Мартин Гал
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GREAT FRENCH MORALISTS: François de La Rochefoucauld — aristocrat of letters, author of aphorisms about morality

GREAT FRENCH MORALISTS: François de La Rochefoucauld — aristocrat of letters, author of aphorisms about morality
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Artwork: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop


François de La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680) was a famous French writer-moralist, author of the book «Maxims and Moral Reflections». The maxims taken from there are still very popular among readers, and some of us even memorize the aphorisms by heart in order to glitter with someone else’s wit on occasion.

If acquaintance with «Experiments» Montaigne — is a long trip around the world on the vast ocean, then immersion in «Maxims» La Rochefoucauld — is like a swim in a mountain stream: fleeting and invigorating.

La Rochefoucauld does not require special training for his understanding, he is looking for the reader openness of the soul and receptivity of the heart, and let his philosophy is uncomplicated, and the requirements of morality is as old as the world, he is interesting brevity and precision, humor and paradoxes, in his book is appropriate sublime style.

La Rochefoucauld — an aristocrat not only by birth, but also a true aristocrat of writing: he presents thoughts unusually refined and extremely sincere.

Our ability to perceive the refined and eternal depends on our impression from the acquaintance with the works of La Rochefoucauld, and therefore let’s go with an open heart, trying to match the image of an aristocratic reader.


As great minds have the faculty of saying a great deal in a few words, so lesser minds have a talent of talking much, and saying nothing


 François de La Rochefoucauld




Born François La Rochefoucauld on September 15, 1613 in Paris and belonged to a family with ancient aristocratic traditions. Until the death of his father in 1650, La Rochefoucauld carried the title of nobleman — Prince de Marsillac. His childhood and youth were spent in the castle of Verteuil, the main family residence, but because of his father’s frivolous attitude to education, François had to study independently, and all the knowledge he gained through self-education.

At the age of 17 La Rochefoucauld appears at the court of the king and even takes part in the Thirty Years’ War. Leads an active political life, is in opposition to Cardinal Richelieu and therefore enjoys the patronage of Queen Anne of Austria. For some time serves as governor of one of the provinces of France.

Participates in the civil conflict of the Fronde movement as an oppositionist and in battle with the royal troops near Paris in 1652 receives a dangerous wound, after which almost lost sight. Despite the defeat of the Fronde, La Rochefoucauld amnestied and sent for some time in exile, but by the end of 1650-ies the writer receives full forgiveness of King Louis XIV and returns to Paris to write «Memoirs» — a book about the historical events of which he was a participant.

Bold life position and political activity did not interfere with the turbulent personal life of the writer. Early married and being the father of eight children, La Rochefoucauld, as a man of passion, had a trail of love affairs, and after another affair with the Duchess de Longueville he even had a son born out of wedlock. As for the appearance and character of our hero, then better than he himself about it will not tell anyone.


GREAT FRENCH MORALISTS: François de La Rochefoucauld — aristocrat of letters, author of aphorisms about morality
Theodore Chasseriot. François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, 1836 / wikipedia.org




«I am of medium height, supple and properly built, my skin is swarthy but rather smooth, my forehead is open, moderately high, my eyes are black, small, deeply set, my eyebrows are also black, thick but well defined. I can hardly say what shape my nose is: in my opinion, it is neither upturned nor eagle-eyed, neither flattened nor sharp, rather large than small, and slightly overhanging my upper lip.

I have a big mouth, not too thick or too thin lips, almost always red, and my teeth are white and even. I was once told that my chin was heavy: I deliberately looked in the mirror now to see if it was so, but I couldn’t decide. My face is either square or oval — I can’t tell which one. My hair is black, naturally curly, and quite long and thick, so I have a beautiful head.

On my face imprinted expression annoying and proud, so many people think I am arrogant, although this quality is alien to me … character I have a melancholic, and melancholy is so deep that in the last three or four years I laughed no more than three or four times. However, it seems to me that it would not be so burdensome and obnoxious if it stemmed only from the properties of my nature; but I have so many extraneous reasons for it, and they so occupy my imagination and overwhelm the mind that most often I am immersed in thoughtfulness and silence or indulge in meaningless words …

I am not unintelligent, and I say this straightforwardly, for why would I pretend? He who cannot enumerate his virtues without echoes and tricks, it seems to me that he conceals a great deal of vanity under a false modesty, and by this concealment tries very cleverly to inspire others with a high opinion of himself. But I do not want to be considered more beautiful than I paint myself, or more pleasant temperament than I portray, or witty and judicious than in reality. So, I repeat, I am not devoid of intelligence, but it is also spoiled by melancholy…»


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«MAXIMS» (1665)


The above-described image of the writer was the literary debut of Larochefoucauld, and it should be recognized that even this passage confirms the giftedness of the author.

In 1662, «Memoirs» — the first book of the writer — is published, and now all the creative forces of La Rochefoucauld are directed to the main work of his life: a book of aphorisms «Maxims and Moral Reflections», better known to us in a shortened version — «Maxims».

«Maxims» (1665) — the second and most famous work of the writer.

It is constructed in the form of labeled numbers of individual thoughts, some of which are interconnected, but most often not. The subsequent thought has no semantic chains with the previous one, and therefore you can read «Maxims» from any page and from any line.

Despite the ease of reading, «Maxims» is a philosophical book, containing profound observations of human nature, the author’s view is like a scalpel, removing the veil of conventional secrets, revealing the unflattering, what is indecent to talk about in decent society.

Literary scholar Vladimir Bakhmutsky in his article «French moralists» writes: «With all the shakiness of the boundaries between virtue and vice, good and evil, truth and falsehood in La Rochefoucauld there is always a distance, a watershed between them. In La Rochefoucauld’s psychological analysis, a firm moral judgment is always preserved.

The true meaning of his book could be formulated as follows: precisely because social existence is alienated from man, virtue has become a «ghost», a «mask», and self-love has become the only spring of human actions. And this is dangerous. Dangerous not only because the moral basis of life disappears, but also because the man loses his «I», ceases to be a person and becomes a face».

During the author’s lifetime «Maxims» were published 5 times: in 1665, 1666, 1671, 1675 and 1678. The first editions consisted of 504 aphorisms, but subsequent editions were expanded both by previously unpublished ones and by those that were excluded by the author but added by the publishers themselves. Today’s collections contain 641 aphorisms.

It should be noted that the style of the book was also influenced by the salon game of words and thoughts on a strictly given topic, when aristocrats competed among themselves in composing proverbs and aphorisms.

Familiarity with the moral imperatives of La Rochefoucauld allows us to identify a whole list of predecessor authors, starting with ancient Greek thinkers and ending with «The Comedy of Proverbs» (1616) by one of the playwrights of the time, who used more than 2000 aphorisms when creating dialogues in the play.

One of La Rochefoucauld’s most influential predecessors was Montaigne. Having such a teacher is useful and dangerous at the same time, for it increases the student’s level of responsibility. There is no doubt that La Rochefoucauld was influenced by Montaigne’s «Experiments», in some of his maxims we can recognize borrowings both direct and indirect.

La Rochefoucauld realized that plagiarism of thought — a rather slippery matter, and for many years tried to rid his «Maxims» of all sorts of imitations and compilations, often he succeeded, sometimes — not very much. But the value of what he created is beyond doubt, because the accuracy and brevity of «Maxims» are based on the energy of thought and freshness of feeling, and this is the key to the reader’s success of aphorisms, which accompanies the book of La Rochefoucauld for more than 350 years.


GREAT FRENCH MORALISTS: François de La Rochefoucauld — aristocrat of letters, author of aphorisms about morality
The first frontispiece of François de La Rochefoucauld’s Reflexions ou Sentences et Maximes Morales, 1665 / wikipedia.org




«We all have enough strength to endure the misfortunes of others».

«If we had no faults of our own, we should not take so much pleasure in noticing those in others».

«It is easier to be wise for others than for ourselves».

«Men give away nothing so liberally as their advice».

«Good advice is something a man gives when he is too old to set a bad example».

«Sometimes a man is as little like himself as he is like others».

«Flattery is a kind of bad money, to which our vanity gives us currency».

«Anyone who thinks he can do without others is greatly mistaken; but whoever thinks that others cannot do without him is even more mistaken».

«There is nothing more foolish than the desire always to be the cleverest».

«Some people are suited by their faults, while others are not even suited by their virtues».

«Ostentatious simplicity is subtle hypocrisy».

«There is only one kind of love, but there are a thousand imitations».

«Jealousy contains more of self-love than of love».

 «We cannot love again those whom we have once truly fallen out of love».

«Envy is more irreconcilable than hate».

«Truly extraordinary virtues are possessed by one who has succeeded in earning the praise of his envious friends».

«A fool cannot be kind: he has too little brains for that».

«Only great people have great vices».

«You can outsmart one person, but you can’t outsmart everyone in the world».

«Can a person say with certainty what he will want in the future if he is unable to understand what he wants now».

«It is not enough to have great qualities; We should also have the management of them».


GREAT FRENCH MORALISTS: Michel de Montaigne — the progenitor of the essay


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