crowd of courtiers, and all who stand in their way are in danger. Their profession is to be seen again and again, and they never go to bed without having acquitted themselves of such an important duty, so beneficial to the commonwealth. They know, besides, all the circumstances of every petty accident, and are acquainted with anything at court people wish to ignore; they possess all the qualifications necessary for a small post. Nevertheless they are eager and watchful about anything they think will suit them as well as slightly enterprising, thoughtless, and precipitate. In a word, they both carry their heads very high, and are harnessed to the chariot of Fortune, but are never likely to sit in it.
(20.)A courtier who has not a pretty name ought to hide it under a better; but if it is one that he dares own, he should then insinuate that his name is the most illustrious of all names, and his house the most ancient of all others; he ought to be descended from the princes of Lorraine, the Rohans, the Châtillons, the Montmorencys, and, if possible, from princes of the blood; he ought to talk of nothing but dukes, cardinals, and ministers; to introduce his paternal and maternal ancestors in all conversations, as well as the Oriflamme and the Crusades; to have his apartments adorned with genealogical trees, escutcheons with sixteen quarters, and portraits of his ancestors and of the relatives of his ancestors; to value himself on his having an old castle with turrets, battlements, and portcullises; to be always speaking of his race, his branch, his name, and his arms; to say of a man that he is not a man of rank, of a woman that she is not of noble extraction; or to ask whether Hyacinthus is a nobleman when they tell him he has drawn a great prize in the lottery. If some persons laugh at such absurd remarks, he lets them laugh on; if others make erroneous comments, they are welcome; he will always assert that he takes his place after the royal family, and, by constantly repeating it, he will finally be believed.
(21.)It shows a simple mind to acknowledge at court the smallest alloy of common blood, and not to set up for a nobleman.
(22.)At court people go to bed and rise only with a view to self; it is what they revolve in their own minds morning and evening, night and day; it is for this they think, speak, are silent or act; it is with this disposition that they converse with some and neglect others, that they ascend or descend; by this rule they measure all their assiduity, complaisance, esteem, indifference, or contempt. Whatever progress any of them seems to make towards moderation and wisdom, they are carried away by the first motive of ambition along with the most covetous, the most violent in their desires, and the most ambitious. Can they stand still when everything is in motion, when everything is stirring, and forbear running whither every one runs? Such people even think they only owe their success in life to themselves; and a man who has not made it at court is supposed not to have deserved it; and this judgment is without appeal. However, is it advisable for a man to leave the court without having obtained any advantage by his stay, or should he remain there without favour or reward? This question is so intricate, so delicate, and so difficult to decide, that a very large number of courtiers have grown old without coming to any affirmative or negative conclusion, and died, at last, without having arrived at any final resolution.
(23.)There is nothing at court so worthless and so contemptible as a man who cannot assist us in the least to better our position; I am amazed such a person dares appear there.
(24.)A man who sees himself raised far above his contemporaries, whose rank was formerly the same as his own, and who made their first appearance at court at the same time as he did, fancies it is a sure proof of his superior merit, and thinks himself better than those other people who could not keep up with him; but he forgets what he thought of himself before he became a favourite, and what he thought of those who had outstripped him.
(25.)It proves a good deal for a friend, after he has become a great favourite at court, still to keep up an acquaintance with us.
(26.)If a man who is in favour dares to take advantage of it before it is all over; if he makes use of a propitious gale to get on; if he keeps his eye on any vacancies, posts, or abbeys, asks for them, obtains them, and is stocked with pensions, grants, and reversions, people will blame him for being covetous and ambitious, and will say that everything tempts him and is secured by him, his friends and his creatures; and that through the numberless and various favours bestowed on him, he, in his own person, has monopolised several fortunes. But what should he have done? I judge not so much by what people say, as by what they would have done themselves under similar circumstances, and that is precisely what he has done.
We blame those persons who make use of their opportunities for bettering their positions, because we are in a very inferior situation, and, therefore, despair of being ever in such circumstances that will expose us to a similar reproach. But if we were likely to succeed them, we should begin to think they were not so much in the wrong as we imagined, and would be more cautious in censuring them, for fear of condemning ourselves beforehand.
(27.)We should not exaggerate things, nor blame the court for evils which do not exist there. Courtiers never endeavour to harm real merit, but they leave it sometimes without reward; they do not always despise it when they have once discerned it, but they forget all about it; for a court is a place where people most perfectly understand doing nothing, or very little, for those whom they greatly esteem.
(28.)It would be very wonderful indeed, if among all the instruments I employ for building up my fortune, some of them were not to miscarry. A friend of mine who promised to speak for me does not say a single word; another speaks without any spirit; a third speaks by accident against my interests, though it was not his intention to do so. One lacks the will, another sagacity and prudence; and none of them would be sufficiently delighted in seeing me happy, and do everything in their power for making me so. Every one remembers well enough what pains he took in establishing his own position, and what assistance he got in clearing his way to obtain it. We should not be averse to acknowledge the services which certain people have rendered us, by rendering to others some service on similar occasions, if our chief and only care were not to think of ourselves when we have made our fortune.
(29.)Courtiers never employ whatever intelligence, skill, or perspicacity they may possess to find out means of obliging those of their friends who implore their assistance, but they only invent evasive answers, plausible excuses, or what they call impossibilities for moving in the matter; and then they think they have satisfied all the duties which friendship and gratitude require.
No courtier cares to take the initiative in anything, but he will offer to second him who does, because, judging of others by himself, he thinks that no one will make a beginning, and that therefore he shall not be obliged to second any one. This is a gentle and polite way of refusing to employ his influence, good offices, and mediation in favour of those who stand in need of them.
(30.)How many men almost stifle you with their demonstrations of friendship, and pretend to love and esteem you in private, who are embarrassed when they meet you in public, and at the king’s levée, or at mass at Versailles, look another way, and do all they can to avoid you. There are few courtiers who have sufficient greatness of soul or confidence in themselves to dare to honour in public a man of merit but who does not occupy a grand post.
(31.)I see a man surrounded and followed by a crowd, but he is in office. I see another to whom every one says a few words, but he is a court favourite; a third is embraced and caressed even by persons of high rank, but he is wealthy; a fourth is stared at by all, and pointed at, but he is learned and eloquent. I perceive one whom nobody omits bowing to, but he is a bad man. I should like to see a man courted who is merely good and nothing else.
(32.)When a man is appointed to a new post he is inundated with praises, which flood the courtyards, the chapel, overflow the grand staircase, the vestibules, the galleries, and all the rooms of the palace; he has quite enough of them, and can no longer bear it. There are not two different opinions about him; those of envy and jealousy are the same as those of adulation; every one is carried away by the raging torrent which forces a person to say what he thinks of such a man, or what he does not think of him, and often to commend a man of whom he has no knowledge. If such a man has any intelligence, merit, or valour, he becomes in one moment a genius of the first order, a hero, a demi-god; he is so extravagantly flattered in all the portraits painted of him that he appears disagreeably ugly when compared with any of them; it is impossible for him ever to reach the point to which servility and adulation would have him rise; he blushes at his own reputation. But let him not be so firmly established in the post in which he has been placed as people thought he was, and the world will without difficulty entertain another opinion. If his downfall be complete, then the very men who were instrumental in raising him so high by their applause and praise are quite ready to overwhelm him with the greatest contempt; I mean, there are none who will despise him more, blame him with greater acrimony, or deny him with more contumely than those very men who were most impassioned in speaking well of him.
(33.)It may be justly said that it is easier to get appointed to an eminent and difficult post than to keep it.
(34.)We see men fallen from a high estate for those very faults for which they were appointed to it.
(35.)At court there are two ways of dismissing or discharging servants and dependants; to be angry with them, or to make them so angry with us that they leave us of their own accord.
(36.)Courtiers speak well of a man for two reasons: firstly, that he may know they have commended him; and secondly, that he may say the same of them.
(37.)It is as dangerous at court to make any advances as it is embarrassing not to make them.
(38.)There are some people who, if they do not know the name or the face of a man, make this a pretence for laughing at him. They ask who that man is; it is not Rousseau, Fabry, or La Couture, for then they would know him.
(39.)I am told so many bad things of this man, and see so few in him, that I begin to suspect he has some merit which is so vexatious that it eclipses the merit of others.
(40.)You are an honest man, and do not make it your business either to please or displease the favourites. You are merely attached to your master and to your duty; you are a lost man.
(41.)None are impudent by choice; but they are so constitutionally, and though it is quite wrong, yet it is natural; a man who is not born so is modest and cannot easily pass from one extreme to another. It would be useless to advise such a man to be impudent in order to be successful; a bad imitation will not do him any good, and would ensure his failure. Without real and ingenious effrontery there is not doing anything at court.
(42.)We seek, we hurry, we intrigue, we worry ourselves, we ask and are refused; we ask again and get what we ask for; but we pretend we obtained it without ever having asked for it, or so much as thought about it, and even when we had quite another thing in view. This is an obsolete style, a silly falsehood, which deceives nobody.
(43.)A man intrigues to obtain an eminent post, lays all his plans beforehand, takes all the right measures, and is on the point of being as successful as he wishes; some people are to initiate the business in hand, others are to second it; the bait is already laid, and the mine ready to be sprung; and then the candidate absents himself from the court. Who would dare suspect that Artemon ever aimed at so fine a post when he is ordered to leave his seat or his government to fill it? Such an artifice and such a policy has become so stale, and the courtiers have so often employed it, that if I would impose upon the world and mask my ambition, I should always be about the prince to receive from his own hand that favour which I had solicited so passionately.
(44.)Men do not like us to pry into their prospects of bettering their position, or to find out what post they are anxious to occupy, because, if they are not successful, they fancy their failure brings some discredit upon them; and if they succeed, they persuade themselves it redounds more to their credit that the giver thought them worthy of it than that they thought themselves worthy of it, and, therefore, intrigued and plotted; they appear decked in their stateliness as well as in their modesty.
Which is the greater shame, to be refused the post which we deserve, or to be put into one we do not deserve?
Difficult as it is to obtain a place at court, it is yet harder and more difficult to be worthy of filling one.
A man had better be asked by what means he obtained a certain post than why he did not obtain it.
People become candidates for any municipal office, or try to get a seat in the French Academy, but formerly they endeavoured to obtain a consulship. Why should a man not labour hard during the early years of his life to render himself fit for eminent posts, and then ask openly and fearlessly, without mystery and without any intriguing, to serve his fatherland, his prince, and the commonwealth?
(45.)I never yet have seen a courtier whom a prince has appointed governor of a wealthy province, given a first-rate place, or a large pension, who does not protest, either through vanity, or to show himself disinterested, that he is less pleased with the gift than with the manner in which it was given. What is certain and cannot be doubted is that he says so.
To give awkwardly denotes the churl; the most difficult and unpleasant part is to give; then, why not add a smile?
There are, however, some men who refuse with more politeness to grant you what you ask than others know how to give; and some of whom it has been said that you have to ask them so long, and they give so coldly and impose such disagreeable conditions on whatever favour you have to tear from them, that their greatest favour would be to excuse us from receiving any.
(46.)There are some men at court so covetous that they catch hold of any rank or condition to reap its benefits; governments of provinces, offices, benefices, nothing comes amiss to them; they are so situated that, by virtue of their official position, they can accept any kind of favour; they are amphibious, live by the church and the sword, and one day or other will discover the secret of including the law also. If you ask what those men do at court, you will be told that they receive and envy every one to whom anything is given.
(47.)A thousand people at court wear out their very existence by embracing, caressing, and congratulating all persons who have received favours, and die without having any bestowed on themselves.
(48.)Menophilus borrows his manners from one profession and his dress from another; he goes masked all the year, though he does not conceal his countenance; he appears at court, in town, and elsewhere, always under a certain name and in the same disguise. He is found out and known by his face.
(49.)There is a highroad or a beaten road, as it is called, which leads to grand offices, and there is a cross or bye-way which is much the shortest.
(S0.)We run to get a look at some wretched criminals, we line one side of the street, and we stand at the windows to observe the features and the bearing of a man who is doomed and knows he is going to die, impelled by a senseless, malignant, inhuman curiosity. If men were wise, they would avoid public executions, and then it would even be considered infamous to be present at such spectacles. If you are of such an inquisitorial turn of mind, exercise your curiosity on a noble subject, and look on a happy man on the very day he has been appointed to a new post, and when he is congratulated on his nomination; read in his eyes, through his affected composure and feigned modesty, his delight and latent exultation; observe how quiet his heart beats and how serene his countenance looks now that he has obtained all he wished; how he thinks of nothing but his long life and health; how, at last, his joy bursts forth and can no longer be concealed; how he bends beneath the weight of his happiness, and how coolly and stifly he behaves towards those who are no longer his equals; he vouchsafes them no answer, and seems not to see them; the embraces and demonstrations of friendship of men of high rank, whom he views now no more from a distance, finish his ruin; he becomes bewildered, dazed, and for a short time his brain is turned. You who would be happy and in your prince’s favour, consider how many things you will have to avoid.
(51.)When a man has once got into office, he neither makes use of his reason nor of his intelligence to regulate his behaviour and manners towards others, but shapes them according to his office and his position; this is the cause of his forgetfulness, pride, arrogance, harshness, and ingratitude.
(52.)Theonas having been an abbé for thirty years, grows weary of being so any longer. Others show less anxiety and impatience in being clad in purple than he displays in wearing a golden cross on his breast; and because no great festival at court has ever made any alteration in his position, he rails at the times, declares the state badly governed, and forebodes naught but ill for the future. Convinced in his heart that in courts merit is prejudicial to a man who wishes to better his position, he at last makes up his mind to renounce the prelacy; but some one hastens to inform him that he has been appointed to a bishopric, and full of joy and conceit at news so unexpected he says to a friend, “You’ll see I shall not remain a bishop for ever; I shall be an archbishop yet.”
(53.)There must be knaves at court about the great and the Ministers of State, even if those are animated with the best intentions; but to know when to employ them is a very difficult question, and requires a certain amount of shrewdness. There are times and seasons when others cannot fill their places; for honour, virtue, and conscience, though always worthy of our respect, are frequently useless, and therefore in certain emergencies an honest man cannot be employed.
(54.)An ancient author, whose very words I shall take the liberty to quote, for fear I should weaken the sense of them by my translation, says: “To forsake the common herd, nay, ones very equals, to despise and vilify them; to get acquainted with rich men of rank; to join them in their private amusements, deceits, tricks, and bad business; to be brazen-faced, shameless, bankrupt in reputation; to endure the gibes and jokes of all men, and, in spite of all this, not to fear to go on, and that skilfully, has been the cause of many a man’s fortune.”
(55.)The youth of a prince is the making of many courtiers.
(56.)Timantes, still the same, and possessed of that very merit which at first got him reputation and rewards, has deteriorated in the opinion of the courtiers, who are weary of respecting him; they bow to him coldly, forbear smiling on him, no longer accost nor embrace him, nor take him into a corner to talk mysteriously about some trivial affair; they have nothing more to say to him. He receives a pension, or is honoured by being appointed to a new post; and his virtues, almost dead in their memories, revive whilst their thoughts are refreshed; now they treat him as they did at the beginning, and even better.
(57.)How many friends, how many relatives of a new Minister, spring up in a single night! Some men pride themselves on their former acquaintance, on their having been his fellow-students or neighbours; others ransack their genealogy, go back to their great-grandfather, and recall their father and mother’s side, for in some way or other every one wishes to be related to him; several times a day people affirm they are his relatives, and they would even gladly print it. They say presently: “The Minister is my friend; I am very glad of his promotion, and I ought to share in it, for he is a near relative of mine.” Would those silly men, those servile votaries of fortune, those effete courtiers, have said this a week ago? Has the Minister become a more virtuous man, or more worthy of his sovereign’s choice, or were they waiting for this appointment to know him better?
(58.)What supports me and comforts me when sometimes men of high rank or my equals slight me, is the feeling that perhaps those very men only despise my position; and they are quite right, for it is a very humble one; but they would doubtless worship me if I were a Minister.
Am I suddenly to obtain some post, and do people know it, or foresee it, because they forestall me and bow to me first?
(59.)A man who tells us he has dined the day before at Tibur, or is going to have supper there tonight, and repeats it often, who brings in the name of Plancus about a dozen times during a few minutes’ conversation, such as, “Plancus asked me …” or “I said to Plancus …” is told that very moment that his hero has been snatched away by sudden death. He starts off at a tangent, gathers around him the people in the market-place or underneath the porticoes; accuses the deceased, rails at his conduct, and blackens his administration; he even denies him a knowledge of those details which the public own he had mastered, will not allow him to have had a good memory, refuses to praise him for his steadiness of character and power of work, and will not do him the honour to believe that among all the enemies of the State there was one who was Plancus’ enemy.
(60.)I think it must be a pretty sight for a man of merit to observe at a meeting, or at a public entertainment, that the very seat which has been refused him is given up before his face to a man who has neither eyes to see nor ears to hear, nor sense to know and to judge, and who has nothing to recommend him but his court-dress as a favourite, which now he himself is above wearing.
(61.)Theodotus is staid in dress, whilst his countenance, as theatrical as an actor’s who has to appear on the stage, harmonises with his voice, his carriage, gestures, and attitude. He is cunning, cautious, insinuating, mysterious; he draws near you and whispers. “It is fine weather; it is thawing.” If he has no grand qualifications, he has all the little ones, even those which would scarcely become a youthful précieuse. Imagine the application of a child building a house of cards or catching a butterfly; such is Theodotus, engaged on an affair of no consequence, and which is not worth any one’s attention; he, however, treats it seriously, and as if it were of the greatest importance; he moves about, bestirs himself, and is successful; then he takes breath and rests awhile, as indeed he should, for he has given himself a good deal of trouble. Some people are intoxicated, and bewitched with the favour of the great; they think of them all day, and dream of them all night; they are always trotting up and down the stairs of a Minister’s apartment, go in and come out of his ante-chamber, but they have nothing to say to him, though they speak to him; they speak to him a second time, and they are highly pleased, for they have spoken. Press them, squeeze them, and nothing will be got from them but pride, arrogance, and presumption; address them, and they do not answer; they know you not, they look bewildered, and their brain is turned; their relatives should take care of them and lock them up, lest in time their folly should drive them frantic, and make them harm some one. Theodotus has a gentler hobby; he immoderately loves favour, but his passion is less impetuous, and he worships it secretly, and fosters and serves it mysteriously; he is ever on the watch to discover who are the new favourites of the king; if these wish for anything, he offers to serve them, and to intrigue for them; and stealthily sacrifices to them merit, connections, friendship, engagements, and gratitude. If the place of Cassini were vacant, and a Swiss porter or postillion of a favourite were applying for it, he would support his pretensions, judge him worthy of the place, and think him capable of making observations and calculations, and of discussing about parhelions and parallaxes. Should you like to know whether Theodotus be an author or a plagiary, original or a copyist, I will give you one of his works, and bid you read and judge. Who can decide, from the picture I have drawn, whether he is really pious, or merely a courtier? I can with more assurance proclaim whether the stars will be propitious to him. Yes, Theodotus, I have calculated your nativity; you will obtain an appointment, and that very soon; so abandon your lucubrations, and print no more any of your writings; the public begs for quarter.
(62.)Never more expect candour, frankness, justice, good offices, services, kindness, generosity, steadiness from a man who for some time has spent all his days at court, and secretly wishes to better his fortunes. Do you know him by his face or conversation? He no longer calls things by their proper names; for him there exist no longer any knaves, rogues, fools, or impertinent people; if by chance he should say of any man what he thinks of him, that very man might come to know it, and prevent him from getting on. Though he thinks ill of everybody, he speaks ill of none, for he only wishes success to himself, but would make believe that he wishes it to everybody, so that all may assist him, or at least that nobody may oppose him. Not satisfied with being insincere himself, he cannot endure that any one should be otherwise; truth offends his ear; he is indifferent, and does not care what remarks are made about the court and courtiers, but because he knows what they mean, he fancies himself an accomplice, and answerable for them. A tyrant in society and a martyr to his ambition, he is mournfully circumspect in his conduct and in his language; his raillery is innocent, but cold and constrained; his laughter is forced, his demonstrations of friendship deceptive, his conversation desultory, and his absence of mind frequent: he is profuse in his praises, and, if I may say so, pours out torrents of them whenever any man in office and a favourite does or says the smallest thing; but for any other person he is as sparing with his words as if he were consumptive. He has different formulas for complimenting people on entering or leaving a room, as well when he visits as when he is visited, and none of those who are satisfied with mere appearances and forms of speech ever leaves him discontented. He aims at getting patrons as well as partisans, and is a mediator, a confidant, and a go-between; he wishes to rule; he is as anxious as a novice to do every trifling thing that has to be observed at court; he knows where a man must stand to be seen; he can embrace you, share in your joy, ask you one question after another about your health and your affairs; and while you are answering him, he loses the thread of his curiosity, interrupts you, and begins another subject; or if he happens to see some one whom it is necessary to address in a different way, he finishes his congratulations to you whilst condoling with the other person; he weeps with one eye and laughs with the other. Sometimes, in imitation of the Ministers or the favourite, he speaks in public of trivial things, such as the wind or the frost, but, on the contrary, is silent and very mysterious about some important things he does know, and still more so about some he does not know.
(63.)There is a country where all joy is conspicuous but false, and all grief hidden but real. Who would imagine that the anxiety to be present at entertainments, the raptures and applause at Molière’s or Harlequin’s comedies, the banquets, the chase, the ballets, and carrousels, conceal so much uneasiness, so many cares and such various interests, so many fears and expectations, so many ardent passions, and such serious matters of business.
(64.)Court life is a serious, sad game, requiring application; a man must arrange his pieces and his plans, have a design, pursue it, thwart his adversaries, now and then venture something, and play capriciously; yet after all those fancies and contrivances he may be kept in check, and not seldom be checkmated; whilst often with well-handled men he may queen it and win the game; the most skilful or the most fortunate player obtains the victory.
(65.)The wheels, the springs, the movements of a watch are hidden, and only the hands can be seen gradually going round and finishing their course. This is a true image of a courtier, who goes over a great deal of ground, but often returns to the very same point whence he started.
(66.)“Two-thirds of my life are already gone; why, then, should I perplex myself so much about the remainder? The most brilliant career neither deserves the anxiety I suffer, nor the meannesses I accidentally commit, nor the humiliations and mortifications I have to bear. In thirty years those giants of power whom we can hardly perceive without raising our heads will be destroyed; I, who am so small, and those to whom I looked up with so much anxiety and from whom I expected all my greatness, will have disappeared. The best of all good things, if such there be in this world, is repose, retirement, and a place you can call your own.” N… was of this opinion when he was in disgrace, but he forgot it in his prosperity.
(67.)A nobleman who resides in his own province, lives free, but without patronage; if he lives at court he will be patronised, but is a slave; so one thing compensates for another.
(68.)Xantippus, at the uttermost end of his province, under an old roof and in a wretched bed, dreamt one night that he saw his prince, spoke to him, and felt great joy at this; when he awoke he was melancholy, told his dream, and exclaimed, “What strange fancies a man may have in his sleep!” Xantippus some time afterwards went to court, saw the prince, and spoke to him; and then his dream was more than realised, for he became a favourite.
(69.)Nobody is a greater slave than an assiduous courtier, unless it be a courtier who is more assiduous.
(70.)A slave has but one master; an ambitious man has as many masters as there are people who may be useful in bettering his position.
(71.)A thousand men scarcely known appear every day in crowds at the levée, to be seen by their prince, who cannot see a thousand at a time; if to-day he only sees those whom he saw yesterday and will see to-morrow, how many must be unhappy!
(72.)Of all those persons who dangle after men of rank, and pay their respects to them, a few honour them in their hearts, a great number follow them out of ambition or interest, but the motive of the largest number is a ridiculous vanity or a silly impatience to be noticed.
(73.)There are certain families who, according to the ways of the world, and what we call decency, ought never to be reconciled to one another; however, now they are good friends, for those whom religion could not induce to lay aside their feuds, interest, without much trouble, has linked together.
(74.)People say there exists a certain country where old men are gallant, well-mannered, and polite, young men, on the contrary, unfeeling, rude, ill-mannered, and impolite; they no longer entertain a passion for the fair sex at an age when, in other countries, young men begin to entertain it; and prefer to that sex feasts, revelry, and ridiculous amours. Amongst those people a man is considered sober and moderate who is never intoxicated with anything but wine, the excessive use of which makes it appear insipid; they endeavour by brandy, and by the strongest liquors, to revive their taste, which is already gone, and want nothing to complete their excesses but to drink aquafortis. The women of that country hasten the decay of their beauty by their artifices to preserve it; they paint their cheeks, eyebrows, and shoulders, which they bare, together with their breasts, arms, and ears, as if they were afraid of concealing those parts which they think will please, or of not showing enough of themselves. The countenance of the inhabitants of this country is not clear, but blurred and shrouded with a mass of hair that does not belong to them, but which they prefer to their own, and which is woven into a something to cover their heads, hanging down half way their bodies, altering all their features, and preventing people from being known by their natural faces. This nation has, besides, its God and its king: the high and mighty among them go at a fixed time every day to a temple they call a church; at the upper end of that temple stands an altar consecrated to their God, where a certain priest celebrates some mysteries, called by them holy, sacred, and formidable. The high and mighty men stand in a large circle at the foot of the altar, with their back to the priest and the holy mysteries, and their faces towards their king, who is seen kneeling in a raised and open pew, and towards whom all minds and all hearts seem directed. However, a certain kind of subordination is to be observed whilst this is going on; for this people seem to adore their prince, and their prince appears to worship God. The natives of this country call it…. It is situated about forty-eight degrees northern latitude, and more than eleven hundred leagues by sea from the Iroquois and the Hurons.
(75.)Whoever will consider that a king’s presence constitutes the entire happiness of courtiers, that their sole occupation and satisfaction during the whole course of their lives is to see and be seen by him, will in some measure understand how to behold God may constitute the glory and felicity of the saints.
(76.)Great noblemen show their respect for their prince; this concerns them, as they have also their dependants. Courtiers of inferior rank are more relax in those duties, assume a kind of familiarity, and live like men whose examples none will follow.
(77.)What is there wanting in the youth of the present time? They can do and they know everything; or at least if they do not know as much as it is possible to know, they are as positive as if they did.
(78.)How weak are men! A great lord says of your friend Timagenes that he is a blockhead, but he makes a mistake. I do not require you to reply that Timagenes is a clever man, but only dare think he is not a blockhead.
(79.)To know how to speak to a king is perhaps the sole art of a prudent and pliant courtier. One word escapes him, which the prince hears, recollects, and sometimes lodges in his heart; there is no recalling it; all the care and skill that can be used to explain or soften it, serves only to impress it the more and to bite it in deeper. If the courtier has only spoken against himself, though this misfortune is very unusual, the remedy is at hand; he must take warning by his fault, and bear the punishment of his levity; but if another be the victim, he ought to feel dejected and contrite. Is there a better rule in such a dangerous conjuncture than to talk to our sovereign of others, of their persons, works, actions, manners, or conduct, at least with the same reserve, precaution, and care with which we talk of ourselves?
(80.)I would say that a man who tries to be witty must have a most wretched character, if it had not been said before. Those persons who injure the reputation or position of others for the sake of a witticism deserve to be punished with ignominy; this has not been said before, and I dare say it.
(81.)There are a certain number of ready-made phrases which we store and use when we wish to congratulate one another. Though we often utter them without really feeling what we say, and are received without gratitude, yet we must not omit them, because, at least, they represent the very best thing in this world, namely, friendship; and since men cannot depend on one another in reality, they seem to have agreed to be satisfied with appearances.
(82.)With five or six terms of art, and nothing else, we set up for connoisseurs in music, painting, architecture, and gastronomy; we fancy we have more pleasure than others in hearing, seeing, or eating; we impose on our fellow-creatures and deceive ourselves.
(83.)At court there are always a certain number of people to whom a knowledge of the world, politeness, or fortune supply the want of merit; they know how to enter and to leave a room; they are never embarrassed in their conversation, because they never engage in one; they please by their very taciturnity, and make themselves appear of importance by their prolonged silence, or by uttering, at most, a few monosyllables; they answer you by a glance, an intonation, a gesture, and a smile; their understanding, if I may venture on the expression, is only two inches deep, and if you fathom it, you will soon come to the bottom.
(84.)There are some men on whom favour lights as it were accidentally; they are the first it surprises and even alarms; they recollect themselves at last, and think they are worthy of their good fortune; and, as if stupidity and fortune were two things incompatible, or as if it were impossible to be lucky and foolish at one and the same time, they fancy they are intelligent, and venture, or I should rather say, are conceited enough, to speak on all occasions, on every possible subject, and without any regard for their audience. I might add that at last they become terrible, and disgust every one by their fatuity and nonsense. This is at least certain; they infallibly discredit those who assisted them in their promotion.
(85.)What shall we call those who are only shrewd in the opinion of fools? I know this, that able men rank them with the people they impose upon.
A man must be very shrewd to make other people believe that he is not so sharp after all.
Shrewdness is neither too good nor too bad a quality, but is something between a virtue and a vice; there is scarcely any circumstance in which prudence cannot supply its place, and, perhaps, in which it ought not to do so.
Shrewdness is a near neighbour of rascality; there is but a step from the one to the other, and that a slippery one; falsehood only makes the difference, for add shrewdness to it, and the result is rascality.
Amongst those people who, out of shrewdness, hear everything and talk little, be sure to talk less; or, if you must talk much, say little.
(86.)You have a just and important business depending on the consent of two persons; and one of them says to you that he will favour it provided the other will agree to it, which the latter does, though he wishes to know what the first intends doing. Meanwhile nothing comes of it; and months and years roll on to no purpose. You say you are bewildered, that it is a complete mystery to you, and that all that was necessary for your success was for these two persons to meet together and to converse about it. I tell you I see through it all, and it is no mystery to me; they have met and conversed about your business.
(87.)Methinks a man who solicits for others shows the confidence of a person asking for justice, whilst he who speaks or acts for himself is as embarrassed and bashful as if he were asking a favour.
(88.)If a courtier be not continually upon his guard against the snares laid for him to make him ridiculous, he will, with all his sagacity, be amazed to find himself duped by people far less intelligent than he is.
(89.)In life some circumstances may happen when truth and simplicity prove the best policy.
(90.)If you are in favour, whatever you do is well done; you commit no faults, and every step you take leads you to the goal; but if you are not in favour, everything you do is faulty and useless, and whatever path you take leads you out of the way.
(91.)A man who has schemed for some time can no longer do without it; all other ways of living are to him dull and insipid.
(92.)Intelligence is requisite to be a schemer; yet a man may have a sufficient amount of it to be above scheming and plotting, and above subjecting himself to such things; in such a case he takes other means for bettering his fortune, or for acquiring a brilliant reputation.
(93.)Fear not, O Aristides, with your sublime intellect, your universal learning, your well-tried honesty, and your highly accomplished merits, to fall into disgrace at court, or to lose the favour of men of high rank so long as they need you.
(94.)Let a favourite watch his actions very narrowly; for if I have to wait in his anteroom not so long as usual; if his countenance be more open, his forehead less clouded; if he listens to me more patiently, and sees me to the door a little farther than he used to do, I shall think he is tottering, and shall not be mistaken.
Man has but very little strength of mind, for disgrace or mortifications are needed to make him more humane, pliable, less rude, and more of a gentleman.
(95.)If we observe certain people at court, their discourses and their whole conduct show that they think neither of their grandfathers nor grandchildren; they only care for the present, and that they do not enjoy, but abuse.
(96.)Straton is born under two planets, equally fortunate and unfortunate; his life is a romance, but with even less probability. Adventures he had none, but good and bad dreams in abundance, or, if I may say so, no dreams come up to his life. Fate has been to none more kind than to him; he is acquainted with the mean and the extremes of life; he has made a figure, been in distress, led an ordinary life, and gone through all vicissitudes. He has made himself valued for those virtues which he seriously asserted he possessed; he has said of himself, “I have intelligence and courage,” and every one said after him, “He has intelligence and courage.” In his good and bad fortune he has experienced the disposition of courtiers, who said of him perhaps more good and more ill than ever he deserved. When people praised him they called him pretty, amiable, rare, wonderful, and heroic; and words quite the contrary have also been employed to vilify him. His character is heterogeneous, mixed and confused; his life has been an enigma, which is not yet wholly solved.
(97.)Favour raises a man above his equals, and disgrace throws him below them.
(98.)He who one day or other deliberately abandons a great name, a great authority, or a large fortune, frees himself at once from many troubles, many restless nights, and sometimes from many crimes.
(99.)The world will be the same a hundred years hence as it is now; there will be the same stage and the same decorations, though not the same actors. All who were glad to receive favours, as well as those who were grieved and in despair for boons that were refused, shall have disappeared from the boards; others have already made their entrances who will act the same parts in the same plays, and in their turn make their exits, whilst those who have not yet appeared one day will also be gone, and fresh actors will take their places. What reliance is there to be placed on any actor?
(100.)Whoever has seen the court has seen the most handsome, the best-looking, and the most decked-out part of the world. He who despises the court after having seen it, despises the world.
(101.)The city makes a man take a dislike to the country; the country undeceives him as to the city and cares of the court.
A healthy mind acquires at court a liking for solitude and retirement.