GREAT FRENCH MORALISTS: Jean de La Bruyère is a connoisseur of human character
Artwork: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop
Two thousand three hundred years ago, the ancient Greek philosopher and scientist Theophrastus (381–287 B.C.) wrote a book, «The Ethical Characters», where he described in an artistic form 30 human qualities (mostly negative!) starting with hypocrisy and flattery and ending with backbiting and meanness.
The French writer Jean de La Bruyère (1645–1696) translated the text of this book and unwittingly began to add his own comments and corrections to it, and soon created the original text, which he called «Characters, or the Mores of the Present Age»,
La Bruyère wrote only one book, but it earned him worldwide fame. Having been republished many times during the author’s lifetime, the book «Characters» (this is its short title) continues its triumphal procession today: it is translated and published, read and quoted, and La Bruyère himself rightfully belongs among the great French moralists.
Emile Zola wrote: «Reading “Characters” makes you think, but even more — smile, sometimes marvel at the subtlety of the author’s observations, the depth of some of his thoughts, he likes — because he has no preconceived opinions, no system and he is not looking for another way to teach us virtue, except for the description of our weaknesses and shortcomings».
I have no doubt: another two thousand years will pass, and readers of the future will be surprised to find that the people described by La Bruyère are almost no different from them; on the contrary, they have the characters of people of the past and exhibit the same virtues and vices.
May not I think a just thought after them, as others may do the same after me?
Jean de La Bruyère
WHO IS JEAN DE LA BRUYÈRE?
Biographical data about the writer is very scarce. It is known that he was born on August 16, 1645, near Paris, in the family of an employee of the city municipality. He received a decent education thanks to his uncle’s money. There is no information about the childhood and adolescent years of La Bruyère.
It is known that he studied law at the Faculty of Law at the University of Orleans and graduated in 1665. For some time, he worked as a lawyer but stopped the legal practice, as he received a proposal to engage in education, grandson of Conde — Duke of Bourbon, and the right to live at the royal court.
Long observations of the manners and customs of the nobility, drowning in luxury, formed the basis of his ideas about the peculiarities of the character of the nobles, which were later used by La Bruyère for literary purposes.
Despite his dependent position, La Bruyère skillfully managed his free time: he read a lot and began to write. He recorded his reflections, composed brief literary portraits, and dabbled in epigrams. Over decades of labor, La Bruyère accumulated material for a whole book, and once, when meeting with his friend bookseller Mishalle, he jokingly suggested publishing his book.
The publisher took a risk and, in 1688, published it as part of the edition under the title «Theophrastus’s Characters, translated from the Greek, and Characters, or the Mores of the present age». The book consisted of Theophrastus’ «Essays on The Ethical Characters», translated by La Bruyère, and 418 fragments by the writer himself.
It is fair to say that the French writer’s translation of Theophrastus was most likely used as a marketing ploy intended to exploit the authority of the ancient author and thereby favor La Bruyère’s work with the readership.
And the calculation turned out to be correct. The success of the book exceeded all expectations, it enjoyed such great popularity among readers that brought the publisher a fabulous profit of 300 thousand francs! Translated into the money of our time, it was a tremendous sum!
The book «Characters» by Jean de La Bruyère was published later than «Maxim» by La Rochefoucauld and «Thoughts» by Blaise Pascal, but that is not what distinguishes them from each other, but who the authors were in real life. And if La Rochefoucauld considered himself a politician, and Pascal was a scientist, La Bruyère already, on the first pages of the book, confidently declared himself as a writer and did it with a complete understanding of his literary vocation and creative tasks.
A writer must be as master of his craft as, say, a watchmaker. The whole talent of the essayist consists in the ability to describe vividly and to find exact words
Jean de La Bruyère
Encouraged by the success of the first publication of «Character», La Bruyère added new thoughts and fresh observations about human nature to the book from one publication to another. In the last eighth lifetime edition of the book «Characters» contains 1120 fragments, which are divided into 16 thematic sections.
To some extent they resemble the chapters of Montaigne’s «Experiments», for they also rest on the foundation of the letter «O»: «On the Creations of the Human Mind», «On Women», «On the Heart», «On Secular Society and the Art of Conversation», «On the Capital», «On Nobles», «On Judgment», «On Fashion», «On Man», and so on.
But if the chapters of Montaigne’s book are like essays on a particular subject, thorough and comprehensive, the chapters of the «Characters» consist of fragments and aphorisms, extremely concise and often unrelated to each other.
La Bruyère’s thoughts speak only about one thing, they are like a medical diagnosis: brief and ruthless. The statements sound unappealing, do not allow dialog, and reject the need for evidence. Therefore, these arguments are enough for the author and should be enough for the reader.
La Bruyère, already in the Preface to the book, warns: «Some of my reflections are really short, others are more extensive; you think about different things in different ways, so you express them in different ways: a maxim, reasoning, metaphor or other tropes, comparison, simple analogy, a story about an event or one of its details, description, picture; hence the length or brevity of my reflections».
In «Characters», La Bruyère acts not only as a moralist but also as a psychologist and sociologist. Describing the peculiarities of mental states and the reasons for people’s actions, he not only states that diseases affect morals but also tries to understand why it happens. He looks for a connection between the structure of society and the characters of people that it forms.
It cannot be said that La Bruyère is original in everything; there are many borrowings and hidden plagiarism in the text, but the author, already in the first line of the first chapter, gives himself an indulgence and prepares an impeccable alibi:
«Everything has been said long ago, and we are too late to be born, for more than seven thousand years, people have been living and thinking on earth. The harvest of the wisest and most beautiful observations on human morals has been removed, and we have only to pick up the ears left by the ancient philosophers and the wisest of our contemporaries».
And let La Bruyère’s «Characters» are published «notebooks» or something like a literary diary, but this form of presentation is one of the reasons for the charm of his writing style, which the first of the authors of classical literature managed to write a book «without composition».
According to the famous French literary scholar Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804–1869), La Bruyère «has the art (far surpassing the art of sequential presentation) to write books in which there seems to be no apparent connection, but it nevertheless unexpectedly appears here and there.
At first glance, the writer’s thoughts seem to be a disorderly collection of fragments that wander one after another in an intricate labyrinth without, however, breaking the thread that binds them together. Each thought is developed, illuminated, variously correlated with others, secretly accompanying it».
The earthly life of Jean de La Bruyère lasted only 50 years, but his «Characters» is destined for a long life because the book captured not only the image of the era of the moment of writing but also reflected the common features of humanity as a whole and man as an individual personality.
And if we have not yet lost the thirst for the beautiful, each of us can draw from the well of wisdom of the French writer the thought that will be to his liking just now.
MY LA BRUYÈRE
Long life to books is brought only by the perfection of form and profound truthfulness in the description of human nature. La Bruyère, who strove to make a work of art out of every phrase and painted with rare accuracy the eternal play of human passions, will not die as long as the French live, as long as they do not stop thinking. None of the classics is as modern as he is
«Fools read a book and cannot understand anything in it; ordinary people think that they understand everything; truly intelligent people sometimes understand not everything: they find the confusing and clear. So-called clever people find unclear what is clear and do not understand what is quite obvious».
«There are certain things in which mediocrity is not to be endured, such as poetry, music, painting, public speaking. What torture it is to listen to an orator pompously delivering a dull speech or a bad poet reciting mediocre verse with pathos!»
«Some are worthy of praise and glorification for writing well, others for not writing at all».
«Wordiness is one of the signs of narrowness».
«The talent of the conversationalist is distinguished not by the one who willingly speaks himself, but by the one with whom others willingly speak; if after a conversation with you, a man is satisfied with himself and his wit, it means that he is quite satisfied with you».
«Prejudice brings the greatest man down to the level of the most limited commoner».
«The father-in-law does not love the son-in-law, the father-in-law loves the daughter-in-law; the mother-in-law loves the son-in-law, the mother-in-law does not love the daughter-in-law; everything in the world balances out».
«Women are prone to extremes: they are either much worse or much better than men».
«It is most difficult to heal that love which has flared up at first sight».
«To laugh at intelligent people is the privilege of fools, who have the same role in society as jesters at court — that is, none».
«Life is that which men are most anxious to preserve and least anxious to save».
«Can even a very gifted and endowed with outstanding merit man not filled with the consciousness of his nothingness at the thought that he will die, and in the world, no one will notice his disappearance, and others will immediately take his place?»
«It is more difficult to make a name for oneself by an excellent work than to glorify a mediocre work if the name has already been created».
«If the reader does not approve of these ‘Characters,’ I shall be surprised; if he does, I shall still be surprised».