François, duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680). Moral Maxims and Reflections. 1912.

The Preface to the Reader

THE GENERAL Approbation which the Publick has been pleased to give these Moral Reflections, is infinitely above what I am able to say in their Favour; and if they are really of that intrinsic Value, as I take them to be, and have very good Reasons to believe, ’tis almost impossible to do them a greater Injury, than to imagine they stand in need of an Apology.

I shall at present content my self to remark Two Things; First, That by the Word Interest, our Author does not always understand what we commonly call Worldly Interest, which has the Pursuit of Wealth for its only Object, but an Interest of Honour and Glory. My Second Remark is, (and ’tis in a manner the Foundation of all these Refactions) That the judicious Person who made them, only considers Mankind in the present deplorable State of Nature, as ’tis overrun with Ignorance, and corrupted by Sin; and therefore whatever he says of that infinite Number of Defects that are to be found in their apparent Vertues, does not in the least concern those happy but few Favourites whom Heaven is pleased to preserve from them by a particular Grace.

To remove the Prejudices which some well meaning People have entertained against these Maxims, I thought it convenient to insert the following Letter, which lately fell into my Hands, and was written since the First Edition of this Manuscript; and now at this Juncture, when every Reader takes the freedom to pass his own Judgment upon them; it comes out very seasonably to clear the principal Difficulties that may be urged against these Reflections, as also to explain the true Sentiments of our Author. This, at least, it has performed, it has abundantly demonstrated them to contain nothing but a pure Abridgment of Morality, conformable to several Fathers of the Church, and that the Person who writ them, had a great deal of reason to believe, that he could not well miss his Way, in following such experienced and disinterested Guides. And lastly, that he had full Liberty to speak of Man, after the very same manner as the Fathers had done before him.

Now, after all, if the Veneration which is due to these illustrious Lights of the Church, be not sufficient to stop the Mouths of the Criticks, but they are resolved, in opposition to good Manners and Sense, to condemn the Opinion of these Great Men in condemning this Book; I would advise the Reader not to be influenced by such partial Judges, nor suffer himself to be determined by the first Motions he finds arise in his Heart; but to take all imaginable Care, that Self-Love shall have no share in the Judgment which he passes upon them. For if he suffers himself to be directed by so corrupt a Counsellor, it is not to be supposed that he will shew any great Favour to these Maxims. As they particularly charge Self-Love with debauching the Reason, that powerful Seducer, will be sure, by Way of Requital, to prepossess the Mind against them. Upon this Score the Reader ought to take care, that this Prevention or Prejudice shall not justifie the Truth of them, and to perswade himself that nothing can so effectually establish the Truth of these Reflections, as that Heat or Subtilty he expresses in combating them. But as it will be a difficult Matter to perswade every sensible Man, that he cannot condemn them out of any other Motive than that of Interest disguised, of Pride, and Self-Love; the best Way the Reader can take, in my Opinion, is to satisfie himself, that none of these Maxims concern Him in particular, and that He alone is excepted from them, although they seem to be general. After he has done this, I dare answer for him, that he will be the first Man that shall subscribe to the Truth of them, and, what is more, believe that they are of mighty Benefit to the World, in discovering all the Follies and Foibles of Mankind.

As for what regards the Order of these Reflections, the Reader will at first view discover, that as they are all upon different Matters, it was in a manner impossible to place them in an exact Method: And tho’ there are several upon the same Subject, it was not judged proper to place them always one after another, for fear of disgusting the Reader, who is generally best entertained with an agreeable Variety.

A Discourse upon the Reflections, or Sentences, and Moral Maxims, in a Letter to a Friend.

S I R,
I Am not able positively to tell you, Whether all these Moral Reflections were writ by Monsieur De—— altho’ the Stile and Manner of them seem to resemble his. But give me leave, Sir, to tell you, that upon these Occasions, I generally disengage my self from popular Reports, and ’tis enough to make me believe, that they do not belong to him, because the publick Opinion has father’d them upon him. Thus I have fairly and ingenuously answered your First Question. And as for the rest, if you had not an absolute Authority over me, which I must never dispute, I should wave a farther Examination of them. For a Man so highly prepossess’d, as I am, in his Esteem for this Work, has not that Liberty to judge truly of it, as is requisite. Nevertheless, since you have been pleased to order it so, I will frankly give you my Opinion, without any Design to set up for a Maker of Dissertations, or concerning my self with the Person who is supposed to have writ this Book. ’Tis easie to discover, at first Sight, that it was never designed to visit the World, but only writ for the Satisfaction of a Person, who, in my Opinion, does not aspire to the Glory of being an Author. And if it should happen to belong to Monsieur De——, I can assure you, that his Reputation is established in the World by so many better Titles, that he wou’d be no less disturb’d to hear that these Reflections are made publick, than he was when the Memoirs that were attributed to him were printed. But, Sir, you need not be informed, what a Propensity there is, in this Age, to publish all manner of Novelties, and especially those that go under any celebrated Name, which, of it self, is sufficient to recommend them to the World. This you know is an undoubted Truth, Names alone set a Price upon Things with those People, that are not in a Capacity of finding out their Intrinsic Value. The true Merit of these Reflections is understood but by a very few People, tho’ ’tis certain that abundance of presuming Wou’d be Wits pretend to give you their Opinions of them. As for my self, I don’t pretend to have Delicacy and Penetration enough to form a true Judgment of them. I say Delicacy and Penetration, because, to qualifie a Man for such a Province, he must be Master both of one and the other. And tho’ it were possible for me to flatter my self, that I possessed both these Qualities, I am inclined to believe, that I should find but very few Passages in these Reflections to amend. I can there discover nothing but a happy Force and Spirit, Thoughts truly elevated and Bold, a noble Turn of Expression, accompanied with a certain Air of Quality, that does not belong to all that have Vanity enough to set up for Authors. I own indeed there is not that Order and Art in them which one would desire, and that a learned Man, who enjoyed a greater share of Leisure than our Author’s Affairs seem to allow him, wou’d have thrown him into a better Method. But a Man who purely writes for himself, and to divert his Mind after the Fatigue of other Business, who sets down his Thoughts just as they come into his Head, does not so religiously observe the Niceties of Rules, as They who make a Profession and Business of Writing, and hope to get Reputation by their Pens. Nevertheless, this Irregularity has its peculiar Graces, and such Graces too as Art can never imitate. I don’t know whether you will agree with me in this Point; but tho’ I am sure of incurring the Indignation of the Criticks by what I am going to say, yet I cannot forbear to affirm to you, that as long as I live, I shall make no scruple to prefer the easie negligent Stile of Persons of Condition, which has Wit and Spirit in it, to the slavish Regularity of a Doctor, that never conversed with any thing but his Books. The more easie and negligent he appeared in whatever he said or did, the more agreeably was it received for its natural and simple Air. I borrow this Passage out of Tacitus, and have set down the Latin below, that if you are so minded, you may read it; and tho’ I am sensible how great a Master you are of that Language, yet since this Discourse may possibly reach other Hands, that are utterly unacquainted with it, I shall follow the same Conduct, whenever I have any Occasion to make Citations. Now, Sir, is it not an unquestionable Truth, that this Justness and Affectation, which is sought after with so much Study, always carries a certain Stiffness and Constraint that displeases us? And that the Gentlemen who are such Slaves to Rules, have none of those Beauties, where Art disguises it self under the Appearances of Nature; that happy Talent of writing easily and nobly; or, in fine, that which Tasso says of the Palace of Armida,

  • Stimi (si misto il culto è col negletto,)
  • Sol naturali gli ornamenti e i siti,
  • Di natura arte par che per diletto
  • L’imitatrice sua scherzando imiti.
  • In English it runs thus.
  • Art in this beauteous Pile can claim no praise
  • Nature alone did the fair Fabrick raise.
  • But so well has she copy’d her Design,
  • That cheated by an Object so Divine,
  • We think that Art has followed Nature’s Line.
  • Thus I have briefly acquainted you with my Sentiments of this Work in general, but at the same time am sensible, that this is not enough to satisfie you; since you request me to answer all those Objections, more particularly, which you tell me have been urged against it. As I remember, the first is as follows, viz. That these Reflections destroy all the Vertues. To which it may be answered, That our Author was far from entertaining the least Inclination to destroy them; he only pretends to shew, that they are seldom to be seen in a perfect State of purity, and that the greatest part of our Actions are never without a Mixture of Error and Truth, Perfection and Imperfection, Vice and Vertue. He considers the Hearts of Men corrupted, invaded by Pride and Self-Love, and incompass’d about with ill Examples, as the Governor of a Town beseiged, who for want of Silver, makes Money of Leather and Past-board. This Money, in Shape and Figure, resembles the Good, ’tis put off at the same Price, but nothing but downright Misery and Necessity makes it go current among the Besieged. After the same manner, the generality of humane Actions, which pass with the World for so many Vertues, oftentimes have only the bare Image and Resemblance of them; nevertheless, they don’t cease to carry some Merit with them, and to challenge our Esteem in some Measure. It being very difficult, humanely speaking, to have any better. But admitting our Author believed, that there was no truly perfect Vertue in Man, yet, considering him in the pure State of Nature, he is not the first that advanced this Opinion. If I were not afraid to lie under the Scandal of a mighty Man in Quotation with you, I could cite you several Authors, nay Fathers of the Church, and celebrated Saints, who were of Opinion, that Self-Love, and Pride, were the very Soul of the most Heroical Actions the Pagans can boast of. I could make it appear, that some of them have not even pardoned the Chastity of Lucretia, whom all the World believed to be vertuous, till they discover’d the Falsity of that Vertue, which produced the Liberty of Rome, and has drawn the Admiration of so many Ages after it. Can you imagine, Sir, that Seneca himself, who makes his wise Man stand upon the same Level with the Gods, was truly Wise; or that he was really perswaded of what he endeavours to inculcate to other People, with so much Insolence and Ostentation? Nevertheless his Pride cou’d not hinder him from owning in other (a) Places, that he had never beheld in the World an Example of that Idea which he proposed; that it was impossible to find so consummate a Virtue among Men; and that the most perfect among them, was he who had the fewest Defects. (b) He frankly confesses, that one may reproach Socrates with maintaining some suspected Correspondences, Plato and Aristotle with being Covetous, and Epicurus with Prodigality and Pleasure: And yet he cries out in a most wonderful Passion, at the same Time, That we should be but too happy, cou’d we arrive to copy and imitate their very Vices. This worshipful Philosopher had been much in the right on’t, if he had said as much of his own Vices; for, to say the Truth, a Man woud not have been over unhappy, cou’d he have been able to enjoy, as this poor Stoick did, all manner of Riches, Honour and Pleasure, at the same Time when he made a Shew of despising them; to see himself absolute Master of the Empire, and Emperour; nay, and a Gallant of the Empress at the same Time; to possess magnificent Palaces, delicious Gardens, and thus, fall stretch’d at his Ease, as he was, to preach up Moderation and Constancy, and the Lord knows what in the Midst of a prodigious Plenty and Wealth. Do you believe, Sir, that this mortified Hypocrite, who so well counterfeited the Master of his Passions, cou’d, in Conscience, pretend to any Vertue, but that single one of concealing his Vices, and that when he ordered his Veins to be opened, he did not repent him a thousand times, that left his Imperial Pupil the Power to make him die? Do but view this mighty Pretender at a nearer distance, and you’ll see that in making all these fine Reasonings upon the Immortality of the Soul, he endeavours to Hood-wink himself against the Fears of Death; he summons up all his Forces to make a solemn Grimace at parting; he bites his Tongue, lest he should confess that Pain is an Evil; he pretends that Reason is able to divest a Man of all Passion, and instead of humbling his Pride, he raises himself above the Divinity. Now in my Opinion, he had acted much more like an honest Man, if he had fairly own’d the Weakness and Corruption of Human Nature, and not taken so much Pains to banter the World with his impracticable Notions. On the other Hand, the Author of these Reflections uses a different Conduct. He lays open all the Miseries of Man, but then we must understand him of Man, as he is abandon’d to his own Caprice, and not of a Christian: He makes it evidently appear, that in spite of all the Efforts of his Reason, Pride and Self-Love will still take sanctuary in some of the most private Recesses of his Heart; Where they meet, from Time to Time, with sufficient Nourishment, to spread their Venom imperceptibly, upon the greatest Part of its Movements.

    The Second Objection you told me of, and which has a great deal of affinity with the former, is, That these Reflections pass in the World, rather from the Subtilties of an austere Censor, who puts an ill Construction upon the most indifferent Actions, than for solid Truths. You tell me, That some of your Friends have assured you, with all the imaginable Appearances of Sincerity, that they knew by their own Experience, that a Man does sometimes do Good, without having any other View or Prospect, than that of Good; nay, sometimes without any View at all, either for Good or Evil, but by a natural Integrity of Mind, which inclined him to what is Good, without his own thinking of it. I wish it were in my Power to believe these Gentlemen upon their Word, and that it were true that Humane Nature has none but reasonable Motions, and that all our Actions were naturally vertuous. But, Sir, how shall we reconcile the Testimony of your Friends, to the Sentiments of the greatest Fathers of the Church, who have assured us, That all our Vertues, without the Assistance of Faith, are only Imperfections; that our Will was born blind; that its Desires were blind, its Conduct still more blind, and that it was no wonder if a Man under so much blindness, was in a perpetual State of wandring. Nor is this all, for they proceed to talk in a higher Strain, and tell us, that in such a Condition, the Prudence of Man does not penetrate into future Things, and appoints nothing, but as it has a relation to Pride; that his Temperance moderates no Excesses, but those that his Pride condemned before; that his Constancy no farther supports its self under the Pressure of Calamities, than as it is encouraged by his Pride; and lastly, that all his Vertues, with that exterior Pomp of Merit, which makes them be admired, had no other End but this Admiration, the Love of vain Glory, and the Interest of Pride. One might find almost an infinite number of Authorities upon this Opinion, but if I should once begin to cite them regularly to you, the effect wou’d be, that I should give my self a little more trouble, and that you wou’d not receive more Pleasure by it. For this Consideration, I think, the best way both for you and me, will be to give you an Abridgment of all this Controversie, done by an excellent Poet of our Time, in the Compass of Six Verses.

  • Si le Jour de la Foy.
  • Reason wou’d blindly wander in the Night,
  • If active Faith withdrew the cheerful Light.
  • Aspiring Pride deludes the darken’d Mind,
  • And turns to Poison what was good design’d.
  • Self-Love invades each Corner of the Soul,
  • Turns Vice to Vertue, and corrupts the Whole.
  • After all, if we must believe that your Friends have the Gift of this lively Faith, that suppresses all the ill Inclinations of Self-Love, if God has bestowed such extraordinary Favours upon them, and sanctifies them from the common Impurities of the World, I will, with all my Heart, give my Vote for their Canonization, and here freely declare to them, that the Moral Reflections don’t in the least concern them. There is no reason to imagine, that the Person who writ them, ever designed to meddle with the Saints; for as I told you before, his Business is only with Man as he is corrupted: He maintains, that he generally commits Evil, when his Self-Love flatters him that he’s doing Good, and that he often deceives himself, when he wou’d judge of himself, because Nature does not sincerely explain to him the real Motives that make him act. In this wretched State, where Pride is the original of all his Actions, the Saints are the first that declare War against him, and treat him infinitely worse than the Author of the Reflections does. If you should have a Desire at any Time to consult those Passages, which I have observed in their Writings upon this Article, you will soon be perswaded that I have told you nothing but the Truth; but I request you, to satisfie your self for the present with these Verses, which will in part explain to you what others thought about this Matter.

  • Le Desir des Honneurs.
  • The Lust of Honour, Riches and Delight,
  • Produces Vice, and leads us to the Right.
  • Blind Interest the wavering Heart o’ersways,
  • And to fresh Errors the vain Slave betrays.
  • Nay, Remedies produce a sharper Pain,
  • One ill suppress’d, another strait does reign.
  • While here this Tyrant does triumphant ride,
  • One Sin is by a second Sin destroy’d.
  • Montagne, whom I cannot without some remorse of Conscience quote to you, after the Fathers of the Church, says happily enough, upon the same Subject, That his Soul has two different Faces; that in vain she endeavoured to look back upon her self, for she only perceives that which Self-Love has disguised, while the other is perceived by those who are not concerned in the Masquerade. If I durst build upon so bold a Metaphor, I wou’d say, that the Soul of a Man, corrupted, is made like those Medals, which represent the Figure of a Saint, and that of a Devil, in one Face, and by the same Stroaks. ’Tis nothing but the different situation of those that look upon it, that changes the Object. One Man sees a Saint, and the other sees a Devil. These Comparisons may serve to instruct us, that when Self-Love has once got possession of the Heart, Pride does so effectually blind the Reason, and spread so vast an Obscurity over all its Faculties, that it cannot form a true Judgment of the least of our Motions, nor of it self give us any certain Rules for our Conduct. Men, says Horace, Here upon the stage of this World, are like a Company of Travellers, whom Night has surprized, as they are passing through a Forest; they march on, relying upon the Honesty of the Guide, who immediately puts them out of their Way, either through Malice or Ignorance, all of them use what Care they can to find the beaten Path again, every One takes a different Way, and is in good Hopes his is the best; the more they fill themselves with these vain Imaginations, the farther they wander; but tho’ they all wander a different Way, yet it proceeds from one and the same Cause; ’tis the Guide that deceived them, and the Obscurity of the Night hinders them from recovering the right Road. Is it possible for any one to paint out in livelier Colours, the Blindness and perpetual Inquietudes of Man abandon’d to his own foolish Conduct, who listens to nothing but the whisperings of his Pride, who thinks he goes naturally right to what is good, and who always believes, that the last he finds is the best? Is it not certain, that at the very moment when he flatters himself that he’s doing some good Action, ’tis then that the wandering of his Heart is most dangerous and fatal to him? There is such a prodigious Number of Wheels that compose the Movement of this Clock, and the first Spring of it so hard to be discovered, that, tho’ we plainly see what Hour of the Day it is by the Dial, yet we cannot tell which is the prime Motion that conducts the Hand upon all the Spaces in the Plate.

    The Third Objection which lies upon me to answer, is, That abundance of People complain of the great Obscurity in the Sense, as also in the Expression of the Reflections. You need not be informed, Sir, that Obscurity is not always the Author’s Fault. Reflections, or if you please, Maxims and Sentences, as the World has been pleased to call these, ought to be writ in a succinct close Stile, such as hinders a Man from giving that Perspicuity in his Writings, which is to be desired. They are like the first Sketches of a Picture, where an ingenious Eye will easily remark all the Perfection of Art, and the Beauty of the Painter’s Design. But then this Beauty is not understood by all the World, and altho’ the lineaments are not set out in their proper Colours, yet for all that, they discover a masterly Hand. For this Reason the Reader ought to penetrate into the Sense and Force of the Words, the Mind ought to run over the whole Extent of their Signification, before it sits down and proceeds to Judgment.

    The Fourth Objection, unless I am mistaken, was this, That the Maxims, for the most part, are too general. You have been told, That ’tis a Piece of Injustice to fix the Defects of particular Men upon the whole Race. Besides the Account I have received from you of the different Opinions you have heard upon this Subject, I know what uses to be generally objected to those Persons, who discover and condemn Vices. Their censure is called the Portraiture of the Painter; ’tis urged against them, that they resemble People troubled with the Yellow-Jaundice, who see every Thing yellow, because they are so themselves. Now if it were true, that a Man cannot censure the Corruption of the Heart in general, without finding more of it in himself than another does; we ought then to take it for granted, that those Philosophers, whose Apophthegms have been delivered down to us by Diogenes Laertius, were the greatest Debauchees of their Times. We ought to attack the Memory of Cato, and believe he was the most profligate wretch in Rome, because he censured the Vices of the Republick. If this be the Case, I dare swear for the Author of the Reflections, whoever he is, that he will not be much troubled at the ill Nature of his Adversaries, since, the Business of Religion excepted, he will scarce be taken either for a better or a wiser Man than Cato. As for what regards his Expression, which some Persons pretend is too general, I can only say this, that it is a difficult Matter to avoid it in Sentences, without robbing them of all their Salt, their Force and Spirit. Nor is this all; for common Conversation teaches us, that even where general Expressions are used, we take them in a limited Sense, with such and such Restrictions, and this without any body’s interposing to instruct us. As for Example, when we hear a Man say, All Paris went to meet the King, or, All the Court was at the Play, every one knows, that it only signifies the greatest Part. If you are of Opinion, that these Reasons are not sufficient to stop the Mouths of the Criticks, you need only tell them, that, when Gentlemen are so easily scandalized at the Terms of a general Censure, ’tis because it touches them after too lively a manner, in the most sensible Part of their Hearts.

    ’Tis indeed very certain, that You and I are acquainted with several Persons of great Worth and Honour, who are not in the least offended at the Freedom of these Reflections. I mean those, that have a mortal Aversion to Hypocrisie, and who make no Scruple at all to confess both what they feel in themselves, and what they observe in others. But few People are capable of thinking of them aright, or that will put themselves to the severe Expence of doing it. And if by meer Accident they do, Self-Flattery still attends them, and so hinders the Operation of the Physick. Let me intreat you to call to mind after what manner our Friend Guarini treats these empty Pretenders.

  • Huomo sono, e mi preggio d’esser humano,
  • E teco, che sei huomo,
  • E ch’ altro esser non puos,
  • Come huomo parlo di cosa humana.
  • E se di cotal nome forse ti sdegni,
  • Guarda Garzon Superbo;
  • Che nel dishumanarti,
  • Non divenghi una fiera, anzi chun Dio
  • Observe, Sir, in what terms we ought to speak of the Pride of Humane Nature. Instead of being angry with the Mirrour that shews us our Faults, instead of bearing an ill Will to the Person who is so charitable to discover them to us, ought we not rather to make use of the charitable Lights they give us, to find out our Self-Love and Pride, and to preserve our selves from the continual Attempts they make upon our Reason? Can a Man ever express Hatred enough to those Two Vices, that were the lamentable Occasions of the Revolt of our first Parent, or too much decry those unfortunate Sources, from whence all our Miseries proceed?

    Others are at their Liberty to take the Reflections after what manner they please. As for my self, I look upon them to be a true and handsom Representation of all the Infirmities of your impudent Pretender to Wisdom. I fancy that in every Stroke the Love of Truth pulls off his Mask, and shews him as he is in his proper Colours. I consider them as the Instructions of an able Master, who was perfectly versed in the Art of knowing Men, who dexterously lays open all the several Parts they play upon the Theatre of the World, and who not only bids us mind the several Characters of the Persons upon the Stage, but lifts up a Corner of the Curtain, and satisfies us, that this Lover and that King in a Tragedy, are the very numerical Actors, that play the Mountebank and the Merry-Andrew in a Farce. I freely own to you, that I have read nothing in this Age, that gives me a greater Contempt for Man, or makes me more sensible of my own Vanity. I fancy, that as often as I open the Book, I find something that resembles the secret Movements of my Heart, I inquire into myself, to examine whether he speaks the Truth, and I find that generally he tells both me and others more than they saw. At first I am somewhat displeased with him, I sometimes blush to see how exactly he has divined, but after I have with some Violence to my Nature read Him, I perceive that if I don’t from thence learn to become more wise, I learn this at least, that I have no Pretence to aspire to that Title. And lastly, I learn from the true Representation he gives me of my self, not sottishly to fall into an Admiration of those Vertues, the very Splendor of which offends our Eye-sight. Hypocrites indeed pass their Time but very ill in reading a Book of this Character, and those are the only Persons in the World that will raise a Noise and Clamour about it. Let me therefore conjure you, dear Sir, to give no heed to those that vent their Malice against it, and to rest assured, that the true reason of their Indignation is to see those Mysteries revealed, which, if it lay in their Power, they wou’d carefully conceal both from others and themselves.

    And now, Sir, whereas it was my Intention to send you a Letter, I find my self insensibly engaged to write a tedious Discourse. Call it as you please, either a Discourse or a Letter, it signifies not much, provided ’tis so happy as to give you some Satisfaction, and that you will do me the Honour to believe, that I am, with all imaginable Respect,

    Your Most Humble, &c.