The Maxims of La Rochefoucauld

Certain good qualities are like senses: people entirely lacking in them can neither perceive nor comprehend them.

MaximsYou might think that was written about local politics, or a comment on the local blogosphere. But no, it was written in the mid 17th century by Francois, du de La Rochefoucauld. It is number 337 in his famous book of Maxims, a work that stands beside other timeless classics of advice, reflection and epithets; like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and Balthasar Gracian’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom. I found a copy in a local used book store recently and have been digesting his words of wisdom.

La Rochefoucauld published five editions of the Maxims in his lifetime between 1665 and 1678. During that time he edited, deleted, added to and rewrote much of it, refining it every time. But as he did so, he found more and more to say, stretching from 317 maxims in the first edition to 504 in the last.

Later editors took more from his other writings; his unpublished notes and his memoirs, raising the total to 647 or even more (647 in the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Leonard Tancock, published first in 1959; mine is the 1984 reprint ).

France went through a lot of change and catharsis in the 17th century, from the brutal and exhausting civil way of La Fronde to the renaissance of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and a blossoming of art, culture, theatre and literature. It was the age of Moliere and Cyrano de Bergerac, the great salons of Paris, the Musketeers (about whom Dumas would write his great novels, two centuries later). It was also a time of great political upheaval, war, shifting allegiances, treachery and violence.

La Rochefoucauld was in the middle of many of the events; he was involved in many political activities favouring the queen, Anne of Austria, against her estranged husband, the king, Louis XIII. Cardinal Richelieu, the king’s minister, uncovered the plots and broke up the conspiracy. This earned La Rochefoucauld a week in the Bastile. He was then banished to his chateau at Verteuil, where he remained for the next three years, plotting against Cardinal Richelieu. He watched as the conspiracies and politics unfolded around him, saw his friends betrayed, saw alliances broken, trust shattered and former allies switch sides.

With the death of Richelieu and the king, he returned to court expecting to return to the regent queen’s favour for his past efforts on her behalf, but found a new, unsympathetic court and a new and standoffish minister (Mazarin, who replaced Richelieu). The divisions widened. La Rochefoucauld was bitterly disappointed and went on to join the opposition to Anne in armed revolt. He was involved in several battles and sieges and was severely wounded. By this time, Louis XIV had reached his majority and things settled down. Amidst all of this there was a passionate love affair that ended badly for La Rochefoucauld.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to an 1871 translation of the Maxims:

Rochefoucauld was soon to undergo a bitter disappointment. While occupied with party strife and faction in Paris, Madame de Chevreuse left him, and formed an alliance with the Duc de Nemours. Rochefoucauld still loved her. It was, probably, thinking of this that he afterwards wrote, “Jealousy is born with love, but does not die with it.” He endeavoured to get Madame de Chatillon, the old mistress of the Duc de Nemours, reinstated in favour, but in this he did not succeed. The Duc de Nemours was soon after killed in a duel. The war went on, and after several indecisive skirmishes, the decisive battle was fought at Paris, in the Faubourg St. Antoine, where the Parisians first learnt the use or the abuse of their favourite defence, the barricade. In this battle, Rochefoucauld behaved with great bravery. He was wounded in the head, a wound which for a time deprived him of his sight. Before he recovered, the war was over, Louis XIV. had attained his majority, the gold of Mazarin, the arms of Turenne, had been successful, the French nobility were vanquished, the court supremacy established.
This completed Rochefoucauld’s active life.
When he recovered his health, he devoted himself to society. Madame de Sablé assumed a hold over him. He lived a quiet life, and occupied himself in composing an account of his early life, called his “Memoirs,” and his immortal “Maxims.”

So it’s not surprising that there’s a skein of cynicism that runs through his maxims, especially when he ponders love and politics. He was disappointed in his political, social and romantic aspirations. Yet, he was also able to see beyond himself and look at the broader picture – a talent apparently lacking in some modern, online pontificators.

462: The same pride which makes us blame faults from which we believe ourselves free causes us to despise the good qualities we have not.

The Maxims are full of such pithy epithets, many of which are as salient today as they were when first penned. Today’s readers will take from it those which they find stand out as relevant to their own circumstances, much like we take from Montaigne.

458: Our enemies come nearer the truth in the opinions they form of us than we do in our opinion of ourselves.

This, for example, might be advice to those recently elected to office and find themselves acting counter to the promises they made on the campaign trail:

449: When fortune surprises us by giving us some great office without having gradually led us to expect it, or without having raised our hopes, it is well nigh impossible to occupy it well, and to appear worthy to fill it.

And they should also remember that, now in office, they are in the unblinking public spotlight:

380: Fortune makes visible our virtues or our vices, as light does objects.

When he wrote,

350: Why we hate with so much bitterness those who deceive us is because they think themselves more clever than we are.

it makes me wonder what personal experience that derives from. But it’s a sentiment I can appreciate, having been deceived by former friends in the past. I’m sure we all have. It’s deeply disappointing to lose a friend, someone you trusted and were loyal to, only to find them acting against you or your interests, often secretly.

320: To praise princes for virtues they do not possess is but to reproach them with impunity.

In the 1871 edition, a footnote adds, “Praise undeserved is satire in disguise,” quoted by Pope from a poem which has not survived… “In some cases exaggerated or inappropriate praise becomes the most severe satire.”— Scott, Woodstock. It’s a tactic I’ll have to remember.

313: How is it that our memory is good enough to retain the least triviality that happens to us, and yet not good enough to recollect how often we have told it to the same person?

Or why is our memory so good as to recall with brilliant clarity some minor things from our past, but obscure the more recent and prosaic – I can still recall the lyrics from every Beatles’ song, but sometimes can’t remember to put the laundry in the dryer after the washing has finished. The footnote here adds a similar comment from one of my favourite philosophers, Michel de Montaigne: “Old men who yet retain the memory of things past, and forget how often they have told them, are most tedious companions.” (Essays, Book I, Chapter IX).

306: We find very few ungrateful people when we are able to confer favours.

Politicians, especially, should take note of that. It’s the old ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ approach. Confer favours on your opponents, those you don’t like, and they become indebted to you, grateful and unlikely to criticize you. Machiavelli wrote similar sentiments in The Prince.

That, of course, takes more impersonal, strategic and farsighted thinking than most politicians are capable of. For as he also wrote:

298: The gratitude of most men is but a secret desire of receiving greater benefits.

To which the editors footnoted: Hence the common proverb “Gratitude is merely a lively sense of favors to come.”

One his most salient points was:

267: A quickness in believing evil without having sufficiently examined it, is the effect of pride and laziness. We wish to find the guilty, and we do not wish to trouble ourselves in examining the crime.

This could be the clarion call of social media: people willing to believe in the alleged evils of people and things without taking the trouble to apply some critical thought and examine the claims rationally. Laziness makes some writers lash out against things they really don’t understand: vaccines, GMOs, science, evolution, health care, the list is endless.

The local misrepresentation of the municipal budget also comes to mind: most of those who weigh in on the matter understand it no more than they understand string theory. So they rail toothlessly and quote numbers that are beyond their limited comprehension. They assume they have been lied to simply because they themselves lack the wit to grasp the complexities.

As La Rochefoucauld also wrote:

265: A narrow mind begets obstinacy, and we do not easily believe what we cannot see.

And we cannot see what we do not want to see, nor what counters our preconceived ideas and beliefs. Why can’t we change out beliefs when confronted with fact or a valid counterpoint? Pride, he said:

234: It is more often from pride than from ignorance that we are so obstinately opposed to current opinions; we find the first places taken, and we do not want to be the last.

Of course we want to believe those we elected are better than those they replaced. Our pride won’t let us accept that they may be as fallible, as corrupt, as arrogant as those whose seats they now fill.

256: In all professions we affect a part and an appearance to seem what we wish to be. Thus the world is merely composed of actors.

“All the world’s a stage,” wrote Shakespeare in As You Like It, some decades earlier, “and all the men and women merely players.”

And at that I must end this post although I could go on cherry-picking from his work,  because, as La Rochefoucauld also wrote:

250: True eloquence consists in saying all that should be, not all that could be said.

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