François, duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680). Moral Maxims and Reflections. 1912.Introduction by George H. Holland
It was the age when civilisation might seem to have attained the highest level compatible with the negation of freedom, when the French language had been just brought to its perfection as a vehicle of refined thought and delicate badinage.
Molière was then at the height of his fame. Racine was rising in celebrity, Corneille declining. The eloquence of Bossuet had begun to delight the Court, and La Fontaine was composing his first fables. The “Provincial Letters” of Pascal (1656–7), reputed the first monument of classical French Prose, were still rousing furious controversy; and the Marchioness de Sévigné (1627–1696) had embarked upon that famous correspondence which forms the brightest chronicle of her time.
Yet not even those many volumes of entertaining letters, to which we owe the most precious details concerning our author, have attained more celebrity than his single little manual of detached apophthegms, epigrams, and criticisms of life. It is one of the small books which have stood the test of time—one of the few studies in humanity which, drawn from one epoch in society, have succeeded in interesting all subsequent generations. It has the more peculiar distinction accorded by Voltaire of having at once influenced the taste and expressed the genius of the French nation to a degree hardly predicable of any other work.
Viewed simply as short observations on human character and conduct, the Maxims have, of course, their well-known prototypes in the earliest “Gnomic” literature, classical or Oriental; in the famous “Characters of Theophrastus”; the poetical counsels of Theognis of Megara, in the “Manual of Epictetus” and the “Confessions” of his Imperial patron, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus—in all of which works it is little wonder that similar ideas or truisms are of chronic recurrence. The Maxims may be compared again with the contemporary (but more discursive and theological) “Thoughts” of Pascal, or the more pointed personal reflections of La Bruyère, just as they doubtless influenced—half-a-century later—the reflections of the high-minded Marquis de Vauvenargues. In our own language perhaps the nearest parallel, both for form and spirit, would be found in some of the brief, dry expressions of worldly wisdom scattered about Bacon’s Essays.
If none of these writers interest us in the same way, and few to the same extent as La Rochefoucauld, this, we are often told, is because his object was simply to observe, while other maxim-mongers, from Solon to “poor Richard,” were bent upon instructing and improving their readers. There is a significant difference, indeed, between Benjamin Franklin’s fatherly recommendation of honesty as “The best policy” and La Rochefoucauld’s contemptuous estimate of the “trickster” (Maxim 127) as a fool who has not wit enough to be straightforward. Doubtless his chief aim is to analyse, to dissect, and to expose the theory underlying a selfish social system, the springs which the author believed to actuate ordinary humanity. For this purpose he would seem to have jotted down day by day in terse French a singularly impersonal record of every trait, action, motive, that came under his view—a view restricted, no doubt in part, by his peculiar environment—in part, perhaps, by the fatal truth emphasised by himself, that “Certain virtues are like the senses, unappreciable to those who do not possess them.”
The result was a collection of some 700 axioms on the conduct of man in society—a work acutely interesting alike from the novelty of its style as from the agonising familiarity of all mankind with its subject-matter, but not of an ostensibly “improving” nature. The preaching of La Rochefoucauld is, at any rate, on negative and unconventional lines, though much of it resembles those “Words of the wise, that hurt like goads,” and stick in the mind “like nails.”
“The Memoirs of La Rochefoucauld,” says Voltaire, “are read: ‘his maxims known by heart.’… “Though there is but one truth discussed in the book—viz. that self-love is the motive of all action, yet this is presented under so many aspects that it never fails to interest.” The actuality and conciseness of the Reflections were something new and attractive, presenting, indeed, a great contrast to the flowery rhetoric and conventional optimism of most moralists of the age.
“An evident generalisation,” as Hallam says, “from long experience, without pedantry, and without deductive argument,” the book fills a serious place in French moral philosophy, by the side of those other generalisations, the guesses at truth and the criticisms of life and conduct, put forward by Montaigne, Pascal, and La Bruyère.
Next to its singular and even unpalatable candour, the peculiarity of the book is its personal note as a “Cry of the Heart,” expressing the despair of a not ignoble nature in an age of great national suffering, of misguided and ineffective disturbance.
And thus, as La Rochefoucauld was not, as might sometimes be fancied, a misanthrope, living in morose retirement, but an active agent in all the political and social life of the time, it is worth while, before examining his work more in detail, to glance at the age and society out of which emerged so singular a manifesto against humanity.
The long and complex religious civil wars of the sixteenth century had disorganised society in France from the top to the bottom. Apart from the mere licentiousness of court life—already prolonged through three reigns—“the nation had received a moral twist from its religious bitterness, which was displayed as much in politics and diplomacy as in literature and social life.”
The country was in a condition of appalling misery, the result of the sanguinary struggles of the Catholic League, and of prolonged extortionate taxation.
Even from the date of the States-General of 1614 (when the grievances of the people are detailed in language much like that of 1789), the records of widespread ruin, penury, famine, and crime, are heartrending to read. And, in the middle of the century, the exasperation of all these evils (never remedied till the great Revolution) produced the outbreak of the “Fronde,” an insurrection of the nobility, the local parliaments, and the Third-Estate against Mazarin and the Queen Regent.
As a popular rising, the “Fronde” (1648–53) was a curious prototype of the great Revolution of a century and a half later. As a struggle against absolute monarchy it contrasted strangely with the serious contest then raging in England. During its three complex phases (with the details of which we are not concerned) the French aristocracy appeared for the last time ranged in arms against their Sovereign. But this civil war—inaugurated, as it seemed, mainly by a few nobles and their mistresses, carried on by sanguinary engagements in the streets of Paris, and by squibs and lampoons in the fashionable salons—was as remarkable for the general want of principle of the parties engaged in it as for the calamitous sufferings which it caused.
Turenne, the greatest general of Europe (1611–1675), involved in flagrant rebellion by the charms of the famous Duchess de Longueville; La Rochefoucauld himself, plunging light-heartedly into the same struggle, inspired partly by a similar passion, partly by pique at the refusal of a governorship he had asked of the Queen; the Prince of Bourbon-Condé, the “Great” Condé (1611–1686), only second to Turenne in military fame, at first loyal, then engaging the royal troops in the streets of the capital, and, when defeated, ready to betray his country to Spain; Cardinal de Retz (1614–1679), the profligate and unscrupulous Archbishop of Paris, now heading popular insurrections with “a dagger for breviary,” now studying the art of conspiracy in the pages of Sallust—these are typical figures of an age of lawless violence, of social demoralisation and disorder, of corrupt and theatrical intrigue, overshadowed by the absolute despotism now first and finally established.
But another feature in French life of the time had a more direct effect upon literature. That was the genesis and development of the institution known as the “Salon.” Earlier in the century the young Marquise de Rambouillet had retired (1608) from the corruptions of Henry IV.’s court to found the new species of social academy which has made the “Hotel de Rambouillet” famous in French history. In this school of culture, refined badinage, and philosophic discussion, many of the greatest wits, poets, and thinkers took refuge from the impossible world of politics. The literary atmosphere was, it may be feared, somewhat that of a magnificent “hot-house,” or became so some years before its absurdities were immortalised (1659) in the “Précieuses Ridicules” of Molière. By that date other salons were in flourishing existence, notably those of Madame de Sablé (herself the author of maxims), Madame de Scudèry (poet and romancist), and Madame de La Fayette, a more remarkable character, intimately associated with La Rochefoucauld and his book: and the influence of woman—or perhaps we should say of “great ladies”—had become a permanent force in French thought and manners.
At the same time, to conclude this sketch, French civilisation had taken on that imposing, but extravagant and artificial, glamour, in which monarchy, with its legendary motto “L’etat c’est moi” started on the long down-grade of licence, tyranny, and bankruptcy, that led so directly to revolutionary chaos and the pit.
What is called political life under such a regime seems devoid alike of liberty and honesty; and if society—upper class society, that is—presents, on the surface, a brighter prospect, this seems, on nearer view, a cold and hard brilliance, which has little of the warmth of living humanity about it. A deeply corrosive class-selfishness, a want of the common feelings most essential to the union of the social fabric—these are noticeable traits. When we find the amiable and cultured Madame de Sévigné writing, with such unconcealed delight, of the hideous barbarities inflicted on the poor, defenceless Breton peasantry, as if massacre and hanging were a good joke, so long as she was left to enjoy in peace the shade of her beloved woods, we are perhaps less surprised to find her friend, M. de La Rochefoucauld, speaking with contempt of pity itself. A feeling, he thought, to be excluded from every intelligent mind, and “left to the common people, who, being unaffected by reason, are only stirred to action by their passions.” French society was already accumulating materials for the great explosion of “pity and passion” of a century later.
To a peculiar degree, the product of his time, the author of the Maxims was, none the less, a distinguished and typical Frenchman, of one of the most renowned families of the old nobility.
His grandmother had entertained Charles V. at her chateau of Verneuil; an ancestor was among the Protestant leaders massacred on St. Bartholomew’s Eve; and the last bearer of the title sat as deputy for his order in the States-General of 1789, and subsequently fell a victim to the brigands of the Terror and his own incorruptible and “inconvenient” rectitude.
François, Duke of Rochefoucauld and Prince of Marsillac, soldier, historian, and moralist, was born in 1613, and died in 1680. With every advantage of birth and physique, considerable natural ability and acuteness, but little education, he plunged, at an early age, into the vortex of intrigue and adventure so vividly depicted for the modern reader in the pages of M. Alexandre Dumas. He figures, indeed, as Prince de Marsillac in that entertaining chronicle of this period which bears the famous name of D’Artagnan; and the earlier portions of his own more authentic memoirs (never discovered till 1817) throw a surprising light upon the chivalrous or fantastic enterprises in which he strove, it seemed, to rival the exploits of Buckingham, just as De Retz modelled himself upon Catiline. For this abortive romance of his wasted youth he seems to have sought a strange revenge in the world of letters. At least, when we find him involved, at the age of twenty-three, in a plot to carry off the unhappy Queen and the King’s favourite mistress, and subsequently punished by short terms of exile or imprisonment in the Bastille, we note with surprise that the bitter philosophy of the Maxims and Reflections was bred in what might seem the uncongenial atmosphere of “The Three Musketeers”! This is not so strange if, as seems the case, the adventures, which gave such dire offence to King and Cardinal, were the practical ruin of his political prospects, and left him a disappointed and embittered, if not perverted, man at the age of thirty-three.
It was as such that he was confronted with the great enterprise of his life—the crisis in the history of his country when the honesty and independence of a few leading spirits might have rendered her such signal services.
Of this it need only be said that he was involved in the successive phases of the “Fronde” by motives mainly as frivolous and unprincipled as those of his fellow-conspirators. The vanity or caprice of himself and Madame de Longueville—whom nature had only intended to ornament a salon—were no sure guides for their political partnership, and La Rochefoucauld, weary and disappointed, gladly seized the occasion offered by the favour she showed to the Due de Nemours to withdraw from both kinds of intrigue, in the characters of an injured lover and a despairing politician.
Apart from general impressions, a good many details of autobiography are, we learn, to be picked out of the Maxims. In some of the bitter and weary comments upon love, inconstancy (maxims 84 and 759), and such topics, we may trace a reflection of the infidelity of the author’s beautiful mistress and the extinction of his enthusiasm both for herself and the cause to which she clung so desperately. It was to her that as a lover he had addressed the well-known lines from a forgotten tragedy (Duryer’s “Alcyonée”):
When the light-hearted, if disastrous revolutionary struggle was over, and the two had finally separated, he parodied the verses with a reference to the wound received during a desperate fight in the Faubourg St. Antoine, which nearly deprived him of sight.
At any rate, his personal courage was unaffected by the contempt in which he seems to hold that quality.
In the portrait of himself (written before 1658) he tells us that, “though still young,” he had abandoned the gallantries of earlier years. The perilous and precarious alliance with La Longueville, who a few years after the Fronde retired to that fashionable refuge of disappointed lovers, the Carmelite Nunnery, was abandoned for the more tranquil and intellectual society of Madame de La Fayette.
The essay of Sainte Beuve, from which we have quoted above, is one which the reader finds with mild surprise to be included among that charming writer’s “Portraits de femmes” (!), on the ground that the moralist is, as a character, inseparable from the two remarkable women just mentioned. His infatuation for the first involved him, as has been said, in rebellion and civil war. His attachment to the second soothed the close of his career and mollified some of the asperities in his character. There were at least two other women, Madame de Chevreuse and Madame de Sablé, for whom he cherished, at different periods, what he calls a “belle passion” but Madame de Sévigné believed he had never known what it was to be really in love.
In the more serious affairs (if they were more serious) of public life, La Rochefoucauld—according to the testimony of Cardinal de Retz, an acute observer, if an avowed enemy—showed equally little pertinacity, no particular genius or penetration, and a singular degree of irresolution. Neither quite one thing nor the other, no general though a brave soldier, and no diplomatist though constantly involved in one intrigue or another, his shrewd sense and attractive personal qualities were balanced by a certain indefinable ineffectiveness in action, as of one “always on his defence, half timid and half ashamed.” This fact, and the want of all faith in practical virtue which is breathed in the Maxims, convinced De Retz that the author would have done better to content himself with passing for the most polished courtier of his time.
With the failure of the cause for which he had fought and bled, when the two Frondes were finally crushed in 1653, there came no consolation to his vanity. He was not so devoid of ambition as he assures us, yet his courtierlike desire for some place, or the tutorship of the Dauphin, remained (and naturally enough) ungratified.
After years of fitful intrigue and personal exertion and danger, he found himself regarded as a political nonentity, the object neither of anxiety nor of conciliation. Included by Mazarin in the amnesty granted to the defeated enemies of absolute monarchy, he returned to Paris and devoted himself to repose, to the recovery of his health, to the society of his friends, and last, but not least, to the literary work which was to console him for his failure in other fields, if not to avenge his grievances against the world in general.
In 1662 first appeared, in an imperfect and incorrect form, his Memoirs of the Intrigues which followed the death of Louis XIII., the wars of Paris and Guyenne, and the imprisonment of the Princes, one of the best accounts of the complex and tortuous politics of the time. A serious and dignified work, if not superior, as M. Bayle thought, to the Commentaries of Julius Cæsar, at least it presents a striking contrast to the piquant reminiscences of Cardinal de Retz.
Some three years later the Maxims and Reflections were launched upon the world by the famous publisher, Claude Barbin.
They appeared in anonymous form, but coupled with a discourse usually attributed to M. de Segrais (a minor poet and friend of Madame de La Fayette), which referred to the recently published memoirs, and could leave little doubt as to the author’s identity. The venture was a great success, though it roused a storm of criticism to which the author could not be indifferent. But, in one form or another, the book was continually reprinted. “Yet another edition of ‘M. de La Rochefoucauld,’” exclaims Madame de Sévigné, “corrected and enlarged. Some of the Maxims are splendid, others, I’m ashamed to say, I can’t understand. Heaven knows how you will.”
The success of the book being assured, the apologetic “discourse” was withdrawn, and a hundred more maxims were added in the fifth edition (1678), the latest text to which the author was able to put a revising hand.
For some years he had suffered chronic torments from the gout, and, in the spring of 1680, a severe attack of fever supervened, to which, after a deceptive rally, and in spite of the assistance of an English physician, specially called in, he succumbed about midnight, March 16–17.
He had endured agonising pain with a fortitude which he need not have denied to other philosophers; and his death roused the admiration even of those who knew him best.
“It is not to no purpose,” writes his friend, “that he has given so much of his life to Reflections: for he approaches his last moments in such fashion, that they have nothing new or strange for him.” She had told us before of the goodness and tenderness he had exhibited at a moment of the most harrowing domestic affliction, qualities beside which “all the attractions of his wit sank into insignificance.”
It is gratifying to know, from the same reliable informant, that the man who had said such hard things of friendship left behind him more than one grief-stricken friend, besides the son so devoted to his father, and the amiable and talented woman, with whom he maintained, for the last twenty-five years of his life, a relation of indescribable charm and intimacy,” regarding her, perhaps rightly, as the one genuine woman of an artificial and corrupt generation.
His temperament he has himself described as of so melancholy a cast that he was scarcely seen to laugh once in a year. A dignified figure in court or camp, in his manner unquestionably proud and reserved, impressing casual spectators as contemptuous, but not really so.
Witty—he does not conceal that—though, in spite of his clear perception of things and easy command of language, here, again, a moody temper marks him for its own—“J’ai donc de l’ esprit, encore une fois, mais un esprit que la melancolie gâte”—even to the extent, he thought, of impairing the expression of what he meant to say. Fond of conversation, he describes himself, more especially of the serious discussion of moral questions, not averse to the badinage of the day, though little indulging his capacity for it: addicted to reading, more particularly when combined with conversation, a fairly competent author in prose and verse, and a sound critic, if a little given to excessive frankness, conscious that in argument he sometimes becomes rather dogmatic.
Little troubled by ambition, undisturbed by violent passions, he was quite capable of making others feel his resentment of any injury touching his honour. Little affected by curiosity, studiously courteous, but inclined to be reticent if not taciturn, devoid of fear, and, as has been said, scarcely sensible of pity, he would yet do anything to relieve a friend’s suffering, even so far as to express commiseration for them, seeing that people who suffer are “so stupid that that does them all the good in the world.”
That he keenly enjoyed the society of witty and cultivated women—not those, we may presume, whose wit merely showed up their folly (maxim 340)—does not argue any generally sociable qualities, and when he adds that, in his punctilious politeness, he “never uttered a word in their presence calculated to give them pain,” the reader who peruses his numerous reflections on the fair sex may wonder how much respect underlay his numerous “attachments,” or what the magnificent polish of the “grand” age was really worth.
But La Rochefoucauld died, in any case, if he had not always lived, superior to the principles which he has sketched for us with so much eloquence and precision. He died, moreover, a disappointed man, and, from his own point of view (if his indifference to literary fame was not merely affected), a failure.
At any rate, his chef d’œuvre is, as has been said, in its personal aspect, something of an outburst of despair—the bitter cry of an aspiring but irresolute temperament which is acute enough to see that, after all, it has only itself to blame.
The pessimism which now and then seems to leave us no satisfaction with life can hardly fail to convey the writer’s—the thinker’s—consciousness of wasted opportunities, as if he felt in himself, and wildly sought to justify, the predestined despair of one “always driven about by passions yet never filled with any” (maxim 479), endowed with the keenest insight into human failings yet without the faith and energy required to apply it profitably to himself.
The harshness of much of his earlier criticism (or abuse) of mankind he seems to have repented of under the softening influence of age, repose, and the society of Madame de La Fayette.
It is true that once given to the world—even in the seventeenth century—a bitter truth or a cynical sneer could never be recalled, even if that were, in the interests of literature, at all desirable. But to judge La Rochefoucauld’s personal opinions fairly we must, as his severest critic insists, accept them in their final and corrected form.
On the character and permanent value of such a work volumes have been, and still might be, written. It has supplied texts for thousands of discourses and furnished a score or so of proverbs to the whole civilised world. If there is any better known manual of moral philosophy there is none that has been at once so well read and so well abused.
The author’s dearest friend and literary coadjutor has confided to us (through Madame de Sablé) that, “if pleasantries were to be taken seriously,” these (and grim pleasantries some of them are!) would have endangered her attachment to him. Such “corruption of mind and heart” did she think could alone enable a man “to imagine all that!”
And it would seem that since Mesdames de Sévigné and de La Fayette first cut the pages of the “Moral Reflections” they have never ceased to interest—and to “shock.”
They have been censured, indeed, by the orthodox of every successive generation. “Yet their doctrine,” says the first critical editor of the nineteenth century, “is even worse than their reputation.” All the good in human nature they reduce to a hollow unreality. All action they would base upon mere egoism, the “shameful and solitary instinct,” which the author so fatally confounds with that higher form of self-interest essential to the preservation of society.
Against this charge the author defends himself, somewhat half-heartedly, in the short preface which introduces the “Discourse.”
We need only concern ourselves with the fact that La Rochefoucauld is more of a “specialist” than any other maxim-monger known to literature.
Even as the Hebrew preacher dwells upon the vanity of all human wishes and experiences, so does La Rochefoucauld cling to his one depressing theme. The Maxims, Voltaire remarks, are rather “materials for a book” than a work in themselves—materials, he might have added, for a “Natural History of Selfishness.”
It is true that the author has something to say upon most human qualities, most departments of conduct; but even if they did not most of them communicate with this (cf. Max. 172), it is here that he speaks with the most frigid certainty and the most overwhelming detail.
The Essay (now Max. 2) which headed the book in its original form, if it does not contain some of the most dreadful sentences ever penned, is, at least, couched in a more elaborate, more mercilessly scientific a vein than any other chapter of the book. It deserves careful study. It is an eloquent and terrible denunciation, that seems to brand naked and trembling humanity as with a hot iron. And if we put together only a part of the materials referred to, what a tragic and penetrating study do they present of that “bottomless abyss” (Max. 2), that uncharted ocean, that dark, unexplorable continent (4), where the tyrannous, idolatrous Alaster of self-love, the insouciant parent of acts and conceptions too monstrous for its own recognition (2), blind even to its own interests (593), trampling on the rights and feelings of others (262, 534), more cruel even than cruelty pur et simple (546), is doomed to pursue for ever, under a thousand fair and fleeting disguises (2), the barren reflection of—itself! It is not, assuredly, for his presentation of this intellectual vice, this spiritual deformity, that La Rochefoucauld is open to attack.
“Self-love,” whether we like to contemplate it or not, is the love of a man’s own self, and of everything else for his own sake. It does make people “idolaters to themselves and tyrants to all the world besides”; and had all the rest of the book been modelled on these opening sentences of the original edition, then, though nothing could render them pleasant reading, it could have provoked no very effective retort.
But the author has also urged upon us the imperfection (or unreality) of all apparent goodness, the vulgarity of motive often animating what passes for the best and highest action. He has turned up for our inspection the dingy, “seamy,” and ridiculous side (though there is little mirth in his display) of all that seems magnanimous and dignified in human conduct: and, in doing this, perhaps he has, as M. Aimé-Martin suggests, drawn rather from “men”—Frenchmen of the Fronde—than from “man.”
“He begins,” says the indignant critic, “by stigmatising our nature as base. He ends by corrupting it.” We feel in ourselves the disposition to selfishness, envy, vanity, ingratitude. We give way to it. We support ourselves (as the author suggests that “weak people” do: No. 657) on a maxim. We say—such or such a feeling, practice, motive, is common to humanity, and—we cease to blush. There is no doubt some truth in this eloquent indictment.
“Revenge may be wicked,” exclaims the heroine of a truculent satire on modern civilised life, “but it’s natural. I’m no angel!”
That is the principle here suggested for the student of the Maxims. He reads that friendship is—how often!—a mere traffic of useful services; gratitude, a lively anticipation of future favours; and pity, the “ingenious foresight” (264) of possible disasters to ourselves; and, seeing how much of the undeniable there is in all this, gradually admits to his soul a sort of poisonous apathy, saying to himself “ingratitude, treachery in fine, cold-blooded selfishness are all very natural. That is enough—‘I’m no angel!’”
But if there is much in the Maxims calculated to drive the virtuous to despair, there is certainly little comfort in them for the heartless and wicked.
“Hypocrites,” it is well observed in the prefatory apology, “pass their time very ill in reading a book of this character”—that is, if they do not wish to be made extremely uncomfortable. It is quite pathetic to watch a pious commentator wrestling, as it were, with these uncompromising “chips from the workshop” of a worldly philosopher who will not say that “All virtue is hypocrisy,” but only that hypocrisy is all the virtue that you can get out of certain people (219), nor that “All men really hate each other” but only that “there is something not unpleasing to us in the misfortunes of our best friends.” (235*) Here, it is true, as elsewhere, he can deal in fine distinctions. When we read, in his curt and frigid commentary, that “As our merit lowers, our taste lowers too” (Max. 378), or that “He who loves no one is worse off than he whom nobody loves” (772), we can supply terrible adjectives enough to paint the degradation or the loneliness he is contemplating. But the fact is that there is a delusive and almost indecent materialism in the simplicity assigned with such persistence to human motives in general, as if man were a piece of bloodless clockwork and not a “living ganglion” of complex passions and cravings. That is one obvious reflection. Brevity, in itself, is apt to be mistaken not only for wit but for the epitome of truth. On the other hand, there is some danger of the reader mistaking his own pessimism for that of the author, of his regarding as satirical condemnation certain bald statements of fact. What if friendship be a kind of commerce—is commerce so base a thing as to exclude all thought of others? If it does, does not that show, as Rochefoucauld himself tells us, how pure, unadulterated selfishness (593) defeats its own object! If we are stung by hearing gratitude spoken of as a sort of account-keeping, is there not something precious in the refined justice which governs its impulses and keeps its operation (226) dignified and independent? And the critic who sees ingratitude in the hasty return of an obligation (227) can hardly be suspected of depreciating true generosity. And if it be objected that he sometimes (especially in the most complete editions) contradicts himself, he can surely reply, with Walt Whitman: “Very well. I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
To compare, verify, adjust, all these varieties of sharply-pointed criticism, and almost confidential information, is a pleasing task which shall be left to the reader.
To handle but a few of these gems, where shall we find in so short a compass a sounder theory of true happiness (49), of peace of mind (528), of courage (216–7), of love (644), of wisdom (232, 539, 690, 707, etc.) of real eloquence (251, 656), and sham humility (255), of the ties that unite the virtuous (595), of the disgrace of the untrustful (85), and the misery of the unloving (772)? Where shall we see more conscientiously depicted for us the relations of treachery and weakness (121), of wit and stupidity (130), of confidence in ourselves and in others (550), of book-learning and pedantry (586, 672, 690), of vanity and sincerity (382), of body and soul (297), of the intellect and the heart (103–8, 109)? Who has unmasked with a defter hand all the obscurer weaknesses of humanity from our conceit in misfortune (51), to that eternal little difficulty of forgiving, not the people who have injured us, but the people we have injured (304), our thirst for futile information (612), our unappreciated interest in other people’s destinies (272), our instinctive aversion to our betters (296), our “commendations with a sting in the tail” (146), and those familiar conversational failings which make up, in the twentieth as in the seventeenth century, the whole art of boredom? (135, 160, 313, 363, 596, etc. etc.).
Many of these delicate revelations seem to fall quite naturally into the form of popular conundrums. Thus: Why are heroes like pictures? Ans. Because to be admired they must be viewed from a distance (734). Why does flattery injure us? Only because we first flatter ourselves (153). Why then do we sometimes object to it? Because it is awkwardly expressed (329). And so on…. Why, for example, do we ask advice of others? To hear our own opinions confirmed (117). Why do we refuse praise (as Julius Cæsar refused the crown) the first time it is offered? Because we want to hear it again (150 and see 356). Why are we half-hearted in the pursuit of any given vice? Because, most probably, our affections are divided among several (196). Why do we confess small faults? To avoid being suspected of great ones (327), and, lastly: Why do we fear men’s contempt? Because we deserve it (332).
These will strike the reader, according to his mood, either as brilliant satires upon other people or reflections for his private chamber. It may be a pungent truth that few of us master “the art of being old” (423): but perhaps only a cynic could tell us that greybeards are fond of giving good advice (94), because it consoles them for being unable to set bad examples, or that our good qualities bring more hatred and persecution upon us than all the ill we do (30, 239, but see 483).
If that were literally true in Mazarin’s day, let us try and hope it may be relegated, like the Reflections on Favourites (56), or “Princes (320, 706), or the Great” (240, etc.), on Reconciliation (83), and certain others (717, etc.), to the class of “topical” maxims, as distinguished from those which are “not for an age but for all time.”
To the latter class would belong the dreadful sentence already quoted, against the morally “deficient” (337), with its more cheering correlative (548), and that acute exposition of the principle underlying all modern advertisement: Would you rise in the world, and get your business done?—then “use all possible means of persuading the people it is done already.”
We have emphasised the sincerity of the author. If there is some cynicism in his book, there is very little, if any, of the shallow and flippant cynicism with which the modern epigrammatist so often tries to startle or shock his jaded hearers. Perhaps some of the profoundest maxims of all, by what we may call their laboured vagueness (as of an observer struggling to describe the indescribable), triumphantly refute the suggestion of certain critics that La Rochefoucauld’s main object was to say something smart and clever. Doubtless he does say a few shallow and seemingly heartless things. The belief that a woman’s worth rarely survives her beauty (476) scarcely survives among us.
And there are a few (see 366) other maxims of the kind which the partial Madame de La Fayette declined to take seriously, their bitterness being affected, let us hope, by a twinge of the author’s persistent enemy—the gout; though it is to be remembered that some of the most unpopular and apparently cynical reflections were (as will be seen) never intended by the author for the perusal of posterity.
But there is no superficial rhetorical brilliance about La Rochefoucauld’s musings, as we may call them, upon the “secret reasons” for things (164), the effect of the subdivision of life into different stages in our experience (404), the practical uses of folly (310), the harm we do without knowing it (269), the “rotation,” so to speak, of the passions (526), our latent virtues (344), and our eternally surprising ignorance of ourselves (295).
Nor, again, in the essays—for so we must term them—upon the complexity, extent, and magical power of Self-Love (2, 534), upon Courage (216), Hypocrisy in Affliction (234), the Fear of Death (412), and one or two others, where the author seems to be vainly struggling to find a maxim capable of including all he wants to say. And even if some topics seem dismissed with a cynical petulance, it is no such temper that dwells emphatically upon the intrinsic goodness of mere existence (698), that believes every thing, even the meanest, to have a perfection (126) which the “discerning palate” can appreciate! And is there not even poetry in some of these suggestive and far-reaching apophthegms, such as the comparison of our actions to the last syllables in words which every man makes rhyme to what he thinks fit (381), or in the remark that “virtues are lost in interest as rivers in the sea” (172), half-formed interjections, as it were, unfinished sketches, yet giving, in the familiar French metaphor, tremendous food for thought? Some of the more obvious human weaknesses may be roughly outlined, even here and there crudely caricatured—mistakes easy to correct as to condemn. But if we trace out all the delicate shades, the nuances of instinct, conduct, manner, motive, here so perseveringly exposed, we may agree that life would indeed be a fine, gracious, and beautiful thing if we could take every hint, follow out every negative principle emphasised, in the moral Maxims of La Rochefoucauld.
The Bibliography of the work has an interest involved in the nature and minuteness of its contents. Like a casket of jewels or a case of “specimens,” handled alternatively by the inquisitive public and the thoughtful curator, the maxims subjected to different editorial hands, multiplied, reduced, expanded, and rearranged, present kaleidoscopic variations, of which, however, only those effected by the author need seriously concern us.
First published, as has been said, in 1665, it is not too much to say that the book has been incessantly reprinted, in one form or another, in response to a demand steadily maintained through the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.
Of the five authentic editions published in the lifetime of La Rochefoucauld the original of 1665 comprised only 317 maxims. In that of 1666 they were reduced to 302. In 1671 he increased them to 341, and in 1675 to 413, while in the latest text revised by the author (1678) they amount to 504.
In this and the subsequent bibliography of the Maxims we may trace a struggle between public curiosity and orthodox censure; between the author’s known wishes and the taste or principle of his editors. Thus the important maxim (or essay) on self-love, which stood at the head of the original edition, and might seem the keystone of the whole work, was withdrawn by the author together with some sixty more, and either replaced by others, or restored in variously modified forms, which the reader may examine and compare in any of the modern critical editions.
Thus it will be seen that the first five recensions of the Maxims (1665–66–71–75 and 78) differ materially, from one another: and subsequent editors were left to choose whether they would reprint (a) the “original” text of 1665, (b) the “latest revised” edition of 1678, or (c) a complete collection of all the maxims extant in any.
Amelot de la Houssaye, the historian of Venice, was one of the first to collect and reinstate, in 1714, the maxims rejected by the author. Gabriel Brotier, the celebrated editor of Tacitus, produced a critical, but unsatisfactory, edition in 1789, and M. Aimé-Martin, some thirty years later, gave us the first arrangement adapted to modern standards of completeness and authenticity viz. (1) the text of 1678, embodying the author’s latest corrections, with (2) the variants rejected by him (printed at the foot of the page) and supplements comprising (3) all the maxims finally expunged by him, and (4) such other of his epigrammatic sayings and bons mots as could be collected from the correspondence of Madame de Sévigné and other contemporary sources.
The first English version of the work would seem to be that of Mrs. Aphra Behn, bearing the curious title of “Seneca unmasked,” or “Moral Reflections, etc.,” 1685; a loose and partial paraphrase of some of the earlier maxims, for further notice of which the reader may be referred to the remarks of Dean Stanhope above.
The translation here reprinted bears no name, as the reader will have observed, and the Catalogue of the British Museum, that clue to so many an anonymous or pseudonymous personality, adds nothing to what we are told upon the title-page.
From the fact that the translator appends to the book as a sort of antidote certain “Christian Maxims” of his own (which it has not been thought worthwhile to include in the present edition), we might infer him to be not only a French scholar but a divine. A reference to the contemporary advertisements of the publisher, Richard Sare, reveals two clients of his answering this description, Jeremy Collier, then occupied upon his “Ecclesiastical History,” and—Dean Stanhope. Internal evidence inclined one to the latter, a conclusion confirmed by the Dictionary of National Biography, which refers to the book as a work that might be considered “alien to his mind.” It was certainly a book of ill repute among the orthodox, which explains the anonymity of a version given to the world by one of the most eminent preachers and divines of the reign of Queen Anne.
Stanhope’s leisure would seem to have been largely occupied in translation. Besides his numerous theological works, he published (1694 and 1700) an English version, already referred to, of the “Morals of Epictetus,” “Charron, of Wisdom—done into English from the newest French Edition” (3 vols., 1697), “The Christian Pattern” (the “Imitatio Christi”), and a translation of the “Confessions of Marcus Aurelius” (1697 and 1699), from which Jeremy Collier borrowed, with due acknowledgment, the “Collection of Authorities” used for his own.
In the preface to the “Maxims of Rochefoucauld” it will be noticed that the translator claims for his edition that it is more complete than any yet published in the original French. Taking all the maxims comprised in the two editions of Lyons and Paris, published in 1691, and the Preface and Discourse included in the one and omitted or abridged in the other, he gives us La Rochefoucauld’s work in a much fuller form than we should expect.
M. Aimé-Martin, collating all the editions and adding maxims drawn from the Letters, etc. (which are, of course, no true part of the original work), only makes up a total of 628. Dean Stanhope prints 772, including a good many in what engravers would call “two states.”
He has, perhaps, included a few maxims which, if they were printed in certain French editions (e.g., that of 1693) may be regarded as of doubtful authenticity; and he has omitted one which, though suppressed along with several other reflections by La Rochefoucauld himself, is, probably at this moment, the most famous of all—No. 99 in the original edition of 1685: “In the misfortune of our best friends there is always something not unpleasing to us.” This I have accordingly ventured to add in the place where it should be found before the maxim (No. 236 in this book), which mollifies and explains it.
With the above exception, the translator’s claim to have presented us with a complete and idiomatic version of La Rochefoucauld’s work seems amply justified. The reader familiar with the original will find here, in a characteristic and contemporary English dress, the whole point and purport of these many hundred French epigrams, and it might easily be argued that most of them, especially the best and the briefest, have lost little or nothing by their change of nationality.
A word in conclusion may be said of the arrangement of the maxims. Briefly, there is none, or very little. They go alone, the most desperate ones (which the boldest editor might shrink from trying to catch and classify!), or in small groups—modifying or correcting one another—but the author would be the last person, as he tells us, to stand out for any methodical order in their going.
In its usual form the book bears traces of its genesis and history, as described above. The earliest, and perhaps most spontaneous, maxims are, as a rule with some important exceptions to be found near the beginning, while those subsequently added occupy the later “parts”; and towards the end will usually be found a good many for which the industry, or piety, or laxity of the editor is mainly responsible. Thus the bibliography of any particular essay or maxim—which may be separated by several hundreds from its antidote, corrective, or revised form—has little to say to its subject-matter.